Monday, June 06, 2005

Sacrifice and Separate Persons

Rawls famously complained that "Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons." The idea is that, just as we think that later benefits can compensate harms to an individual, so utilitarians believe that benefits to one person can somehow make up for harms to another. But there is no super-person who receives this compensation. Utilitarianism is "thus" grounded on an illusion.

This strikes me as a pretty poor argument. The problem, of course, is that utilitarianism does not assume that any such super-person exists. Rather, the theory rests on other grounds - namely, the notion that each person's interests matter equally. As Hare writes:
It is indeed rather mysterious that critics of utilitarianism, some of whom lay great weight on the 'right to equal concern and respect' which all people have, should object when utilitarians show this equal concern by giving equal weight to the equal interests of everybody, a precept which leads straight to Bentham's formula and to utilitarianism itself.

It should hardly be necessary to spell this out. To have concern for someone is to seek his good, or to seek to promote his interests; and to have equal concern for all people is to seek equally their good, or to give equal weight to their interests, which is exactly what utilitarianism requires. To do this is to treat others' interests in the same way as a prudent person treats his own interests, present and future... To do this is not to fail to 'insist on the separateness of persons'. (R.M. Hare, 'Rights, Utility, and Universalization: Reply to J.L. Mackie', in R. Frey (ed.) Utility and Rights, p.107)

Nozick's objection echoes Rawls:
To use a person [for another's benefit] does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice (Nozick, ASU, p.33.)

But this is foolishness. No-one is claiming that the demanded sacrifice is for his own good. Rather, it is to benefit someone else in greater need, another person for whom their life is the only life they have. Nozick's egoistic objection is patently question-begging. Further, as G.A. Cohen asks, "if such sacrifice and violation are so horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize their occurrence?" (S-O,F&E, p.32) (This echoes Parfit's argument that common-sense morality is self-defeating.)

There is, however, a more charitable interpretation of the objection. We begin by noting that utilitarianism makes the normative claim that boundaries between lives lack moral significance (rather than the absurd descriptive claim that no such boundaries exist!), and we ask why this is so. Rawls' objection, then, is that the utilitarian's methodology (appeal to the impartial spectator who sympathetically identifies with everyone) leads them to neglect the descriptive fact. If the ideal spectator imagines himself as everyone at once, he might forget that they are different people, and that benefits to one will not compensate another for the harms they suffer. If this were the explanation, it would undermine the utilitarian's normative position. But, as we have seen, this is not the explanation -- as is obvious from the fact that many utilitarians employ the methodology of a detached rather than identifying spectator, and there is no reason why the former should suffer such confusion.

So, cutting to the core of the issue: Can it be right to burden someone merely to benefit someone else? Derek Parfit clarifies the issue:
We can first distinguish two kinds of weighing. The claim that a certain burden factually outweighs another is the claim that it is greater. The claim that it morally outweighs another is the claim that we ought to relieve it even at the cost of failing to relieve the other. Similar remarks apply to the weighing of different burdens, and to weighings of burdens against benefits.

An obvious case of a benefit factually outweighing a burden would be if everyone would prefer to have both rather than neither, i.e. if they were willing to undergo the burden for the sake of the benefit.

Now, it's just plain silly to deny that we can make interpersonal comparisons here. If I get a papercut and you get your head chopped off, it is absurd to deny that you have suffered a (factually) greater harm. And it is similarly absurd to deny the moral counterpart, that it is more important to save your head than my finger. Egoistic complaints about "compensation" are irrelevant here -- of course saving your head will not compensate me for my papercut. But it can still be of greater moral weight. As Parfit rightly points out, these are two very different concepts, which proponents of the "separateness" objection mistakenly conflate.

As a final point, I think the issue of incomplete relativity also rears its head here. The "separateness" objection implicitly concedes that benefits can outweigh burdens for a single person. But why should me-now be forced to suffer for the sake of my future self? If I'm a bizarre 'aprudentialist', who cares only for my present well-being, then such impositions seem no more legitimate merely because I am also the (eventual) beneficiary. The separateness of persons thus seems irrelevant to the issue of utilitarian sacrifice. In the end, I think the objection really stems from an illegitimate attachment to the thesis of self-ownership. (And we all know where that leads!)

Update: I address a more sophisticated version of the objection here.


  1. Though this comment also involves your post against prioritarianism, I'm putting it here since it isn't about your central argument there.

    In that post you argue (among other things)that prioritarianism leads to absurd results when applied to different stages of the same person's life. But, you say,

    Defenders might hope to modify it into a purely inter-personal form, e.g. "benefiting distinct people matters more the worse off each person is." This restriction seems ad hoc, but never mind that for now."

    In response to my argument that some moral recognition of the separateness of persons would explain why this is not adhoc, you sent me here.

