Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In Defense of Consequentialism

I've got stuff to write about Thanksgiving, but haven't had time to get to it yet. Tonight perhaps. For now, here's an essay I wrote for our Milton Friedman memoriam for Catallarchy. On the surface, it doesn't have much to do with Friedman, but it's completely a personal investigation of an interesting divide among libertarians (and many other groups), which Friedman was often in the middle of.

This basically sets out my current view of morality.



Men of Goodwill May Disagree

In Defense of Consequentialism,

For Milton Friedman



I readily grant that the ethical issue is difficult and that men of goodwill may well disagree. Fortunately, we need not resolve the ethical issue to agree on policy. Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse--for both the addict and the rest of us. Hence, even if you regard present policy toward drugs as ethically justified, considerations of expediency make that policy most unwise.


Prohibition and Drugs
by Milton Friedman
From Newsweek, May 1, 1972




Milton Friedman has died. Libertarians mourn a champion; non-libertarians mourn a man who, though at times disagreeable, couched his arguments in terms so good-natured it was impossible to dislike him.

But—no matter the ideology—the cost of moderateness is the charge of heresy (and the danger of dogmatism the label of lunacy). Compromise is a euphemism for abandoning the principles you believe in.

Was this pragmatism hypocrisy? Was it simply a rhetorical tactic?

I call it humility. Now, there is right and there is wrong. Morality is absolute and natural, mapped by reason and intuition. And there is room for consequentialism.

I. Morality, an Observation


The idea of no moral truth is unacceptable. The idea of no moral apparatus with which to perceive that truth is unacceptable. This is especially true among those interested in politics, a realm ruled by notions of what should be. Relativists have no business here.

I test this by summoning up various nightmares: children being tortured, women being raped. Is the cringe such situations produce a mere result of some social conditioning? Is my preference for such things to be avoided arbitrary, as unprincipled as a favorite color? Do I have any room to criticize those with the opposite preference?

Yes. The sun exists, those who deny this are wrong—its existence not merely the false consciousness of a billion observers. Women should not be raped, and those who deny this are wrong. Not eccentric.

We surrender only to the moral relativist the possibility of being wrong, as we surrender to the skeptic the possibility of the sun being illusory. Nonetheless, we maintain, if for no other reason than the strength of the feeling, that certain things are right and wrong. And the sun will rise tomorrow.

II. For Marxism, Libertarianism.


Perhaps you grant moral truth, perhaps you grant moral perception. Nonetheless you deny some particular moral theory because of its hard cases—or perhaps you’re skeptical of things you can neither see nor touch, like rights. And we know how we see the sun, we know how eyes work—how do we sense right and wrong?

I don’t know the latter—but nor did Galileo understand how his vision operated. Not to be flippant: epistemological questions are real and pertinent. But the idea of no means of tracking moral truth is more problematic. We choose the least flawed choice.

As to the tough cases—e.g., how much labor must be mixed with how much land for possession to occur?—tough cases always form at the margins. At times they necessitate more complex theory to fill in the gaps, and sometimes vagueness is simply the nature of the beast. But such conditions are not unique to moral theorizing.

Oftentimes the intricate rules of a moral system start to seem artificial. Maybe morality, undoubtedly extant, does not follow rules. Every situation is unique, with its own moral solution unlike no other. But this is doubtful. Similar cases probably display similar results, and if so, given enough cases, rules start to emerge, something rigid and general enough that it is the exception that must be explained. The physical sciences proceed in the same fashion.

Rules can be used to produce more rules, meta-rules emerge, and different starting axioms may produce wildly different systems. Observe Marxism, observe libertarianism. Social contracts and veils of ignorance. Find enough internal inconsistencies, enough holes, enough discrepancy with reality and the grand theory is rejected. Or, if solid enough, used to make accurate predictions.

Fallibility is an argument for theory, not against it.

III. The False Hope of Pragmatism


The pragmatist eschews theory. He does not deny morality—he cannot. To take an opinion of how things ought to be is to take a moral position. He cannot deny moral perception—he must explain how he has arrived at that particular position or admit his is baseless. The pragmatist has no higher ground, he cannot claim to be arguing in a realm less intangible than those who argue morality—his oughts occupy the same level.

