LD: Morality/Util is Not a Framework

The current resolution regarding Universal Basic Income has seen a massive resurgence of “I value Morality because Utilitarianism” as a framework that makes me very sad indeed.

That's not how ANY of this works.

I’ve previously written on the framework of a value debate, but let’s spend some time specifically arguing against the Morality/Utilitarianism framework.

The first problem is how common and glib it is to claim to value morality, read off of a stock card. Hannah Arendt leads into The Life of the Mind by observing that

Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

This is deeply problematic, not just because she was talking about how a Nazi war criminal avoided thinking about what he was doing, but because the whole point of value debate is to make you think about who you are. Working through which moral characteristics resonate with you is crucial to forming an identity as Nina Strohminger explains:

research by myself and the psychologists Larisa Heiphetz and Liane Young at Boston College has found that the single most important mental trait in judging self-identity is one’s deeply held moral convictions. We are not only concerned with moral character when constructing an identity for others, but when doing so for ourselves. … when we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favourite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.

That is why you are doing value debate. You may not understand that yet, but it’s what you’re supposed to actually be getting out of this process. The catch is that Morality is dependent on Identity, Strohminger continues:

Nor can you have formal moral systems without identity. The 18th-century philosopher Thomas Reid observed that the fundaments of justice – rights, duty, responsibility – would be impossible without the ability to ascribe stable identity to persons. If nothing connects a person from one moment to the next, then the person who acts today cannot be held responsible by the person who has replaced him tomorrow. … The identity detector is designed to pick up on moral features because this is the most important type of information we can have about another person.

So coming in to a value debate and saying “I value morality” comes off very much like this:

How do you do, fellow kids?

With that in mind, it’s time to deliver:

A Crushing Rebuke to This Framework.

First, the framework claims to be un-debatable, which makes it philosophically unsound. This is Alasdair MacIntyre’s (2017) Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative, page 63:

Philosophers should have learned by now from C. S. Peirce that their claims, like those of scientists and theologians, have significant content only insofar as they are refutable, only insofar as their truth excludes certain possibilities. A statement of those possibilities is a statement of the conditions that, if satisfied, would show that particular claim or set of claims to be unjustified.

But modern “Morality” does not do this; it is instead invoked to avoid setting boundaries. MacIntyre again, page 77:

contemporary philosophical theorizing about morality is flawed, insofar as it concerns itself not with the range of moralities that we encounter in different cultures, but with only one of them, ‘Morality’, the presently dominant moral system in advanced societies, which it presents as morality as such. Central to that system, as I also remarked earlier, are certain conceptions of utility and of individual human rights, so that there are recurring debates among those who invoke these conceptions as to whether or not some violation of this or that right can be justified, if the consequences of that violation for the utility of some set of individuals are taken into account.

So MacIntyre just told us–in a single card–that this debate is boring, and in two cards that it’s got no significant content. But let’s go beyond that and look briefly at the root of the vague value of Morality, as Arendt observes that it can’t be the basis for new obligations because it’s based in habits, The Life of the Mind again:

The fact that we usually treat matters of good and evil in courses in ‘morals’ or ‘ethics’ may indicate how little we know about them, for morals comes from mores and ethics from ethos, the Latin and the Greek words for customs and habit, the Latin word being associated with rules of behavior, whereas the Greek is derived from habitat, like our ‘habits’

Put another way, Morality is a catch-all veneer smeared over our social customs and habits and without a more specific link to a custom or habit, no moral obligation to an action can be formed, so the framework–if used on the affirmative–fails to affirm a resolution that requires a moral obligation.

They Had One Job.

Now let’s turn to Utilitarianism, which is going to go even worse. This is from Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, pages 32 and 33:

Bentham, an English moral philosopher and legal reformer, founded the doctrine of utilitarianism. Its main idea is simply stated and intuitively appealing: The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure over pain. According to Bentham, the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility. By “utility,” he means whatever produces pleasure or happiness, and whatever prevents pain or suffering. … Bentham’s argument for the principle that we should maximize utility takes the form of a bold assertion: There are no possible grounds for rejecting it… “When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility,” Bentham writes, “it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself.”

