Re: It Looked Better In The Abstract Than The Concrete, As The Researcher Said To The Contractor

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One thing I get annoyed with is that many people who namecheck "utilitarianism" seem to have a very poor grasp of what Bentham and Mill and their ilk were actually talking about. Mill says right there in On Liberty that you can't use a utilitarian argument to justify chattel slavery, because the fact of slavery undermines everyone's liberty, not just the slave's. At the same time, Bentham, Mill, et alii didn't give enough weight to the potential problems, both in terms of human freedom and economic inequality, that unfettered capitalism could and would cause. So it's a convenient place for crypto-Objectivists to hang their hats. All that said, common or garden utilitarianism still has some place in our philosophical toolkit, but it's not the only tool.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:03 AM
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Well, right. I mean, some kind of utilitarianism is a reasonable way to approach lots of questions. It just breaks down in a maddening kind of way whenever the facts are unclear.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:06 AM
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Mill says right there in On Liberty that you can't use a utilitarian argument to justify chattel slavery, because the fact of slavery undermines everyone's liberty, not just the slave's.

Utilitarianism works so long as Mills is allowed to put in some absolutist moral reasoning disguised as an empirical observation?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:08 AM
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I always say "John Stuart Mills" and I don't know why.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:09 AM
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Since he's dead and I don't enjoy correcting myself, it's probably a net gain if I keep saying it wrong.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:12 AM
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3: Well, more that a lot of people who talk about utilitarianism want to make it seem as though it is this seamless perfect idea, when even the people who invented it recognized that there were inherent inconsistencies.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:16 AM
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I once finished a college essay question on utilitarianism thusly: "I recognize that this answer ran longer than you instructed us to write, but I believe your annoyance at reading it will be exceeded by my pleasure in getting an 'A'."

The professor wrote, "Nicely calculated."


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:18 AM
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1, 3: a clearer argument might be: you can't use utilitarian reasoning to justify kidnapping one person and taking them to bits for the spare parts to save a dozen lives, because if everyone knew they lived in a world where they could be kidnapped for spare parts without warning, everyone's utility would be dramatically reduced.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:19 AM
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8: It's like anything else in philosophy, though: In the end you have to get all hand-wavey about it. Suppose we just raised some humans for spare parts? And didn't tell them about it.*

*I'm sure this has been made into a movie.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:23 AM
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That's an argument for creating a caste of spare-parts people, not for a general rule against kidnapping people for spare parts.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:23 AM
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Let's use PF for spare parts because I don't like being pwned.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:24 AM
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Also, the was of the plot of The Island. It wasn't a very good movie.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:25 AM
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9: still works if you generalise. Everyone suffers if they know that they live in a society where groups of people can be pre-designated for death without their knowledge. Yes, you know you aren't a Spare. But the same government that set up the Spares scheme might have done something equally unpleasant to you, and you wouldn't know.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:26 AM
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I mean, yeah, slaveholding demeans the slaveholder, and torture damages the torturer. But utilitarianism is (to this layman) just like any other philosophical method: You use it to justify whatever you planned to do anyway.

Holbo, when he discusses contempt for utilitarianism among the common folk, has actually only identified a generalized contempt for philosophy. Utilitarianism happens to be more accessible than other philosophical concepts, so maybe it elicits a bit more contempt.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:27 AM
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13: Wasn't it Jeremy Bentham who said, "What you don't know can't hurt you?"


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:32 AM
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Also, a lot of people encounter first utilitarianism via game theory problems, when someone trots out accessible game theory examples which are designed to give counterintuitives results, and then says "ta-da!" as if that proves that the moral of that game is actually operating in real life. Or maybe that's just my experience. It made the concept seem super stupid, super fast.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:32 AM
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Suppose we just raised some humans for spare parts?

That's the plot of Never Let Me Go

And didn't tell them about it.*

They did know, but they were supposed to be like those cows in that restaurant in Hitchhiker's Guide that wanted to be eaten.



Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:33 AM
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13: Just make it so that the government has less control over designating who gets to be a slave by using race as the indicator of who is unprotected from unpleasantness.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:34 AM
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when someone trots out accessible game theory examples which are designed to give counterintuitives results, and then says "ta-da!" as if that proves that the moral of that game is actually operating in real life.

Yes. Similar to 14 I think that what Holbo identifies is not necessarily an annoyance with utilitarianism specifically. I'm inclined call it something like "annoyance with smug contrarianism".


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:40 AM
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I enjoy being smugly contrary. I just don't like it when other people do it.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:40 AM
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Everyone suffers if they know that they live in a society where groups of people can be pre-designated for death without their knowledge.
We live in such a world, and most of the time most people aren't bothered in the slightest. I'm not convinced this sort of thing will magically tip the scales away from whatever evilness you're evaluating.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:42 AM
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This question from Holbo shocked me.

But do people really, seriously find.Singer 'a rather sinister figure'?

Is Holbo seriously surprised that people find Singer to be "a rather sinister figure"?

I'm much more sympathetic than most to many of Singer's arguments, but he sometimes seems sinister to me too.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:45 AM
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Dan Jacobson has a funny argument that Mill wasn't actually a consequentialist, and that understanding why helps to reconcile the apparent incompatibility of Utilitarianism and On Liberty.

Anyway, in response to this:

almost everyone will accept a utilitarian argument where the facts are actually clear: if you actually know that one course of action will hurt fewer people, or help more people, in a directly comparable way, it's hard to argue that it's not the right thing to do, even if it violates your moral intuitions*.

I think the problem this illustrates (and sort of buys into) is that it's very easy to accept, implicitly, a way of thinking about morality in which utility is a trump card. If you suggest a non-maximizing act, the utilitarian will ask why it's worth sacrificing some amount of actual good (the utility left on the table when you perform the non-maximizing act)-- what's worth that sacrifice? And the answer can't, of course, be in terms of utility. So you're left advocating allowing people to be worse off for some non-utility reason, and that seems not very appealing.

