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Collectivist and Individual Morality

In a recent post Scott Sumner argues that utilitarianism would be a good thing if it weren’t for the cost of all the measurement that would be required.  I won’t make the academic argument here that utility is an ordinal measurement and cannot be compared across individuals.  Nor will I make the argument that it is impossible to measure utility.  These arguments are both correct, but there is still room in the real world for a loose conception of utilitarianism.  In fact in some ways I am a utilitarian.  However, I will argue that the way in which most utilitarians advocate applying the concept is in direct opposition to individual freedom.

In Sumner’s example (which he is taking from somewhere else) the representative agent (if you will) is faced with the decision of whether or not to push a fat guy in front of a train which will kill him but somehow save a bunch of other people.  The utilitarian argument is that the moral thing to do is to sacrifice the one life to save the many.   It may be true that one fat guy dying is a more desirable outcome than a large group of skinny people dying but the problem with this is that it assumes the right of some third-party to take responsibility for the lives of all those involved and then impose his opinion of what is more desirable on them. 

Utilitarianism is a reasonable moral philosophy when applied on an individual level.  That is, it is very reasonable to say that if I could save a lot of people by sacrificing myself then I should do that.  And it is reasonable to think that if someone else could save a lot of people by sacrificing themself then they should do that.  I won’t sit here and tell you that I would throw myself off a bridge to save two strangers but in small ways I apply this philosophy to my life and make sacrifices that I think will provide disproportionately large benefits to other people.  When I see other people doing this I respect them for it and when I see people doing the opposite I show them some degree of disdain.  This is how individual morality works.

Once the concept of utilitarianism is applied on a collective level, it’s no longer me sacrificing my well-being for the well-being of others or you sacrificing your well-being for the well-being of others, it’s me sacrificing your well-being and you sacrificing mine.   There is no virtue in sacrificing someone else.  Giving the moral authority to decide when to sacrifice myself or my wealth to another party is a way of relieving myself of the moral obligation to decide for myself.  Some people may prefer this.  I do not.  More importantly, it’s a way of relieving others of the right to make it for themselves.  Because of this such measures will often garner widespread support. 

I may want you to sacrifice for some cause that I think is worthy and will help a lot of people who are more important than you.  When someone offers me the ability to force you to make that sacrifice it will be very tempting.  It will be especially easy to convince me that this is morally justified because, the nature of the situation implies that you follow a moral code which is different from mine in some way (you don’t think it is a worthy sacrifice and I do).  This will make it easy to convince me that you are just an evil person and it is a righteous act to impose my morals on you.  If I am wise though, I will realize that I probably don’t have an identical moral code to the rest of society either and if this is allowed, they will soon be doing the same thing to me.  In a free society, I must have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property).  This idea of collective utilitarianism gives the right to deprive me of these things to the state, under no condition other than that they think the benefits to someone else will be greater than the cost to me.  Some people may prefer to trade their individual rights for a utilitarian state but all I ask is that we not fool ourselves into thinking that we can have both.

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  1. little fish
    March 9, 2010 at 3:58 am

    Good post.

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