Adam Lee’s Universal Utilitarianism (Part 4)

So, carrying on from last time’s criticisms of the competition, this time we’ll start looking at Adam Lee’s alternative by outlining what a good secular morality should look like. You’d think it would have made more sense to do this before attempting to criticize the competition so that he could use those considerations against them, but okay.

Lee’s first consideration is what he calls the pragmatic principle:

One such principle, whose relevance and utility will here be taken as axiomatic, is pragmatism – the criterion of what works. For a proposed moral code to be acceptable, it must be possible to implement it, it must be possible for people to follow it, and it must be possible to live by it for extended periods of time. This rules out ethical systems that are internally inconsistent, that are impossible to realistically obey, and that have ultimately self-destructive effects on a person or society that abides by them.

Well, I think this can mostly be subsumed under “Ought implies can”, although the last one isn’t entirely uncontroversial. It’s entirely reasonable to think that a proper morality could, indeed, demand that someone or a society self-destruct rather than act immorally, such as, say, foregoing genocide even if that will mean that their society will be wiped out. That shouldn’t be inevitable, though, so it probably still works.

Things get more complicated when Lee tries to give examples of them, however:

For example, the pragmatic principle would lead us to reject a moral system that instructs its adherents, “Thou shalt not kill”, and then commands them to kill those who believe in a different god than they do, on the grounds of inconsistency; one or the other of these commandments would have to be removed from the book that contains them to produce a viable moral system.

This is obviously a potshot at Christianity, but it doesn’t work as an example because what you have is a universal rule that then admits to exceptions. Ultimately, Christian morality — as Lee will explore later when he tries to separate his view from theistic moral views — has as its ultimate basis the will of God. Thus, “Thou shalt not kill” is always “Thou shalt not kill unless God wills that you should”, which eliminates the inconsistency. Yes, at a shallow level the two commands need to be reconciled, but all moral systems — including Lee’s — start from a general and universal moral principle that is then used to derive the more specific rules. The logical contradiction one could only involve two conflicting principles being derived from the universal one in a way that they can’t be reconciled by appealing to the universal principle. “Thou shalt not kill” is not one of those cases.

Likewise, this principle removes from consideration systems such as communism, which pays all people the same amount and then expects them all to labor their hardest to benefit society. It is unrealistic to expect such a system to work as long as human nature remains unchanged.

Well, Marxism doesn’t actually advocate for that. It instead advocates that people will contribute to society what they can and receive back what they need (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”). So people don’t get paid the same amount. Lee can argue that he’s talking about Communism and not Marxism, as Communism is what was actually tried in the real world … but then real world Communism didn’t pay everyone the same amount either. He’d also be confusing — as he often does — the political system of Communism with the moral system of Marxism. Political systems and moral systems are often related, but they aren’t the same thing.

So, returning to the Marxist line, Marxists accept that people right now don’t naturally think in those terms, but as I recall don’t consider their views to be against human nature itself. They would argue, I think, that if humans were properly socialized and educated, they would then accept such a system and work properly in it. If Lee still wants to maintain his claim that their view isn’t pragmatic, he’d have to show that it really is completely and totally against unchangeable human nature to act as the Marxists say we should act. This would be a monumental task, as it is easy to imagine that socialized into such a system, most people, at least, would accept and follow it, and it isn’t likely that fewer people would cheat than those who cheat in the current system, or that Lee expects to cheat under his.

Note, though, that one of the main objections to Marxism — even from me — is that people won’t act that way, and so my chiding Lee for stating it here might seem hypocritical or, rather, hypercritical. However, those complaints are generally raised as problems for Marxism, demanding an answer on how Marxism will address it. Lee here treats the counter as a violation of a strict principle: Marxism cannot be a valid moral system because it absolutely conflicts with unchangeable human nature. Note that eventually most of the criticisms of Marxism of this sort end up saying that you’d have to take too extreme measures to brainwash people into accepting it, not that it cannot be done, while Lee’s argument here insists that it cannot be done.

