Tag Archives: Utilitarianism


JL Wall and Mark were kind enough to respond to my original post on torture (read the comments section – Mark offers a few thought-provoking scenarios). The discussion at John Schwenkler’s place has also been excellent. My thinking on this subject isn’t particularly systematic, so I’ll restrain myself to two additional points:

  1. I think the War on Terror framework is silly and counter-productive, but the recent tragedy in India demonstrates the omnipresent risk of extremist violence in any open society. Opponents of torture should be forthright in acknowledging this risk, even to the point of conceding that certain restrictions on intelligence gathering are likely to hamper our efforts to reduce terrorism. Too frequently, the debate over interrogation methods revolves around whether a particular technique is effective or not. As I’ve said earlier, one can easily imagine scenarios where torture is the only pragmatic method of interrogation. In some other cases, it may be ineffective, but a purely utilitarian calculus will always allow for a few narrow exceptions. The case against torture, however, was never a pragmatic one; some practices are morally wrong, regardless of circumstance, and we should not be ashamed to make this point.
  2. I liked the framing in JL Wall’s original post. All people should be entitled to a certain standard of humane treatment. If basic human decency is entirely dependent on the whim of circumstance, I’m not sure there’s much point to codifying “inalienable” rights.

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Filed under Morality, Terrorism

It’s Just Wrong

Does it make sense to work your way back to first principles with a preferred outcome in mind? For example, I agree entirely with JL Wall when he writes:

Basic status as human beings: this is distinct from the concept of universal human rights. It is not a statement that there is a basic natural right held by all humanity to have counsel, or see evidence against them, or receive halal meals if they want them. It is a statement that there is a basic standard expect of us—you and me—in how we treat our fellow human beings; that so long as we acknowledge their mere humanity, we are morally—so much more morally than legally—obligated to treat them as more than animals. At its core, this is what the torture debate is about, has always been about, and will always be about.

But I’m not sure if a liberal, rights-based framework recognizes a universal standard of humane treatment. A purely utilitarian calculus includes all sorts of pragmatic objections to torture – it’s unreliable, it demoralizes military personnel, it has a tendency to bleed into other areas of society – but I’m less confident that it accounts for a hard-and-fast prohibition against certain techniques. And from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think that torture is probably justified under certain carefully prescribed circumstances. If a terrorist suspect possessed critical information about an imminent, large-scale attack, and there was no time to develop alternative sources of intelligence, would liberals really object to torturing someone to extract valuable information?

I find this deeply troubling because until very recently, I would have placed myself squarely on the liberal end of the political spectrum. My views on economics have drifted rightward in recent years, but I always assumed that an open, tolerant society that does its best to nurture a happy, prosperous citizenry is the most desirable form of social organization. I’m still not entirely convinced that this is not true, but I do think that torture reveals something of a moral blind spot within liberalism’s broader ethical framework. When things go bad, we inevitably carve out exceptions to our rights-based approach, justifying it all under the rubric of “extenuating circumstances.” Once again, Koestler said it best:

“There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct. and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.”

“In times of need – and politics are chronically in a time of need – the rulers were always able to invoke “exceptional circumstances,” which demanded exceptional measures of defense. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defense, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism . . . .”

And while I understand the logic of “exceptional circumstances,” I’ve always found Rubashov’s gut reaction more compelling:

“Admit,” he said, “that humanism and politics, respect for the individual and social progress, are incompatible . . . But look where the other alternative has led us . . .”


Filed under Conservatism, Liberalism, Morality

Losing My Cool

This dialogue on global warming between Ryan Avent and Jim Manzi is outstanding. It’s fairly technical, so I really recommend you watch the entire thing rather than jumping in for a particular segment.

To summarize, Manzi argues that aggressive steps to limit global warming are prohibitively expensive given their probable impact on economic growth. While he concedes that anthropogenic global warming is happening, he suggests our response should be limited to targeted R&D efforts.

I originally assumed that a revenue-neutral carbon tax – modeled on, say, British Columbia’s recent approach – would be the most elegant solution to runaway global warming. If I was forced to choose between taxing carbon and an overly-complicated cap-and-trade scheme, I’d still choose a carbon tax, but I’ve begun to see the wisdom of a more cautious approach.

That said, one thing Manzi’s model doesn’t adequately account for is the human toll of global warming in the Third World. Given the extreme poverty of underdeveloped countries, climate change could devastate entire regions in Africa and Southeast Asia and still not exact an economic cost comparable to a prolonged recession in the United States. From a purely economic perspective, this may look like a favorable trade-off, but do we really believe that an impending Third World catastrophe is less important than slow(er) growth in the United States?

I don’t mean to downplay the positive effects of economic expansion in the developed world. Higher wages, more productivity, and better goods all have an appreciable impact on our collective quality of life. But in many respects, furthering the United States’ economic prospects will have only a marginal effect on humanity’s cumulative well-being. Our high standard of living is already unprecedented in history, and while further improvements are welcome, slightly retarding progress in the name of keeping Bangladesh above water sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Quantifying the impact of global warming on our planet’s cumulative well-being is a tricky proposition, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to assess the potential for human misery in the wake of massive natural disasters. And while I’m suspicious of unleashing a new regulatory infrastructure to curb CO2 emissions, I worry that a purely economic decision-making calculus may not capture the true costs of climate change.

See also the Cato Unbound debate on possible responses to global warming, as well as Manzi’s plethora of totally sweet posts on the subject.

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Filed under Economics, The Environment