But there are other ways of thinking about moral obligation! This is basically the argument of Scanlon's "contractualism and utilitarianism" which is a great paper. Scanlon's puzzle is: given all the stupid results that U leads to (chopping chuck for the organs, etc.) why do we take it seriously? His answer is that U gives terrible answers to normative questions like "what act is right" but a very good answer to "what's the foundation of moral thinking?" viz. utility. The way to undermine U's appeal is to show that there's a better foundational answer, which he thinks he provides. (Spoiler alert: it's in terms of reasons!)

Anyway this suggests that the answer to "why do they hate U so much" is "because you hate it but you recognize that it's appealing in a way that's hard to reject until you have a better idea."


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:49 AM
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So you're left advocating allowing people to be worse off for some non-utility reason, and that seems not very appealing.

Except for the fact that it makes utilitarianism unworkable, I don't see what is unappealing about admitting that any general definition of "utility" is going to be impossible because of interpersonal differences in what people want.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:57 AM
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FL!


Posted by: MAE | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:07 AM
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*This seems to me to be what's wrong with trolley-problem-type thought experiments generally; by stipulating to the certainty of what will happen as a result of your actions, they're systematically loading the dice in favor of utilitarian thinking.

Honestly, I think that's the core of your argument right there. At least, this is where my blood pressure starts to skyrocket in those type of discussions.

I would go beyond AcademicLurker's comment:I'm inclined call it something like "annoyance with smug contrarianism".

to say that for me it's more like a deep mistrust that the people with power -- in this case, the person with the power to frame the discussion -- are going to systematically label your concerns as "implausible" and discount costs to you/your group that you have excellent reason to believe are going to occur.

This question from Holbo shocked me: "But do people really, seriously find Singer 'a rather sinister figure"?

Me too. Just on the grounds of his comments on disability alone, I find him frightening. It's hard to imagine that someone as intelligent as Holbo doesn't get why (many) people might find Singer's arguments even in that one realm disturbing.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:13 AM
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Bullshit is as bullshit does.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:14 AM
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I don't think that most people hate utilitarianism. Most people in the U.S. are utilitarians even if they have never hear the terms utilitarian or consequentialist. I had to explain the concept to a psychologist once, and it was clearly what she believed and thought to be self-evidently obvious.

My guess is that the people who are not philosophers but have heard of utilitarianism and consequentialism are people who think through their own assumptions and those of others. Those types of people are more likely to be questioning the dominant culture and therefore hostile in some way to the implicit philosophy.

I wonder whether societies that are less consequentialist would be asking the opposite question?


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:16 AM
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It's odd that Holbo's post and this one both avoid the obvious point: thinking about rat orgasms is awkward enough for most people that they're unwilling to do the calculations required to be utilitarians.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:27 AM
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28.1: Right, that was part of what I meant. People are very, very willing to accept utilitarian arguments as compelling. But a consequence of that is that when you run into a genuinely contentious argument, the kind where someone's putting forth a repugnant position based on shaky factual premises and justifying it in explicitly utilitarian terms, you're likely to feel bullied and resentful about it, because you're being hit with a compelling argument that gets to an obviously wrong answer.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:27 AM
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You know, Mill was not an act utilitarian who believed we have a perfect knowledge of the future. He knew we did not have very much knowledge of the consequences of our actions at all, which is why he talked indiscriminately about finding guidelines which are likely to maximize good outcomes in the long run, developing character traits which are likely to maximize good outcomes in the long run, passing legislation which is likely to maximize good outcomes in the long run, etc. I have a lot of sympathy for Dale Jamieson's claim that act utilitarianism mostly just exists to make utilitarians look bad.

As for Singer, I don't understand how a man who has spent most of his career arguing for greater compassion to animals and the global poor has come to be regarded as someone sinister.

There is a lot more to utilitarianism than a bunch of arguments that sound nice in the abstract but can be abused in practice. At bottom there is simply the fact that if ethics isn't working to make people's lives happier, then there is something wrong here. This isn't just a matter of philosophical foundations. It is really an issue with what you are trying to do with ethics in the first place.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:28 AM
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26.last to 31.2


Posted by: Crypitc ned | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:29 AM
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The other thing about Singer is that the non-sinister parts of his positions are also really offputting. I mean, he's probably right that we should all be voluntarily maintaining a very low standard of living and giving any excess money to people who are genuinely needier than we are. On the other hand, most of us aren't going to do that, and thinking that we should makes us guilty and uncomfortable. When you have someone who's persuasively arguing that you're morally obligated to do something that you're not planning to do, it's comforting to find out that he's got some monstrous views in another area, so he can safely be dismissed as a bad person and ignored.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:35 AM
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Most people in the U.S. are utilitarians even if they have never hear the terms utilitarian or consequentialist.

It is not hard to frame questions in a way that gets them to think like a utilitarian and it is not hard to reframe the question in a way that gets them to think like a deontologist. This is a robust, cross-cultural psychological result. You can even show that the different styles of thinking are associated with different patterns of brain activity. (I suspect Tweety will tell me why this is a grossly misleading oversimplification, however.)

Joshua Green's paper The Secret Joke in Kant's Soul is great on this topic. Plus it calls attention to Kant's neglected essay "Concerning Wanton Self-Abuse."


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:35 AM
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It might be fairer to put the objection this way: while making people happier is one morally relevant consideration, it isn't the only one; hence the theory is grossly oversimplifying moral reasoning.


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:35 AM
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As an example, here in my city there is a group of people who are pushing for a universal, privatized enrollment system for schools.

They present their argument in efficiency and (dare I say) utilitarian terms: Rather than having 80 neighborhood schools each do their own enrollment, think how much better it would be if there were a single process!

People like me are deeply mistrustful of this argument, in part because we suspect that the people pushing it are dismissing or minimizing the costs associated with centralizing enrollment -- for example, the burdens on families with limited transportation.

This is not to say that universal enrollment could never work, just that the specific incarnation being touted (especially since it would handle enrollment for public, charter, and parochial schools) is not as "obviously" better as its proponents would have you believe.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:36 AM
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Say what you will about Singer, but The Usual Suspects is still a hell of a movie.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:37 AM
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Rather than having 80 neighborhood schools each do their own enrollment, think how much better it would be if there were a single process!