This raises an issue for his own moral system, as it had better be fairly intuitive and natural for us to act on it, or else he will leave himself vulnerable to the same objection that he raises against Marxism here.

Finally, the pragmatic principle leads us to reject any moral code that proposes, for example, the legalization of murder or theft. Any society that tried this would soon collapse into chaos.

There’s actually a confusion here that comes up in discussions of prostitution as well: the difference between decriminalization and legalization, although neither are really appropriate for a discussion of morality. Anyway, the difference is that the former simply makes it no longer illegal, while the latter regulates it in the same way as anything else is regulated. From the moral perspective, what this would mean is that for the former murder and theft would be, at a minimum, considered to no longer be immoral, while in the latter it would be allowed under specific circumstances. If we had a society that did that, it actually isn’t clear that society would collapse into chaos, because there are other mechanisms — like laws, for example — that could preserve society without having to appeal to the morality — or lack thereof — of the act, which is something that relativists and error theorists would also appeal to to show that their views won’t destroy society. And unless one takes the pedantic notion of claiming that any moral (or legal) killing doesn’t count as murder, then we allow killing and taking someone’s possessions right now under certain circumstances and call it moral, and society hasn’t collapsed yet. But perhaps a better example of the world Lee imagines is the one in “The Status Civilization”, a world of criminals who embrace evil and oppose good. But even they highly legalize murder, allowing it only under certain conditions and with a number of restrictions on how it can work. So this doesn’t even seem to work either: a society could consider murder and theft not immoral and yet still survive. Thus, none of his examples of what the pragmatic principle would rule out would actually be necessarily ruled out by it, making it more a list of things Lee doesn’t like or doesn’t want to see than the universal principle that he wants and needs it to be.

In reference to these last two points, we see that the pragmatic principle, far from being a strictly negative criterion, actually does positively inform the construction of an objective ethical code in two ways. Such a code, if it is to live up to the pragmatic principle, must establish some form of justice, in which people are treated in ways corresponding to their actions, and, if it is to be used to build a society in addition to guiding the actions of individuals, it must mandate some form of authority, in which some force can restrain or overrule the actions of individuals. Moral systems lacking these cannot expect to flourish or build a stable society.

I think a bigger concern here would be that moral systems without those things wouldn’t count as moral systems at all. Any moral system is going to have to define what people deserve and have a right to ask for and demand and receive, and is going to have to establish some sort of authority as to why people should follow it. Lee, however, seems to have a very specific view in mind, where essentially we have things like a judiciary and a government that lay down laws and punish people who break them. But that’s a legal system, not a moral one. Moral systems, in and of themselves, are about each of our behaviours as individuals, about how we should act even — and perhaps especially — when no one is watching and no one can punish us if we act immorally. A society could indeed flourish without the need for the authority that Lee demands if, say, everyone was brainwashed at birth to be incapable of acting immorally (as many atheists suggest God should have actually done if He wanted us to be moral). So it doesn’t seem like the pragmatic principle is doing anything here that the concept of morality isn’t already doing, as we can work out all the issues and ideas just by considering morality and without ever appealing to “No stable society if we don’t”, and we can use non-moral means to provide a stable society if morality doesn’t. So far, then, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that the pragmatic principle is doing for objective morality.

Further examination of the criterion that a moral code be realistic and possible to follow leads to the conclusion that such a code must be flexible but not too flexible. A moral code that is too flexible, such as relativism, is no moral code at all …

Which, since moral relativism is in fact not a moral code in the way Lee uses the term here, is not anything that would concern them …

…while one that is completely inflexible and never allows mitigating factors to be taken into account, such as the categorical imperative, cannot realistically and fairly deal with the enormous subtlety and variety of the many moral dilemmas in which human beings find themselves.

But since the Categorical Imperative does allow mitigating factors to be taken into account if such things can be universalized, that’s not really an objection to that view either. So we seem to be returning to, at best, the idea of “Ought implies can”, which is clearly not the same thing as the “pragmatic principle” that Lee advocates for.

The pragmatic principle, when consistently applied, sweeps the field clean of some failed ethical theories and provides several signposts pointing the way toward a true objective morality.

