29 Mar 2012

Utilitarians Might Want to Save This Defense for Later

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Bryan Caplan:

The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work! He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities. The Leninist, in contrast, reasons backwards from the atrocities that emotionally inspire him to the utilitarian argument that morally justifies his atrocities.

So when your 3rd grader complains about math class, remind him of this…

Seriously, does anyone else find Bryan’s deep thoughts to often be laugh-out-loud funny? I swear it’s like that guy lives in a bubble.

44 Responses to “Utilitarians Might Want to Save This Defense for Later”

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Seriously, does anyone else find Bryan’s deep thoughts to often be laugh-out-loud funny?”

    Huh? What’s wrong with Caplan’s argument? I don’t get it.

    • UnlearningEcon says:

      I think it was more of a general comment, in which case I am inclined to agree with Murphy (his claim about women being more free in the 19th C, for example).

    • JTR says:

      Well if you would only check your work rather than your premise in the example Caplan gives I can see how you might not get it.

      The rest of us are wondering how Caplan (and people like Singer) can say stuff like this seriously.

  2. Major_Freedom says:

    I think Caplan just unintentionally revealed that Utilitarian thinking is Stalinesque thinking. Most Utilitarians reason backwards from the philosophy of sacrifice and collectivism, then try to use Utilitarianism to justify their conclusion.

    Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which is praxeologically an impossible ethic from which to act. Any ethic that depends on future outcomes of actions, cannot tell us anything on what we ought to do in the present, when all actions actually take place and choices have to be made.

    Only a priori ethics are possible. This is why most Utilitarians sneak in their own a priori theory and then dress it up with a Utilitarian panache.

    • Scott says:

      “Most Utilitarians reason backwards from the philosophy of sacrifice and collectivism, then try to use Utilitarianism to justify their conclusion.”

      Huh? Caplan’s point was the exact opposite of this.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I know his intentional point was the exact opposite of it, but I am talking about his unintentional point.

        • david stinson says:

          M_F: These are the shortest comments I have ever seen you post. Are you developing tendonitis or repetitive strain injury or are you simply losing your (magnificent) enthusiasm?

          • Major_Freedom says:

            Awww, somebody’s living an angry life.

            The answer is none of the above.

            Not every post has to be epic, but I’m glad you’re keeping tabs on me. It’s not a little creepy.

            • david stinson says:

              Actually MF, none of that was intended as a criticism but rather as a combination of gentle, good-humoured chiding and a compliment (honestly). I don’t usually read your comments (although I did this time) nor do I keep tabs on you (other than to typically scroll by the vast unending stretches of blog real estate occupied by your comments). One would have to be blind not to notice your numerous and comprehensive comments here and at Sumner’s blog (and perhaps others?). It really is impossible not to notice your presence.

              I might recommend that you not be so quick to assume people are being critical. Also, taking yourself a little less seriously is always good. Cheers.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                Sorry David, I don’t know you enough to be able to appreciate your humor that comes at my expense.

                I might recommend getting to know someone a little more first before you start making fun of them. The way you’re going about it tends to come across as just another passive aggressive troll. I’m like, who’s this Stinson guy talking trash?

            • Joe Esty says:

              Gladys, glad to see you’re still flittering around Murphy’s Web site like a Tinkerbell. Everyone anticipates your erudition. Hope the giggle spells have finally ceased.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                You’re still wasting your time flamebaiting.

  3. Silas Barta says:

    According to Caplan, I guess utilitarians are too stupid to realize that whatever reason they *didn’t want* to conclude in favor of mass murder *was* their morality all along!

    I would have thought he had a higher opinion of them. Heck, I do.

    • Silas Barta says:

      wait, I just realized: the genius Steve Landsburg made this exact error in the context of the trapped Chilean miners: “oh, I’m a pure utilitarian but gosh I’m so glad the numbers justify us saving those poor guys.”

      Sorry, too lazy to find the links right now what with the thirty job interviews tomorrow that can help get me out of the defense industry for good.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Yeah I remember what you’re talking about. I thought Landsburg’s comments back then were weird too. Is that what Caplan is doing here? I see what you mean, but I think what Caplan is doing here is extra special.

        Good luck on your interviews! Applying for Cato president?

        • Silas Barta says:

          *That* statist group? No way!

          (Just got finished with them.)

          Anyway, I see the situations as equivalent: both Caplan and Landsburg are failing to recognize the implications of such “motivated’ thinking. Whatever conclusion you *want* to reach is your morality. At the moment you decide in advance that you want the calculation to come out a certain way, you can no longer claim that you’re making your decisions by the calculation.

          That’s what I understood you to be laughing about regarding Caplan’s post, anyway.