This isn't even a particularly utilitarian argument. You can't just claim that every argument about efficiency is utilitarian. Even Kantians admit that efficiency is a value sometimes.

Of course utilitarianism is going to look bad if you just think that every abstract oversimplified argument that mentions consequences is utilitiarian.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:41 AM
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Say what you will about Hayek, but there's never been a better vampire film than From Dusk Till Dawn.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:42 AM
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We live in such a world, and most of the time most people aren't bothered in the slightest.

Almost no one's bothered about terrorism? Have you missed the last twelve years or something?


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:44 AM
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while making people happier is one morally relevant consideration, it isn't the only one;

Maybe, but so many of the other ones wind up looking like Kant's argument against masturbation. "Sure, we want people to be happy, but we don't want them masturbating to get there. That's just wrong."

I should work. Maybe Neil the Ethical Werewolf will show up to take over the argument.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:45 AM
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Just make it so that the government has less control over designating who gets to be a slave by using race as the indicator of who is unprotected from unpleasantness.

But that only makes you stop worrying about being a slave. A government that can say "everyone of this race gets to be a slave for the rest of their lives" can also say "everyone in this city [or with this surname, or whatever] gets to be ground up for fertiliser".


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:46 AM
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I'm a little confused about what the proposal referenced in 36 would mean. What does "centralized" enrollment mean in this context. I was under the impression that most public school enrollment was somewhat centralized, at least in terms of the central administration keeping track of things. And what are the details of privatizing it? Like, you'd send your request in to Kaplan or Sylvan or someone like that and they'd tell the school district where to place you?


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:47 AM
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40: People are bothered about terrorism, but don't accept terrorist violence as right -- they're unconflicted about thinking terrorists are bad people doing bad things. They're mostly not bothered by or conflicted about the prospect of our (good, legal, morally justified) government killing people without judicial process.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 8:58 AM
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rob, my point was that it's being presented as not merely efficient but a way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist). I certainly agree that efficiency arguments do not automatically equal utilitarian arguments.

43: It means one body having control over enrollment. Right now, parents can march into their local neighborhood school and enroll their child. There are different processes for magnet and "special-admit" schools, but the fundamental ability to go someplace nearby and get enrollment done is in place.

Obviously the central district office then keeps records of students enrolled at various locations, but the point is that parents don't have to schlep downtown to a main office in order to enroll their child.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:02 AM
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42: I don't know. Slavery managed to persist here for hundreds of years without anybody white much worrying about that.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:02 AM
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They're mostly not bothered by or conflicted about the prospect of our (good, legal, morally justified) government killing people without judicial process.

Because they're fairly sure that most of the people being killed are, in fact, terrorists, and so it doesn't indicate a potential threat to them as long as they don't become terrorists.

46: I don't know about that. For most of that time a lot of white people were deeply worried about slavery because there were a lot of white people being sold as slaves. Sometimes by their own governments. See, for example, http://www.macleodgenealogy.org/ACMS/D0082/I619.html


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:09 AM
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42 to 47.1.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:15 AM
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I don't like utilitarianism because the flat prior on how much you should care about other people (entities, whatever) is fucking stupid, impossibly unrealistic, and probably inherently likely to lead to contradictory and/or evidently immoral conclusions. But also I don't feel like arguing about it.

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Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:17 AM
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47: Norman, as his eldest son, succeeded him as tacksman of Berneray, where he introduced many improvements in the system of farming then prevalent in the Isles, began the manufacture of kelp on a large scale

Harvesting kelp, maybe. Manufacturing kelp? Out of what?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:19 AM
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Mars bars.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:20 AM
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Kelp is our word for it. You Americans call it "aluminum". Or possibly "suspenders".


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:22 AM
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Maize.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:25 AM
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It seems strange to make ones moral judgement of enslaving one group of people contingent on the vague, unquantifiable worries of another group. If there's a particularly effective, soothing PR campaign do the scales tip the other way?


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:28 AM
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I'm sure there's all sorts of work on how to apply utilitarianism in an uncertain world

Uncertainty is the key to defeating most repugnant utilitarian arguments. If you really knew that the terrorist knew where the bomb was, and would tell you accurately where it was, then you would have independent knowledge of its existence, and the torture would be unnecessary. If you lack any independent grounds for discovering the bomb, then you have no way of knowing the terrorist will give you accurate information to find it.

It's just an exercise in sadism, poorly justified.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:36 AM
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I'm not at all against having people do moral philosophy in universities, because a lot of good work has been done by a lotmof smart people and it sure seems like a research program worth keeping around, but from an ordnary person's perspective it sure does seem have a terrible promised value/actual value ratio. "Hey, professor, how should I decide how to make morally correct decisions? This is a very important issue for me and everyone I know!" "Well, glurp doop derp impractical jargon unrealistic seems weird trolley problem beep glerp." This problem isn't confined to utilitarianism -- AFAICT there's been pretty much no advance over folk morality that's worth nonspecialists learning about.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:38 AM
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It's not always that laborious to point out the areas in which we lack information. And there's nothing about utilitarianism in principle which requires assuming certainty.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:39 AM
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I think that's right. There's usually one more move, where the repugnant utilitarian starts appealing to percentages of certainty ("If there's even a one percent chance of saving a hundred thousand people, isn't that worth torturing one terrorist?"), and you then have to counter with pointing out that the repugnant utilitarian doesn't even have enough knowledge to put a reliable percentage on the consequences.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:39 AM
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58 to 55.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:40 AM
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It seems to me that what you're arguing against isn't "utilitarianism" exactly, but just a particular form of bad consequentialist argument used by idiots.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:41 AM
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A utilitarian system based on negligence -- or trying not to be negligent -- might be a fairly applicable moral system. In short, don't slough off risks to others which you can more easily avoid yourself.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:42 AM
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Or, to link 60 to 56, I need to know exactly zero about moral philosophy, utilitarian or otherwise, to know that the ticking time bomb argument is (almost always, and always for practical purposes) a lameass argument.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:43 AM
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I'm not so much arguing against the philosophy, as trying to identify why it makes people angry -- that it's well-suited to being used in a bullying way that's unsatisfying to argue against. (That is, you can't win a ticking-timebomb argument by being clever, you can only reject the premises and call the person proposing them an ass.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:44 AM
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In my field, the big utilitarian argument is for the peripheral canal around the Bay-Delta. It could well cost a couple hundred thousand people some inconvenience and some of those, their way of life. On the other hand, without the canal, an earthquake could cut off a large portion of Los Angeles's water for two or three years, and they likely can only go without it for half of those. To me, this weighs heavy for Los Angeles, but we are in fact stuck at arguing the probability of earthquakes.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:47 AM
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The point has been made before that the Old South was pretty much a police state - it had to be, to keep the slaves in line. Similarly, apartheid South Africa was a vicious police state - it had to be, to keep the blacks in line. It tended to be more "creepy surveillance" towards the whites and more "disperse or we open fire" towards the blacks, and I guess 1840s South Carolina probably wasn't much different. Anyway, it wasn't an intuition of Mill's, it was an observation.