The pragmatist has followed us most of the way—he does not deny morality, only that it is governed by rules. We can present our previous case to him, we can question how he expects us to solve hard cases without the formation of rules, without comparing and analogizing, and how we are to convince one another without them. If he is unpersuaded, there is little more to say.

And his defense of his position may be quite strong. He may argue, and he may be correct, that people can more easily recognize what is moral than decode it using a rule-based system. We disagree here, but perhaps our disagreement is intractable.

Nonetheless, we must let him find no refuge in a lodestar of economic efficiency or in utilitarianism proper, both systems eminently rule-based and controversial. Adopting either would subject him to his own critiques.

IV. Against Libertarianism


Relativism is unacceptable. We have defended moral rules. We have met the pragmatist and pointedly disagreed with him. The stage is set to devise a moral system.

We collect data points. We summon up nightmares, we cringe and make a note. We group like cases and look for trends. We run into some hard cases. Some can be solved by our new rules, some remain mysterious: we will save these for later, perhaps for other theorists. We proofread our work. We find how consistent our theory is. Perhaps it ends up rotten to the core and we wipe the slate clean to start again. Perhaps it’s simple, elegant, and produces accurate predictions. Or the flaws that exist are repairable.

Maybe we’re Lockeans. Maybe we’re social democrats. We might be Communists or utilitarians or environmentalists.

Maybe, like Milton Friedman, we’re classical liberals. We do not believe this theory to be arbitrary, but rather an accurate depiction of objective morality. And so far as the theory contrasts with other theories—Marxism, utilitarianism, et al—those theories must be false, if ours is true.

If we believe it true, then why, as Milton did, do we place our arguments elsewhere?

There is no contradiction in believing in moral truth and at the same time being wary of our own fallibility. Humility here is no flaw.

We are, perhaps, classical liberals. Classical liberalism suggests Policy A. But, though we are classical liberals, we are nonetheless skeptical of classical liberalism (however, assumedly, we are more skeptical of other moral systems). We also are not utilitarians, but we admit there is a chance utilitarianism is correct. If both utilitarianism and classical liberalism suggest Policy A, that is a stronger argument than either ideology in isolation.

We’ve committed no hypocrisy—we have not abandoned any of our principles, simply made two realistic admissions: we may be wrong and the detractors may be right. We have not become relativists, and we certainly have not admitted that utilitarianism is correct.

V. Consequentialism


Yet, in most fields, we do not bend so easily. We are humble, but we do not easily discard complete theories. Nor should we. It is in morality that humility is uniquely called for.

One reason for caution is that, as a matter of personal observation, moral theories are radically incomplete. We needn’t tick off the tensions of libertarianism, nor the monstrosities of utilitarianism to show this. Another reason is that divergence among people is large—what moral sense exists is obviously a shaky mechanism. And here we have another reason to argue within another’s system—not simply for the tactical reason of convincing them and getting their support for what we want—but rather because we know they too can make moral judgments, judgments there is no weakness in relying upon. Two opinions are often better than one.

We have now arrived at a vague meta-moral state, a place where we value one moral theory as true but others as valuable for their possibility of truth. What theories we slip in as our candidates for true theories, and the weight we attach to each is undoubtedly something that will vary from person to person—though not infinitely.

This place, consequentialism or pragmatism or whichever name you desire, is by necessity vague and subjective. At times, the “consequentialist” may be hard to pin down, simply because it is difficult to attach a concrete probability of truth to a theory, and one’s vintage of consequentialism will vary from group to group. The consequentialist Marxist will contrast with the consequentialist Rawlsian.

Nonetheless, he is neither poststructuralist nor nihilistic, neither a liar nor a coward.

Postscript:
Some of my terminology is atypical. Some may consider pragmatism and consequentialism synonyms, for example. Do not attach too much to the names I have chosen—consider instead the positions I use them to represent.

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