Mozi and the Dangers of Narrow Utilitarianism

In the minds of some (perhaps most) people, “utilitarianism” has a special meaning. It often refers to an extremely “materialistic” view, which aims at maximization of wealth. This is not surprising, since utilitarianism has been (but less so nowadays) associated with economics. In the early 19th century, those who wrote on economics (or “political economy”, as it was usually called) were not seldom adherents to hedonistic utilitarianism of the Benthamite kind. Later in the same century, however, the goal of maximizing pleasure was by many economists regarded as too imprecise to be used in scientific discussions. So pleasure was generally replaced by “utility”, and the by the maximization of utility, it was usually meant the highest possible satisfaction of subjective preferences. Moreover, the easiest way to “measure” such satisfaction of preferences is by measuring income, wealth, and the like. It is hard to be scientific if one wants to measure levels of mental “satisfaction”.

It is, of course, a shame that many associate utilitarianism with this “economistic” way of thinking, since it is rather barren if it is regarded as a moral view (and if it is not intended as a moral view, then why should one make policy recommendations on the basis of it?). Nevertheless, it is, in fact, a very old view, and if we look back in the history of ideas, we find one extreme adherent to it in the Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo Tzu), who lived around 400 B.C. Mozi put forward a principle of “universal love” (not really emotional love, but rather “concern”) which is not all that different from the utilitarian/hedonist idea of impartiality when it comes to maximization of happiness, and he criticized the Confucian view that parents and relatives should always be one’s first concern.

However, It seems that Mozi’s prime concern was economic production, and he criticized Chinese rulers who squandered resources by, for instance, waging war. He also criticized traditions that seemed very unproductive, like expensive funerals and long periods of mourning, during which one was expected to do no work.

Now, it is, of course, rather uncontroversial to criticize war and the destructive forces and costs that it brings along. Somewhat less uncontroversial is perhaps the critique of superstitious practices that drain resources, but even people who subscribe to such beliefs would probably agree that such things cannot swallow too much of one’s material resources.

But there are other things in Mozi’s doctrine which appear more controversial. To quote a scholar: “To attain the end of a rich, numerous, orderly, peaceful, and literally ‘blessed’ population, Mo Tzu was willing to sacrifice very nearly everything else. Clothing should keep out the cold in winter and the heat in summer but should not be attractive. Food should be nourishing but not well-seasoned. Houses should keep out the cold and heat, the rain and thieves, but should have no useless decoration.” Mozi went so far as to condemn music, “which used men’s time and wealth in the making and playing of instruments, yet created nothing tangible”.

Mozi’s utilitarianism is, thus, extreme in its maximization of “utility”, in the form of production of material, “useful” things, and the production of new people, and in its rejection of what is of interest to the hedonistic utilitarian, namely, pleasure. Now, it is probably the case that no utilitarian economist adhere to such an anti-hedonistic view. Nevertheless, their political recommendations have not always been all that different. Politics is often regarded as a wealth-making machine, whereas pleasure is something that should be left to individuals, and not concern politicians. Just enable people to make money, and the rest will take care of itself.

The problem with this is that the way we make money affects the possibilities of leading a more pleasurable life. And it is not easy for an individual to plan these things by her- or himself, when the system itself is geared towards a specific way of making money. It is, for instance, hard to find a career that will give you a reasonable balance between leisure and money. The logic of the system demands that you either work hard for a lot of money, or work very little for little money (although many also work hard for little money, of course, just as a few lucky people work little for a lot of money). It is hard to find a career which requires a medium amount of work for a medium amount of money, even though that would probably produce more pleasure than the present way of making a living.

In conclusion, utilitarian politics must from the beginning regard people as interested in pleasure and promote it through politics, rather than decide that one thing (for instance, income) should serve as a proxy for happiness.

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The Real Slippery Slopes to Watch Out for

As argued in my last post I am not inclined to take slippery slope arguments seriously when they are not brought forward “in good faith”. But when those arguments are in good faith, I am more than willing to contemplate them. Usually, however, the slippery slopes in question are not very credible as empirical arguments. One example is the supposed slippery slope – involving gradually less respect for human life – triggered by allowing voluntary euthanasia. Another example is the slippery slope towards socialism – the “road to serfdom”, as F. A. Hayek put it.

The latter case is particularly interesting, since the slippery slope argument seems to be more credible the other way around. While we have not seen any democratic welfare state gradually turn into complete socialism (socialism/communism has always been achieved by non-gradual, non-democratic means), we see many examples today of slippery slopes away from the welfare state. And this is not hard to understand, since conventional wisdom suggests that it is much harder to raise taxes than to lower them, much easier to sell public hospitals, schools or housing projects than to buy them back (or build new ones).

