Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Karl Popper, the Utilitarians, and the End of the World

In Philosophy, Utilitarianism on December 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

In a recent blog post I commented that the basic principle of utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom:  “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

We can construct the following hypothetical society: imagine a country where the majority take great delight in watching the torture of the minority. When individual members of the minority are tortured, hundreds of members of the majority come to watch and they have a seemingly insatiable appetite to view such a spectacle. The sum total of the additional happiness of those watching the torture is so great that it more than offsets the pain of the member of the minority being tortured. The utilitarians who follow Bentham’s axiom would know what to do: open torture theatres up and down the country and have numerous daily torture shows to maximise happiness.

The thought is horrific. Karl Popper was aware of such problems with standard utilitarianism. He wrote the following:

I suggest… to replace the utilitarian formula “Aim at the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, or briefly, “Maximise happiness”, by the formula “The least amount of suffering for all”, or briefly, “Minimize suffering”. Such a simple formula can, I believe, be made one of the fundamental principles (admittedly not the only one) of public policy. [1]

He went on to say:

A … criticism of the Utilitarian formula “maximise pleasure” is that it assumes, in principle, a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering—such as hunger in times of an unavoidable shortage of food—should be distributed as equally as possible…. It adds to clarity in the field of ethics if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness. [2]

Professor Popper’s negative formulation (negative utilitarianism or NU for short) of the standard utilitarian principle has a fundamental problem pointed out by R.N. Smart in 1958:

Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds.[3]

If the human race were to continue in existence for an infinite amount of time, no doubt there would be an infinite amount of suffering to go with it. According to this ideology, it is far better to have a finite amount of suffering and end the world now.

Bernard Williams concluded his critique of utilitarianism with the following words:

The important issues that utilitarianism raises should be discussed in contexts more rewarding than that of utilitarianism itself. The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it.[4]

There are those who predict that the world will end tomorrow, December 21, 2012. NASA has denied that this will occur.[5] While those putting forward the prediction are not blaming negative utilitarians with a world ending weapon for this disaster, the negative utilitarians might look forward to its occurrence. I have been trying to think of any good that will come of the end of the world and have finally come up with something: Bernard Williams’ prediction that the day will come when we will hear no more of utilitarianism will finally be fulfilled.


[1] K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato, (Fifth revised edition, Routledge, 1966), p.235n6(2).
[2] Ibid., pp284-285n2.
[3] R.N. Smart, “Negative Utilitarianism,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 67, No. 268 (October, 1958), pp. 542-543. A copy of this is available freely on line.
[4] Bernard Williams, “A critique of utilitarianism,” in J.J.C. Smart & Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: for and against, (Cambridge University Press, 1973,) p.150.
[5] http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html.


Masochists Wanted

In Interns on December 13, 2012 at 3:44 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on December 13th 2012, 1:15 pm

It would appear that this advertisement for unpaid interns is genuine. Dalkey Archive Press is a publishing house looking for new staff. It makes clear in the advertisement that the “The pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns.” While they might take on one or two people in a short term paid position, applicants  should “ assume that [they] will be one of the unpaid interns.”

As well as looking for people who “are very well read in literature,” “highly motivated,” “ambitious,” etc., etc., there is simply no point applying if applicants have “family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.” I wonder if you might be allowed time off for a funeral of a grandparent?

Applicants are warned that they will be dismissed for any of the following reasons:

coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies.

I can imagine it now – reason for dismissal: “answering a phone call at 7.00pm on a Sunday evening from  your mother who wanted to know what time you were likely to be home for dinner.” What if you want a day off for Christmas? Surely there can be no better response than “Bah, humbug!”

Dismissal can be for failure to meet any goals. One might wonder what these goals might include. In the case of one of the positions available – Personal Assistant to the Publisher – candidates must be able to “know what the Publisher needs or wants before he does.” Perhaps this position is better suited to clairvoyants.

And just in case you were thinking of applying and interested in knowing anything about how your application is proceeding, you are pre-warned:

We will not be able to acknowledge receipt of applications or provide feedback about your application. We will contact only those people whom we wish to ask further questions of or that we intend to interview. Do not contact us about your application.