    The first thing to notice is that your argument here does not fit neatly with your argument there.

    Your final point here, for instance, appeals to what you call "incomplete relativity" - the idea that me-now is in some sense a different person that me-later. But the idea that prioritarianism within a single life is absurd rests on a more ordinary notion of identity in which me-now and me-later are, for most (all?) interesting moral purposes one and the same person.

    You also here appeal to something other than a calculation of utils, instead using the concept of need, which carries a lot more moral baggage with it. In response to Nozick you say:

    "No-one is claiming that the demanded sacrifice is for his own good. Rather, it is to benefit someone else in greater need, another person for whom their life is the only life they have."

    So what do we mean by 'needs' and how do they relate to 'utils?' We often say of the wealthy (and even of the middle class) that all their needs are taken care of. Presumably that doesn't mean that it is impossible to benefit them (give them more utils), or that we could only harm them (give them less utils) by depriving them of their needs.

    A rich man whose summer home burns down presumably loses a great many utils yet loses nothing he needs. When the home is rebuilt, he presumably gains a great many utils, though the home was not something he needed.

    So when we tell something that they must sacrifice some benefit in their own life in order to satisfy the needs of others, we need not thereby fail to take seriously the separateness of persons. As you say, we are recognizing the irreducible value, to the person in need, of her own life and projects.

    But where need is not at issue, what are we to say to a relatively less well off person to explain why he must give up some benefit to himself so that some further benefit may be given to someone who is already much better off?

    Following Hare, you would aparently tell them that they should seek equally the good of all people and give equal weight to the interests of all. That is we ought to "treat others' interests in the same way as a prudent person treats his own interests."

    By this rule, if I'm willing to work overtime so that I might enjoy a larger television, I ought to be equally willing to work overtime that others might enjoy larger televisions as well.

    This seems to me a rather perverted view of human life and human morality, and one does not need to accept a full blown thesis of self-ownership to reject it.
    One need only recognize the moral salience of the differential value we each place on our own lives and those to whom we are closest. As you and Hare describe it, Utilitarianism seems to require us to reject such self-preference as either base or irrational.

    (Incidentally, the quotes you provide from Hare seem to validate what you call the more charitible reading of Rawls's objection. How different is it to treat the interests of everyone in the same way a prudent individual treats his own interests and to imagine oneself, or mankind, to be the sort of super-person that Rawls rejects?)

  2. "The first thing to notice is that your argument here does not fit neatly with your argument there."

    Ah, good spotting. The two are consistent though, as I use the two possibilities (normal and 'aprudential' persons) as particular counterexamples to universal claims. Neither requires that people are always normal or always aprudential. (Note also that the present argument doesn't deny standard views of identity. It just points out that there are divisions within time-slices of an individual person which can conflict in a relevantly similar way to divisions between persons.)

    "So what do we mean by 'needs' and how do they relate to 'utils?'"

    Yeah, 'needs' aren't a core utilitarian concept, I probably shouldn't have used the term here. Intuitively, the meeting of a need makes a very large difference to one's welfare, but as you say, further benefits are presumably also possible on top of that, and might (at least in principle, and perhaps through aggregation) even outweigh a 'need' in utilitarian terms.

    "By this rule, if I'm willing to work overtime so that I might enjoy a larger television, I ought to be equally willing to work overtime that others might enjoy larger televisions as well."

    No, humans can't (and shouldn't) act like utilitarians in their everyday lives. But perhaps we should set up societal institutions, or support practical moralities, that would lead to the sorts of utilitarian trade-offs discussed.

    "How different is it to treat the interests of everyone in the same way a prudent individual treats his own interests and to imagine oneself, or mankind, to be the sort of super-person that Rawls rejects?"

    Oh, I do think the imagined super-person can be a useful heuristic at times. My point is that utilitarianism doesn't depend on this, as explained in the main post, so this ignoring of the factual boundaries between people cannot be the explanation why utilitarians deny the ultimate moral significance of such boundaries.

  3. "Oh, I do think the imagined super-person can be a useful heuristic at times. My point is that utilitarianism doesn't depend on this..."

    I guess the worry I still have is this: If the super-person is a useful heuristic, does that mean that it and other utilitarian methodologies produce substantially the same results?

    If so, then the suspicion is that those other methodologies are morally blind to the same things that the aggregate super-person methodology is.

    Consider the following two scenarios:
    In both cases, George is at high risk for appendicitis while Sally is at virtually no risk.

    A) George undergoes an appendectomy in order to eliminate his risk.
    B) Sally undergoes an appendectomy in order that her appendix may be harvested to produce a drug that will innoculate George against appendicitis.

    Both scenarios involve a surgery which provides the same risk of unwanted complications, and in both cases the surgery promises to provide the same outcome - eliminating George's risk of appendicitis. In A) George takes the risk and recieves the benefit, and in B) Sally takes the risk and George receives the benefit.

