Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Sun Oct 21 01:59:56 2007
Solitary Activities Fund

On the way back from nightmeal tonight, I noticed that the sound of my footsteps (and the general sound environment) changed audibly as I walked near cars/trees/etc, and that if I closed my eyes as I walked, I could tell when I passed objects. I wonder how difficult it would be to learn to navigate reasonably well using just one's ears. I suspect that at least in cities during daytime hours, doing it "well enough" would be rather difficult - blind people carry canes and sometimes have canine help for a reason. Bats and some sea life manage something similar to it, but their organs are more suited than ours. I still wonder..

A few thoughts on utilitarianism and contractarian traditions in philosophy.. A month or two ago I had a conversation on IRC that started with my asserting that the push towards a return to the gold standard is ill-considered and that most of the biggest pushers of it don't really understand either why it was abandoned or the relative merits of each system (I am moderately for the floating system, but I was largely aiming at what I think is poorly thought-out criticism). The conversation then drifted to the survivalist movements (whom I generally have very strong negative feelings about) and finally to philosophy, in particular broad themes of utilitarianism and contractarian traditions. As I've been reading a bit about Rawls' justifications for a contract/natural rights-based framework as opposed to utilitarianism, and I find both themes dissatisfying, I've been thinking about the issue for the last few weeks.

Utilitarianism is generally understood as aiming for a society that would have the net most positive good, using that as a metric for potential action. Rawls proposed an interesting alternate formation of it as imagining living the life of each actor in society in sequence, and optimising the happiness of that sequence as a whole. Traditional things to be worked out/issues in such a model include the degree to which one uses the values of each actor versus a consistent perspective, tyranny of the majority (or, alternatively people making a sensate-based argument), weighing/quantifying happiness between people, and potentially the abstraction of value people are permitted for the metric (e.g. if someone values the environment but would value it most in a non"functional" way, e.g. inaccessible, not usable for camping/hiking/parks, is that a permissible value to admit to the utility function?). The particular person I was discussing this with wasn't classically utilitarian because he admitted some infinities into his framework, but I think he may (possibly) still have a largely coherent framework that's grossly similar in perspective. We might imagine Utilitarian philosophy, given a utility function (or enough intuitions about what one would theoretically be that one could get some result), as being like a market where everything's for sale with the currency being pleasure (or vice-versa).

Contractarian frameworks are based around principles and values being used as the primary influences for structuring society, with structured set of satisficications being applied to candidate actions/structures until one would eliminate the possibilities with more satisficing (or alternatively aiming for a math-y style where one aims for enough of a minimal core of principles to generate gross structure for a coherent society or value system). This set of principles forms a social contract. Contractarian frameworks generally have issues with the degree to which more practical/fluid concerns influence their gross structure (and that general border) and balancing with/between other contractarian systems/perspectives. Contractarian frameworks tend to be explored more widely in philosophy because they have more to say that would claim to be widely applicable (whether and when such claims are solid is an interesting matter).

I tend to dislike utilitarian positions for a few reasons. The first criticism is really more of a criticism of a large set of people claiming to be utilitarian who claim to be able to be "above" the value questions in their philosophy - their utility function is as much a creation of values as the frameworks contractarian systems create are. A careful and thoughtful utilitarian does not need to have this blindness, and more philosophically well-read utilitarians tend to understand this. Likewise, if the broadest potential values are permitted into the utility function (including people who value unspoilt nature "just because" and not because they can visit all of it), and adequate solutions are found to the problem of sensates ("I would get more pleasure from having servants than people would lose by being servants bound to my every word"), a few further hurdles are met. There are two issues left that cause me to generally dislike this style of thought - first that it encourages people towards self-serving values (and away from idealism) because of its style and second that because it does not admit infinites into its system (to do so would require a system of transfinfinites that begin to eventually look like the satisficing we see in one style of contractarian reasoning), it cannot easily hold things sacred and ensure that the utility function will not impinge on them for sufficient happiness by others. If, for example, it would cause enough people deep entertainment/happiness to watch a few of their people mauled by lions, this would outweigh the utility of attending to the interests of the mauled. Guards against this take one outside of classical utilitarianism.

I also have issues with contractarian systems, although these issues are generally less problematic and apply most strongly to those that would take matters of principle as their sole ruler of "should". Because more can be said that is properly philosophy (being general enough to be claimed to be widely applicable), there's a tendency to push as much as possible towards this end in works of political and moral philosophy, and this, I believe, results in a lot of work that is poor philosophy for the sake of being able to say a lot that's in the field (another example of separate field displines and definitinal borders leading to difficulty in academia). Some of this could be fixed with diminished field borders and a continuum between political philosophy and studies of governance (although saying "By our values we should have a system that values X, Y, and Z and thus has shape V and W, provided that works reasonably well. Our fallback would be a system with gross shape T that we would explore if needed" is a difficult start). Rawls provides an excellent example of the problem of contractarian systems when he asserts that principles of justice assert that people should be able to work whatever jobs they wish regardless of whether their natural talents make them particularly well or ill-suited for such tasks (Theory of Justice, look at his brief discussion on Natural Aristocracy) - while we may have a strong preference for a system that gives a certain flexibility of employment in the name of some principles, without some ability to allow for flexible application of these intuitions and with the insistence that they translate strictly into practice, we risk creating a system and society that will not function adequately.

I believe that a system more in the style of contractarian philosophy provides a better start for a political and personal philosophy, but considerable attention should be paid to interfaces with practical difficulties and possibilities - I feel that principled people/societies who will bow to practicalities when necessary are better as people and societies in deed and character than those for whom everything is for sale except perhaps a few things (although this being a matter of values, metavalues in particular, nothing more than this aesthetic "argument which is really a presentation" is possible to convince you - anything more would be value-descended). I understand that in one sense, this is a waffle on the matter, but if not doing so must bear the cost of the full faults of one of those models, and if this position may have fewer of their and its own distinct faults, then perhaps a waffle is needed.

I know I've diluted the argument a bit by not differentiating between utilitarianism/contractarianism as a personal value system core and as a foundation of government, but I don't believe they're usually different in principle - all it does is provide potential awkwardness in my phrasing.

Some brave soul has written a lint for Perl that I should check out.