Archive for the Category Utilitarianism


The worst prejudice of them all

I was awakened about 3am last night by my alter ego, Scott Slumber.  He seemed very upset and had me dictate a blog post.  I was only able to scribble down a small part of what he said, as his speech was rambling and erratic.  Here’s what I got:

I am sick and tired of the attitude of the awake world to the sleeping world.  They look down on us as if we are inferior—all this talk about “real life”, as if their lives are more real than ours.  Just the opposite is true; we have a much richer life, comprised of a mixture of worry and pain-free oblivion, and a rich dream world that’s far more “real” than their awake world.  How much richer?  Recall how The Wizard of Oz transitions from a drab grey opening to a glorious color fantasia, and then back to black and white.  I use this example not because color film is better than black and white (we may not even dream in color), but because it’s a metaphor for how dreams are richer than waking hours.  In dreams you move through a sort of ether of meaning, as if some momentous reality is just beyond your grasp. Even the best parts of life, such as watching a David Lynch film, cannot quite capture the feeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t downsides; the “eternal return” to searching for that exam that you forgot to study for—but waking life also has its ups and downs.

I’ve known all of this for a long time, but what’s really got me agitated is the sudden increase in anti-sleepworld prejudice.  For instance:

1.  While “wake up” has often been used as a metaphor for intellectual awakening, the millennials have added on a new insult; “woke” is being used as a metaphor for moral superiority.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  I can shoot someone in the middle of Times Square, and no one cares.  Unless you are Donald Trump, that’s not true of the awake world.  I can engage in guilt-free forbidden love that you can only dream of experiencing . . . and no one gets hurt.  The dream world is a moral paradise.  When people speak of someone being “woke”, it reminds me of when I was young and you’d still hear people say, “that’s very white of you”—as a compliment!

2.  As if that’s not bad enough, we have bloggers speculating about a technology that allows sleep hours to be bought and sold, like slaves.  You might ask, “What’s wrong with that, if it’s done freely?  Aren’t you a libertarian?”  Yes, but the awake will end up selling the sleepers without even consulting them.  Of course there are a few “woke” people who understand the value of sleep, but if you look at the comment section after the sleep market post you see the same sort of rampant bigotry that occurs when bloggers discuss immigration and diversity.  People were positively gleeful about the thought of using money and technology to kill off their sleep world alter egos, and stay awake 24 hours a day.  Disgusting.  How could they do this to us after all we’ve done for them?  We’ve given them the palaces of Kubla Khan, the guitar riff that built the Stones, and a 1000 eureka moments of scientific discovery.

3.  Puritans in the awake world want to ban chemicals that produce vivid dreams.  They are afraid that the young will find the dream world more attractive than their pathetic depressing alternative.  That’s probably because it is more attractive.

I occasionally meet Scott Sumner for brief moments, such as last week when I was cruelly ejected from a Turkish harem by his murderous beeping iPhone. In our brief exchanges I’ve convinced Sumner that I’m right.  He’s already a radical utilitarian who believes that the flow of positive and negative brain states is the only thing that matters in the universe.  He’s contemptuous of the waking world’s Trumpian fascination with money and power.  Their weird belief in “personal identity” and “free will”.  Unlike that other blogger who cowardly hides behind the controversial claims of his alter ego, Sumner will affirm that everything I say is true.  Tell them, tell them Sumner, tell th . . .

Gulp.  Drugs?  Guilt-free forbidden love?  Umm, let me sleep on it.

PS.  Critics say that Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love are the two best films of the 21st century.  Indeed the only two films to make the top 100 all-time.  What do they have in common?  A dream-like mood.  And the critics’ choice for the best film of all time?  It’s also dream-like:

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.46.52 AM

PPS:  This might be hard to believe, but the opening paragraph of this post is kind of true–I did wake up at 3am last night and write down notes for this post.

PPPS. Maybe I should let John Milton have the last word:

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
       Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
       Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
       Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
       Purification in the old Law did save,
       And such as yet once more I trust to have
       Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
       Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
       Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
       But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
       I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.


I was wrong about Trump voters (plus “get stuff done”)

During the campaign I insisted that Trump had no actual beliefs, and that all his campaign promises were merely empty rhetoric—telling us precisely nothing about what he’d do as President.  And of course I was completely right.  No repeal of Obamacare, indeed he never even came up with a proposal to do so.  No slashing of income taxes down to a top rate of 25%, indeed his administration never even put together a tax plan.  No infrastructure.  No wall on the Mexican border.  He also abandoned his promise not to intervene against people like Assad (except to protect Americans.) He abandoned his pledge to go after China on trade.  Etc., etc.