As shown, it doesn’t, and Lee’s attempts here seem to only seem reasonable if we apply the principle inconsistently. But “Ought implies can” still seems to be the better principle here.

Next, he moves on to talk about what he calls “moral Popperianism”:

It has long been known that no catalog of facts about the world, no matter how complete, can ever by itself furnish us with a moral system. There must also be some decision made of what to value which can never be derived from mere knowledge of those facts.

Here, Lee makes what is a common mistake among atheists trying their hands at morality: talking about oughts as being merely statements of value and so ultimately justified by what we actually value (as we shall see when I look into his actual moral system). Oughts are, in general, not defined as that which I or humanity values, but are things we value because of their oughtness, or rather normative value. So while you can’t move from an is to an ought, you can’t move from a value to an ought directly either. In a sense, anything you currently value is an is statement, and you’d still need to justify why you ought to value that. Any statement that says that you ought to value X is indeed an ought statement that you could never justify with a claim that you do indeed value it. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable for me to declare that you ought to value being moral even if you don’t, and even if no one else — even myself — doesn’t, as long as I justify that ought statement.

But while it is true that moral directives cannot be derived from the bare facts of the external world, they are still based on those facts, and therein lies the key. The crucial point of the principle which I call moral Popperianism is this: any ethical directive based on a false factual statement is wrong. In other words, descriptive statements cannot confirm prescriptive statements, but can disprove them. Ethical directives based on claims of fact that are not known to be false, but that lack sufficient evidentiary support, should be held in abeyance until that claim is either decisively confirmed or decisively refuted.

Lee is trying to build this from Popper’s idea of falsification … but it doesn’t really seem to follow from it, since that’s about not considering a proposition unless you can see how it might be falsified, and Lee here is not in any way justifying moral principles on whether they can be falsified. This, then, is a much more simple and standard principle that says that you shouldn’t take moral actions based on false facts. This is something that generally follows from the universal principles of most moral systems. For consequentialist systems, if you know that you’re acting on false facts you’re going to at a minimum end up with consequences you didn’t expect and likely don’t want. For intentionalist ones, if you know that the situation is not how it would have to be to achieve your believed intentions, then you cannot have the intentions that you claim to have but instead must have other ones, or else invalidly and irrationally intend something that you cannot actually intend to happen as you know it won’t happen. Utilitarians will argue that you can’t maximize utility if the real facts that you know say that something else would happen. Kantians would argue that such a principle cannot be universalized. Virtue theorists are almost certainly going to claim that ignoring the actual facts in a situation can’t be a Virtue and is almost certainly a Vice. And so on. We already know that actions in specific cases cannot be based on false facts, or at least can’t be based on false facts when the moral agent is aware that they’re false. So what can Lee mean here by the grand name of “moral Popperianism”? Let’s look at his examples to find out:

For example, any moral system that proposes unequal treatment of people based on immutable characteristics such as race and gender is wrong and should be discarded, based on scientific findings that all human beings are fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels.

This would only be true if the principle is “We should treat these people differently because they have differences in their genetic and cognitive levels”, which then would probably be generalized to the more proper general principle of “Treat people according to their genetic and cognitive levels where appropriate”, which then when applied, once we know that everyone is fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels, would have us treat everyone the same. But note that nothing at the moral level was impacted by this. The principle didn’t change, just how we applied it to the world based on our knowledge. That puts this securely in the realm of the simple and standard principle discussed above.

On the other hand, if a moral system justified treating, say, women differently from men as a moral absolute, then these facts would be irrelevant to that. You could argue until you’re blue in the face that men and women are the same genetically and cognitively and it wouldn’t matter, because that’s not what the morality is based on. So you can’t refute a moral principle based on simple facts, but only on what justifies that moral principle. Almost all of the time, any attempt to argue against a moral assessment by appealing to false facts is going to result in changing the action, not the principle that justifies that action, and will usually only work because the moral principle justifies the action based on considerations of those sorts of facts. About the only clear exception I can think of is Divine Command Theory, and that’s only because the fact that would be relevant is “God exists”. This would mean this could apply to Lee positing an atheistic theory, but moral philosophy is going to want more than that, and Lee is doing moral philosophy here, at least if he wants anyone to take his objective morality seriously.