Hat Tip: Vagenda Magazine via Max Dunbar

Fruits of Labour, Entitlement, and the Road to Ruin

In Libertarianism, Nozick, Philosophy on December 12, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, is one of my favourite blogs. He has recently written a series of ten blog posts on the subject “Fruits of Labour.”[1]

I wish to pick up one point that Norm has made in his tenth post in the series: his example that he calls “Wilt who?” It is quite clear that Norm has loosely based his example on Robert Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example which Nozick used for a difference purpose to that of Norm.[2] Both Nozick and Norm have a very talented basketball player, Wilt, who is a draw to the game. Spectators are happy to pay extra if Wilt plays. In Norm’s example there is a dispute between Wilt and the fans as to who is entitled to the money from the additional gate receipts. Norm has Wilt believing he is entitled to the additional money, but the fans are of a different opinion: they think that perhaps some of the additional money can go to Wilt, because in Norm’s case, Wilt is having difficulties, but the balance should be used on improving spectator facilities. This dispute does not come up in Nozick’s example for a key reason: Nozick have the fans drop 25 cents of the admission price into a separate box that has Wilt’s name marked on it. The implication is clear: the 25 cents is to go directly to Wilt and not to the club. Nozick is explicit:

Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball.[3]

One wonders if Norm would agree whether Wilt would be entitled to the 25 cents from each fan for each game if his own example were in line that of Nozick’s.

A further point that is explicit in Nozick’s example is that Wilt is a free agent. Nozick is also explicit that “Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams.”[4] This means that if Wilt does not get the 25 cents from each fan for each game, he would be free to find another club to take him on at his terms. Norman Geras does not really deal with this matter in his dispute between the fans that turn up to Wilt’s games and Wilt himself. The fans, in Norm’s example, can argue as much as they want that Wilt’s value “depends on them” but what would Norm have them say if Wilt turns round and says “If that is how you feel, I will leave the club and go and play for a different team.” Would Norm, or the fans in his example, restrict other basketball clubs from offering Wilt a contract on terms that both the club and Wilt could agree?

I now wish to use my own example, but to make a point similar to that Nozick made with his Wilt Chamberlain example: that liberty upsets patterns.

Consider two families that live next door each other: the Adams family and the Brown family. The Adams family comprises Mr and Mrs Adams, and two children aged ten and eight. The Brown family contains Mr and Mrs Brown and two children of identical ages to that of their neighbours. Mr Adams and Mr Brown work in the same factory in an identical job earning an identical salary. Likewise Mrs Adams and Mrs Brown both work part time in identical jobs earning identical salaries. At a given point in time, the value of the assets of the Adams family matches that of the Brown family to the last penny. The egalitarians can look at these two families and smile at the equality that exists.

Now consider the lifestyle differences. Mr and Mrs Adams both smoke whereas Mr and Mrs Brown do not. Mr and Mrs Adams and their children spend their weekends lazing at home watching television, whereas the Brown family spend quite a lot of time cultivating a vegetable patch in their garden, the produce of which they consume thus reducing their weekly grocery bill. Finally, the Adams family have a weekly night out to a cinema or a pizza restaurant, whereas on that night of the week, the Brown family bond with each other via playing Scrabble or a card game together. The net difference is that Adams family spend on average £150 a week more than the Brown family. After a few weeks, the Brown family have accumulated enough money from saving to purchase an iPad for their children to share. The Adams family do not have one. The two Brown children are continually arguing as to which one of them can use the iPad and their parents, fed up with the constant arguing, a few weeks later purchase a further iPad so both children can have their own.

The point Nozick would have made with this example is that nobody has done anything wrong; it is not unjust that the Brown family now has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none. The egalitarians, on the contrary, might wish to interfere. They could claim that it is unjust that Brown family has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none and insist that the Brown family give an iPad to the Adams family. Nozick’s point is that if you set up to create an egalitarian society or any other society whereby there is a “pattern” of the distribution of assets for justice, there has to be “continuous interference with people’s lives.”[5]

I now wish to go a stage further and discuss the consequences of such interference. Imagine, in my example above, the Brown family continually have to give things to the Adams family to keep the planned distributional pattern. After a while one might expect that they get tired of it. On Saturday afternoons while the Browns are toiling away at their vegetable patch, they can look over their garden fence and see through a window to the Adams family’s sitting room where the family are all lazing around watching television. Mr Adams has even cracked jokes to Mr Brown telling him to pay particular attention to the output from the vegetable patch as his family will be entitled to the benefits of half of it. The Browns might begin to feel that because they only get the benefit of half of their savings from not spending money like the Adams family and they only get to benefit from half their labour in their vegetable patch, that they will simply not bother continuing their more frugal lifestyle.

While Mr and Mrs Brown do not take up smoking, they decide to go out with their family once a week to a decent restaurant and a further night to the cinema and also to jack in the vegetable patch so they can sit at home at weekends and watch television like the Adams family. By changing their lifestyle to spend as much money per week as their neighbours, they now do not have to make any regular transfers to their neighbours. By having some of the benefits of the fruits of their labour – the vegetables they grow in their garden – taken away from them, they lack the motive to grow the vegetables. In other words, they lack the motive to work at weekends. If this is replicated on a bigger scale around the country, it seems to me that it is the road to economic ruin.