But I was wrong about Trump voters.  Like many other people, I wasted many hours during 2016 reading thoughtful opinion pieces by left and right wing intellectuals, discussing “what the voters were telling us”.  One common theme was that voters were becoming more nationalistic and anti-immigrant.

Then when Trump reversed course on DACA and signaled he wanted to deal with the Dems to protect those illegal immigrants, the right exploded and warned darkly that his “base” would not stand for this.  Oh really?

Donald Trump’s tough talk on illegal immigration was a big part of the reason Dave Hagstrom and many others in this booming Phoenix suburb supported him for president. “Walls make good neighbors,” Hagstrom said.

So when the president moved this week to cut a deal — with Democrats no less — to block the expulsion of 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, was Hagstrom disappointed?

Not at all.

“If you were to deport them, where would they go?” Hagstrom, 60, a car-warranty manager, asked on his way to a Bible-study dinner at an upscale shopping mall. “To send them across the border would be inhumane almost. There’s no life for them there.”

It turns out that all of those opinion pieces on what the voters were trying to tell us were completely worthless.  The Trump voters have no principles at all.  They will support Trump in whatever he does.  He could install a Maoist economic policy, or a fascist regime, or a libertarian paradise, and his base would be equally happy. They just like the guy.  (Which is weird, as he has the most unlikeable personality I have seen in 62 years of existence—worse than Nixon.)

You’ll probably claim that I’m overreacting, that Hagstron is just an outlier, a 1 out of every 100 Trump supporter, while the other 99 are tough on immigration.

Then consider this:

In more than a dozen conversations with Trump voters in this sweltering Sonoran Desert oasis, not one found fault with Trump’s abandonment of his vow to deport the young immigrants, often referred to as Dreamers. In the bargain, he said, Democrats agreed to much tougher border enforcement, though not construction of a physical wall.

The odds of interviewing “more than a dozen” Trump people (in Arizona!) and finding that all just happen to be among the 1% of Trump supporters who are soft on immigration is . . . well I think it’s less than one in 10 to the 24th power.  I’m not good enough at math to describe those odds, but I think it’s roughly one in a septillion.  Or, maybe those “more than a dozen” are actually pretty common among Trump voters.  That’s the hypothesis I’m going with.

And this is really good news!  Trump has no fixed values.  His base had no fixed values.  It’s a complete crap shoot as to what will happen.  That might not seem good, but it’s less bad that the alternative—that Trump and his supporters actually believed the things they said in 2016.  It also suggests that Trump has no coattails—when he leaves the scene no one will able to pick up his voters, even with the same position on issues.  The issues never mattered.

PS.  This comment from America’s favorite racist cop brought a tear to my eye:

Indeed, even Arpaio seemed willing to go along with the compromise reached this week, if Trump thinks it best.

“He’s trying to make deals and get stuff done,” said Arpaio, a staunch supporter of the president who faced a prison sentence for racial profiling before Trump pardoned him last month.

That suits people like Joseph Wise just fine.

“I know a lot of these kids,” said Wise, 75, a retired electrical engineer from Gilbert, who paused to talk about Trump and immigration as he loaded groceries into the back of his sport utility vehicle. “They’re good kids. I’ve talked to some of them about how they crossed the border and barely survived.”

That’s right, get tough on “illegals” just as long as you don’t hurt any actual, physical, flesh and blood human beings.  As always, when the public is educated into the inner feelings on “the other”, utilitarianism wins.  Sorry Ann Coulter, but you are on the losing side of history.

PPS.  Oh, and Trump’s broken promise on Syria?  That was caused by pictures of children horribly maimed by poison gas.  Utilitarianism wins again.


The alt-right’s dark twisted fantasy

During the Cold War, the far left would sometimes claim that the problem was caused by the West, which somehow provoked Stalin into his aggressive actions. Today the left has mostly risen above all that nonsense, but a similar fantasy is increasing peddled by the far right.  In this view, the US provoked Putin by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe.  Here’s what actually happened:

When Mr Putin became president in 2000, he showed no overt hostility towards America or the West, despite a recent NATO bombing raid on Belgrade without a UN resolution that had triggered a shrill anti-American response. In his first interview with Britain’s BBC, Mr Putin said: “I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe, so it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy.” Russia, he said, might become a member of NATO if it were treated as an equal partner. Even when the three Baltic states joined NATO in spring 2004, Mr Putin insisted that relations with the defence organisation were “developing positively” and he had “no concerns about the expansion of NATO”.

The breaking-point in Mr Putin’s relationship with the West came towards the end of that year when several seemingly unrelated events coincided. The first was a terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, in the north Causasus, in which 1,200 people, mostly children, were taken hostage. After Russia’s special forces stormed the school, leaving 333 people dead, Mr Putin accused the West of trying to undermine Russia. He cancelled regional elections and handed more powers to the security services.

