What is “Leftism” and How Can it Be Defended?

Recently I have been doing some writing on the concept “leftism” (which will probably be available soon as a small book). It is, of course, hard to define exactly what leftism is, but most people probably have a rough idea about what it means. My own method has been to approach the term as an ideal type, i.e., a sort of loose definition which enumerates characteristics normally associated with the phenomenon in question. When talking about ideal types, it is important to note that not all characteristics need to be found in all individual cases. But it is hard to say “objectively” how many characteristics one must observe, or how strongly they must be manifested. Again, an ideal type is not a precise definition.

For the purposes of my own investigations – and my defense of leftist politics – I assumed that the most important characteristic of leftism is a defense of relatively high levels of economic redistribution. It would be hard to call someone a leftist if he or she did not want higher levels of economic redistribution (mostly from rich to poor, of course) than, for instance, conservatives or libertarians, no matter how many of the other criteria for leftism they fulfill. On the other hand, it would, perhaps, be hard to call someone a “pure” leftist if she accepts high redistribution, but rejects all other characteristics of leftism.

The other characteristics or criteria that I include in my ideal type of leftism are support for: (radical) feminism, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, immigration and (some sort of) multiculturalism, bottom-up globalization and special rights for workers, and participatory and majoritarian democracy. One could probably also add environmentalist concerns (and a particular view of the state’s role to meet those concerns) to this list, but for different reasons I will not include it in my book.

I defend leftist politics by appealing to my hedonist ethics. I believe that, for instance, economic redistribution from the rich to the poor, a kind of feminism that makes us see beyond culturally specific gender roles, or a state that does not privilege any particular ethnicity or lifestyle can be defended on the grounds that it maximizes pleasure and (perhaps more important) minimizes pain.

I do not, in other words, appeal to Marxism in any way to defend leftism; and I believe that extensive ownership of the means of production by the state (or similar collective entities) would be mistaken. I believe leftists has relied too much on Marxism and other related theories to defend their positions. Hedonism is a more straightforward idea and it does not suffer from the many weaknesses that can be found in most other theories used to defend leftism. Of course, some may claim that the hedonist defense of leftism is not left enough. In that case, I would only answer that that would be a problem for such “left-leftism”, not for hedonism – unless, of course, the critics in question are prepared to make a philosophically rigorous argument against hedonism itself (and make better arguments for another moral theory).


Ethical Hiring and Firing

It struck me one day when I was passing a parking inspector on the street that that kind of job could not be very hard to learn, i.e., most ‘normal’ people could probably do it quite easily. Yet, it is probably the case the people who actually do jobs like that – jobs that most people can do with a small amount of on-the-job training – often have more work experience or education that is needed (but it could also be the case that they simply have the right social connections). There are other jobs that require some sort of education, but usually not a three- or four-year university degree. Many civil service jobs, for instance, ask for degrees in political science, law, sociology, etc. even though the job description has very little to do with the contents of such degrees.

In other words, many people are over-skilled or over-educated, relative to their present job. On the other hand, there are many people who remain unemployed because they can’t get the experience or education that will put them on the top of the list of the hiring employer. There might be a measure of ‘hidden’ discrimination in this.  We usually frown upon nepotism or favoritism, because we want to ensure equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Thus, one might want to rely on objective criteria (years of education, years of work experience, etc.) when hiring. But if these objective criteria are not very relevant for the job in question, then this appears to be nothing but a form of discrimination of those who have not been able to connect to the right kind of social networks (and we all know that social networks are of increasing importance when it comes to landing a job these days) or have been forced to stay away from work life for other reasons. And it is probably the case that this kind of discrimination hits people even harder than the ‘classic’ kinds of discrimination: race, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, religion etc.

Now, if we want to maximize happiness in society it seems that employers should relax their demands for education or experience, when those criteria are not very relevant for the job in question. Empirical research has confirmed that whereas people are able to adapt to many unfortunate circumstances in life (for instance, becoming disabled), unemployment  seems to be an exception to this. After the shock of becoming unemployed has receded, quality of life increases somewhat again, but usually not up to the pre-unemployment level. Combatting long term unemployment should, thus, be important for a hedonistic utilitarian. One way of doing this could be – at least for some vacancies – to consciously hire people who may have less experience or education than the top applicants. In other words, hiring people with adequate qualifications rather than people with excellent qualifications (which are unnecessary for doing the job in question anyway).

