Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory

It seems each year when I teach Bentham it stimulates some new ideas which I post about here (see here in 2010, and here in 2008). So this year is no different, as I am spending "reading week" pondering, once again, the brilliance of Bentham.

Next week my intro to political theory class covers Bentham, and then Mill. As I have mentioned before on this blog, if I had only a 1 hour window to teach a class on only one moral or political thinker who I believe would have the maximum impact on improving our ability to think and act morally, it would be Bentham and his calculus of happiness. Why? Because it has the potential to help us overcome many of the cognitive biases that impede our ability to make rational and moral decisions.

Over the past few weeks I have started researching the social psychology literature on the topic of "sacred values". These are values that people believe are absolute or inviolable. Sacred values are things people believe should never be subject to trade-offs with lesser, non-sacred values. I am interested in seeing how the study of sacred values might apply to political philosophy and theory, in particular, to "ideal theory" in debates about justice.

Here are a few examples of expressions of sacred values from the last 40 years of political philosophy:

"each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override"

"liberty upsets patterns"

"inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people’s circumstances are unjust"

"If you're an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?"

These different works of political philosophy are unified not only by their appeal to sacred values (typically liberty or equality, or a serial ordering of such values), but also by the methodology they employ to activate the appeal of ascribing a primacy to such values. This is typically done via abstraction and/or idealization. The theorist asks us to consider an artificially devised choice situation, one designed to reveal the "intuitive" foce of ordaining some value or values as "sacred" and inviolatible.

Bentham sought to replace our reliance of intuitive appeals to "sacred" values with a secular, rational ethic. Rather than invoking fanciful or abstract thought experiments that track our most basic moral intuitions about justice or fairness, Bentham instead urges us to consider the expected consequences of our actions in the "here and now (and future)". Viewed in this light, most injustice in the world stems from the fact that our laws and customs are not premised on a rational and competent assessment of their impact on human happiness. They are based instead of unquestioned customs, religion, cognitive biases, etc. Bentham offers us a transformative secular ethic.

To be a moral agent we must ponder the intensity of the pleasures or pains our actions will cause, the number of people affected by our actions, the likelihood that other pleasures or pains will be caused by our actions, etc. Tradeoffs of different kinds are thus inevitable. Responsible moral agents must realize that difficult decisions have to be made, and Bentham's calculus of happiness offers us some guidelines for thinking such decisions through.

Bentham's moral ethic thus enhances our moral deliberations, it compels us to develop the complex skill-set needed to act so that we maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Whereas moral and political theories that appeal to sacred, inviolable values typically close our minds and in doing so impair our ability to think and act morally in the real world. Deontology champions the primacy of sacred values and principles, and thus it forbids entertaining the kind of deliberation required in tradeoffs ("dirty hands"). This can leave individuals and societies ill-equipped to face the tough challenges we face, whether it be balancing concerns of liberty with concerns of security, or tackling the economy, climate change or healthcare. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Of course one might reply that Bentham, and utilitarianism more generally, is just another example of a theory premised on a "sacred value"- namely, the value of happiness (or the principle of utility). I suppose that is true, at least to some extent. And that is why I prefer to endorse a pluralist ethic that makes virtue, rather than principle, the central focus of an account of justice.

But I do think there is an important difference between prioritizing happiness (or welfare) and prioritizing a value like liberty or equality. I won't work out that response here, but I think it is an interesting objection, and one worth responding to. Furthermore, the nature of a good like happiness is such that it will not pre-determine which tradeoffs can be made in advance of a full consideration of the relevant facts. And that stands in contrast to the stance of someone like Rawls, who argues that "a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties, and never for reasons of public good or perfectionist values". So if utilitarianism is premised on a sacred value its slogan would be something like "limit utility only for the sake of more utility". And that does not strike me as inherently problematic as deonotological theories are, for it invites us to get into the devil of the details. But again, I am not trying to defend utilitarianism here. I merely wish to point to an important feature of it that I think makes it a much more attractive moral and political theory than deontological theories.

So I hope you enjoy my Bentham video! And I hope to post a few more substantive things on sacred values and ideal theory in the weeks to come.