[1] The link to the tenth in the series is
This post provides the links to the earlier nine posts.
[2] Norman Geras admits in footnote 48 that his own example is used for a different purpose to Nozick.
[3]Robert Nozick, Anarchy State, And Utopia, (Basic Books, 1974), p.161.
[4] Ibid., p.161.
[5] Ibid., p.163.

The Queen v Dudley and Stephens, Redux

In Philosophy, Utilitarianism on December 6, 2012 at 4:00 PM

An interesting news item from Russia has appeared in the press. The basics of the story are that four fisherman disappeared in remote and inhospitable areas of the country in August. Two of the four have since been discovered as well as the remains of a human body including chopped up bones. The news article leads one to conclude that the two men located are suspected  of murder and cannibalism to stay alive. A murder probe has been launched and the two men are on the run.

One of the reasons why this case is interesting is the facts as stated will lead lawyers in many countries to recall one of the most famous cases in English criminal law: R v. Dudley and Stephens. The full judgement, from 1884, can be read, but the basic elements of the case were that four men jumped into a lifeboat with very little food. When the food ran out, and after a number of days, some in the boat came to the conclusion that the only possibility of staying alive was to eat one of the passengers. While a decision to draw straws as to which one was eaten was ultimately abandoned, at one point after 19 days adrift, a prayer was said, and the cabin boy, Parker, who did not give his permission, was killed for his flesh and blood to eat and drink. The men were ultimately rescued and Dudley and Stephens were tried and convicted for murder. The reason the case is so well known is that an important principle of law, one still in existence today, was established via the judgement: necessity is no defence to murder.

Dudley and Stephens is also interesting to students of philosophy as it is can be used as a real life example to those studying utilitarianism. The Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, uses it both in his Justice lecture series (Episode 1, part 2) and his  associated book, Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (Penguin, 2010) for precisely this purpose. It is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom (A Fragment on Government, 1776, preface)  whereby “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” that is often taken as the basic principle of utilitarianism. It is not the actions themselves which matter but the consequences of the actions. In the case of Dudley and Stephens, the consequences of killing the cabin boy was that three survived and one died, whereas had the cabin boy (or someone else) not been killed, all four could have died. Moreover, Parker was an orphan and had no dependants who would miss him. The others had families. Based on this, for the greatest happiness to the greatest number, taking into account people’s families, then the death of the cabin boy would cause the least amount of pain.

Bentham went so far as to envisage (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781, Ch. 4) that values could be ascribed to pain and pleasure. Intensity, duration and other factors would all be measured. The correct action to take would be the one that produced the highest utility: the difference between the sum total of the pleasure values less the sum total of the pain values. This whole idea was ridiculed in an amusing fashion by Steven Lukes in his book, The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Novel of Ideas, (Verso, Second Edition, 2009). The author invented a fictitious place known as Utilitaria where “Everyone treasured pocket calculators” (p.43) and many used them at all possible occasions in order to decide how to act.

“A critique of utilitarianism,” was written by Bernard Williams. (It is contained in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For & Against, [Cambridge University Press, 1973], pp.75-150). In this essay (pp.98-99), Williams uses a thought experiment whereby twenty captured people are to be shot but Jim is offered a gun and if he agrees to shoot dead one captured person, the other nineteen would go free. Williams explains that the captured men and all other villagers are begging Jim to accept. He poses the question: “What should he do?”  He correctly states that for the utilitarians, not only is it correct for Jim to shoot someone dead, it is “obviously” correct. The right thing to do is to maximise the value of pleasure over pain, and if that means shooting an innocent person or killing someone and eating them, so be  it.  In a damning conclusion, Williams states: “utilitarianism, at least in its direct forms, makes integrity as a value more of less unintelligible.”

I am very aware that it is easy to sit in a comfortable home in London with plenty of food available to eat and moralize as to how others should behave in a desperate situation. I have never been starving to death in a lifeboat or in inhospitable areas of Siberia and quite frankly I do not know what I would do if I were in that situation. What is known is that when people are starving to death and the only food they have to eat is other humans, then they resort to cannibalism. There are a number of examples. In his recently published book, Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine, (Allen Lane, 2012), Yang Yisheng cites (p.135)  a 1961 report on what happened in Mao’s famine:

Cannibalism occurred in many places. Among 41 production brigades in ten communes in Lixnia City, 588 people ate the remains of 337 others. In Hongtai Commune alone there were 170 people who ate 125 corpses as well as killing and eating five other people. Cannibalism occurred in six of the eight production teams of the Xiaogoumen brigade, with 23 households eating 57 people. In some cases individuals barbarously consumed their own parents, children, spouses and siblings…. In Qiezang Commune’s Tuanjie production brigade, a poor peasant couple, Ma Yibula and his wife, killed and ate their fourteen-year old daughter, and after Ma died, his wife ate him.

