Monday, March 19, 2012

Esoteric utilitarianism

Peter Singer and an unidentified goat
Last week I went to a talk by Australian philosopher Peter Singer at the University of Melbourne that got me thinking (the lack of activity on this blog for the last couple of months might suggest that I needed the stimulus…). He spoke about an “esoteric” form of utilitarianism.

Utilitarians aim to bring about the greatest possible cumulative happiness or well-being. Some have argued that that in order to pursue this goal most effectively, it is necessary for committed utilitarians to keep quiet about their true beliefs about what morality requires. Rather than provoking resistance with ideas that would be likely to seem too demanding to non-utilitarians, they should publically proclaim a less demanding standard, suggesting that a person could fulfill their moral duties by donating 10% of their income to reputable international aid organisations, for instance, when they privately believe the figure should be closer to 50%, say.

The genuine utilitarian beliefs then become “esoteric,” that is, shared only among the initiated, while any public statements are carefully modulated to produce the best achievable outcome, taking into account the psychological traits and points of resistance in the people they aim to influence. Esoteric utilitarians will praise outsiders for actions that fall short of what utilitarian morality requires, and refrain from blaming them for their failure to meet utilitarian standards if this is shown to be counter-productive. Only a level of blame that actually causes the desired changes in behavior will be employed.

One member of the audience pointed out that this approach conflicts with the Kantian moral standard which holds that to tell the truth is a primary and universal duty, which should never be compromised in order to achieve desired ends, however laudable. Singer responded by saying that he is comfortable with this conflict. He doesn’t accept Kant’s view that one should never lie, even if a murderer is asking you about the whereabouts of his next victim. Sometimes you have good reasons, moral reasons, to lie. For a utilitarian, these reasons are tied to the consequences of the lie: the morality of any action is to be judged by examining its consequences, not by comparing it to any list of absolute (or deontological) duties.

Henry Sidgwick, 19th century
English philosopher,
defender of esoteric utilitarianism
I had a worry about Singer’s approach that was similar, but not tied to Kantian morality. My concern was that the tactics of esoteric utilitarianism seem manipulative, particularly in using praise and blame to attempt to influence people’s behavior. I asked Singer if there wasn’t a conflict here with the spirit of utilitarianism, which asks us to think through the consequences of our actions, and act accordingly, even if this means going against commonly held ideas about what is moral or in other ways socially endorsed (which typically requires resisting social pressure exerted in the form of praise and blame). When it emerged in the Nineteenth century, utilitarianism was designed precisely to challenge the power of esoteric elites like the aristocracy and the Church, and promote policies based on the idea that in the utilitarian moral calculus, everyone counts, and everyone counts equally. 

I also suggested that taking up praise and blame as tools to influence others seems a risky strategy for the utilitarian. If people are encouraged to allow such influences to determine their actions, this may reinforce their vulnerability to other "esoteric" sources of praise and blame which are likely to be much more powerful than anything utilitarians have at their disposal – for instance the forces of advertising in the service of consumerism, which urge you to give up to 50% of your income to your mobile phone company, say.

Again, Singer couldn’t see any problem. He repeated the basic argument that for the utilitarian the end justifies the means. He didn’t seem concerned that in this case the consequences of the strategy might include weakening people’s moral characters, or at least reinforcing a tendency to allow social approval and disapproval to override any more rational or independently thought-through motives for action. Singer is happy to adopt the strategies used in advertising – this is a powerful, effective way to influence behavior in contemporary society.

He gave an example: a television ad to promote work safety practices which (if I remember his description correctly) shows someone coming to a family home to break the news that the father of the family has been killed in an accident at work. The ad is highly emotive, depicting the distress of a young child at this news. Singer said that since it has been screening, work safety incidents have declined appreciably. The technique used to achieve this may be emotionally manipulative, but it works, and the outcome is good.

This reminded me of a similar ad I saw at the cinema in Paddington in Sydney, last year. It was about the consequences of speeding, posing questions like: what would you choose, to be late for a meeting, or to end up as a paraplegic? The audience laughed – the combination of the choose-your-own-adventure style with such obvious scare tactics was too much for us. This reaction suggests another problem with using emotionally manipulative means to pursue utilitarian ends – if people are not naively drawn in by the technique, they will see through it, and tend to resist or dismiss the message even if they might otherwise endorse the end it seeks to promote. No one likes to be patronized. Even if the end justifies the means, the use of manipulative means may end up discrediting the end, or the theory behind it.

1 comment:

Peter said...

"Some have argued that that in order to pursue this goal most effectively, it is necessary for committed utilitarians to keep quiet about their true beliefs about what morality requires."

What an interesting post - and one I have been meaning to comment on since it appeared. I'm undecided. I can see what you are saying about manipulation, but don't we all do what Singer says to a certain extent ?

I think the wortld would be a better place if we all laid down our arms and decided to live together co-opereatively rather than competitively, but I happily applaud any move that brings us a little closer to this ideal.

Surely there's a balance between affirming the small steps towards a better world and also challenging ourselves and others to take larger ones ... so I guess I agree with Singer that it's good to encourage and affirm these small steps but also with you that these are not always enough and we have to say that too.

Or am I just trying to have the best of both worlds ?