    From the super-person point of view, there would seem to be no difference in the two cases. Are there alternative utilitarian methodologies that produce different results in this case?

    If not, then super-person heuristic or not, utilitarinaism seems morally blind to the separateness of persons.

    If so, then there is good reason to be wary of using the super-person heuristic at all, precisely because it obscures such morally relevant features.

    Re: Two Level Utilitarianism
    You're right that I was not sufficiently attentive to that view, which I know you hold.

  4. "If not, then super-person heuristic or not, utilitarianism seems morally blind to the separateness of persons."

    I think you're mistaking the shape of the dialectic here. We can all agree that utilitarianism denies any ultimate moral significance to the separateness of persons. The question is whether this is the correct position, or whether it is rather a mistake (or inappropriate "blindness", as you say). One way to answer this would be to look at why utilitarians hold this position. My "charitable Rawlsian" criticism hypothesizes that utilitarians overlook this (purported) moral difference because of a methodological flaw, namely, that their super-person heuristic leads them to not even notice the factual difference. But other heuristics (e.g. the dispassionate but benevolent 'ideal observer') yield the same results without overlooking such facts. So the "charitable Rawlsian hypothesis" is false.

    (Of course, even utilitarians will take note of the difference between people for practical reasons, e.g. to do with incentives, etc.)

  5. Ok, that makes things much clearer. My apologies for the confusion.

    I take it this is roughly the dialectic I was missing:

    Rawls: The utilitarian must be mistaken because denial of the (moral) separateness of persons can only be based on believing society to be a single aggregate super-being.

    You/Hare: No, utilitarianism is based simply on equal concern for all people, thus giving equal weight to their interests.

    But I think the Rawls can offer the following reply:
    Because utilitarinaism denies the (moral) separateness of persons, it doesn't actually give equal concern to all persons. Rather, it gives equal concerns to all interests, and it thereby ignores the way in which various interests (and the thwarting or satisfaction of such interests) are integrated into individual human lives.

    It only makes sense to be concerned with interests, thus detatched from their integral role in individual, separate lives, if we assume there is some aggregate super-life to which they ultimately belong. Otherwise the utilitarian has mistaken the importance of people's interests within their lives for the importance of people's interests tout court.

    This may not be fair, and I'll be interested to see your reply.

    But I would now like to reprise my own claim that by denying the separateness of persons the utilitarian presents a distorted view of human life and human morality.

    Imagine that we live in a Platonic Republic ruled by the wise utilitarian philosopher-kings, and imagine that the public recognizes the widom of its leaders and is disposed to comply with whatever rules are handed down.

    I take it that the utilitarian kings would, in such a society, have no reason to prefer either of these rules to the other. Referring back to my earlier example:

    1) People like George should undertake the risks of surgery to elimiate their own risk of appendicitis.
    2) People like Sally should undertake the risks of surgery to eliminate the risk of appendicitis for others.

    I've supposed that either rule will be equally complied with, so that can't be any reason to prefer the first one. And because utilitarianisim denies the moral salience of the separateness of persons, it will be nonsense to prefer the first rule on some notion of fairness.

    The utilitarian also seems unable to commend someone like Sally if she voluntarily undergoes surgery to save another. For that's morally no different than undergoing surgery to save yourself.

  6. "the utilitarian has mistaken the importance of people's interests within their lives for the importance of people's interests tout court."

    That's a really good point, and not one I've considered before. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! I'll need some time to think about it before replying.

    You'd be right about the utilitarian kings, given the stipulation of no practical differences in consequence.

    I think commendation is part of our practical morality, so the two-level theory justifies differential responses to altruism vs. self-benefit in that respect. (Though, if pressed, the utilitarian would have to agree that there isn't anything intrinsically better about altruism.)

  7. It's true that utiltarianism seems to give the same results in normal decisions regardless of whether it considers the seperateness of persons or not. But it is when population ethics are brought into the picture that the problems with utilitarianism's failure to recognize the seperateness of persons really become obvious. Some examples:

    1. According to traditional utilitarianism it is a morally neutral act to painlessly kill someone and replace them with another person whose lifetime total of utility us equal to the total utility of the first person's remaining lifetime. According to traditional utilitarianism it is a morally good act to kill someone and replace them with someone whose total utility is slightly higher than the total utility of the first person's remaining lifetime. You might object that such an act would have side effects, but we are interested in evaluating the morality of the act in principle, not compounding factors like side effects.

    And this isn't an unrealistic scenario. The government could start a program to kill handicapped people, take their bank accounts, and use the money to pay a family to have a nonhandicapped child. This is monstrous.