Any moral system that proposes that a human being should be sacrificed to the gods each night to ensure that the sun rises again the next morning can be (and have been) decisively refuted by performing the obvious test.

Well, again, the main moral principle wouldn’t be that specific action, but justified by religious demands or pragmatic/consequentialist ones — we ought to try to avoid the sun not coming up because that’s a bad thing — and so again fits into the less dramatic principle outlined above. As an aside, if the sun not coming up also meant the end of the world, would it ever be morally justified under any reasonable moral view to try not doing it just to see what would happen? I’d be really interested, actually, in Lee using his Universal Utilitarianism to justify that …

Anyway, I’ve already talked about the God one, so let’s move on to the last comment on this:

Of course, some good ethical directives heretofore have been couched in terms of unproven factual statements, such as the claim that we should love others because God wants us to. This does not mean that these directives must be discarded; it simply means that they should be reformulated in terms of valid evidentiary groundings.

Here is where you could actually be using facts to impact the moral principle, but it fails because Lee here talks about “valid evidentiary groundings” but seems to assume that “Love others” is still a valid and good ethical directive. He can’t justify that with a valid evidentiary grounding as that would be appealing to facts which would be appealing to ises which Lee himself denies is valid. So he’d need to do it another way. Sure, he couldn’t base it on anything that wasn’t factual — like, say, that we all just naturally want to do that since we obviously don’t — but he’d still need to actually justify the moral statement. Thus, we’re right back into the simple principle stated above about applying moral principles, not determining them. And Lee seemed to claim that this was important in determining them.

Lee finally gets around to stating flat-out what the main principle of morality is, although he’s hinted at it already:

The answer to this should, I hope, be obvious: the goal of morality is to ensure happiness. All people want to be happy, and everything else which they desire is ultimately just a means to that end. The means by which people seek happiness are so varied that any other attempt at generalization would be futile, but the desire for happiness is the one true universal which unites all these disparate paths.

In reading and thinking about this, I had a realization about these sorts of arguments that is a better counter than the ones I normally use (although I think them still valid). The issue is that people like Lee and Richard Carrier take the very simple line that our desires are determined and justified by what makes us happy, and so everything we desire is aimed at producing happiness. The problem with this is that often this is backwards. I don’t possess and achieve desires because they make me happy, but instead am made happy by achieving my desires. If I want something, and I achieve that desire, then it makes my happy, but that doesn’t mean that I did some sort of rational assessment or calculation of my future happiness to form that desire. If I want a drink of water and then go and get one, that would definitely make me happier, but I didn’t go and get that drink of water because I reasoned that it would make me happy to do so, but instead because I was thirsty or wanted to get a drink so that I wouldn’t be later when I couldn’t get a drink or, well, any number of reasons. I don’t try to achieve many of my desires because it will make me happy to do so, but rather achieve my desires for other reasons which results in my being happy because I’m achieving desires.

This also would apply to the case raised against Carrier about wanting to help your mother. You don’t do that because you calculate that it will make you happy, but for other reasons — you think it is your duty, you’re grateful for what she does for you, etc, etc — and then once you satisfy that desire it makes you happy. It would be true that taking that action is what would make you happiest based on the desires you have, but that’s not why you have the desire and so, ultimately, not why you take the action. Carrier’s view insists on working out some kind of calculation to be properly rational, but that would leave out why we have the desires we do and give us no reasonable way to replace them, as what makes us happy in Carrier’s sense has to be individual and so justified personally to us based on the desires we actually have.