Posted by: Alex | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:48 AM
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and you then have to counter with pointing out that the repugnant utilitarian doesn't even have enough knowledge to put a reliable percentage on the consequences.

This is right. And not only is the repugnant utilitarian incapable of calculating the odds, he -- let's make him male -- doesn't even have the information to have a discussion about the odds in any valuable way. And an actual utilitarian which understood this would say that, in those situations, it is negligent to speculate -- in most cases it will lead you to an incorrect rather than a correct decision.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:48 AM
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63 makes sense. But I take satisfaction in calling bullies asses even if they can also be defeated in a more reasonable manner.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:50 AM
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Manufacturing kelp? Out of what?

Out of kelp, obviously! (The OED says: "kelp, n. 1. A collective term for large seaweeds (chiefly Fucaceæ and Laminariaceæ). 2. The calcined ashes of seaweed used in commerce for the sake of the carbonate of soda, iodine, and other substances which they contain; large quantities were formerly used in the manufacture of soap and glass.")


Posted by: Gareth Rees | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:54 AM
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49 is right, except you should enjoy arguing.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:54 AM
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And what I mean by a utilitarianism based on negligence is not a search for duties -- not the rote test which you have to write out in order to not commit malpractice -- but the actual test which is applied in cases. You owe a duty whenever you have information that should alert you to a risk of loss or harm, and you can take precautions to avoid it with less cost than the harm itself will cause. A person could make that into a utilitarian philosophy which wouldn't necessarily include stupid torture scenarios.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:56 AM
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Wouldn't it be easier to have a set of deontological ethics that precludes torture?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:58 AM
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I don't like utilitarianism because the flat prior on how much you should care about other people (entities, whatever) is fucking stupid, impossibly unrealistic, and probably inherently likely to lead to contradictory and/or evidently immoral conclusions.

I think the problem here is larger than just utilitarianism. It's the grounded in the idea that to have a moral reason to do something is definitionally to have a reason that trumps other reasons. This is pretty much taken for granted by people doing philosophical ethics. That people can't as a matter of "contingent" fact be as other-regarding (or duty-regarding, or virtue-regarding) as most modern moral systems demand is taken to be a problem with people rather than with the enterprise of philosophical ethics.


Posted by: Criminally Bulgur | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:58 AM
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72.last: but it's not even a good way to design an ideal system to accomplish whatever moral maximization you're looking for. If you have some kind of agent-based system where agents can influence a limited number of reasonably local other agents, why the hell would you have each agent trying to satisfice based on some estimate of global anything. It's just a bafflingly bad way to think about systems.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:02 AM
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This is pretty much taken for granted by people doing philosophical ethics.

I think this is not really true. See, for instance, the views discussed in Sarah Buss's excellent paper "Needs (Someone Else's), Projects (My Own), and Reasons".


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:05 AM
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to have a moral reason to do something is definitionally to have a reason that trumps other reasons. This is pretty much taken for granted by people doing philosophical ethics.

I swore off this thread but this dragged me back in. If I understand the quoted sentences correctly this is contentious, not near-platitudinous. Lots of people think that moral rationalism is false. But I might be misreading you.


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:05 AM
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I swore off this thread but this dragged me back in.

I can stupid it up further if you have work to do.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:08 AM
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In my field, the big utilitarian argument is for the peripheral canal around the Bay-Delta. It could well cost a couple hundred thousand people some inconvenience and some of those, their way of life. On the other hand, without the canal, an earthquake could cut off a large portion of Los Angeles's water for two or three years, and they likely can only go without it for half of those. To me, this weighs heavy for Los Angeles, but we are in fact stuck at arguing the probability of earthquakes.

It seems like both sides are using utilitarian arguments here. You are trying to measure one set of consequences against another, which is the right way to go about evaluating public works.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:08 AM
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I wish I could quit you, Sifu. I wish I could.


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:08 AM
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This may be somewhat obtuse, but if people are incapable of being moral rationalists -- if they are incapable of refraining from creating negative externalities to support their own perceived benefit -- then on the aggregate, we are an enormous collective action problem. We will create more harm for each other than we create benefit for ourselves, and will be each unhappier than we would be if we could all be moral rationalist. And in that case, I have good cause to hate everybody.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:13 AM
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It seems to me that what you're arguing against isn't "utilitarianism" exactly, but just a particular form of bad consequentialist argument used by idiots.

Yes, this. Can we at least stipulate that "Utilitarianism bugs me because vaguely resembles arguments made by idiots" doesn't actually have much philosophical weight?


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:13 AM
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78: Yet more proof of the insufficency of utilitarian arguments.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:13 AM
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80: Can you make a utilitarian argument against utilitarianism? That it is a belief system particularly prone to be misused by idiots? So, we're better off with less people knowing about it and trying to make utilitarian arguments?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:17 AM
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80: See the OP. I'm not talking about utilitarianism as good or bad philosophy, which I'm not qualified to (I have to look up deontological to remember what it means every time it comes up). I was only trying to address Holbo's question at CT about why non-philosophers actually have hostile feelings about it -- it's not that the hostility I'm identifying is a fair response to sane utilitarian arguments, it's that bad utilitarian arguments are both common and particularly enraging for the reasons given in the OP and in 63.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:19 AM
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More of 83: Which means that yes, we absolutely can stipulate that.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:20 AM
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In other words, if the paper discussed in 74 accurately demonstrates that people can't make moral decisions, it ought to be called "Better Off Dead".