So Bentham defended Utilitarianism by running directly into the “significant content” critique. But Bentham wasn’t exactly right on his basic point, as demonstrated by the ongoing debates over Human Rights that MacIntyre mentioned earlier, and Kant mentioned before him. Sandel again, pages 104 and 105:

By resting rights on a calculation about what will produce the greatest happiness, [Kant] argues, utilitarianism leaves rights vulnerable. There is also a deeper problem: trying to derive moral principles from the desires we happen to have is the wrong way to think about morality. Just because something gives many people pleasure doesn’t make it right. … Kant’s more fundamental point is that basing moral principles on preferences and desires— even the desire for happiness— misunderstands what morality is about. The utilitarian’s happiness principle “contributes nothing whatever toward establishing morality, since making a man happy is quite different from making him good and making him prudent or astute in seeking his advantage quite different from making him virtuous.” Basing morality on interests and preferences destroys its dignity. It doesn’t teach us how to distinguish right from wrong, but “only to become better at calculation.”

Indeed, Bentham himself realized the fundamental flaw in all his schemes, as Reinhold Niebuhr recounts in (1932) Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics:

Writing in 1822, after many of his reform movements had failed to claim the popular support he had anticipated, Bentham confessed: “Now for some years past all inconsistencies, all surprises have vanished…. A clue to the interior of the labyrinth has been found. It is the principle of self-preference. Man, from the very constitution of his nature, prefers his own happiness to that of all other sentient beings put together.”

And that “own happiness” is why utilitarians get better at calculating their justifications rather than get better at being good people.

Citing Mill instead of Bentham doesn’t help because Mill wandered away from Utilitarianism. This is Sandel again, page 49-50:

Mill’s robust celebration of individuality is the most distinctive contribution of On Liberty. But it is also a kind of heresy. Since it appeals to moral ideals beyond utility— ideals of character and human flourishing— it is not really an elaboration of Bentham’s principle but a renunciation of it, despite Mill’s claim to the contrary.

Also, Mill was an elitist jerk who actively engaged in the sort of self-preference that proves Utilitarianism to be an unsound basis for a moral system, Sandel, page 53:

Mill makes this point in a memorable passage: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

We’ll get to a proper elitist jerk in a moment, but before we do we need to observe that–based on the suspicious element of self-preference–the judge cannot simultaneously act on the basis of morality as a state. Niebuhr again, page 267:

An individual may sacrifice his own interests, either without hope of reward or in the hope of an ultimate compensation. But how is an individual, who is responsible for the interests of his group, to justify the sacrifice of interests other than his own? “It follows,” declares Hugh Cecil, “that all that department of morality which requires an individual to sacrifice his interests to others, everything which falls under the heading of unselfishness, is inappropriate to the action of a state. No one has a right to be unselfish with other people’s interests.”

But being unselfish with other people’s interests is exactly what the Morality/Utilitarianism faux-framework is asking the judge to do, and that turns case on its own weak-ass Morality given our customs of individualism in Liberty and self-representation in Democracy.

We are not, however, done. We loathe this framework so much that we’ve got a card on how it’s an Event Turn: it nullifies the worth of the event. I promised you an elitist jerk, so here’s Nietzsche (1886), snarking off at Bentham’s adherents in Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, pages 142-144:

It is desirable that as few people as possible should reflect upon morals, and consequently it is very desirable that morals should not some day become interesting! But let us not be afraid! Things still remain today as they have always been: I see no one in Europe who has (or DISCLOSES) an idea of the fact that philosophizing concerning morals might be conducted in a dangerous, captious, and ensnaring manner–that CALAMITY might be involved therein. Observe, for example, the indefatigable, inevitable English utilitarians: how ponderously and respectably they stalk on, stalk along (a Homeric metaphor expresses it better) in the footsteps of Bentham, just as he had already stalked in the footsteps of the respectable Helvetius! (no, he was not a dangerous man, Helvetius, CE SENATEUR POCOCURANTE, to use an expression of Galiani). No new thought, nothing of the nature of a finer turning or better expression of an old thought, not even a proper history of what has been previously thought on the subject: an IMPOSSIBLE literature, taking it all in all, unless one knows how to leaven it with some mischief. In effect, the old English vice called CANT, which is MORAL TARTUFFISM, has insinuated itself also into these moralists (whom one must certainly read with an eye to their motives if one MUST read them), concealed this time under the new form of the scientific spirit; moreover, there is not absent from them a secret struggle with the pangs of conscience, from which a race of former Puritans must naturally suffer, in all their scientific tinkering with morals. (Is not a moralist the opposite of a Puritan? That is to say, as a thinker who regards morality as questionable, as worthy of interrogation, in short, as a problem? Is moralizing not-immoral?) In the end, they all want English morality to be recognized as authoritative, inasmuch as mankind, or the “general utility,” or “the happiness of the greatest number,”–no! the happiness of ENGLAND, will be best served thereby. They would like, by all means, to convince themselves that the striving after English happiness, I mean after COMFORT and FASHION (and in the highest instance, a seat in Parliament), is at the same time the true path of virtue; in fact, that in so far as there has been virtue in the world hitherto, it has just consisted in such striving. Not one of those ponderous, conscience-stricken herding-animals (who undertake to advocate the cause of egoism as conducive to the general welfare) wants to have any knowledge or inkling of the facts that the “general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no notion that can be at all grasped, but is only a nostrum,–that what is fair to one MAY NOT at all be fair to another, that the requirement of one morality for all is really a detriment to higher men, in short, that there is a DISTINCTION OF RANK between man and man, and consequently between morality and morality. They are an unassuming and fundamentally mediocre species of men, these utilitarian Englishmen, and, as already remarked, in so far as they are tedious, one cannot think highly enough of their utility.

To put Nietzsche in another way: Since it is dangerous to seriously examine the structures of society that constitute morality, we should count ourselves lucky that we can be bored to tears by the routine presentation of Utilitarianism which precludes any such examination from happening, except that the examination is specifically what the value debate is there to facilitate.

Ultimately, the point of debate as a process of developing critical thinking skills is to get into the depths of human ideas, and brushing over those depths by asserting “I value Morality because Utilitarianism” is the opposite of that and hopefully these cards will help bring a swift end to this obnoxious trend.

The Parable About Tigers

Male Tiger Ranthambhore Long ago, before humans had civilization, even before last Tuesday, humans spent most of their time trying to run away from tigers and–very often–becoming tiger food. But then a few legendary heroes who could, among other things, consistently outrun tigers joined together and said to each other, “Come, we should build a wall to shelter us from tigers so we don’t have to run away from them nearly so much!” And this was a thing accomplished: they built a great tiger-proof wall and invited all of the other humans to join them in the safety of their wall. And with the other humans safely inside the wall, a city arose and civilization was born.

With the rise of civilization, people spent more time tending to their elders and their infants, and some to agriculture and others to architecture, inclusive of maintaining the tiger-proof wall, for which they praised the names of their legendary heroes, now the masters of the city. And they all remembered where they came from and continued to run as a recreation of their legendary heroes’ defining quality. And humanity flourished.

But then one day the legendary heroes joined together and said, “Come we are bored of the peons jogging about. Running for recreation is not the same as running for survival. Let us unleash tigers in the city so that we will all run like we really mean it again.” And this was a thing accomplished: the legendary heroes went out and captured a dozen tigers and turned them loose in the city. And lo, all the people really could run faster and longer when pursued by tigers. But in so doing, they neglected their elders and their infants–who were quickly devoured–and sustained neither their crops nor their tiger-proof wall.

The people ran and ran from the tigers that their great city was supposed to protect them from because the masters of the city couldn’t let go of the one behavior to which they credited their success. And the city fell to ruin and decay, and the names of the legendary heroes were lost to the ages.


Related reading: Hochschild, The Commercialization of Intimate Life.

Where Were the Replicants Radicalized?

Blade Runner 2049 is thick with ideas that don’t actually stack well together because the foundation is that of parable rather than science fiction as descended from Brave New World. But it does work harder than the original, and not just because Robin Wright shows up and is amazing.

There will be spoilers, of course, but this goes on for 3100 words so you’re likely to get bored before you get to the spoilers if you’re not following what I’m talking about. Anyway, let’s start with a direct look at the structural flaw. Continue reading “Where Were the Replicants Radicalized?”

