ThatGuyWithHippyHair Recommends: Everyday Utilitarian

Today I’d like to recommend a site I think my readers will find compelling. It’s called Everyday Utilitarian, and while it’s about as low-budget as this blog, much of the content is likely to be thought-provoking to those interested in applied ethics and social justice. (Note well that its author, Peter Hurford, is not above treading the controversial waters of religion and politics at times in his writings, but on the whole his approach is exceptionally gracious and level-headed, and he isn’t self-righteous about the topics he covers.)

Besides some logs of his personal endeavors in applied utilitarianism — basically, making a conscious effort to inform one’s decision-making with considerations of scientific probabilities and valid reasoning, rather than letting this process be a crapshoot of the conscience — Hurford shares some enticing thoughts on the application of reliable data to improving the world. He calls this effective altruism, suggesting that as a society, we tend to either oversimplify philanthropy into just throwing money at the problem, or worse, assume that making a difference is impossible in a world this complex (and thus we do nothing about the problem at all).

This blog’s essays are often chock-full of references to sociological studies worth looking into. Even when such sources don’t quite answer his own questions, as in this post, he does a fine job of revealing questions I didn’t even know I should be asking in the first place. At first glance, it seems obvious that humans would jump at any self-interested motive to help others (given how rare this combination seems to be, although I’d say it’s less so than we assume; I’ll probably address this in a coming post). Yet, as Hurford wisely notes, our psychology doesn’t work so simply, often throwing in the catalysts for paradoxes like those detailed in his article.

At the end of the latter post, Hurford proposes that the reader do his/her own investigation into this phenomenon. Of course, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but if the aspiring philanthropist finds that it works to remind people of the happiness they can expect from giving to a certain degree, more power to that person’s cause. If I’m feeling ambitious in the next few weeks, I just might take Hurford’s challenge. Regardless, I appreciate his rigor and cautiousness in thinking about subjects that are, in some ways, quite literally matters of life or death. Check out the Everyday Utilitarian. You might be surprised.

Illusions of Thievery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5b)

(Part XI of this series)

Returning to Locke’s musings on property in Chapter 5, he goes on to make an uncontroversial refutation of a possible criticism of his theory. The objection maintains that anyone could arbitrarily seize the right to absurdly unnecessary amounts of resources (doesn’t this ring a bell?), if working for the acquisition of something affords a person property rights over it. This, of course, ignores Locke’s important caveat that the needs of the community ought to be considered; he’s not advocating an unrestrained law-of-the-jungle philosophy, but merely suggesting that no claim to resources an individual has taken by his/her own efforts should be denied, if this poses no explicit threat to the basic well-being of others. Abundant as many natural and artificial resources are, moreover, it’s not as if it’s even physically feasible for John Doe to declare a monopoly over all the planet’s water, etc.

Anti-socialist though Locke may have been, it’s worth bearing in mind that even his philosophy seen here leaves room for the appropriation of property to those who desperately need it, but who did not necessarily “work for it.” Not that we should treat him as the end-all-be-all of legal thought — this is simply a matter of engaging potential hypocrites on their own terms (including ourselves). What matters is whether Locke’s ideas stand to reason on their utilitarian merits, and what we can learn from this in attempting to reverse-engineering our modern system, to see where new legal challenges can fit in consistently.

In the same breath, Locke develops a fair idea about the availability of resources, and the vices of those who act as if one person claiming a part of those resources threatens them. In principle — though perhaps not always in practice depending on the nature of the resource — such objectors are, he contends, essentially smuggling in an excuse for their laziness. They could get a slice of the same pie if they so chose and acted, but they would prefer to indirectly steal from the person they denigrate. I have no problems with this so far, yet we’d be wise to remember life always comes with nuances to form exceptions to rules like these.

How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

Admit it. Some time in your life, you’ve probably taken a Harry Potter sorting quiz, typically from the Internet, as I just did yesterday. Supposedly, I’m a Hufflepuff, but one of the hypotheticals this quiz used to make that determination stood out to me:

“You have saved up for months to buy a new bike. As you’re getting ready to buy it, a child runs by and steals your money. You chase him down and find that his mother is deathly ill and the child stole the money to buy her medicine.”
The Almighty Guru

Granted, this dilemma is not particularly deep, and it’s at least as old as Les Miserables, but even my cynical self can acknowledge the value of asking the simple questions. This scenario frames the matter in a different light than that book, as the thief is a child, whose mother’s sickness is directly emphasized.