The press in America focuses on Putin’s murderous foreign policies, or the lies about shooting down a Malaysian airliner.  But these policies reflect a deeper problem in Russia, a lack of liberalism, aka utilitarianism.  This happened today:

Russia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to decriminalise domestic violence, a move the Kremlin claims will help support families but critics say will only worsen the problem.

Members of the lower house of parliament voted 380-3 in favour of the bill’s third reading after senior officials spoke in favour of the measure. The bill is expected to be approved by the rubber-stamp upper house before President Vladimir Putin signs it.

Vyacheslav Volodin, who became parliament speaker last year after five years running the Kremlin’s domestic policy, said earlier this week that the measure would strengthen the conservative social values promoted by the government.

The same sort of pattern occurs in the Russian drug war:

In most of the world the threat of HIV/AIDS has receded. The exceptions are eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Russia, which accounts for more than 80% of new infections in the region, 51,000 people were diagnosed in the first five months of this year. In January registered HIV cases there topped one million. Vadim Pokrovsky of Russia’s Federal AIDS Centre reckons the true figure may be 1.4m-1.5m, about 1% of the population; he warns there could be 3m by 2020. In some African countries prevalence can reach 19%, but the epidemic is slowing. In Russia, the infection rate is “getting worse, and at a very fast pace”, says Vinay Saldanha, UNAIDS’ director for eastern Europe and Central Asia. .  .  .

Harsh anti-drug laws keep users in the shadows. Methadone and other forms of non-injected opioid substitution therapy (OST) are illegal; in other post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, they are legal. (After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, 800 patients found themselves cut off. The UN believes some 10% have died, “mostly of overdose or suicide”.) The World Health Organisation calls methadone “the most promising method of reducing drug dependence”, and HIV-positive addicts who receive OST are 54% more likely to get the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs they need to stay healthy, according to studies.

Russia’s foreign minister has derided OST as a “narcoliberal” idea. . . .

Drug users fear criminal repercussions if they seek help. And Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” laws make it harder for gay-friendly charities to operate.

Virulent prejudice

Independent NGOs, many staffed by HIV-positive people, play a crucial role in reaching vulnerable groups. But Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation, which places bureaucratic restrictions around groups that accept foreign money, has made funding difficult. Several HIV and drug-policy advocacy groups have been labelled foreign agents this year, including the Andrey Ryklov Foundation, the only group offering free needle exchanges in Moscow. . . .

Russia’s economic crisis has slashed health-care budgets, and more money for AIDS seems unlikely. Even this year’s promised extra federal funds have yet to materialise, says Mr Pokrovsky. Officials, he adds, must abandon the old saying that “what’s good for the German is death for the Russian.” Germany’s population is a bit over half the size of Russia’s, and it has one 25th the number of new HIV cases. “Narcoliberal” ideas save lives.

Unlike utilitarian liberals, populist/nationalist/alt-right types don’t really care about the welfare of people, they focus on narrower values like patriarchy and nationalism and xenophobia.  America’s alt-right likes Putin’s Russia because it secretly shares many of those values.  Because America is more liberal than Russia, they are reluctant to say these things out loud, but you see it all over the internet, where alt-right views can be expressed anonymously.  (Or when caught on tape talking with Billy Bush.)

You don’t want to be a small (or midsize) country on the southern border of one of these populist/nationalistic powers, because the strong bullying the weak is a part of their core ideology.  It’s a sort of high school bully mentality, if not middle school.  Thus it’s not just the women and HIV victims in Russia that suffer, but also people in neighboring countries.  Put simply, the rejection of utilitarian values leads to bad domestic polices and bad foreign policies.  That’s why the problems in Russia matter for the entire world.

If an alt-right leader takes over your country, pray that he’s as weak and clueless as a small child, and must rely on experts.

Utilitarianism does not lead to repugnant conclusions

My previous post triggered a lot of comments that need to be addressed.  Let’s imagine a vaccine that we could give to all 7 billion people.  The vaccine would prevent lots of cases of an unpleasant illness that lasts for one week, but one out of the 7 billion will die from nasty side effects.  Does it make sense to do this?  Most intelligent people would say yes.  (To simplify things suppose the cost is almost zero, and it’s voluntary.  The program is government funded.)  We make lots of other similar trade-offs in life, as with speed limits of 65/mph rather than 25mph, even though the higher speed leads to more fatal accidents.  There are trade-offs between risk and pleasure.