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:21 AM
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74, 75: fair enough. Where I studied philosophy (Boston-area), it was taken as close to axiomatic.


Posted by: Criminally Bulgur | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:27 AM
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Oh, well, sure, in BOSTON.


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:30 AM
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Since the world is so full of uncertainty, it's impossible to find a case where utilitarianism recommends *anything* with certainty. It's an impossibly impractical way of making decisions in any situation except one with a completely implausible level of knowledge about consequences. Better to rely on heuristics like the Golden Rule etc, which at least return an answer.

What's cool is, this doesn't make utilitarianism any less true! It just means we should be much less confident in all of our political beliefs.

I am for abortion rights and find abortion clinic bombers disgusting. Is a world with abortion clinic bombers 0.001% less likely to have a nuclear disaster which kills everyone? I have no idea, no proposed mechanism, no nothing! But if so, I'm glad there are abortion clinic bombers. This means that my belief in my own abortion views is closer to 55% than to 90%.


Posted by: dz | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:30 AM
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"Can you make a utilitarian argument against utilitarianism?"

Absolutely! See Derek Parfit, "Reasons and Persons".


Posted by: dz | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:31 AM
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I have no idea, no proposed mechanism, no nothing!

You'll never make it as a philosopher with that attitude.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:33 AM
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It just means we should be much less confident in all of our political beliefs. (presumably)

Is this a good thing to have happen?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:50 AM
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Maybe?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:51 AM
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Since the world is so full of uncertainty, it's impossible to find a case where utilitarianism recommends *anything* with certainty.

It might in fact recommend the use of certain heuristics with certainty.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:55 AM
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Here's a real prediction of utilitarianism that I haven't seen in Singer or elsewhere. The 3 classic reasons for punishment are deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. But utilitarianism considers retribution to be a bad thing, rather than a good thing. So to the degree that we as a society take retribution into account when assigning penalties for various crimes, we're overall harsher on criminals than we should be.


Posted by: dz | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:16 AM
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73 is very wrong, and just uncharitable towards utilitarians. Let's hand it over to Austin: "It was never contended or conceited by a sound, orthodox utilitarian that the lover should kiss his mistress with an eye to the common weal" (John Austin, The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, 2nd Edition, 1861, p. 101). Just because the ultimate grounding of the comparison of states of affairs is an impartial measure of utility, doesn't mean that intermediate judgements--of character, habits, or most relevantly, policies and the aptness of blaming or praising--ignore the crucial data about the limits of empathy and so on. In fact one key advantage of rightly-done consequentialism is that it * naturally * incorporates the theory of the second-best, rather than having to jury-rig it in as with some others. I can't write more now, but you're so, so wrong, and should read Sidgewick.

Honestly, the main problem with utilitarianism is that Sidgewick got everything basically right 100 years ago, at which point utilitarians decided to become economists and forget everything beyond the caricature of their own grounding morality.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:16 AM
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94: HLA Hart was banging that drum 50 years ago.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:18 AM
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95.1: I can pretty much promise I'm not going to do any of the reading here, so feel free to ignore me, but if the ultimate grounding is an impartial measure that is impossible to ever meaningfully calculate in practice, that doesn't sound like a terribly useful moral philosophy.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:19 AM
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link to that last reference.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:20 AM
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98: Thanks, glad to see it.

97: Whoever said it was useful? Although it is useful sometimes, a la Singer.


Posted by: dz | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:24 AM
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97 continued: and if you say "well, in theory the needs of all should be weighed equally, but since you can't do that, you should obviously weigh your personal assessment of consequences by how valid you believe your inference will be" then it seems like you're just constructing a prior where you care more about people you're close to, which just falls out to something like folk morality. Which is fine by me, but then... big whoop?

I'm sure I"m missing all the things.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:25 AM
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97: now I'm confused. 'Equality' makes for an easier calculation than 'weighed according to a complicated function.'


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:26 AM
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94: I think you've got some more work to do there. I don't think anyone here disagrees with your conclusion that prison sentences are much longer than they should be, and there is certainly a utilitarian route to that conclusion. But in the absence of other justifications for punishment, retribution might make sense for a utilitarian. In other words, the fact that people are drawn to punish for the sake of punishment might, in the absence of other ginned up justifications for punishment, actually result in prison term lengths which maximize utility.

These days I think that both deterrence and rehabilitation are oversold. There is probably some deterrence at work, and some rehabilitation, but we probably don't know, and aren't anywhere near knowing, what specifically deters and what rehabilitates. Just wanting to punish people, and operating solely on those emotional grounds, might result in sentences which maximize both deterrence and rehabilitation, to the extent that either is possible in individual cases.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:26 AM
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99.last is not a qualification likely to sway me.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:26 AM
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101: "I know this person better, so I can make a better estimate of what will maximize their happiness" is not a complicated function in practice.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:28 AM
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104: But the very way you put that weighting justification shows how naturally any sensible consequentialism would *have* to incorporate it when evaluating habits or character traits or heuristics.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:31 AM
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104 assumes that knowledge includes capability.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:31 AM
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105: right, sure. But then you're imported inequality of treatment back into things, because you are inevitably going to have better information about how to maximize the happiness of those closest to you, and the very best information (well, probably) about how to maximize your own happiness, so the best job you can do of being a consequentialist is to think about yourself first and then those closest to you (along whatever vector), which is just not the way these things seem to get talked about in practice (in my very limited experience).