None of which makes the problem any easier. The compassionate thing to do obviously seems to be to let the kid keep the money, considering America’s health care system does not — as far as I know — guarantee a safety net of basic life-saving care for someone who cannot pay for it. How, after all, does the value of a bicycle compare to that of a person’s life, especially when that person is loved dearly by a child?

Put that way, it looks simple. Any other course of action would be callous by comparison. Yet how can we say this consistently when our priorities, in so many ways we like to pretend don’t exist, claim otherwise?

Our society allows grotesque numbers of preventable deaths — in this country alone — because people don’t have the money that we spend on extravagant dinners and extra TVs. We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.

We unquestioningly make automobile transportation the social norm, and many of us criticize capital punishment for being a cruel institution of denial of life’s value. This is despite, as the speaker in the video below notes (skip to about 4:35), the damage several orders of magnitude greater inflicted by car accidents compared to the death penalty.

The uploader’s numbers vary somewhat from the source above (even considering the video was made in 2011), but his point stands independent of the particular ethical question he addresses here — which I may return to in future posts, particularly referencing the central argument of this video. I encourage the reader to watch it in full regardless, since if nothing else it’s a case study in the subtle complexities of moral arguments that appear straightforward, one way or the other.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that the above attitudes are necessarily unacceptable (or, if they are, they may be brute facts of apathetic human nature we have to accept), as I am of course oversimplifying things. (Or am I? Is this what every generation that permits appalling social evils tells itself, just as we said centuries ago that slavery was too integral to the South’s economy to abolish?) It could be that the true error lies in our moral hypocrisy, or that the value outweighing the proverbial mother’s life is a fundamental liberty, although I like to think the obvious answer to this dilemma really is the right one. It wouldn’t be easy to live up to, but it would leave us less demoralized and more confident in our consciences.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I just think some perspective on issues like this couldn’t hurt, and if the idea I imply here does turn out faulty upon further inspection, so much the stronger does the truth stand after this test. Undoubtedly, this consideration will help us as we continue looking at John Locke’s work.

Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

(Part X of this series)

With Chapter 5, Locke seeks to establish a basic theory of property. In this update I’ll address his first major contention, namely that the resources of nature are the common property for all people’s utility, yet by investing his/her labor in acquiring a given resource, an individual may claim rightful ownership of that resource as his/her own property (provided this does not seize away the necessities of the community). He writes:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. … Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. … [For] this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. … He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. … And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common?”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine)

The essential points are bolded, serving as the premises of the summary above. Locke reasons that, provided we can agree that the best feasible societal foundation is something like the constitutional democracy he suggests, there must be some coherent way citizens of this society can manage the resources at their disposal fairly. Though he doesn’t deny that there are some limits to pursuit of property, when this precludes others from their rightful property, it’s clear that Locke’s ideal excludes socialism from the outset. Property is afforded on the basis of merit/work rather than need, at least as far as the law is concerned (that is, Locke would not likely have objections in principle to charity).

While this seems an intuitive philosophy, we’ll have to see how he hashes out the details. After all, where on this basis is there room for, say, taxation and public property? For today, I leave the reader to consider both that question and the further hints of anthropocentrism in Locke’s view.

Notice that in the first emphasized part of this quote, he deems all of the entities of Earth’s ecosystem the rightful property of humans. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an affront to environmental responsibility, as the preservation of non-sentient wildlife and natural resources is not only a worthy goal for its own sake, but also as far as this proves prudent for humanity’s own wishes in the long run. Basically, one saves the trees as much for the trees’ inherent value, as for the worth they have as one’s oxygen source. More troubling is the flippancy with which Locke denies any agency or value-as-an-end to conscious nonhuman creatures. Perhaps he took Descartes’s view of nonhumans as universally unconscious and machine-like, which is at least somewhat sympathetic when the state of seventeenth-century neurology was so undeveloped, but the familiarity of this perspective should give us pause. Who else, again, were denied fundamental liberties and protections because the powers that be saw them as property?

See the title of the preceding chapter for the answer.

