Thursday, February 12, 2009

Slavery and Utilitarianism

Let's say that we figure out a plan for enslaving 10% of the population. If we do that, then each of the other 90% will receive 10 units of happiness that they would not otherwise have. The slave will, of course, lose 50 units of happiness. However, 10 units of happiness spread of 9 people is 90 units of additional happiness, which outweighs the 50 units of happiness lost by the slave. Therefore, based on utilitarianism, we have a justification for slavery.

Now, these calculations aren't accurate. But we are left with this question: is this the real reason that we oppose slavery. Because the pain of the slaves outweighs the pleasure of the masters? If utilitarianism is correct, then that must be our reason.

25 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'we do that, then each of the other 90% will receive 10 units of happiness that they would not otherwise have'

Good to realise that Victor knows that his assent to enslaving other people will increse his happiness by 10 units.

Those calculations are not accurate, but the whole point of the post is that Victor thinks that his happiness will increase if he lived in a society where he was a slave-master.

I always took Victor as the sort of person who would be unhappy if 10% of the population were enslaved.

But I was wrong.

Victor has now declared that he would be happy to see 10% of the population enslaved, and can even give an admittedly rough estimate of how much happiness that would bring him.

mattghg said...

Way to completely miss the point again, Steven. Deliberately, I'm sure.

Steven Carr said...

What was the point?

The point seemed to be similar to the following.

The nutritional value of food says we should eat food if it has high nutritional value.

Suppose Warfarin had high nutritional value.

Suppose it had, say, 10 units of nutritional value.

Then the nutritional value of food says we should eat rat-poison.

But eating rat-poison is wrong.

So is our distaste for eating rat-poison based on more than whether or not food is nutritious?

Anonymous said...

The real *reason* we don't enslave people is that we don't want the culture to be in the habit of enslaving people, lest we be the victim.

Steven Carr said...

'The real *reason* we don't enslave people is that we don't want the culture to be in the habit of enslaving people, lest we be the victim.'

We would not be happy to live in such a culture.

Bert said...

There always the hidden assumption in these moral arguments.

Namely -- Wouldn't it be awful if...("...if utilitarianism is correct" in this case, but misconstrued as some sort of point system by Mr Reppert) --

Well, if it's awful, there's your answer. We all agree that slavery is awful, because of compassion for the rights of others and self-interest in our own inviolable or inalienable rights that give us greater security. So there you go, compassion and enlightened self-interest.

And 50 happiness bonus points for everyone who can grasp the value universal rights without sockpuppet gods!

Anonymous said...

Steven, where do you get off piggybacking on my natural explanation!? Come up with your own material, dort!

Blue Devil Knight said...

Carr you give skeptics a bad name.

Matthew said...

Steven, if I were an atheist I would beg you not to make any more comments like this.

Anonymous said...

Poor Carr.

Victor Reppert said...

The point of this was to ask whether the reason we have for rejecting slavery has to do with the balance of pleasure over pain, or whether that reason is more deontological. The implicit argument here, which I got from my old philosophy professor, the late Doug Arner, is that even if, probably, utilitarianism will tell us not to own slaves, it will not do so for the reason that most of us at least, intuitively, find slavery repugnant. The idea that slaves have inalienable rights that would be violated, the fact taht it is unjust to treat human beings as chattel, these would not be the reasons why we would not enslave people, if we were consistent act utilitarians.

Anonymous said...

yes, there are no objective inalienable rights, only reasons that aid in survival. nihilism is the default position. your point then is?

Steven Carr said...

VICTOR
The implicit argument here, which I got from my old philosophy professor, the late Doug Arner, is that even if, probably, utilitarianism will tell us not to own slaves, it will not do so for the reason that most of us at least, intuitively, find slavery repugnant.

CARR
I can see a system of slavery would make you unhappy.

This is a fact.



Perhaps you could put a real fact like that in your argument, and see if it putting in facts makes any difference to the argument.

VICTOR
The idea that slaves have inalienable rights that would be violated, the fact taht it is unjust to treat human beings as chattel, these would not be the reasons why we would not enslave people, if we were consistent act utilitarians.


GOD
For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.

CARR
Why do the Biblical writers have no concept of people having the right not to be bought and sold for money?

Why is there only talk of such people being forcibly circumcised, regardless of their beliefs?

Bert said...