I’ve THAAD it with North Korea

I’m going to do something that I shouldn’t be doing and that’s briefly talking about THAAD in South Korea because the current Public Forum topic is “Resolved: Deployment of anti-missile systems is in South Korea’s best interest.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reports that:

THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system] is designed to defend against short, medium, and intermediate-range missiles by intercepting them as they fall towards their targets. A radar system tracks incoming missiles and a control unit coordinates the launch of interceptor missiles from truck-based launchers. The interceptor missiles then slam into incoming missiles, destroying them without explosives in what is called a hit-to-kill intercept. According to a Department of Defense release, THAAD is being deployed on the Korean Peninsula, “to ensure the security of South Korea and protect alliance forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.”

More concerning is the basic math:

Currently, only one THAAD battery, composed of six launchers carrying eight interceptor missiles each, is approved for deployment in South Korea. North Korea is estimated to possess 1,000 ballistic missiles. THAAD would only be a viable defense in the case of a limited attack by North Korea with missiles that fall within THAAD’s range.

So the status quo anti-missile system is inadequate, and we’re wondering if it’s in South Korea’s intereste to expand it. And at a glance it seems like it probably is, since it’s what the South Korean President wants. Yonhap news agency reports that

The United States and South Korea are “moving forward” on the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in the Asian ally as tensions soar over North Korea’s missile programs, the Pentagon said Monday. … President Moon Jae-in called for installing four additional launchers for the missile shield, despite earlier reluctance, after North Korea tested its second intercontinental ballistic missile in July.

So that’s great, except we’re not done because missiles aren’t the real problem: As Mark Bowden reports in The Atlantic:

For years North Korea has had extensive batteries of conventional artillery—an estimated 8,000 big guns—just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is less than 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people. One high-ranking U.S. military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, these guns could, within hours, “pepper every single one.” … the threat of Seoul’s destruction by North Korean artillery “really constrains people, and it’s really hard to combat,” says John Plumb, a Navy submarine officer who served as a director of defense policy and strategy for the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

So contrary to an easy affirmative position, THAAD absolutely fails to save tens of millions of South Koreans if North Korea starts shooting. This is not surprising or disappointing because we know that Gadgetry is not Strategy. But the question is about “best interest” so it’s very important to pitch a clear definition of best interest that works. I might define it–and the weighing mechanism for the round–as “South Korea’s best interest is avoiding war with North Korea, and if having defenses like THAAD in place does that, then deploying anti-missile defenses is in South Korea’s best interest.”

For the affirmative, in Why Nations Go to War Stoessinger observes that a failure to faithfully signal intentions to defend allies from aggressors is functionally an invitation for aggression, even citing Korea:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington on January 12, 1950, had outlined the “military defense perimeter” of the United States. There was one notable omission: Korea. It is reasonable to assume that Stalin, thus encouraged, ordered the North Koreans to attack the South. (p 63)

This is later echoed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait:

U.S. Ambassasdor April Glaspie, an Arabist scholar, met with Saddam and, according to the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, told him that the United States had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” … Could it be that Saddam was emboldened or even misled by this apparent passivity the way Kim Il Sung of North Korea might have been emboldened forty years earlier to invade South Korea? After all, the United States had neglected to include South Korea in its defense perimeter in 1950. (p 303-4)

And when we consider this history in context of current headlines like

… we can see that the value of THAAD isn’t just shooting down missiles, but rather being a token to re-affirm the United States’ military alliance in a time of turmoil.

The question is whether this token is a good token or will merely be seen as additional provocation from a president who wishes he were in an 80’s action flick. Yonhap (previously cited) reports that:

North Korea denounces the [US/South Korea joint military] drills as a rehearsal for war, sparking concerns tensions will escalate further following a week of harsh rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.

and we continue a policy of brinksmanship by ratcheting up those drills’ aggressiveness:

Four US F-35B fighter jets joined two US B-1B bombers and four South Korean F-15 fighter jets in the joint US-South Korean flyover of the Korean Peninsula, an official with the South Korean air force told CNN. The exercise was designed to “strongly counter North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile tests and development of nuclear weapons,” the official said.


North Korea has long lamented these U.S. flights, which are seen by Washington as a way to assure its allies in Seoul and Tokyo of its resolve against North Korea. Pyongyang, however, sees the flights as a highly threatening gesture. It claims that the B-1B Lancer continues to serve a nuclear delivery mission, even thought the United States has physically disabled these aircraft from delivering nuclear weapons under its bilateral arms control commitments with Russia.