Quantity and Quality — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 4)

(Part IX of this series)

Continuing where we left off, Locke’s points in Chapter 4 are rather brief. Beyond reiterating in summary the idea that one’s liberty is maximized by a limited yet right-securing government, which derives its power from the consent of the people, he doesn’t add anything terribly revolutionary here. Today, let’s consider one particular quote:

“[Nobody] can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. … [N]o man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 4

This chapter being named “On Slavery,” we can see that Locke is stating that, in short, self-enslavement is impossible. The logic he uses to arrive at this conclusion is, once again, rather bizarre. He notes that, since freedom from slavery is so fundamental to life, to give the power to enslave oneself to another person is tantamount to terminating one’s own life. Since he starts from the premise that one cannot do the latter, he deduces that no one can self-enslave. Taking this generously — as I cannot believe Locke did not know what suicide is — he is apparently saying that no rational person would end one’s own life, so too would no rational person give oneself to slavery.

Both of which seem sensible at first impression, but as this blog has probably shown you by now if this isn’t my first post you’ve read, nothing is ever totally uncontroversial upon greater scrutiny. The irrationality of self-enslavement is as close as anything can get to the exception to that. However, what do we make of the former proposition?

Far be it for me to open up the Jack Kevorkian can of worms in this article (that’s a discussion worth addressing in its time; this is not yet such a time), but this matter raises some fairly open questions to chew on: Is the very state of conscious existence valuable in its own right? If so, how valuable? Valuable enough to outweigh considerations of quality of life? Part of the reason the debate over the “right to die” and related matters is so touchy, presumably, is that there are good arguments to be made on either side as to the expectation of future quality of life (or lack thereof). I hope the importance of this easily missed detail of Chapter 4 is clear. Social justice, after all, concerns the joy and suffering of conscious persons, and perhaps if we set aside our biases, we may agree on this much — that sentience provides the potential for an individual to experience a variety of pleasures and pains on a wide spectrum, which can be narrowed or shifted depending on circumstances that it would behoove us to consider, as a responsible society.

Teach a Kid to Fish (for Truth) …

Does this look like a familiar picture to you?


Granted, those educators guilty of this error tend to be honest enough to not claim they are teaching critical thinking, but the image’s message remains.  Evidently the artist is criticizing the educational status quo for its emphasis on teaching students to search for the “right answer,” from sources they are expected to trust unquestionably.  This is in contrast to teaching how to distinguish right answers from wrong ones using widely applicable mental skills, as is surely necessary in the sea of ambiguous information we find on the Internet (and more traditional sources as well).

I may do a more extensive post on the state of standard education in the U.S., but for now I’d like to hear your thoughts on this cartoon’s premise.  Is this a fair critique, or is there an effectiveness to the current educational system the artist is missing here? Even if you agree with it, do you think any clear, feasible alternatives present themselves?  I’m curious, because the many debates that rage on over educational structures fascinate me in their massive relevance to this blog’s focus.  Few social institutions could have greater influence over society’s well-being than the means by which new generations learn (or learn how to learn) information.

Killing Over a Coat? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3b)

(Part VIII of this series)

If the reader found Locke’s unabashed eye-for-an-eye ethic regarding murderers excessive, what comes next in this chapter is even more bizarre a logical leap:

“This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 3

He at least gives a reason for this view, but it’s one we would unequivocally condemn for its rashness of judgment. Even if Locke refers not to petty theft here, but to serious embezzlements or bank robberies — being generous, since he in fact cites theft of a horse or coat as worth killing over — it seems hardly sensible to infer total hostility and non-negotiability from a willingness to steal property of a non-essential sort (not integral to a person’s well-being, that is). That’s a heavy burden of proof to shoulder when making claims about human nature upon which lives depend. Here we see a simple but important example of a way ethical and legal determinations concern probabilistic facts, given an agreed-upon premise of value.

As backward as Locke has gotten the details, his broader point stands fairly well: Without government, people are in a state of nature in which we may get along cooperatively to some respectable degree, delivering informal justice, and it is when one person threatens the crucial property of another that “war” is declared. Such is a circumstance in which one may suspend the general rules of non-harm for a greater good, although of course it would be wise not to use more force than is necessary for that good.

As the chapter concludes, Locke brings his points together, expressing the necessity of war as a proper response to an aggressor’s attempt to dodge justice. The bottom line in this theorizing about the state of war is that society emerges when people seek to minimize the frequency with which they must resort to war. Ideally, we implement a justice system by which harmful actions are discouraged or prevented by the deterrence, isolation, and/or rehabilitation of would-be dangerous individuals, without using the extreme force of war.

Now we have seen some reason to consider Locke as moderately fallible a thinker and moralist as we should expect any human to be, but delving into more of his treatise should prove fruitful in uncovering the essentials of how rights, laws, and justice work.