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:35 AM
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107: If you are too stupid to understand when you are harming others more than you are benefiting those who you assume to know so well, you really shouldn't be given so much leeway to make moral decisions.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:38 AM
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106: not really. I mean, they're probably correlated. But insofar as the exercise of whatever capability obtains is predicated on having a good estimate of consequences, the actual practical upshot is going to be a lot more of that exercise to the end of improving outcomes for those closest to you. So why not start from there and try to fix local, intuitive inequalities instead of this ridiculous top down conception of universal equality that is unwieldy and apparently almost immediately jettisoned even in academic contexts?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:39 AM
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108: the stomping jackboot of utility maximization enforcers will surely take care of that free parameter.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:42 AM
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109: Yes it does. You might really have knowledge about what would make someone happy and yet be incapable of bringing that situation about. Someone else, with half the knowledge, but full capability, would be in a better position to maximize your loved one's utility, in that situation.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:42 AM
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110: Really, someone should. Otherwise people will continue to be assholes on the basis that they really know what their family wants.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:45 AM
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111: sure, yes. That might be situation. But in general, they're going to be correlated, and if your certainty of action is weighted by your understanding of what will make somebody happy, you are (on average, you understand) going to generally have a gradient of consequentialist efficacy from those best understood by you to those least understood. This doesn't mean that in any particular situation you're not going to have access to a perfectly legitimate utilitarian calculation that you should stop harming somebody who you otherwise know nothing about, but the fact that it reduces to such a basically unequal situation in the aggregate makes me feel like it's a fairly inchoate, or at least inefficient, place to start in developing a broadly applicable moral philosophy.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:48 AM
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I can't write more now, but you're so, so wrong, and should read Sidgewick.

This is awesome and made more so by the typo.


Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:49 AM
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113: Sifu, do you think most people are incapable of simply articulating what it is they want? Do you think that knowing what other people want is some sort of secret wisdom which is rarer than actually having that thing which is wanted?

I do not believe that to be the case in most situations. The issue isn't knowing what would make a person happy, the issue seems to be bringing it about.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:55 AM
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Further to 113, in the aggregate, knowing that your family likes vacations and expensive booze would not justify being an asshole to the rest of the world in order to obtain those things, because you should have enough sense to know that the world does not want you to be an asshole, and if you don't, then you should have less freedom to make decisions.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:57 AM
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115.1: ad verecundiam


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 11:58 AM
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117: If you'd like me to put it in jargon, the incidence of knowing -- or being able to know, having been given some small degree of instruction -- what undertaking would make a person or group of people happy, is extremely high. So the relative value of that knowledge is low, as compared to the capability of actually bringing the desired outcome into being.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 12:03 PM
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114: This is probably a stupid question, but why does the typo make it more awesome.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 12:25 PM
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Speaking as an old pro, the OP is an excellent piece of philosophy, and a lot of philosophers would agree with it. The old-school utilitarians are not going to listen, though, any more than the neoclassical economists -- people who love clean abstract models are not going to give them up merely on the grounds of demonstrable falsity.


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 12:56 PM
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omg.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 12:57 PM
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Have I shocked nosflow, or was that looking further back?


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:21 PM
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122: Have you two met?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:23 PM
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You can even show that the different styles of thinking are associated with different patterns of brain activity.

Bonus: this is true for all types of thinking, not just moral philosophy!


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:24 PM
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Ole nos' and I go way back, but I don't think I've ever shocked him before.


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:30 PM
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As several mentioned above, I do believe a lot of what LB is describing does come down to somewhat the same thing which bedevils applications of game theory to human behavior. So likewise, it should always be discussed in the context of "mechanical rationality" or "model rationality" which would signal that the conclusions hold within the bounds of the artificial models (which can include probabilistic assumptions including explicit and/or implicit priors). Application to any actual real-word course of action is a very different exercise.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:43 PM
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One confesses to having felt a modicum of surprise at the sight of dr. friendly's email address in this context.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:49 PM
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I've been lurking for years -- I'm your *fan*.
But I should probably figure out how to hide my email address.


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:53 PM
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Golly.

Just don't include it (and fiddle with the "remember personal info" box); you aren't required to have one.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:56 PM
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Don't fill it in.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:56 PM
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The way to hide it as already posted is to ask nos to do so.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:58 PM
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duh!


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:58 PM
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Should the rest of us discreetly back out of this thread?


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:59 PM
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128: You've commented here before without revealing your email address. You're just messing with nosflow, right?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 1:59 PM
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You might really have knowledge about what would make someone happy and yet be incapable of bringing that situation about. Someone else, with half the knowledge, but full capability, would be in a better position to maximize your loved one's utility, in that situation....Otherwise people will continue to be assholes on the basis that they really know what their family wants....But in general, they're going to be correlated

There's wisdom in this exchange. I think you can draw a wider insight. I think a lot of politics, and life in general, is defined by choice versus capability. The libertarian to neoliberal spectrum in politics is all about choice. The rival, religious authoritarian spectrum in the Right is rather different.

On the left, we generally believe that capability comes first - it may be our defining feature. But it's a divide that runs through us, too. In theory, the point of communism is that with so much capability, who needs choice? In practice, the justification of Stalinism and Maoism was that supposedly greater capability justified no choice. The core insight of all the socialisms you'd want to live in is that the two are complementary.


Posted by: Alex | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:02 PM
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Shorter me: I worked for an ex-Bain consultant and now everything looks like a 2x2 matrix.


Posted by: Alex | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:03 PM
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but the fact that it reduces to such a basically unequal situation in the aggregate makes me feel like it's a fairly inchoate, or at least inefficient, place to start in developing a broadly applicable moral philosophy.

Ok, lunchtime. Let me try to do a better job of restating what I was trying to say:

It's a mistake to think of (my preferred version of) utilitarianism as being primarily focused on recommending actions in individual decision-cases. It can be applied to this, yes, but fundamentally it's a claim about a certain way to systematize and make coherent our foundational sense that we have reasons to pick one thing over another--that "ought" is a real thing. Consequentialism says that we can best make this coherent by imagining a better or worseness of overall states of affairs, where everyone's utility/flourishing/lack of suffering/whatever is equally taken into account. But this standard is then applied to all sorts of possible evaluands: actions, sure, but also institutions, habits, upbringings, and so on. And because all of the latter--especially institutions--are so much more significant for how humans actually act than idealized decision-situations taken in the abstract, consequentialism is naturally and quite properly more focused on the latter.