This, I think, reveals an equivocation between two meanings of “happiness” that we also saw in the discussions of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia maps best to something like personal satisfaction with one’s life, and it’s clear that achieving our desires — whatever they are — gives us that sort of happiness. Thus, we can have a moral system that forces us to make great sacrifices and yet maintain personal satisfaction if we have a strong desire to act morally. The second other meaning is more hedonistic, and applies to pain and pleasure. This is the one that most Utilitarians use, and we do naturally attempt to avoid pain and seek out pleasure, which justifies their universal approach. However, we can be satisfied with our lives without them, and in fact much of the time what we feel are moral obligations require us to accept pain or forego pleasure to achieve nothing more than personal satisfaction. Those who use the hedonistic idea of happiness always struggle to justify those cases, being forced to find a rationale that says that the person will either avoid pain or get more pleasure later if they do, which often is a dubious one at best. But when we accept that moral people will get more personal satisfaction out of their lives from acting morally even if it means they need to give up some hedonistic pleasures, then these problems can be avoided.

(Of course, people will argue that there is no reason for us to desire to be moral in the first place, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Some ethical systems attempt to camouflage the point where they switch from “is” language to “ought” language. I will not do this, but rather state it plainly: in general, people ought to be happy. I hold this proposition to be axiomatic and foundational, and I further hold that any ethical system that has as its highest aim something other than producing happiness is completely missing the point.

If he’s holding it as axiomatic, then it seems like he’s assuming it and not justifying it. Thus, anyone who doesn’t accept his view will simply deny the axiom and no more can be said, and so his moral view won’t be justified. This would include Kantians and Stoics would, again, don’t reject the idea of people being happy but merely don’t see it as justifying any moral statement. So he can hold that any ethical system that doesn’t agree with him is just missing the point, but since they’d simply return the same counter to him that’s not going to get us very far. It doesn’t even work against the theistic moralities he wants to separate morality from, as they’d simply argue that the highest aim of morality is doing God’s will and Lee is completely missing the point of morality. So this argument isn’t doing anything except defining Lee’s morality.

Also, he never justifies the more from is to ought, and does state it as being axiomatic. Trying to move from is language to ought language in this way is merely asserting what he thinks the ought should be, and so can be simply reduced to, again, him stating what he thinks the base principle of morality should be. As anyone who argues for objective morality knows, you still have to justify that.

In short, this developing ethical system will be a form of utilitarianism.

That’s not an “in short’. There are other moralities that accept that happiness is the basis of morality, such as Egoisms. They also base that on the argument that we all want to be happy. The big leap Lee is going to have to make is to show that we should care about the happiness of others even if it impacts our own happiness. Most Utilitarian views have a difficult time doing this, and Lee’s will be no different.

But to finish off this post, let’s see how Lee sweeps the existing Utilitarian views off the table. We already talked about Act Utilitarianism, so let’s look at Rule Utilitarianism:

Rule utilitarianism is a variant of this ethical system that seems to hold some promise. Rather than judging the utility of each action in isolation, this system asks us to formulate general rules that would promote the greatest overall good if consistently followed, and then live by those rules. Of course, the problem then becomes that a truly universal rule dictating when or when not to perform a given action would have to have an enormous number of exceptions and qualifications, or else it runs the risk of producing poor outcomes on occasion, reducing overall happiness.

Rule Utilitarianism was designed as an way to avoid the issue where you can justify certain actions that we intuitively think are immoral by appealing to a greater utility if you take that action. It does so by instead justifying specific rules on the basis of utility, and saying that the utility of having that as a universal rule outweighs that of any specific cases where breaking the rule might produce more utility. This would seem to avoid the issue that Lee is concerned about and would also justify rights which Lee very much wants to do. Yet Lee criticizes it for the very thing that it uses and needs to use to avoid the negative consequences that Lee wants to avoid. It is difficult to see how you can have a Utilitarian view that allows for rights and universal considerations that doesn’t do so by saying that the benefits of having and following the rights and universal considerations outweigh the benefits of being able to break that rule in those cases where the utility works out to be higher for breaking it. So it’s hard to see how Lee can reject that underlying principle and still justify rights and avoid cases where we do something that we think we shouldn’t in the name of maximizing utility.

Lee thinks he’s found a compromise between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. I’ll look at that one in the next post.

