John Stuart Mill on Partisanship
August 15, 2010

Mill, weaned on the philosophy of Jeremy Benth...
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I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.

I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.

In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.

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The Trouble With Utilitarianism
July 18, 2010

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...
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Many of you who have studied philosophy in some capacity have likely heard these objections before, but let’s run through a couple of them quickly:

  • How do you measure utility? I haven’t heard a convincing account of what utility is, much less how it can be properly measured. And I think it’s psychologically unrealistic to think you can graph the same sort of linear metric of pleasure/happiness/fulfillment/whatever else onto everyone.
  • Disturbing human rights implications. Say you govern a small town in which all of the townspeople are united in favor of lynching one of their neighbors. You know the total amount of utility the townspeople will get from murdering their neighbor exceeds any amount of utility the potential victim might be able to obtain over the duration of the rest of his life. What do you do?
  • The utility monster. In a similar vein as the last objection, what would a utilitarian do with an individual who was simply capable of generating more utility out of the consumption of resources than anyone else in the whole village? Give him everything he desires, even if that leaves everyone else with nothing?

In response to those second two objections, a lot of modern utilitarians subscribe to something called “rule utilitarianism,” which puts certain constraints on what can be done to maximize utility. So, for example, the governor of the small town in that second example might be a rule utilitarian who favors maximizing utility at all costs, except when it violates his “no lynching” rule.

The problem is, once you start setting up rules outside of the utilitarian framework, you have to produce some metaethical account of where those rules come from—and suddenly, you’re in the same position as non-utilitarians, trying to locate some outside justification for your ethical code. The closest I’ve seen to a compelling justification for those rules is an appeal to intuition, which I find kind of laughable. “Intuition” as a final justification is the worst kind of hand waving in philosophy; it’s exactly equivalent to saying, I am pulling this entirely out of my ass, but shut up.

Anyway, setting up arbitrary codes to protect utilitarianism from its own logical conclusions doesn’t do very much to solve the underlying problem from which my latter two objections stem: this is a philosophy that does little to acknowledge the natural separations between persons. There’s no math in the world that can take all of our wants, hopes, desires and fleeting pleasures and add them up into some sort of aggregate value.

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