A lot of the repugnant cases and so on come up precisely because people like focusing on individual acts. The standard move is to highlight the absurdity of removing context (one-off organ theft vs institutional liability to harvesting), and that feels to many like a cop-out, but it's actually a feature not a bug of the consequentialist framework that this sort of tension (a good act that transgresses good rules) makes complete sense within it, because acts are simultaneously one-off events that bring about states of affairs and actions in conformity with or opposed to various habits or rules or institutions or what-have-you. We humans recognize and experience both sides of this--"I should do this because this is who I am" vs "but doing the other thing seems better in the abstract"--and consequentialism makes sense of this conflictedness.

More importantly--and here's this really connects with what seems Sifu's objection--it handles this sense of conflict in a principled way (which is not the same as a mechanical, easy-answer way). At any given moment, we can simultaneously consider the better or worseness of particular acts, the habits that might lead to them, the system of societal reproduction that might lead to those habits, the specific or general institutions that make these situations more likely or not, the value of attempting to influence any of these things by shaming or praising or what-have-you, and so on; and even though these different levels of analysis might give different answers (torture the prisoner! but punish the torturer! and institute an independent prosecutor to do so, and cameras in all interrogation rooms, etc!), this isn't because of ad-hoc exceptions being made, but because variables that determine better or worseness are different in very straightforward ways when the level of analysis changes.

Getting back to partiality: the consequentialist view, then, helps us both understand partiality as a understandable and inevitable feature of human psychology and see it as leading to our systematically failing to achieve better outcomes. Insofar as our habits and institutions encourage and inculcate a partiality that systematically has people choosing $1000 wedding rings instead of anti-malarial bednets, there's at least potential room for change--not in the sense that the welfare of the stranger on another continent will ever be as effectively motivating as that of my loved ones, but in that our institutions ought, as much as this is both possible in a sustainable way, to correct for this. Most of the time, this recognition that we should do better doesn't matter--but sometimes it does, like when we're trying to inculcate children with an ethical sensibility, or structuring a yearly budget (rather than making daily choices), or contemplating political priorities and policies. At which point we should always, looking towards the underlying betterness of impartially-weighted better outcomes, try to do better than our natural partiality would dictate.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:06 PM
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Thanks for 137.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:16 PM
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Adding one little bit more to connect back to the OP: I'd actually disagree with Millicent about "The old-school utilitarians", because I think (hence my Austin quote) that the really old-school ones understood this. They were focused on the institutional side of things because institutions are the important thing. Ticking-time bomb assholes rightly provoke hostility, but they're not old-school utilitarians at all--their focus on these edge cases shows that they really don't give a shit about actually improving outcomes, but are instead pathologically focused on unimportant edge cases, and are willing to tear down the (much more consequentially significant) institutions for the sake of this fixation.

But obviously Millicent knows way more about the history of philosophy than I do.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:17 PM
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peep, you must be watching closely -- I comment about once a year, then subside back into cowering lurkerdom. Not that I don't enjoy messing with nosflow, of course.


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:17 PM
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As who among us does not?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:19 PM
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140: Not that closely. I just googled.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:25 PM
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In so far as I understand it, I like 137 too.

Honestly, the main problem with utilitarianism is that Sidgewick got everything basically right 100 years ago

This sounds just like something my best friend from high school said when he discovered Sidgwick in college.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:28 PM
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IIRC Allen Wood has a particularly strong version of the x. line in 139 according to which Mill, at least, doesn't think the principle of utility is supposed to be used directly certainly in the case of individual actions and possibly at all (citing the bit of Utilitarianism ch. 2 requesting that men "leave off talking nonsense on this subject"); this is supposed to be something different from just reading Mill as a rule utilitarian. Unfortunately the only thing I have to hand where he says something along these lines is in an essay that's actually about Kant (denying that the formula of universal law is supposed to be used as a decision procedure). I think he says something to this effect in his review of the most recent Parfit book?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:28 PM
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Thanks X -- 'old-school' was the wrong phrase, since I agree with the folks above who point out that Mill and Sidgwick were infinitely more nuanced and ethically useful than the cartoon utilitarian view. The question is whether there's a substantive project left by the time you've added in *all* the nuances and complications and qualifications and forms of indirection that the grownup utilitarians will admit are necessary.


Posted by: millicent friendly | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:31 PM
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Wood's claim about Mill was supposed to differentiate Mill from Sidgwick, as I now recall, if, indeed, I do recall.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:32 PM
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Can you make a utilitarian argument against utilitarianism? That it is a belief system particularly prone to be misused by idiots? So, we're better off with less people knowing about it and trying to make utilitarian arguments?

YOU CALLED?


Posted by: OPINIONATED GOVERNMENT-HOUSE UTILITARIANISM | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:45 PM
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137.last is interesting, and reasonably thought provoking. In truth my (as I've mentioned, basically pig-ignorant) picture of utilitarianism has really been much more of the (I'm assuming) new-school, Peter Singer, individual actions variety (is it a variety?). I still sort of think on some half-assed intuitive level that it should be possible to build a coherent, satisfying moral philosophy starting from first principles of partiality and, let's just get in trouble here, plausibly-innate asymmetries in human social relationships, but thinking about consequentialism as specifically institution-focused makes much more sense (and was knocking around the back of my mind as an exceptional case when I was doing my ignorant trolling inquisitory probing above).


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:46 PM
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For want of an ended strikethrough, the joke was lost. For want of a joke, the comment was lost. For want of a comment, dick-all was lost. So that's fine.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:47 PM
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I don't really see the argument that "utilitarianism for institutions" provides much meaningful added value, unless we're just going to call all cost-benefit analysis that an institution undertakes "utilitarianism."

I mean basically every institution already makes decisions based on some weighing of cost vs. benefit for the perceived constituents of that institution, which is all well and good (how else could you operate if you have to make choices for an institution at all). So I don't really see what tying that basic principle into some general moral theory does for anyone, other than making utilitarianism seem not obviously insane. And as soon as you start asking the institution to weigh cost-benefit for those beyond the constituents of the institution (the whole world? who knows?) you run into all the familiar rat-orgasm problems of trying to figure out what's better or worse for everyone on earth.,


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 2:56 PM
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other than making utilitarianism seem not obviously insane

If it makes trapnel happy...