In times of high unemployment employers might receive hundreds of applications when they announce a vacancy, and it is hard to imagine that the person who actually gets the job is actually better at doing the job than any other person who ‘ranks’ from, let’s say, place 2 to 20 on the list. On the contrary, we all know from experience that a not insignificant amount of people we encounter in everyday life are more or less incompetent at their job. Thus, in many cases the policy suggested here would not only be more just, but also more efficient for society. But even if it turns out to reduce efficiency, we must always remember that it is always possible to sacrifice some efficiency if it means greater justice (i.e. overall happiness).

You can read more on this topic in my article ‘Ethics in Hiring: Nepotism, Meritocracy, or Utilitarian Compassion,’ in the lastest issue of Philosophy for Business.

Hedonism and Basic Income

As a hedonist, I have often defended the Welfare State, which includes, for instance, financial assistance to people who are unable to find work (or unable to work at all). The logic behind this is that the relief of suffering that ensues is not counteracted by a similar loss in pleasure by those who are taxed in order to fund such programs.

This kind of assistance can come in different forms. In Sweden, for example, there are unemployment benefits that are determined as a percentage of one’s previous salary (this has all sorts of requirements attached to it), but there is also means tested assistance which is calculated to cover only the necessities of life (rent, food, clothes, etc.). Other kinds of assistance exist for the sick, for students, for parents, and so on.

The idea behind a basic income is that these different kinds of assistance can be replaced by a single type of benefit that all citizens are entitled to. It does not matter whether they are unemployed, sick, students, parents, or simply people who choose not to work – they are all eligible to receive the basic income. The question is whether a basic income is preferable to traditional benefits from a hedonist perspective.

There is no clearcut answer to that question. As I stated at the outset, hedonists should defend some kind of assistance to those that are unable (and perhaps also unwilling) to work. On the plus side, a basic income lets people choose an “epicurean” way of life, which – I believe – can be conducive to increased happiness. Epicurus’s idea was that one does not need much in the sense of material wealth to be happy. More important is leisure and good friends. A basic income also enables engagement in political life (“civic virtue”), which is somewhat in line with John Stuart Mill’s ideals.

A drawback to basic income, however,  is that it may render some people too passive. Empirical research seems to confirm that sitting alone at home all day watching television (or something similar) is detrimental to one’s happiness. This means that a basic income is most beneficial to those who have good ideas about how to use their free time in an active way. Some traditional unemployment benefits require certain activities on the part of the recipient, and this is probably what some people need (whereas the idea behind the basic income is that it is supposed to be totally unconditional).

Is there a risk that a basic income scheme would become to expensive? Of course, hedonists must always take account of the fact that many people are not hedonists, and they will perhaps resent paying taxes to finance a basic income (which means that, for instance, entrepreneurs may “obstruct” these policies). On the other hand, it is not to be suspected that many people would choose to live on the basic income instead of working, because we must suppose that the level of the basic income is set rather low. It will allow people to live modestly by themselves, but it should not be set so high as to allow, for example, the forming of a family (something that most people want).

There is, however, a kind of paradox involved in this. If – as I believe – people could become happier by living in a more epicurean way and renounce many modern pleasures, and if more people realized this, then perhaps more people would want to live on a basic income instead of working. But then we could not afford the basic income scheme. The ideal, then, supposes that most people would not choose the epicurean way to happiness! If too many people choose that way we would have to come up with some other scheme, for instance, shortening the workday for everyone to five hours, which would radically reduce unemployment and increase leisure time (for most people). This compromise would be beneficial both to those who have a hard time finding something meaningful to do in their spare time and those who can’t get enough spare time. At the same time the level of production that is necessary to maintain a decent material quality of life can be kept going.

I have uploaded a longer text on the hedonist case for a basic income on the Social Science Research Network.

How Demanding is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (at least some forms of it) is often criticized for being too demanding for the individual. It seems to entail, for instance, that if you have a surplus of welfare you should compensate those who have a deficit until you are equal in welfare. In reality this, of course, often means transfer of money or other physical resources, because it is usually assumed that the more money you have, the less extra welfare you get from more money, while those who have very little money get more welfare for every unit of money that get transferred to them. (I think this seems intuitively plausible to most people. Imagine that you live on the streets and manage to obtain about € 10 a day. An additional € 20 a day would make a huge difference to your quality of life, while an addition of € 20 to a salary of € 180 a day would not be a similar improvement in welfare.)

