Monday, June 23, 2008

Confusing 'Collectivism'

Some further thoughts on Boaz's op-ed:
Obama and McCain are telling us Americans that our normal lives are not good enough, that pursuing our own happiness is "self-indulgence," that building a business is "chasing after our money culture," that working to provide a better life for our families is a "narrow concern."

They're wrong. Every human life counts. Your life counts. You have a right to live it as you choose, to follow your bliss.

(1) It's actually not clear from the proffered quotes that both candidates really are 'collectivists' as opposed to anti-egoists who think that we should care about other individuals' interests besides our own. Only McCain speaks of "a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests [plural]." I don't see anything in Obama's remarks that is inconsistent with a utilitarian's concern for all individuals as such. (He says, "our individual salvation depends on collective salvation." I'm not entirely sure what this means, but a common theme of Obama's is how people's interests are interrelated -- e.g. racism makes everyone worse off, not just blacks -- so I'd guess what he means is simply that our self-interest is aligned with making others in society better off too.)

(2) "Every human life counts." What ridiculous rhetoric. Does Boaz seriously believe that Obama disagrees? Indeed, wouldn't this support his anti-egoism, if anything? (It's not just oneself that matters, but everyone else too.)

(3) How is it that so many libertarians seem incapable of recognizing the basic conceptual distinction between individualism and egoism?

11 comments:

  1. From this post I went to the link on individualism and egoism. Well said! My thoughts precisely.

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  2. Richard, I think you're being a bit obtuse. McCain is just obviously an anti-individualist. Look at Matt Welch's book on McCain. He actively disdains individual projects. But you seem to sort of see that. Regarding Obama's speech, who would say "our individual salvation depends on collective salvation" simply to make a benign statement about the mutuality of individual interests?

    Whatever salvation is, Obama seems to think we need it. But individuals, he seems to say, can save themselves only as part of a concerted effort to save the whole. You can get what you need only by serving, by doing your part to save, the whole. He immediately goes on, "And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential." The something suggested is very clearly the project of collective salvation, and not, say, starting a band. You really have to torture it to not read it as a statement of collectivism.

    You're at Princeton. Find George Kateb, your great resident Emersonian, and see if he thinks this doesn't fit the pattern of classic anti-individualist political rhetoric.

    Boaz is saying your life is good enough -- it counts and you can reach your potential -- even if you only live it for yourself. Boaz really does believe in the mutuality of interests, which is why he doesn't think you need to be devoted to serving others to serve them. Because individual interests are interrelated, a life spent pursuing one's own interests is likely to serve others' interests as well.

    Also, "a utilitarian's concern for all individuals as such" has to my ear the rather dissonant sound of "a Kantian's concern for pleasure as such." What gives?

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  3. Will - I think you're making the same basic mistake of conflating collectivism with altruism.

    Collectivism, I take it, is the view that value inheres in groups as such, i.e. over and above the plural interests of their individual members. "National greatness conservatism" (a la McCain) is, I agree, a plain example of this. But altruism/utilitarianism simply isn't. For utilitarians, it is precisely individual persons who serve as the locus of value. It is an atomistic view which simply sums the individual values, rather than positing any higher 'collective' entity (e.g. 'the nation') which is irreducible to these parts. In short: it is precisely the view that "Every human life counts."

    With this clarified, I don't see any reason to think that Obama believes in 'the glory of the nation' or similar collectivistic values that go beyond the simple utilitarian concern for every individual's welfare.

    I agree that he is very obviously appealing to "the project of" altruism, i.e. serving other people who are in need. But this isn't collectivism in the sense of thinking that there are larger group-entities that matter more than the plurality of individuals that make them up.

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  4. The something suggested is very clearly the project of collective salvation, and not, say, starting a band. You really have to torture it to not read it as a statement of collectivism.

    Individuals are likely to led more fulfilling and enriching lives by moving beyond a narrow concern for their own selfish interests and aiming at improving the lives of others. How on Earth does this count as a statement of collectivism? Richard is not the one being obtuse here.

    Boaz really does believe in the mutuality of interests, which is why he doesn't think you need to be devoted to serving others to serve them.

    I thought he meant that, provided you don't harm other people, you have a "right" to do whatever you please, regardless of whether others benefit as a consequence.

    "a utilitarian's concern for all individuals as such" has to my ear the rather dissonant sound of "a Kantian's concern for pleasure as such."

    Boaz: "Every human life counts. Your life counts."

