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.
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:
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.
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.