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Hypocrisy in general, utilitarianism in particular

Somewhere a moralist is preaching: “It is wrong to buy brand XYZ running shoes, because they are made in sweatshops where the conditions are so appalling …”, and at this precise moment a receipt falls out of his pocket: proof of his purchase this morning of a pair of XYZ running shoes. It is plain for all to see.

What will happen next depends on the venue.

If it’s a barbecue, or an office water cooler, or any other place where normal people go, then the moralist’s sermon will be over. There will be howls of derision, and not necessarily because anyone disapproves of his shoe-buying. What they disapprove of is his preaching, contrary to his practice. “Well you can’t talk!” Normal people take a dim view of hypocrisy.

On the other hand, if it’s a moral philosophy seminar at a university, there won’t be much fuss. The audience will politely pretend not to see the receipt on the floor, and the show will go on. That’s because, as academics, they came to hear the ideas, the “moral theory” being advanced; and the biographical details of the speaker are irrelevant to that. “Play the ball, not the man!” Academics take a dim view of argumentum ad hominem.

My own response to the pocket malfunction would be closer to the barbecue crowd’s. It’s like theirs but with two amendments:

Firstly, the purchase does not necessarily prove that the speaker is a hypocrite. It is possible that he genuinely believes it’s wrong to buy those shoes, and yet he bought them because (by his own standards) he’s just not that good a person. We all fall short of our principles from time to time, and it doesn’t mean the principles are fake. So we might investigate further: Is he contrite about his purchase? Will he return the shoes, if an opportunity arises? If I hide them, so he thinks they’re lost, will he buy another pair? How would he advise a friend who asks which brand of running shoes to buy? If the results all indicate that his moralizing is sincere, then I’ll happily go back to hearing it.

Secondly, even if his moralizing is fake, it’s possible that others believe it, and he has been speaking on their behalf. I would have preferred to hear it direct from the source, but no big deal: people are allowed to hire spokesmen. And this is the grain of truth in the academics’ idea that biography is irrelevant: it doesn’t much matter whether the person doing the talking is the same person who believes the moral principle, or a different person.

So you have my two amendments, but I’m with the barbecue crowd on the most important point: I want any morals being preached to me to be sincerely held by some human being.

Unlike the academics, I don’t want to assess morals in abstraction from whether they are somebody’s morals. That sort of detachment is fine in maths and science, but morals are different. As I argued in a previous post:

Without smoke, moral principles are pegged to one thing only: our willingness to accept their consequences. Which consequences we are willing to accept is determined, to a large extent, by our evolved psychological tendencies, including altruism, empathy, and self-interest. Within the human species these evolved tendencies are probably more similar than different, so there is hope that our moral principles will converge. Reasoning with one other […] can bring the convergence forward.

So if you detach a moral principle from any human’s effort to accept its consequences, you are detaching it from the only thing it’s tethered to. Say if you like that you are assessing “the theory” on “its merits”, but the only merit you can assess that way is internal consistency: a bar so low as to be almost worthless.

Now that we’re warmed up, I’d like to move to a more controversial example. Somewhere a moralist is preaching utilitarianism: “We should always act in the way that maximizes the total benefit to everyone everywhere”.

I disagree, so I try to argue back in the only way I know: by drawing out consequences that my opponent won’t accept. “So,” I probe, “if the price of a modest restaurant meal, over and above the cost of a minimal meal at home, is enough to restore vision to one blind person, and if vision will benefit that person more than the restaurant meal will benefit you, then in your opinion you should ditch the restaurant and donate the money to the Fred Hollows Foundation — every single time?” Or I might try this one: “If a building is on fire, and your only options are to save your two children from one burning room, or to save three children you’ve never met from another burning room, then in your opinion you should let your own children die?”

What will happen next depends on the venue.

If it’s the barbecue or the water cooler, or any other place where sincerity is appreciated and hypocrisy is not, then the moralist will admit that he does not accept these consequences, and he will back down from his utilitarianism.

On the other hand, if it’s the moral philosophy seminar, where hypocrisy is tolerated and ad hominem is not, then the moralist is free to say yes: he does accept these consequences. It may happen that a restaurant receipt falls out of his pocket at that moment, but under seminar rules that will count as irrelevant. He is telling us what he should do, you see; and what he in fact does is a separate question. (Or he might say that he is exploring a moral system held by somebody else, which is fine: I’ll just suppose that the remainder of the discussion is carried on with that other person instead.)