          • Bob Murphy says:

            Silas, right, I understand why you’re drawing a connection, and I totally agree that there is that common element (and problem). However, that’s not what made me laugh at this post. Rather, it was the idea that a bunch of utilitarians would be slaughtering people but telling them, “Sorry folks, we triple-checked the numbers. This is optimal.”

            • Silas Barta says:

              Ah, I misunderstood you, and had different reasons for seeing confusion in utilitarian thinking.

              To borrow from Eliezer_Yudkowsky, real utilitarians don’t say, “Phew! Thank goodness our numbers don’t justify killing people!”; real utilitarians say, “yeah, it sucks for you and all, but we did this cost benefit analysis …”

              • Major_Freedom says:

                To borrow from Eliezer_Yudkowsky, real utilitarians don’t say, “Phew! Thank goodness our numbers don’t justify killing people!”; real utilitarians say, “yeah, it sucks for you and all, but we did this cost benefit analysis …”

                This is so true. This is what separates the fake from the real Utilitarians, and by separate fake from real Utilitarians, I of course mean those unwilling to be Stalinists from those willing to be Stalinists.

              • JTR says:

                No guys he said they would double check their math before they sent people to the gulag. Nothing to see here.

  4. Richie says:

    Caplan just needs more kids.

  5. Bruce says:

    Is there some sarcasm intended by Caplan??

  6. Adrian Gabriel says:

    Bob Murphy > Bryan Caplan

  7. Teqzilla says:

    These fool leninists and their penchant for senseless slaughter. Don’t they realise that it is sensible slaughter which is required?

  8. Nielsio says:

    Bob,

    Your title says “utilitarians”, but this kind of “social utility”-utilitarianism is not the only kind of utilitarianism. Another kind of utilitarianism is where an individual considers the utility to himself.

    See for example, the way I argue here:

    “If person A desires a higher over a lower standard of living for himself, over the medium to long run, then we can argue from his own point of view that it will benefit him if the people besides A act according to libertarian norms, so that it would benefit him to support it.

    Take Mises himself, while he was still in Europe. Social cooperation was disintegrating at an astonishing pace. Any degree that he could keep other people away from socialism and towards liberalism would benefit him personally.”

    From: http://nielsio.tumblr.com/post/16528520459/a-critique-of-hoppean-ethics-argumentation-ethics

  9. Ken B says:

    Hmmm. Daniel Kuehne made you throw up in your mouth, and Bryan Caplan made you laugh aloud. I’m imagining the Caplan-Kuehne blog …

  10. David R. Henderson says:

    Bob,
    I thought Bryan’s post was quite reasonable. You seem to think not. Will you explain why? And not with oh-isn’t-this-so funny humor but with an actual argument?

    • Ken B says:

      I thought Bryan’s main point was how the Leninist, intoxicated with the prospect of imposing his will through coercion, back propagates to conjure a justification. I think this is a shrewd and accurate judgment, and Bryan’s bon mot about checking your work highlights the arrogance and rigidity as well.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      David, if I have to explain the joke, then…

      I don’t know what else to say, really. If you didn’t think Bryan’s observation was funny, nothing I can say will render it so.

      Suppose I said, with complete seriousness, “The difference between my brother and Charles Manson, is that my brother mopped up the mess afterwards. The two are nothing alike.”

      I mean, whether I’m defending or secretly criticizing my brother, either way that is kind of a ridiculous thing to say.

      But, I don’t know what the bigger context is. I suppose if some Leninists were accusing utilitarian libertarians of being hypocrites, then maybe Bryan’s point is more understandable. Anyway, it made me laugh, and the world needs more laughter, so I shared…

      • Ken B says:

        Bob
        Then I really misunderstood you. I doubt I’mma lone.
        I think then you’re the only one who sees this: “Seriously, does anyone else find Bryan’s deep thoughts to often be laugh-out-loud funny? ” as a plaudit. Most of us read into it a criticsm of ‘deep thoughts’.

        That sentence really does not sound like “I thought his turn of phrase was amusing”. It sounds like “his pretentious deep thoughts were risible.”

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Ken B, it wasn’t a plaudit. I thought it was a ridiculous thing to say, just like the hypothetical Manson quote.

          Since David thought it was a reasonable thing to say, I was trying to be conciliatory and say, “OK, I suppose it’s possible that there is some context here I’m missing…”

          • david stinson says:

            Sometimes I think the potential for “misunderstanding on the Internet” to be almost limitless. The fallout in terms of follow-on explanation sometimes makes one wonder whether it is worth it (not really).

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Internet is awful, especially for people who (like me) relish deadpan humor.