But how demanding is utilitarianism, or hedonism, really? That rich people have a duty to give to the poor seems very reasonable to that theory, but do those who are slightly above the median income face heavy obligations as well? Before discussing the real world, let’s imagine the following scenario:

You are walking through the desert. You believe that you will find water, food and shelter within three days. You are carrying three water bottles, each containing enough water to keep you alive for one day. You know that it is likely that you will meet other people wandering lost in the desert, you also know that some of them carry about the same amount of water as you, but some have less or no water at all. If you meet someone who have less water than you, are you obliged to give that person some of your water, until you have an equal amount?

In a world of “perfect compliance” with hedonism, this might be so, because then you would be sure that if you yourself start to run out of water, you can count on someone else to provide for you. But if you are not sure whether the second person you meet will behave morally to you, then it would be rather foolish to give a lot of your water to the first person. And you might not be sure if the first person is a moral person either. Perhaps he or she won’t reciprocate in the same manner at a later occasion when the tables have turned. An altruist should, in other words, be careful when helping an egoist, even if the egoist happens to be poorer than the altruist.

The point of the story is that in a world of less than complete compliance with the altruism that hedonism entails, it is not reasonable that everyone should, for instance, give away all of their monetary surplus above the median wage each month in order to equalize resources (and, presumably, happiness). For one thing, it is reasonable that everyone should be able to pile up some savings for rainy days, especially if one has an irregular income. Again, you need money for emergencies, since you can’t always count on your neighbors to help you (of course, a robust welfare state – keeping in mind that welfare states get less and less robust these days – can cover for some emergencies, like being suddenly prevented from working on account of illness). It is also reasonable that you have some money left for your own pleasures – the world would not be a very enjoyable place if we are to live like monks as long as there are people who are worse of than ourselves, and some pleasure and relaxation is probably needed to keep up the psychological motivation to be altruistic.

Thus, I would not say that hedonistic utilitarianism is extremely demanding (as, for instance, Liam Murphy claims in his book Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory). But it is, at least, moderately demanding. It does not demand that we give until all are equal or that the “ordinary worker” should renounce all pleasures and comforts in life; but it does demand that when your life is starting to get settled and comfortable then you should not expect any more material improvement for yourself. Indulging yourselves with, for instance, more cars, more trips abroad, designer clothing or furniture, fancy jewelry, swimming pools, dining in fine restaurants, cosmetic surgery et cetera would simply be immoral. (And if you renounce a lucrative career – as a surgeon, lawyer or engineer, for instance – just because you would have to give away a lot of your money, that would, of course, also be immoral.)

Two points should be added: 1. These demands for material redistribution does not entail that redistribution must take place in a haphazard and unorganized fashion. Preferably it would mostly be done through the tax system, which means that your prime obligation might be to vote for parties that are committed to effective redistributive policies (although this does not mean that you are completely off the hook when it comes to voluntary charity). 2. We should keep in mind that the more people live up to this standard of altruism the less we would all have to sacrifice. If most people in affluent countries were to live in accordance with it, then most of the world’s (material) problems would be solved long before we would have to live like monks.

Adaptive Preferences and the Happy Pauper

The two main forms of utilitarianism are preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism (but there are other forms). According to hedonism pleasure should be maximized, while according to preferentialism (as I will call it here) it is the satisfaction of preferences (or “utility”) that should be maximized, i.e., people should get what they wish for to the highest degree. The “crudest” form of preferentialism simply takes people’s actual wishes as given and asks how they can be satisfied, while other versions qualifies the theory by, for instance, demanding that the preferences must be “rational” or the like to count. An “economistic” version simply assumes that people want as much income and/or resources as possible.

A problem for preferentialism – especially in its cruder versions – is adaptive preferences. People who claim to have certain wishes or desires may have adapted them to the fact that there is not much in life they can really get. Or they may have adapted them to certain social expectations of them. For instance, a poor and uneducated woman might claim that she really doesn’t want much for herself and that she doesn’t deserve as much as her husband, because life without patriarchal structures are almost unthinkable. Should we, then, say that the way she “chooses” to live reflects her true preferences?

