Thursday, June 2, 2016

Utilitarianism and Slavery: A Response to Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes

Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them stands with Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion in terms of its ability to apply psychological insight to the problem of social morality. We live in a multicultural society in which no faction has the physical might or the moral authority to force its vision of the good on everyone else. The problem, as G. K. Chesterton so well understood, is that people disagree not only about the means to achieve a better society, but the very ends of what such a society might look out. It is the liberals' utopia itself that conservatives will fight to stop and vice versa. This makes principled compromises in the realm of policy practically impossible.    

Greene's most valuable contribution to this conversion is the notion of the "tragedy of common sense." This is his play on the classic dilemma of the tragedy of the commons. If there is a resource held in common, you must try to get as much for yourself before your neighbor does even though this is likely to lead to the exhaustion of that resource to the detriment of everyone. Greene applies this model to frame the problem of morality in a multicultural world. It is in the self-interest of everyone to cooperate. The trap here is that the moral equipment given to us by evolution made us very good tribal moralists, but this same moral thinking that threatens disaster in a multicultural society. What we need is a "manual setting" for our morality to compliment the "automatic setting" that we use in day to day life.  

A good word should also be put in for Greene's discussion of the trolly problem. He offers a very plausible explanation to the apparent irrationality of people being willing to press a bottom that causes a train run over one person instead of five other people, but object to pushing a fat man in the way of the train to save five people.

What I respect about Haidt above all else is that he is a liberal, who developed the epistemological humility to respect conservative (and even libertarian) points of views. What is so beautiful about his book is that his very refusal to offer clear-cut solutions to the problem of a common morality stands as a productive way forward based on empathy for one's opponents. By contrast, Greene attempts to defend a liberal moral hegemony and, in this cause, he enlists utilitarian ethics. In essence, his argument boils down to saying that utilitarianism is the best ethical system and we would know that if we could only overcome certain handicaps to our brains' moral reasoning. Once we limit ourselves to utilitarian arguments, liberal policy positions follow naturally.

Rather than rehash the entire debate over utilitarianism, I wanted to focus here on one particular issue that Greene devotes a chapter to, slavery. Greene goes into some detail defending utilitarianism against the argument that it would condone slavery. His argument is that equal increases of wealth bring less utility as we go up the economic ladder. An extra $1,000 will benefit someone making $20,000 a year more than someone making $100,000. By this logic, it is impossible that the benefits to the slave owner of owning a slave could outweigh the harm to the slave. By contrast, the benefits of emancipation to the slave must outweigh the harm done to his master. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that we start the question of slavery from a point of economic equality. Granted that a society where everyone was equal would have greater utility than a society in which half of the population were enslaved to the other half. But what happens when some people already are far wealthier than others. It does not take much imagination to conjure up a scenario in which Africans, fleeing famine and civil war, agree to sell themselves as slaves in order to spend the rest of their lives working under relatively "humane" conditions in the United States. (Just in case anyone wants to accuse me here of endorsing slavery, which I am not, keep in mind that you cannot accuse me of supporting slavery without convicting yourself of supporting mass murder.) From a strictly utilitarian point of view, such a decision makes perfect sense.

Remember that almost no one took a principled stand against slavery until the later part of the eighteenth century for the simple reason that this required placing the distinctly non-utilitarian value of equality over the physical well-being of slaves. Understand that you are not taking a principled stand against slavery until you are willing to say that it is better to be a free man starving on the streets than a house slave living in luxury (not that most house slaves lived particularly luxurious lives.) It was only when people began to embrace equality as an innate value, unconnected to any physical benefit, that we began to see slavery as innately evil regardless of the actual slave conditions.

However intriguing this question of reintroducing slavery in the West as a solution to the refugee crisis might be as something to debate, my real interest here is the moral status of state action. I do believe that for the most important things in life, when we get past our basic need for food, shelter and safety, there ceases to be an objective good to appeal to. Thus, I cannot be considered a consistent utilitarian. Instead of appealing to some vague good that is nothing more than cover for my arbitrary prejudices, I value liberty; the right of every person to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they do not initiate physical violence against others. Taking a principled stand in favor of liberty means opposing the state, the institution that claims a unique moral authority to initiate violence. This position is often defended on utilitarian grounds; government policies are assumed to benefit the larger society. I do not know nor do I care if government action will help people. I will sit down and seriously consider if this might be this case if you will sit down and "consider with an open mind" the potential benefits of slavery.  

Greene moves seamlessly from denying that a utilitarian could support slavery to defending leftist government policies on utilitarian grounds when anyone wondering what a utilitarian defense of slavery might look like has only to examine a utilitarian defense of the state. Rights are not something that can exist within a utilitarian framework as rights do not inherently grant physical benefits to anyone. No utilitarian can take a principled defense of rights, allowing rights to trump physical well-being. (Does the fat man still have a right to life when his death beneath the wheels of the train is needed to promote the physical well-being of five others?) Would it not be to the utilitarian good if a hated minority be enslaved or even sent to gas chambers rather than allow the majority to "suffer" their presence? (What is wrong with hosting the Hunger Games if there are enough viewers?)

Greene explicitly refuses to take a principled defense of rights and instead relegates them to a political shorthand for those things that are now taken as moral givens in our society. But it is precisely those rights that do not need any defense. We only need to articulate a defense of rights that most people deny. The claim of rights is not for your opponents, but for yourself to know that you have the moral right to threaten to kill your opponents if they fail to pay proper attention to your ethical arguments. (Think John Brown.)

I would love to ask Greene what stance he would take if he ever came to believe that socialism could produce better economic results. Now socialism means that the government owns all property, including its citizens. Whether this is a good thing or not, it is, by definition, slavery. (If you are tempted to offer some roundabout to say that a socialist state does not own its citizens, just remember that consistency demands that you grant "non-slaveholders" the same roundabout to say that they do not really own the people in their "care.") A principled stand against such a state must grant individuals the right to defy the interest of the state even at the expense of the "greater good." Greene himself notes that defenders of individualism and collectivism are likely to turn to morality if denied utilitarian grounds to defend their position. He does not though answer his own question of what he would choose. Either he most abandon his strict utilitarianism or acknowledge that slavery (perhaps with government institutions as masters) is perhaps perfectly legitimate.              

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