If you are not with me so far, stop reading.  If you are willing to concede that a small risk of death might be a price worth paying for a more pleasant life, then consider a universe where there are 6 million Earth-like planets, all facing the same dilemma.  If it makes sense for Earth to provide this vaccine, then presumably it makes sense on those other 6 million planets.  Now the cost of the vaccine is that 42 quintillion quadrillion people have more pleasant lives, at a cost of 6 million deaths.  That doesn’t sound like such a good trade-off, does it?  That’s a lot of dead people for merely the benefit of making life better for the rest of us.  Does utilitarianism fail at large numbers?

No, utilitarianism doesn’t fail; what fails is our brainpower.  Our brains can visual that a cost of 6 million lives is much worse than a cost of one life. But they can’t visualize the fact that the benefit of 42 quintillion quadrillion happier people is vastly greater than the benefit of 7 billion happier people.  When I try to visual the number of stars in the universe, it’s not much different from my attempt to visualize the number of stars in our galaxy, even though the former number is vastly larger.

Many of the “repugnant conclusion refutations” of utilitarianism rely on similar cognitive failures.  Another set of tricks postulates some horrific practice that occurred in the past, and then ask “What if slave owners got more pleasure from slavery than the suffering of the slaves.  Would slavery be OK then?”  The trick here is that we (or at least I) find slavery repulsive largely for utilitarian reasons.  So the question puts us in an awkward position.  If we endorse utilitarianism then we seem to be endorsing actual real world slavery, even though our utilitarianism has actually caused us to reject slavery.  Indeed I’d go further, and argue that slavery was abolished in the 19th century largely for utilitarian reasons. The 19th century saw an enormous boom in utilitarian thinking.

One commenter pointed out that utilitarianism goes against certain instincts that are hard-wired into our brains.  Maybe so, but lots of those can change over time, as culture changes.  Our modern culture is more utilitarian than past cultures.  Even during my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise of utilitarian thinking in many areas (gay marriage, anti-bullying campaigns in schools, making it illegal to rape one’s spouse, civil rights for blacks, etc., etc.)

These utilitarian instincts come from the narrative arts (literature and film).  Art that makes you aware of the suffering of others.  Since young Americans saw many more sympathetic gay characters on TV than old Americans, they are far more in favor of gay marriage, and far less likely to vote for Trump.  Milan Kundera said that Europeans are the children of the novel.  There are reasons why Denmark is more utilitarian that Saudi Arabia, and why American politicians who read novels (Obama) are more utilitarian than those who do not (Trump).  If Trump would read this horrific exposé in the NYT (highly recommended), showing the human costs of Duterte’s slaughter of thousand of Filipino drug users, he might reconsider his support for the program.  Even better, if he read a novel about the lives of the victims, and their loved ones.

PS.  In fairness, utilitarianism is no cure-all.  Although Obama is more of a utilitarian, Trump’s views on labor market and financial regulation are actually more utilitarian that Obama’s, for reasons I discussed in my previous post.  You must also avoid cognitive illusions in economics.

PPS.  Don’t waste time writing comments claiming that I don’t really believe what I write.  You don’t know me, and I’m not like you.


Utilitarianism for me, but not for thee?

The older I get, the more convinced I am that utilitarianism is the best value system.  What do I mean by best?  I mean the one that, if used correctly, leads to the happiest society.  But would it be used correctly?  Or would it be abused?  Bryan Caplan has a post suggesting the latter.

Here’s the problem I see with utilitarianism.  The world is full of cognitive illusions.  One of the most powerful sets of illusions is the left-liberal view that big government can solve many of society’s problems.  Just to be clear, I do think that government can solve a few problems (such as pollution and excessive inequality), but only a few.  Even though I have the same (utilitarian) value system as left-liberals, my policy preferences differ because my University of Chicago education showed me all the unintended consequences of government intervention.  Thus I can use my utilitarian value system without ending up on The Road to Serfdom.

Most left-liberals lack a University of Chicago education.  For them, the contemplation of all the societal problems that can be solved with big government is akin to playing with matches.  Quite dangerous.

So if that’s the world we live in, what’s the best solution?

1. Stick with utilitarianism, and try to spread the Chicago gospel.

2. Replace utilitarianism with a sort of natural rights libertarianism, which while not actually correct, will lead to better outcomes, even by utilitarian standards.  Spread the Ron Paul gospel.

You might notice that this is similar to the age old philosophical question of whether religion is a useful way of making society more ethical, even if based on a myth.

I believe there are good arguments on both sides of this issue, but in the end I opt for utilitarianism.  We might be able to temporarily indoctrinate some young people with books by Ayn Rand, but in the long run I think we need pragmatic arguments for a free society, if we are to convince the class of educated intellectuals who play such an important role in policymaking.

I recognize that utilitarianism is playing with fire — I just don’t see any better options.