Good Questions

One of the greatest benefits of blogging is the opportunity one has to converse with, and learn from, people whom one might otherwise never have met. Scott Carson, professor of philosophy at Ohio University and author of the blog An Examined Life, has taken the trouble to respond to my comments on his post about the defensibility of torture. He makes some excellent criticisms of my post, and I am very grateful to him for taking the time to do so.

Dr. Carson raises three objections to my suggestion that his argument against torture (which was, in a nutshell, that by torturing we destroy our own harmonious relation to the Good) constitutes utilitarianism in another form. I had written:

[A]lthough Carson’s post is intended as a critique of the prevalence of the conventional utilitarian view these days, it seems to me that all he is doing is substituting different variables into the same utilitarian formula – the spiritual wound suffered by the torturer outweighs, in his equation, the merely physical suffering of those we would seek to protect by a coercive interrogation. He is certainly entitled to his belief. But is it appropriate as government policy, when the first job of government is to defend the people, many of whom do not agree with this religious perspective?

Carson’s first objection is that I am taking his position to be a “religious perspective”. He says that while his view is consistent with his religious beliefs, it has a much more ancient pedigree, flowing from Socrates and Plato (who expressed the opinion that the greatest happiness was to understand, and to live in accordance with, the Form of the Good), through Aristotle, and then through Augustine and Aquinas – by which point the message had changed slightly, to the idea that the greatest happiness “depends upon a rational relationship with God rather than on material flourishing.”

Fair enough. I did indeed pepper my post with references to the religious underpinnings of this view; and while Carson did mention that he was writing as a Catholic (whose moral framework presumably inherits from that of Aquinas), he is quite right to point out that this analysis is both older and more general than any exclusively Christian doctrine. Whether or not his view is religious in nature wasn’t really important to me, though, so I’m happy to let that part go. I’m sorry to have given the impression that this was the point in any way; the question at hand is to me a purely ethical problem, and religion is simply one source of insight among many.

Dr. Carson’s second point is that I seemed to be objecting to the state’s adoption of his view on the grounds that it is based on his religious beliefs. He makes the case that any government policy – including one based on utilitarian considerations – is likely to require that some citizens must compromise their deeply held opinions, and he argues that opinions based on religious views are no less worthy than those of secular origin when being considered by a democratic society as possible bases of policy. He is quite right about all of this, and I meant in no way to suggest otherwise when I wrote:

… is it appropriate as government policy, when the first job of government is to defend the people, many of whom do not agree with this religious perspective?

My point there was more subtle; I was trying to get at the idea that the Constitutional role of the state might be different from a sort of vector sum of the religious or philosophical viewpoints of the citizenry; that the obligation of the state to defend itself from external threats might set priorities other than those that apply to individuals, as many individuals may prioritize the salvation of their own souls, or other forms of self-interest, above the survival of the polity. But my point was in no way that secular views ought inherently to trump religious ones, and I regret having giving that impression.

Dr. Carson’s third objection is the most important, and focuses on my suggestion that his position is just utilitarianism in another form. He points out that utilitarianism is – and this is the criticism that has been leveled against it since its inception – uncaring about means, and concerned only with outcomes: to the utilitarian, whatever maximizes “happiness” is what ought to be done, regardless of what “whatever” might be. In contrast, Carson argues, his view is purely normative: the “good” is what we ought to pursue, regardless of the consequences. In other words, the outcome is of secondary, or even negligible importance.

This is indeed an important distinction, and I am grateful to Dr. Carson for pointing it out. But I continue to believe that ultimately, as we “drill down”, we must still arrive at a sort of utilitarian bedrock. Why should we wish to adjust our actions to be in harmony with the Form of the Good? If this is because it is the source of the greatest happiness, then are we not simply maximizing our happiness? Or if the Form of the Good requires altruism on our part, then does it not seem that we are simply, in some utilitarian way, maximizing the total happiness of others? Dr. Carson writes:

…let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Pollack is right. The difficulty now is that every moral theory is essentially a variety of utilitarianism, and that seems highly implausible. For example, if Pollack were right, then even Kantianism, the anti-utilitarian moral theory par excellence, would actually be a variety of utilitarianism in which the central value is conformity with a formal principle of reasoning.

Quite so! Dr. Carson claims that such an interpretation is “highly implausible”, and I have no doubt that it is the farthest thing from the minds of those who espouse such views, but how, in fact, would one rebut this analysis? I strongly suspect that at the bottom of every system of ethics is some sort of utilitarian calculus; they may vary in the degree to which it is made explicit, and in the size of the “charmed circle” of beneficiaries (which may vary from just one person, namely me, to all living beings), but I think it is there just the same, and I think there may be sound Darwinian reasons why that might be so.

Carson adds:

… Kantianism explicitly says that consequences have nothing whatsoever to do with the moral rightness or wrongness of our actions and, indeed, goes so far as to say that moral goodness is independent of our passions and desires. According to both Kant and Plato, it is entirely possible that we may be mistaken about what the good is and even about what we truly desire; this is not possible according to the utilitarian who, famously, actually defines desirability in terms of what is actually desired.

But it seems to me that all that is being proposed here is a sort of “meta-utilitarianism”. The ordinary utilitarian, in his ignorance, may define as desirable some proximate goal that is in fact at odds with the Good, but Kant and Plato are suggesting that there is in fact a true Good, that is what we really ought to be pursuing. But why? What is it that enjoins us to pursue this goal? This to me is where a kind of utilitarianism slips back in – not, perhaps, utilitarianism in a conscious, explicit sense, but in essence.

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