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 3:03 PM
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I mean, what do I know. I guess Trapnel's 137 is probably less useless than Kantianism.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 3:03 PM
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137 is good. A lot of those points are also made by Dale Jamieson in When utilitarians should be virtue theorists. That is a paper that did a lot to make me a utilitarian.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 3:04 PM
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153: I'm familiar with the basic argument, which perhaps led me to believe that it was more universally accepted than it is. A consequentialist might -- and I would guess in most instances does -- recommend an individual regimen of virtue -- basically, a heuristic designed to lead, in most cases, to better outcomes -- while recommending a more nuanced approach to institutions with individuals in it who are paid to do the analysis.

But I am against -- I set my face against it -- Sifu's proposal of a consequentialist excuse for partiality. It is easily subject to abuse. Empathy takes effort, while it is all to easy to feel one's own pain, and we don't need a philosophy to support prioritization of one's own pain over another's.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 4:37 PM
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And I also want to laud 137, particularly the last paragraph. Consequentialism explains to us the importance of institutions in overcoming individual partiality. And if our institutions are so oriented, any individual's own partiality for his family can be justified. You pay taxes, so you don't have to buy every child on the block a bicycle.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 4:44 PM
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I suppose I just supported a consequentialist excuse for partiality, but only if we are paying people to overcome partiality.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 4:45 PM
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157

This is all vaguely familiar. I suppose one could argue that a consequentialist view of legal decision making should incorporate the goal of overcoming partiality in addition to the goal of increasing aggregate wealth.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 4:54 PM
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I think someone -- perhaps Strauss at U of C -- has made the argument in 157. I've often thought that there isn't really much distance between Strauss and Posner, aside from humility.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 4:57 PM
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154.last: I certainly did not intend to offer -- in fact I think I succeeded in failing to offer -- any such thing.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:05 PM
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159: Well but I'm glad I mistook you for making it, as it caused me to remember a bunch of stuff.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:09 PM
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The question is whether there's a substantive project left by the time you've added in *all* the nuances and complications and qualifications and forms of indirection that the grownup utilitarians will admit are necessary.

Sure there is! There are lots of projects left, in fact. But they're more easily recognizable when called by names like "political theory", "applied social psychology", "political economy", and so on. (And even some room for individual-decision ethics, I suppose, except that most consequentialists would feel a bit odd spending too much time on it, since the other stuff matters much more.) Not that most people engaged in these projects are doing so with the proper consequentialist background in mind, of course. (Which gets to what I was saying about all the utilitarians deciding that the lesson was to stop being philosophers, which would be fine except then they forgot all the philosophy.)


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:21 PM
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So do I have this right? Utilitarians are to moral philosophy as Bayesians are to statisticians.

(Yes, I know. I ban myself.)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:26 PM
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163

-ian


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:27 PM
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150: I don't really see the argument that "utilitarianism for institutions" provides much meaningful added value

Perhaps it is just me, but that is not what I took from 137 at all. Rather, I viewed it as a call for setting up institutions in such a way that the various institution's consequential calculations would tend towards the inclusive rather than more narrow interests. Democracies vs. oligarchies for instance. Or a "balanced*" hierarchy of spans of government to capture both the particular and the global**.

*I certainly don't know they anywhere that has gotten this right yet. however.

**I think, for instance, that the vicious kneejerk anti-UN nutjobs*** are "correct" within their worldview to hate it, since its very existence presumes a scope of consideration of harms and benefits that they consider illegitimate.

***The we would have one (John Bolton) as out UN Ambassador is one of those things that really was deeply shameful.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:31 PM
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165

Essearian the Armenian.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:32 PM
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164: If only the author of 137 were around.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:33 PM
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So obviously someone needs to be working on Bayesian Utilitarianism, where you base your decision on your prior distribution of happiness probabilities.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:36 PM
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167: I wrote but then deleted a comment that the weighted version of utilitarianism people were talking about seemed like it pretty much just reduced to bayesian decision-making where the value function has a distribution over people. Presumably that's a thing people know/think about? Would be kinda nutty if not.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:44 PM
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I know some people who are nuisance parameters. I'm afraid they'll get marginalized.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:47 PM
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169: you can explain them away.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:49 PM
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Allow me to be the first to introduce the theoretical concept of the "utility monster", beloved of an undergraduate seminar. Someone who derives such vast utility from others' misfortune that the most utilitarian outcome harms the many but just tickles him silly with delight. An empire of Schadenfreude; alternately, the 1% just appreciate their wealth so much more than you hate your poverty and poor health.

(now going back to read the thread. really just wanted to say "utility monster".)


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 5:50 PM
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I thought the utility monster was more "Charlie Sheen" than "Vlad Tepes."


Posted by: turgid jacobian | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:04 PM
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I grew up in a house with a utility room. Because my parents were deontologicalists, we used it for laundry.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:17 PM
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Reddy Kilowatt, the Utility Monster.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:22 PM
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173 made Blume make the sad trombone noise.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:25 PM
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I should probably just have linked to a sound clip of that noise.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:35 PM
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It's just "deontologists", Moby.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:39 PM
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176, for future reference. Might as well have it be your pseud URL.


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:42 PM
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Reddy KilowattTopper Harley, the utility monster.


Posted by: Turgid Jacobian | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:45 PM
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64: Megan! Talking about water! On the internet!

(There's a compelling utilitarian argument for you to do this more often.)


Posted by: torrey pine | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 6:54 PM
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177: Even in Nebraska?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:04 PM
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164 sounds good, but I'm practically delirious from a cold or the flu right now, so I reserve the right to take that back.


Posted by: x.trapnel | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:14 PM
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Does everyone in the country have this same damn cold? Seems like everyone I know has been sick in the last couple weeks. I bet it will turn out just like The Stand.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 7:24 PM
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Just got back from seeing the movie A Fierce Green Fire, and I'm all fired up against the utilitarians who wanted to dam the Grand Canyon.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 9:19 PM
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They had already taken your hatred into account.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 11- 4-13 10:53 PM
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