    Bentham: "Each to count for one, and none for more than one."

    Both agree that everyone counts. Bentham adds that everyone counts equally. Who's showing more concern for individuals as such?

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  5. In fairness, I can see how the 'as such' could be confusing, if you were to think of it in terms of conservative value-recepticle type objections. But that's a completely different issue. (As my previous comment clarified, the comparison was to valuing groups as such, i.e. as the locus of value, rather than to valuing particular individuals in their particularity, i.e. independently of the value they exemplify. It's true that utilitarianism doesn't value particular individuals 'as such' in the latter sense.)

    I've struck out the 'as such', to avoid unnecessary confusion on this point.

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  6. Richard, Yeah. I was thinking of the value receptacle/separateness of persons kind of idea. I take it that's why most moral philosophers reject utilitarianism. It's why I do.

    Check out Francis Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics some time for a good statement of the indifference to individuals in utilitarianism. Weird book. Edgeworth, an ambitiously reductive Benthamite, notes that "greatest good for the greatest number" is akin to "the greatest amount of light from the greatest number of lamps." Not all lamps have the same capacity for illumination per unit of energy, he notes. So if you've got a budget of energy, you should prioritize the brightest ones. The two quantitites can't be simultaneously maximized. Likewise, not all individuals have the same capacity for happiness, and so if resources are scarce total happiness will be maximized if the people with the greatest capacity (the English!) are first in line. Anyway, I remember it going something like that.

    My sense is that Bentham/James Mill utilitarianism was a colonial-era doctrine motivated in part by the need to justify the egg-breaking that was a necessary part of the colonial omelette. In the end, the savages will be much happier and will thank us for bringing civilization. Etc.

    Anyway, is there any reason to think Obama cares about utilitarianism?

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  7. Pablo,

    Individuals are likely to led more fulfilling and enriching lives by moving beyond a narrow concern for their own selfish interests and aiming at improving the lives of others. How on Earth does this count as a statement of collectivism? Richard is not the one being obtuse here.

    THAT doesn't count as a statement of collectivism. But that's not what Obama said.

    I think you're right that many people find it fulfilling to aim at improving the lives of others, but it's not clear to me utilitarianism recommends this. It's a pretty elementary mistake to think that action intended to improve welfare will ipso facto improve welfare. For example, if people have false beliefs about the means of improving welfare, attempts to do so may diminish welfare, even if those attempts are personally meaningful. Moreover, there is nothing in the history of humanity that has improved, or continues to improve, welfare more than economic growth. Whether or not the effort to create the productivity-enhancing innovations behind growth was personally satisfying to the people responsible ought to be a matter of total indifference to the utilitarian. Utilitarianism recommends whatever motivation best maximizes utility. So why are you so interested in whether or not people are or are not motivated by other-regarding reasons?

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  8. I just brought up utilitarianism because it makes the theoretical point clearer. What matters for present purposes is that Obama seems to care about people, and I don't (contra Boaz) see any grounds for thinking that he cares about "collectives" over and above this.

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  9. So why are you so interested in whether or not people are or are not motivated by other-regarding reasons?

    Will, I place no value in the motivations people have; I just think that, for a variety of reasons, things tend to go better on utilitarian terms when people have the sorts of motivations I took Obama to be extolling in the speech Boaz criticized. In any case, my personal opinions are irrelevant to the argument I was making. (For instance, I do happen to believe that people are mere receptacles of value, and that the packaging of good experiences into individual lives has no special moral significance. But although this radical position may be guilty of not showing concern for people as such, it does not represent the views of most utilitarians, who instead hold that good experiences are good only because they are good for the people whose experiences they are.)

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  10. [Random update] I just came across another succinct and illustrative Bentham quote:

    "Individual interests are the only real interests. Take care of individuals; never injure them, or suffer them to be injured, and you will have done well enough by the public."

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  11. And here's a quote by John Skorupski which nicely characterizes the difference between the two forms of utilitarianism I referred to in my comment above:

    "There can be an experience-oriented and a person-oriented version of hedonism. On the former view, it is the experience of happiness that is good, wherever it occurs; on the latter view what is good is that people are happy. On the former view people matter, so to speak, only as containers of happiness—it is the total quantity of happiness that really matters. On the latter view the starting point is impartial concern for the happiness of actual people. Real and important ethical differences can flow from this very deep contrast."

    John Skorupski, ‘The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 1 (2007), p. 189

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