Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Musing Response

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Since I had referenced The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick from Ebon Musings in an attempt to move this discussion forward, and since Ernie had offered some criticisms of Universal Utilitarianism in his response, I thought I would bring this portion of our conversation to the attention of the author of that article and to invite him to provide feedback of his own. He was kind enough to reply and to allow me to post his response here.

I thank you for bringing this discussion to my attention - I'm glad to see that my ideas have inspired a productive philosophical debate. I read your response to your friend and I think it excellently sums up what I would say. However, if you request, I'll provide a response of my own to his criticisms:

"What is the error? That he fails to see the value of hypocrisy. Yes, I absolutely want to live in a world where everyone else seeks maximize the happiness of the whole. But, rationally speaking, it is better for me if [within that context] I can find a way to maximize my own happiness [at the expense of others] -- as long as I don't get caught! That is, as long as I can maintain the appearance of civic-mindedness, I can enjoy the benefits of such a society without having to pay the price."

Yes, one could choose to be selfish - but it would violate the precepts of universal utilitarianism to do so. As I wrote in my essay, UU "asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them". A person who acts selfishly and tries to conceal it from others, therefore, is going completely against the spirit of this moral system. If your act would decrease the happiness of the person affected by it if they knew about it, then UU condemns that act, regardless of whether or not they actually do know.

Other than that, I'm not sure what the basis of your correspondent's complaint is. Is he saying that UU is not the best moral system because it is possible for people to violate it? If he expects the one true moral system to be intrinsically impossible to disobey, he's in for disappointment. Or is he saying that UU has no good way to deal with people who do choose to act in this way? If so, that criticism is incorrect. UU advises dealing with hypocrisy the same way anyone deals with it: insist on accountability from the people you interact with, take steps to ensure that they are doing as they promised, and if they refuse to provide this accountability or show evidence of going back on their promises, then it is right to cease interacting with them and even in some cases to punish them. How else would any moral system deal with this kind of behavior?

"Now, I suppose you might reply (as Ebon Muse seems to have done at one point) that people should always value each other's happiness as if it were their own 'just because it is the right thing to do.'... Is that true? If so, then let me me ask again: Why?"

I advise valuing other people's happiness because it is the right thing to do, and the reason it is the right thing to do is that it produces the greatest benefits for everyone concerned, yourself included. I give additional reasons to believe this in my supplementary essay on Daylight Atheism:


I think that aligns pretty well with my response.

Ernie, I'll respond to your latest post separately, possibly as early as tomorrow.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Nice to hear from the Ebon Muse. I'm okay with his response, as long as he's clear whether he's asserting:

a) UU is the optimal state for "all" people

b) UU is the optimal state for "each" person

At this point, I'm not sure which statement he's defending -- or whether he even acknowledges the distinction. If you could resolve that, it would help me greatly. Thanks.

Alan Lund said...

I had already exchanged some additional emails with the Ebon Muse, and I am quite certain he is asserting (a), not (b). We agree that there is frequently, but not always, alignment between self-interest and other-interest.

Dr. Ernie said...

Thanks, I appreciate the clarificaiton. This raises additional questions, of course, but I'll wait until you finish your reply to Metric [vs] System.