We can easily see the difference between hedonism and preferentialism. People may, and often do, want things that will not make them happier, and sometimes they even want things that will make them unhappier (of course, a hedonist could also want such things, but then the reason would be to increase happiness for someone else). Of course, as a hedonist I cannot see the good in simply giving people what they want if there is no connection to actual pleasure and pain. Now it is often the case that people – especially people who have few choices in life – want things that will actually make them happier, but we all know from experience that there are many exceptions to this rule.

Serene Khader has discussed adaptive preferences in the book Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment. Like myself, she rejects preferentialism but do not endorse hedonism. Instead she has another consequentialist theory that wants to maximize “basic flourishing”. Certainly, this theory has some affinities with hedonism, since hedonists (especially in a political context) are also interesting in providing people with the things that Khader includes in basic flourishing; basically the things that poor people (and especially poor women) lack to achieve basic well-being (the book is mainly about development in poor countries).

Why then, does Khader reject hedonism? Although the criticism against preferentialism is thorough, the criticism against hedonism is handled in a few lines. She admits that a hedonist can view a preference for, e.g., staying malnourished as an adaptive preference, since it is more pleasurable to be nourished than malnourished, but she claims that “many preferences we intuitively classify as adaptive may not produce psychological suffering” (p. 50). Khader’s examples of these intuitive cases are not, however, very enlightening. The only actual example against hedonism (as opposed to the many examples against preferentialism) is a poor and oppressed (through discrimination) worker who “gains immense subjective pleasure from the small mercies in her life” (ibid.).

Now I would say that if we can imagine such an unlikely person, who is immensely happy despite being poor and oppressed – and if we have good reasons to think that this person would be unhappier if her social and economic conditions improved – then we do not have any obligation spend resources to help that person. But, again, these people are probably so rare that we do not really have to take account of them in political discussions. If people are living in wretched conditions but still claim to be as happy as they could be, we can simply assume that they are victims of adaptive preferences, unless we get clear evidence for individual cases that this is not so.

Moral Obligations to Future Generations

The question about moral obligations to future generations is sometimes approached in a backwards manner. In those instances it is simply assumed that we must have some moral obligations to future generations, and if a moral theory leads us to think that we do not, then there must be something wrong with the theory in question. This is, as I said, a backwards way of doing ethics, since the question about about future generations is all about application. To apply a theory we must first know what theory we endorse, not the other way around.

Now some people reject utilitarianism, since – they claim – utilitarianism cannot account for our moral obligations to future generations. I think that is a bad reason to reject utilitarianism. If one wants to reject it, one should argue against the theory itself and not make it stand or fall with one particular application of the theory. But destroying utilitarianism as a theory does not, of course, establish that we do have duties to future generations, because that should be defended as an application of a different theory, and not simply assumed.

But is it actually true that utilitarianism does not entail obligations to future generations? My answer would be no, at least not when it comes to the type of hedonistic utilitarianism that I endorse. It is true that this kind of hedonism sees no value in maximizing the pleasure of people not yet born. I believe in maximizing the pleasure of people who live right now. This is, thus, a kind of average utilitarianism, and it differs from “total” hedonism in that we can’t just make more and more babies to raise the sum of happiness (provided that the new babies will have lives that are more on the pleasure than on the pain side of the spectrum – lives “barely worth living” as some would say). By the same token we do not have to care about the potential pleasures of those unborn people.

In theory, the average view might advice us to simply use up all the world’s resources to enhance the pleasure of the people living right now. And if this was the last generation living on earth this would surely be the right conclusion. But as soon as a new baby is born, its pleasure must matter to us. If we can expect that this baby will live to the age of eighty, then we must at least make sure that her or his quality of live does not diminish sharply when our own generation is gone. Right, you might say, but do we only have to care about one generation after us? I would reply that this is no small thing. Since new babies are born all the time the horizon of obligation keeps moving forward at the same rate. Whatever point in time we pick it seems that we must always make sure that the world will be a hospitable place to live 80-90 years from now.