    2. According to traditional utilitarianism building a machine that would create a new person, let them experience one happy moment, painlessly kill them, create another new person, and so on, for a million times total, would be morally equivalent to creating a person who will live a flourishing life containing a million happy moments.

    3. According to traditional utilitarianism if I am stuck in a time loop and repeat one of the better days of my life over and over again (like the movie "Groundhog's Day" except that I am unaware I am in a loop and my memories don't carry over when it resets) this is morally as good, or morally better, than me living a flourishing life where I have a wide variety of different experiences.

    I consider the main reason utilitarianism gives such insanely wrong answers in these scenarios is that it fails to take the separateness of persons into account, and instead just tries to maximize the total amount of experiences without regard for their context or who or what they happen to. You've written about value holism since you made this post, so maybe you have come around to this way of thinking.

    1. Hi Evan, thanks for your comment. These are much stronger objections than Nozick's crude "sacrifice" objection, but I think utilitarianism still has the resources to address them. See my recent paper, 'Value Receptacles', for full details. Briefly:

      (3) This is a problem with hedonistic theories of welfare, not utilitarianism (= welfarist consequentialism). We can accept the latter without the former.

      (1) and (2) are both helped by recognizing that death typically involves positive harms, insofar as it involving thwarting preferences, cutting short life projects, etc. This creates an extra justificatory barrier for "replacement" scenarios -- it's not enough for the new person to be marginally happier; they must have a significantly better life to outweigh the disvalue of the extra death.

      (2) is additionally helped by my 'token-pluralistic' view of utilitarianism, according to which benefits to different people can still be recognized as non-equivalent (calling for ambivalence rather than indifference) even if equal in value.

      You may still be worried about (1), even after factoring in the extra disvalue of death. This would suggest you prefer a "person-affecting" view in population ethics. I'm interested in looking into that issue further, but at this stage the best answer doesn't strike me as obvious either way.

    2. Hi, I'm really glad to hear your reply. I have some further thoughts on it:

      The reason I think (3) is relevant to the idea of separateness of persons is that I consider it to be a challenge to the idea you sort of expressed in "Incompletely Relative Rationality." (I'm sorry, I'm not sure how to insert hyperlinks, so I'm just quoting the title of the post). Basically, if it is truly irrational for a prudent person to show partiality towards one or the other of their time-slices, does that mean we shouldn't have any partiality towards a new time slice versus a repeated one, and therefore have no preference between a time loop and a normal life?

      In the time loop example whoever created the loop is essentially "killing" my future time slices and replacing them with copies of a previous time slice. I consider wholly rational for a prudent person to prefer new original time slices to repeated ones, even if some of the experiences in the new time slices are less good by themselves than the one in the looped slice. Similarly, I consider it rational for an altruistic person to oppose killing someone and replacing them with a new person, even if the new person's life would be better.

      I have heard the argument that death involves positive harms before, but I have trouble understanding it. Won't the new life projects and preferences of the new person "make up" for the thwarted ones of the first person in a total utilitarian calculus? If not, how are you altering the calculus to stop them from doing so?

      I'm not sure how the 'token pluralistic' view helps. If I understand it, it basically means that I am allowed to feel really bad when I sacrifice someone else's interests for the sake of another person. I already do that. I think killing someone and replacing them is bad because it's immoral, not because it makes me feel bad.

      I don't prefer a pure person-affecting view. I am well aware of its problems, for instance, in Parfit's classic example of the sick woman who delays her pregnancy to stop the illness from harming whatever baby she conceives, I think the woman would be acting wrongly to not delay her pregnancy.

      But I think jumping from that to "individual people don't matter, all that matters is the total quantity of utility" is a big stretch. For one thing, imagine a modified scenario where the woman would have conceived triplets if she got pregnant while sick, and only one child if she got pregnant after recovering. I think most people would think the woman would have acted just as badly, if not worse, if she had chosen to get pregnant with triplets while sick instead of delaying her pregnancy and having one healthy child later.

      It seems to me that there are two good reasons, one impersonal, one person-affecting, to prefer creating a new high-utility person vs. a new low-utility person, all other things being equal, without also preferring to create large amounts of low utility persons over a smaller amount of high-utility people. The impersonal reason is the value-holism you talk about, creating a person with low utility in a society full of flourishing people has a negative impact on the "shape of the world." The person-affecting reason is that creating a new person with low utility places an unwanted obligation on other people to help them, which I consider to count as a "harm."

      Not only do these strike me as two good reasons to prefer creating small amounts of high-utility people, they strike me as being the actual reasons most people prefer to do this in real life. As for "killing and replacing," I would say that the bad done by destroying an actual person with actual existing preferences is far worse than the bad done by not creating someone who doesn't have preferences yet. I don't know if this makes my views some hybrid of "person-affecting" and impersonalism or not, but I agree with you that pure person-affecting views are problematic.


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