              • Ken B says:

                Sometimes, but it turns out my initial reading, I think widely shared, was correct. You were mocking Caplan’s ‘deep thoughts’. I think most of us got that.

                I often feel that way about some of Caplan’s stuff, but this one I thought was pretty good.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          “I doubt I’mma lone.”

          This just made my brain hurt on multiple levels. It’s

          A. not proper grammar; and

          B. “Imma” is short for “I am going to.”

          To answer your question, I also thought it was hilarious, because Caplan is an otherwise peaceful fellow and yet he talks about murder as if it can be justified on the basis of some back of the envelope number crunching.

          I think you’re letting your own negativity cloud things and so you attribute that same negativity to Murphy.

          I mean just read what Caplan said again:

          “The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work! He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities. The Leninist, in contrast, reasons backwards from the atrocities that emotionally inspire him to the utilitarian argument that morally justifies his atrocities.”

          I laughed out loud when Caplan said “normal”.

          Like, a “normal” person would not just murder 10,000 people wantonly and indiscriminately. No, a “normal” person would make sure he double and then triple checks his mathematical calculations to make sure that the gains of murdering 10,000 people outweigh the costs.

          It’s funny because while Caplan seems to be all serious and deep and whatnot, he lets off these howlers that make you question whether or not he’s got a few screws loose. Just look at where his logic takes him. Caplan would have to consider Lenin just another run of the mill “normal” Utilitarian if Lenin really did engage in some complex mathematical calculations and then double and triple checked him homework to make sure the gains outweigh the costs.

          In fact, going further, we would all be expected to rest easy if the leaders ruling the state were “normal” Utilitarians as they engage in a mass slaughtering of innocent people. As long as they triple check their calculations, we can’t call them “Leninist Utilitarians”, despite the fact that they are treating innocent people in the exact same way as Lenin did.

          Imagine Caplan being held at gunpoint by a street thug, and just before he yells for help, the thief tells Caplan that he’s a “normal” Utilitarian and his equations are just telling him that stealing from and then killing Caplan is the optimal solution that maximizes the gains and minimizes the losses, so Caplan then replies, and for some reason I’m picturing him saying this in a British accent, “Ohright, that’s fine, carry ohn then!”

            • Major_Freedom says:

              Self-professed, yes, but if we dig deeper, he’s a consequentialist libertarian.

              In other words, he’s only a libertarian because he believes libertarianism has the best outcomes.

              But then one would have to ask him, if murder and rape had the best outcomes according to some arbitrary standard in the same vein as consequentialism, would he abandon libertarianism? Someone can make a funny joke about real versus fake libertarians.

      • Ken B says:

        We have tangled over explaining jokes before! As I recall when you tried you ended up with Who on second.

        :)

    • jjoxman says:

      Prof. Henderson,

      Do you mean ‘reasonable’ in that Prof. Caplan’s statement about utilitarians is accurate, or ‘reasonable’ in a more normative sense?

  11. joeftansey says:

    I’m not sure, but I think Bob is reading

    “He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities. ”

    as Bryan implying that “normal” utilitarians aren’t really serious about utility if they worry about injustice so much. Of course, it makes sense for the utilitarian to worry if his plan has large costs, but only if he considers those costs through a utilitarian lens.

  12. david stinson says:

    Hi Bob.

    I actually did laugh out loud when I read that line in Caplan’s post but not because I thought it was laughable but because I thought it was a hilarious backhanded dig at utilitarianism (as far as I am aware, Caplan is not a utilitarian/consequentialist but a moral intuitionist or something).

    In other words, when utilitarians’ moral calculus leads them to conclude that “mass murder would maximize social utility”, their response is to “check their work”! They don’t conclude, for example, that their ethics or ethical objective (social utility) are flawed.

    I has assumed that the dig was intentional but perhaps it wasn’t.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      I actually did laugh out loud when I read that line in Caplan’s post but not because I thought it was laughable but because I thought it was a hilarious backhanded dig at utilitarianism (as far as I am aware, Caplan is not a utilitarian/consequentialist but a moral intuitionist or something).

      I thought Caplan was a consequentialist, but if you’re right, then his post should be viewed in a whole new light than the one I am eliciting.

  13. Greg Ransom says:

    I’m always caught by surprise when Bryan says something that isn’t false or idiotic or clueless.

    E.g. his stuff on signaling is usually good and his stuff on uninformed voters is sometimes not false, and even spot on.

  14. JTR says:

    “..hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities.”

    …but if we don’t society will have to accept the consequences because we’re only hoping the math turns out this way. If, however, we were to come up with calculations that would result in massive atrocities at least those who died would know we really tried to make sure we got our math right on this one. No Leninist system can say that.

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