So while it is wrong to claim that hedonism implies obligations to future generations (if by this we mean unborn generations), it still implies an obligation to provide a good future for newly born generations – which, as argued above, is a constantly moving target. And it does imply robust protection of our environment, at least until we all perceive that the planet is doomed and we deliberately stop procreating (or move to another planet). This should, however, not be a decisive reason for an environmentalist to endorse hedonism. As I see it, environmentalism is applied ethics (unless we are talking about “deep ecology” and  the like), which means that one should first decide which ethical theory is most reasonable, and then let the theory lead one to whichever conclusion on the environment that the original premises warrant. It seems kind of intellectually dishonest to start with the conclusion and then construct the premises.

On Prostitution and Pornography

Although I admit that I have not studied the philosophical literature on prostitution and pornography much at all, I shall here venture to speculate on what a hedonist position on these matters might look like. The starting point must, as always, be a consideration of the consequences of these activities. However, the relevant consequences are somewhat different when we compare prostitution and pornography. So let’s start with prostitution and then see what conclusions can be transferred to pornography.

Can we, from a hedonist perspective, claim that the act of taking money (or paying) for sexual services is in itself immoral, regardless of the pain or pleasure connected to this activity? Obviously not. It seems hard to object to such a transaction between sane, adult people if the seller perceives that the pain of having sex in this unromantic fashion is less than the pain of going without the money being offered. But for this conclusion to hold we should also add that the sex worker in question is not in such a desperate position that this is a choice between two evils. If the sex worker sells his or her body in order not to starve or to get money for a destructive drug addiction, the solution to prostitute oneself might possibly be called the least bad option; but it can never be called a good, or satisfactory, option. It is, in other words, highly doubtful whether it can be good to buy sex from someone who we know (or can safely assume) will experience pain from the sexual act. Surely, we have a moral duty to make sure that this person is helped; but the best way to help, in this instance, is not to buy sex from this person, but to contribute to a welfare system that makes sure that no one will have to become a prostitute in order to get the basic necessities of life (and if people are drug addicts they can be offered programs to treat this).

Can we, then, draw the conclusion that in a state where there is such a welfare system in place we can safely allow prostitution, since those who are prostitutes will not be driven to this “occupation” by pure necessity? It might not be as easy as that. Even though a few people will freely choose to become prostitutes (i.e., choosing it not as a last resort to avoid starvation or homelessness), we can probably assume that the supply will not be enough to satisfy the demand. This, in turn, will probably lead to a situation where additional women (I’m assuming that this mostly happens to women) will be brought in from other countries (sometimes by force), where the “no-desperation” proviso is not satisfied. Again, these people should be helped in other ways than by getting paid for sexual services which they, presumably, derive great displeasure from performing.

The bottom line in all this is that one should not take advantage of a person’s desperation in order to have them do things they would never do under non-desperate circumstances. This principle can also be applied to the case of pornography, since there are no morally relevant differences between the circumstances of production in the cases of pornography and prostitution. If we are to find a morally relevant difference we must look to the circumstances of consumption. The rate of pornography consumption in a society might, for instance, be causally linked to the rate of rape or sexual abuse. It might also be the case that many couples have worse sex lives because their views on sex have been distorted by the fanciful scenarios depicted in pornographic films. These things may lead the hedonist to look skeptically at pornography. However, it is probably the case that reasonable social scientists can differ regarding the evidence of the purported societal consequences of pornography consumption.

So can the hedonist safely say that there is nothing wrong with prostitution or pornography, provided that we can be certain that those who participate are not doing it out of pure necessity and that there are no other indirect social consequences that offset the pleasure? Must we not also add that there is something inherently “degrading”, or the like, about treating a person’s body as a commodity (especially when it is men doing this to women)? I think this would be a problematic path upon which to embark, since people have very different views about what is degrading to them. For a few people it might, for instance, be more degrading to have to go to a factory at seven o’clock every morning, stand by some machine for eight hours and obey every command from the foreman, than to earn the same income by selling sex (which, I assume, would not involve as many working hours). Well, one might say, why don’t we abolish regular wage slavery as well as prostitution, since both may be degrading? No doubt, a world where no one would be compelled be neither a wage slave nor a prostitute would be a better world than the present; but “wage slavery” is such an established practice in our present society, so it would bring us too far into the utopian to discuss its wholesale abolishment.