utilitarianism

The bright side of Brexit

Let’s suppose, entirely hypothetically and for the sake of argument, that Brexit is a disaster for the UK. Let’s suppose that sterling crashes; that foreign travel is punishingly expensive and that, if you can afford to go abroad, you’re a laughing stock. Let’s suppose that the Treasury’s estimates of billions of pounds of losses each year are reasonably accurate; that unemployment rises; that credit ratings plummet. Let’s suppose Brexit creates a corrosive tide of racism; that things that should never be said, and can never be unsaid, are shouted at high volume. Let’s suppose that there’s a torrential brain drain; that UK universities fall down the international league tables; that the innovative treatments prescribed (to private patients only, unfortunately – no money left for the NHS) by the UK’s (predominantly white) doctors are all devised in New York, Paris and Rome rather than London and Leeds. Let’s suppose that the environment, unprotected by EU legislation, is trashed, and that Scotland leaves the UK.  Let’s suppose, too, that nervousness about all this creates an increasingly authoritarian style of government .

If all that happens, it’ll be great. At least if you’re a consistent utilitarian. The horror of the UK’s experience will strengthen the EU and prevent other countries from thinking that they should leave the Union – which would have similarly disastrous results for them and, if the EU itself dissolves, tectonic consequences for the stability of the world. Continue reading

Things look really good…if all you care about is money

Are things really getting better? Well, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ if you’re a monetary consequentialist (i.e., think all that matters is maximizing the amount of monetary resources in the world).  A group of 21 economists plus one Bjørn Lomborg have a new book coming out soon that will survey 10 pressing global problems such as health, air pollution and gender equality in the world from 1900 to 2050.  According to Lomborg’s précis, they have found that on most of the dimensions, things are improving (only biodiversity is identified as having gotten worse), and the positive trends are expected to largely continue.  This will come as some relief to those bemoaning recent political, environmental and humanitarian crises.  But don’t break out the champagne just yet – their analysis evidently relies on a crude GDP-centric measurement tool that obscures a number of crucial issues.  Continue reading

Fellow-Citizens, Foreigners, and Statistical Lives

Like many in the UK, I was gripped last week by the reports from Wales about the search for four trapped miners, and saddened to hear of their deaths. Readers outside the UK perhaps heard nothing, or very little, about this story, thought it dominated the news here. One important reason for that, of course, is that most of us care much more about fellow-citizens than foreigners, and about identifiable people than merely ‘statistical lives’. 

That we care is a mere fact. But since the days of David Hume many philosophers have claimed that we can take moral sentiments of this kind as the foundation for our ethics, and indeed that such sentiments can be the only such foundation. So our attitudes might justify our spending much more on saving the lives of identifiable fellow citizens rather than those of foreigners or unidentified people in the future.

Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born on Tuesdays than those born on other days. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about Tuesdays.) Even sentimentalists about ethics will probably wish to claim that there is something dubious about this differential attitude. But that raises the question whether we should say the same about a preference for identifiable fellow-citizens.

 The property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen is not clearly morally irrelevant in the way that being born on Tuesday is. Indeed, it seems similar in important ways to the property of being one’s child, and most of us think that this is a property of great moral relevance when we are deciding how to spend our scarce resources. But there is of course one big dissimilarity: in most cases, a parent has deep personal relations with a child, and these could be taken to ground a parent’s giving greater weight to the interests of her child over those of others. The fact that such a relationship is lacking in the case of identifiable fellow-citizens suggests that the property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen may well be morally as irrelevant as that of being born on a Tuesday.

 Should we, then, try to avoid our bias towards identifiable fellow-citizens? In the utilitarian tradition, some radical thinkers have occasionally argued that we should seek complete impartiality, not giving priority even to the interests of our own children over the interests of others. It has plausibly been said in response that, though from the utilitarian point of view the priority we do give is almost certainly far too great, trying to be completely impartial – given our psychology, evolutionary history, and so on – would be quite likely to be self-defeating.

 I think a similar argument can be mounted in defence of the special concern we have for  identifiable fellow-citizens. So is everything all right as it is? Far from it. What we must do is build upon that care and concern and, as Peter Singer puts it, ‘extend the circle’ to include foreigners and statistical lives. We do not have to choose (other than in bizarre philosophical examples) between saving people from mines and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives. We can, and should, do all of these things.

 

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