On and on it goes. I have little to say about the specific actions of those that I have listed that resorted to murder and cannibalism; my issue is with utilitarianism, an ethical theory of which some of its adherents would get out their calculators, determine that the greatest difference between pleasure and pain was reached by killing and eating people and judge that not only had nothing been done wrong, but that that the murderers were morally correct to act in the way that they did. While they ultimately only received a short sentence, it was right that Dudley and Stephens were found guilty of murder. If it is accurate that the two men on the run in Russia did indeed murder and eat a third man, then the fact that they are on the run is indicative that they might be aware that they have done wrong; they are not, at least at this stage, declaring that they acted for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Hat Tip: M.R.

Advertising for unpaid interns

In Interns on December 5, 2012 at 3:21 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on December 5, 2012, 3:12 pm at Harry’s Place.

Longer term readers of my blog posts here will be aware that I have argued against the use of unpaid interns. A key reason for my annoyance is that many could be illegal as they would be in breach of the minimum wage legislation. In some industries the practice of use of unpaid interns is not prevalent, but in other industries it seems common practice. It is particularly notorious in areas such as fashion journalism. As implied by an article in this week’s Observer, such practices impede social mobility.

I am therefore delighted to read Shiv Malik’s article in the Guardian that informs us that Hazel Blears has cross-party support for a bill being introduced to parliament to make advertising unpaid internships in breach of the legislation illegal. I hope her bill is passed.

A counter argument might be that banning such advertisements might lead to further difficulties for social mobility as the jobs will be obtained by word of mouth recommendations. Who you know as opposed to what you know will become increasingly important.  However, I do not give that much weight to that argument. What will the young person write on their curriculum vitae who takes such a role if legislation is tightened and enforced? “I worked for XYZ Fashion Magazine illegally so I should be grateful if you do not write to them asking for a reference about the quality of my work, because any response from them might be used as evidence against them in a court of law that they have acted illegally.” It is a nonsense.

The truth is that young people in 2012 are being asked to work for no pay. They are doing similar work, technologically adjusted, to young people in 1992. The difference was that in 1992 the jobs were referred to as graduate trainee jobs, summer jobs, office juniors or entry level jobs, and paid, whereas in 2012 they are often referred to as internships and are unpaid. This development is not a positive one.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 1

In Abortion, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on December 1, 2012 at 7:39 PM

I have an interest in bizarre thought experiments that philosophers invent in the ivory tower. This blog is named after such a thought experiment, one whereby people are not born with eyes but obtain them when they walk under an ocular tree.  Two favourites of mine of those of which I am aware were used by Judith Jarvis Thomson  in her seminal 1971 essay, “A Defense of Abortion.” One of them involved someone being kidnapped and a famous unconscious violinist being plugged into their body for the rest of their life. The other involves “people-seeds” that drift into someone’s house through an opened window, attach to the carpet and grow into a “person-plant.” While these thought experiments are created to provide a point, the sheer bizarreness of them makes one wonder what was going through the philosopher’s head at the time.

I have just come across some more thought experiments, these ones written by Jonathan Bennett and published in his book, The Act Itself, (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.209-211. Bennett is discussing the distinction between the foreseeable and intended consequences of an act. Using a thought experiment relative to the debate on abortion, he says the following:

it does not stop us from thinking that the surgeon intends the child’s head to be crushed but does not intend it to die, for the crushing does not absolutely, conceptually entail the dying: there are worlds where God steps in and restores the ruined head to its former condition, and others where crushing a head is the first step in a helpful curative procedure.

So much for crushing heads, how about killing people by terror bombing?

I said that the [terror bombing] raid leader intended to kill civilians so as to lower enemy morale, but the truth is finer grained than that. Really, he intended only that the people’s bodies should be in a state that would cause a general belief that they were dead, this lasting long enough to shorten the war: nothing in that scheme requires that the dismaying condition of the bodies be permanent; so nothing in it requires that the people become downright dead rather than merely seemingly dead for a year or two.

Bennett is now is full absurdity mode:

…the arsonist who does not intend the building to be permanently destroyed, just that it be reduced to ashes long enough for the insurance company to pay up.

This, dear reader, is the sort of thing that is discussed in philosophy departments of some of the world’s leading universities.