So: I have an opponent who is telling me, to my face, that he accepts utilitarianism, with all the counter-instinctive prescriptions that it implies, including the lifetime ban on restaurant meals, the duty to let his own children combust, and many more that we could draw out. Frankly, I don’t believe that he accepts all this, but we are in an artificial environment that lets him say things he doesn’t mean, so there is nothing to do except take it outside.

So I watch him live his life. In the unlikely event that he actually does everything that utilitarianism prescribes, then fine: I withdraw my suspicion of hypocrisy. The more likely case, however, is that his actions are in daily conflict with utilitarianism; and then, if his utilitarianism is sincere, he must seem to himself to be a chronically bad person. If I find that he really is in that miserable, guilt-ridden state, then once again, fine: I withdraw my suspicion of hypocrisy — but it will take more than saying “oops” a lot to convince me.

Are there any genuine utilitarians? To my knowledge, the person who has come closest is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. He doesn’t follow the “miserable, guilt-ridden” path: on the contrary, he comes across as perfectly cheerful. He leans, rather, towards the “does everything that utilitarianism prescribes” path. Take a few minutes to watch his TED talk and you’ll see what he’s about.

Singer recounts some case studies of people of whom he approves. All of them have donated generously to good causes, but not so generously as to deprive themselves of a safe and healthy life with a family. This is the level of generosity that Singer commends and, as far as I can tell, it is what he practises himself. For example, at the end of his talk, Singer tells of a young man who donated a kidney to a stranger, and he comments:

Well, I have to admit I’m also somewhat embarrassed by that, because I still have two kidneys. But Chris went on to say that he didn’t think that what he’d done was all that amazing, because he calculated that the number of life-years that he had added to people, the extension of life, was about the same that you could achieve if you gave $5,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. And that did make me feel a little bit better, because I have given more than $5,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation, and to various other effective charities. So if you’re feeling bad because you still have two kidneys as well, there’s a way for you to get off the hook.

It seems to me that what Singer actually prescribes, to himself and to real people outside of a philosophy seminar, is not utilitarianism, but rather a leaning towards utilitarianism. He requires us to make choices that do plenty for the sum total of happiness, but don’t always do the maximum. As long as we do plenty, then we don’t need to feel guilty, nor strive to mend our ways.

No doubt this utilitarian-ish ethic (utilitarianishm?) does a lot of good, and I admire everyone who practises it, including Singer. As a philosopher, however, I would like to see some working out of the details. In place of my vague words “leaning” and “plenty”, I would like to see some articulation of what this ethic requires and what it doesn’t. So let’s bring utilitarianishm into the philosophy room: let’s have the same theory in our theory as we have in our practice.

3 thoughts on “Hypocrisy in general, utilitarianism in particular

  1. Peter Singer has discussed what you call utilitarianishm. He calls it “hedonistic utilitarianism.” Here is an excerpt from his recent Reddit AMA:

    “Look, in theory, we EAs [effective altruists] ought to all be wearing sackcloth, except that that would ensure that there were very few of us. We want more people to join us, and doing absolutely everything that, in theory, we ought to do is not the best way to achieve that.”

    Link here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/32lnif

    Liked by 1 person

    • If Singer eschews the sackcloth because he has to look telegenic to get his message across, then fair enough. But clothing is only an example; suppose we asked instead why he doesn’t live in the smallest possible home, or eat the cheapest possible food?

      I think we have to read Singer as saying that any such behaviour would be bad PR for utilitarianism, because it would make utilitarianism look too demanding (i.e. as demanding as it really is), which would turn people off. The “Demandingness” chapter of Singer and de Lazari-Radek’s The Point of View of The Universe quite explicitly distinguishes what we ought to do from what Singer and de Lazari-Radek will ask people to do, because (and here I’m paraphrasing) asking too much is bad PR; it turns people off.

      I’m not impressed by this, for two reasons. First, the cat is out of the bag: Singer is on the public record as saying that we ought to maximize utility, so any PR benefit in saying otherwise to particular audiences is pretty fragile. And second: it’s another blow to the idea that utilitarianism really is his ethic, rather than a bunch of “should”s that he mouths in the philosophy room. When his actions are contrary to the “should”s, we might pass it off as akrasia, but when his prescriptions are also contrary to his “should”s, it sure looks like the “should”s don’t have prescriptive force, so they don’t mean what I understand by “should”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Let me try that again with fewer words.

      Singer’s position is: “You should live dirt poor, and you shouldn’t tell people that they should live dirt poor.” And my rejoinder: “You just did.”

      Liked by 1 person

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