7 Responses to “Adam Lee’s Universal Utilitarianism (Part 4)”

  1. CMyers Says:

    Hey, I was reading your thoughts on science fiction, and how overrated you thought award winning SF books are (im constantly left disappointed by Hugo winners too). Judging from your tastes, I thought you might like Pacific Edge, Green Earth and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; its political, utopian, ecological SF.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, uh, I tend to avoid political works since I find that most of them aren’t interesting unless you share the political values being espoused, and my political views are — like most of my views to be honest — pretty eccentric. So it’s not something that piques my interest based on your description or the summary. It’d pretty much have to work out something like “The Status Civilization” — exploring interesting concepts around such a world — to be of interest, and it doesn’t sound like it’s like that.

  2. Andrew Says:

    So much question begging!

    Lee claims “democracy is the only ethical system of government”. You already critiqued this last post, but let me push further.

    Pure democracies are actually rather rare. At best, we have semi-democratic institutions. But sporting teams, militaries, businesses and especially families are rarely “democratic” in any real sense. They may gather input, but any key or critical decisions are taken by a specific few, and those few usually didn’t get their authority by majority vote.

    And if this ethical principle is only to be applied to civil government, Lee needs to put in a lot more work to delineate civil government from other forms.

    His comment about “unequal treatment based on (characteristics)” continues this pattern of error. Should children – particularly infants – be treated the same as adults? No-one in their right mind will give an unqualified “yes”. What about the unborn? What about the yet-to-be-conceived; do they get a vote? Who can cast it for them?

    Moreover, any sensible answer must allow for differential treatment based on biological characteristics, which Lee has decried. And not only decried, but claims that science has found that all humans pare fundamentally the same. Really? I though science has showed that everyone is different, even “identical” twins. Pushing further with the should-be-obvious, if I as a male want to have a baby, it sorta matters whether I choose a male or female as a partner. I’m pretty sure “science” will back me up on this.

    As is common for atheists and other pragmatic moralists, Lee is universalising from his preferences and is blind to the need to actually justify them from some form of first principles. He’s already assumed a universal (his) definition of good and is confusing working out the implementation details with actual fundamental argument.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, I think we can grant him the charitable interpretation that he means an actual government in the case of democracy and means irrelevant ones in the case of the traits. He still begs the question on them, but I don’t think we need to nitpick over cases that he would almost certainly say aren’t the sorts of things he’s talking about.

      As for the last point, it will not surprise you that he doesn’t actually give any examples of how his moral view works out in practice. He asserts that it works but never even takes on any really problematic cases for utilitarianism to show how his view works better than the alternatives.

      • Andrew Says:

        I don’t consider it a nitpick. If Lee is going to call something out as different to the obvious generalisation, he needs to justify the distinction.

        In the case of government, why should civil government be considered a special class? In contrast, when it comes to different people, what’s his ethical rationale for considering them ethically equivalent? Almost every biology textbook contrasts the male and female of the species. And if a xenobiologist were to observe Earth, its first impression would be to classify (say) Pygmies and Scandinavians as distinct sub-species.

        I’m not pushing any particular conclusion, nor claiming that the above questions are unanswerable. But getting to the point where (for example) “equality” is even on the table requires some seriously philosophy, especially if you start from a naturalistic basis.

        I object when critics let my ethical framework do the heavy lifting, and then stand on top of that platform and attack it because of perceived ethical failures without seriously asking whether their ethical system can even support the platform they are standing on.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I think the reason I’d call it nitpicking is that pretty much everyone would just naturally make those distinctions, and there’s nothing in Lee’s specific argument that requires those distinctions being blurred. So a charitable interpretation of his point would not be that he doesn’t make those distinctions, until and unless his arguments require those distinctions.

        That being said, it’s an entirely fair comment that Lee can only make those broad claims because of the philosophical work that has gone on before him, and it is also a fair comment that if Lee undercuts those philosophical underpinnings he’s going to have to rebuild those justifications, which he doesn’t do here. So that part is certainly fair.

  3. Adam Lee’s Universal Utilitarianism (Part 5) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] after getting through the preliminaries, we’re finally going to get to see what Universal Utilitarianism actually […]

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