Perhaps non-religious moral systems rely too heavily on people being non-psychopaths. Point ceded.

Perezoso said...

These sorts of hypotheticals demonstrate the problem with naive utilitarianism. A measurement of general utility--just a "happiness consensus" more or less--has little or no relation to something like Justice (or even "human rights"): even Rousseau was on to that problem of Lockean democracy (which Bentham merely updates). Tho' some college boy utilitarians might say otherwise, Bentham/Mill concept of utility is hardly different than a popular vote.

Without other safeguards (say a statement of rights) democracy via utilitarian consensus can easily become a tyranny of the majority (a majority voted in the nazi-coalition). Sort of obvious, yet that doesn't stop the utilitarian nostalgia.

Utilitarianism should not be assumed to be synonymous with consequentialism, either (the class of consequentialism includes utilitarianism, really). Humans should be aware of the implications of their decisions (ye olde cost/benefit), but deciding on whether to implement some policy via utilitarian consensus does not assure the "Good" will result (a majority might decide to vote in slavery).

Either Justice exists, or it don't: and not a matter of a vote, either way.

Victor Reppert said...

Bible-thumping atheists are an interesting phenomenon.

Steven Carr said...

(a majority might decide to vote in slavery).

So democracy is a bad system in your view?

Do you have evidence that people like Victor will be happier if they own slaves?

It is a fact that Victor is unhappy about the idea of people being slaved.

But Victor refuses to put facts into his argument about whether or not slavery increases happiness.

Perezoso said...

(a majority might decide to vote in slavery).

So democracy is a bad system in your view?


Democracy via a popular mandate does not necessarily produce good, just, or efficient societies, anymore than a straw poll at the local barroom regarding a calculus question will produce the correct answer.

(However, I do not oppose democracy based on certain rights (even inalienable): yet I think even then hypocrisy may occur (often), as with slaveowners like Jeff. penning the Dec. of Independence and US Constitution....)

Same for juries: the idea of a jury of peers may seem just (and utilitarian) in principle, but a jury of idiots (or even corrupt non-idiots) often will make wrong/injust/incorrect decisions.

Ergo, Doc Reppert's not entirely off the mark: most humans who object to slavery aren't motivated by utilitarian considerations, but because they believe slavery offends some notion of basic rights: that's not to say one can prove that "objective rights" hold, except in a prudential sense (tho' there is a consistency issue).

The American Tory said...

George Washington seemed like a perfectly happy man.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: Rawls provides a pretty good secular argument against this hypothetical. Essentially, instead of resorting to "average utilitarianism," we would utilize a maximin criterion. Thus, we would object to a situation that reduces the lowest 10% by 50 units even if there's an aggregate +90 units of total happiness.

Victor Reppert said...

Secular or religious is a red herring here. I am trying to produce an argument against utilitarianism, not to try to argue for a religious view of morality.

This is philosophy, not apologetics.

Perezoso said...

Assuming slavery would be subject to/negotiated via Rawls's "original position" (prior to the maxi-min, right), some people might choose a society where say 5 or 10 percent of the pop. were enslaved, even if the choice was binding (somehow).

That seems to be one problem of the original position hypothetical: many humans might take the odds of gambling (ala prisoner's dilemma) and living with some inequality, assuming they could be the masters, rather than slaves--

I am a bit unclear how Rawls goes from the "original position", which is really sort of Hobbesian--cooperate when it's in your best interest---to the maximin. Cooperation (ie equality) might not be in your interest.

(I may have to take time away from a busy schedule, and dig up ToJ--not exactly a page-turner)

Steven Carr said...

Victor's argument is identical to the argument against eating nutritious food.

Suppose Warfarin was a nutritious food?

Then we would all be eating rat-poison!

Of course, I have left out the fact that Warfarin is not a nutritious food.

Leaving out facts often makes a difference to a philosophical argument.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: Understood. Your hypothetical, as framed, is only an argument against average utilitarianism, however, and not any of the more sophisticated versions.

In terms of arguments against utilitarianism, I've always been a big fan of Robert Nozick's utility monster, myself.

Anonymous said...

"Because the pain of the slaves outweighs the pleasure of the masters? If utilitarianism is correct, then that must be our reason."

You got it yourself Victor. That is precisely what the utilitarian would say after putting themselves in the shoes of the slave-master and the shoes of the slave.