Let’s go on a tangent with the B1-B and Russia. The B1-B shouldn’t be able to carry nuclear payloads because of a treaty with Russia, but it is still quite big and Russia is withdrawing from those treaties lately and is now far more supportive of North Korea than China is, another worrying echo of how the Korean War started. Now, if we want to get speculative, we might point out that Russia physically verifies the state of our bombers in accordance with the treaty and if North Korea is asserting, despite their relationship with Russia, that our B1-Bs are nuclear-capable, it may well be because Russia is not interested in dissuading them from this dangerous delusion or perhaps has gone so far as to feed lies to North Korea to increase their paranoia. Mother. Fucker.

But here’s the flip side: we don’t actually have to keep tensions high. If Trump would just STFU, everything might quiet down for the winter. After all,

aggressive rhetoric is pretty standard for North Korea. Issuing threats to get the West’s attention and signal strength has been Pyongyang’s approach for years; it did not indicate any major change in North Korea’s policy toward the United States. … When things really got scary, though, is when President Trump responded. During a public appearance on August 8, he warned that “North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” … While threats like this are normal coming from Pyongyang, they are not how the United States usually talks to North Korea. Trump’s belligerent statement raised the risk of the conflict by sending a signal to the North that its fairly normal behavior could be met with an abnormal American response — potentially including military force. … “His words could … lead Pyongyang to miscalculate or believe it needs to act preemptively if it believes a US attack is imminent,” Rosenberger told me at the time. “Those consequences could be catastrophic.” … It was a dangerous cycle: North Korea, Trump, and breathless media coverage all egged each other on, creating a situation where each side believed the risk of war — though still low — was growing. … in a climate where the president was constantly making threats, it was harder for the North to step back from the brink without looking like Trump badgered them into submission. … This doesn’t mean that North Korea has put off its threat against Guam solely because Trump’s eye is focused elsewhere. It’s more than likely they would have done it anyway. It’s just that the president’s refocus on Charlottesville helped create a climate where it was easier for the North to deescalate without losing face. … It’s a strange world where the US president being pulled away from a crisis with a foreign power actually makes the US safer — but that’s the nature of America under … Donald Trump.

And that’s how it breaks down: we have to signal our resolve to defend our allies and the rules-based world order to keep North Korea from thinking it’s a good time to attack South Korea, but Trump is also the absolute worst at signaling anything, and that raises the likelihood of war breaking out by miscalculated brinksmanship.

“We were only trying to bloviate; we meant no bravado!” would be a shitty epitath for our civilization.

But this is where the negative has the upper hand: while an expanded THAAD deployment is probably not the worst thing for South Korea to be doing in this current situation, South Korea’s best interest is nowhere near this situation. South Korea’s best interest is having actual diplomats–level-headed and mature–maintaining a status quo that keeps North Korea’s ambitions in check without sharpening North Korea’s wrath. And in the status quo, that’s not an option. So they may as well deploy THAAD while B1-Bs are buzzing North Korea, but don’t mistake it for being in their best interest.

LD Value Debate Framework Primer

“…fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words; they are perspectives.” —V for Vendetta

So I was chatting with a student who was new to value at practice and she reported that the debate camp had decreed that framework arguments in value debates are dead. This is unfortunate, since the framework is literally what the debate is really about. So why do they think the framework debate is dead? Because high schoolers don’t know how to do it, and then they get a couple of years older and become debate camp coaches that still don’t know how to do it, so they tell their students to not bother.

The irony of the position is that value debate is all about drawing on the deep abstract motivations that can compel people to bother. To “not bother” is to miss the whole point.

So let’s step back and take a quick primer on the cognitive style of value-based argumentation.

These resources explain and demonstrate the rhetorical practice more extensively:



Project Management is People Management

I’m taking a class on project management for grad school. Our textbook is Project Management: The Managerial Process (7th edition, Larson & Gray, 2018) and while it is structurally laid out in a sensible-looking fashion, its actual content includes surprising claims like:

“one could eliminate the risk of choosing the wrong software by developing web applications using both ASAP.NET [sic] and PHP” (p. 217)

Continue reading “Project Management is People Management”