One might say that the creation of the modern welfare state was the result of a rather special window of opportunity, rather than a slippery slope, whereas a return to laissez-faire might be possible as a slippery slope process. It is hard to build the kind of public trust that is necessary to maintain high taxes, but this trust is easy to tear down. Furthermore, tax cuts fortifies the economic power of the already rich elites and enables them to influence policies even more. Again, the slippery slope logic seems much more applicable to the gradual achievement of a “neoliberal” state, than a “socialist” state.

The environmental state of the world can probably also be described as a slippery slope process that follows the same logic as the case of the “degradation” of the welfare state. It is harder to gradually achieve the rigorous measures needed to save the planet than to simply stop worrying and wait for the flood. Again, the slippery slope towards environmental collapse is something that sits well with the rich elites, since if you are rich you can always escape the worst consequences of any disaster (unless the disaster is so complete that all titles of ownership become void). If we have to build an ark to ride out the flood, the best thing you can do is to make sure that you get a luxury cabin on board (while the poor are drowning, of course).

Another real slippery slope to watch out for is the gradual loss of democratic control over our states. While the achievement of democracy may have been somewhat more akin to a slippery slope process, it is nevertheless dependent on determined mass movements and political struggles. Once the latter elements disappear it is very likely that a slippery slope towards non-democracy begins. We see this today in countries like Russia. To prevent such a slippery slope in countries that are still somewhat democratic should be our first priority.

Are there any benign slippery slopes at work in the world today? Even though it may seem that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, it is probably the case that in the long run the process of secularization will continue. I think it was Thomas Paine who wrote (I’m paraphrasing form memory) that once you have thought something through, you cannot un-think it, meaning that once the process of enlightenment have begun, the forces of anti-enlightenment will constantly be on the retreat. Thus, I believe the slippery slope towards secularization, and even to agnosticism and atheism, will continue (although perhaps not in a completely linear fashion), unless something really radical happens in the world. Of course, some people would not regard this as a benign slippery slope. I believe they are entirely wrong when it comes to “fundamentalist” religion. When it comes to other kinds of “wishy-washy” religion, the case may be different, but that depends on many other factors that cannot be discussed here.

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).

My Ideology: Anti-Egoism

I usually discuss my ethics and my political philosophy. But to discuss one’s political ideology is to move some steps toward practical politics, leaving a few of the foundational steps behind for the sake of simplicity. After all, it is rare that a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a “nationalist” or a “socialist” is called upon to explain the moral foundations of their political views, and that is why we call these views ideologies rather than moral or political philosophies (but they can, of course, be propagated as foundational philosophies, provided that enough theoretical effort is made). And in real life (outside of the ivory towers of academia or think tanks, that is), we usually see no problem with the propagation of a “truncated” ideology rather than a complete political philosophy. In real life there is, alas, not enough time for the latter, nor enough philosophical know-how among most people to understand the philosophies in question.

So after this apology for the use of ideologies I would simply want to state what my ideology is. Put briefly, I probably adhere to what one might call anti-egoism. My view is that you simply don’t have a right to take for yourself more than is necessary for a decent life. By this I mean that you have a right to procure the means to uphold your own life (which, of course, also means keeping some savings for unforeseen events) and the lives of people who are dependent on you. I also grant the right to procure means for a few pleasures and interests that are necessary for a psychologically and culturally decent life. But wanting to go beyond this I would call egoism, at least in a world where many people lack the means to live this kind of decent life.

Now this anti-egoistic position does not by itself entail any specific economic system. In a very libertarian society the non-egoistic ideal could flourish if most people subscribe to it. In a world where many people do not subscribe to it political means are necessary to correct people’s egoism – means which might have different characteristics, depending on the circumstances. Often, however, the problem seems to be one of “financial” egoism, which often necessitates various redistribute measures through the tax system, along with other “leftist” tools. In this day and age the “environmentalist” toolkit seems to be highly appropriate as well.

I am perfectly ready to concede that some people will be happy to be egoists and claim that you basically have a “right” to anything that you can take for yourself. In real life, such conflicts are unavoidable. The resolution of these conflicts can only be left to democratic decision. I suspect, however, that few people would argue that egoism is an “ultimate” good. Some people would, no doubt, argue that egoism is bad, but that it is unavoidable. There might, for instance, be innovative and creative egoists who refuse to render any services to society unless their egoistic cravings are satisfied. I am prepared to concede that to some degree these cravings might have to be satisfied. But to what degree is an empirical matter. Anyway, it is all too easy to start up with the bad-but-unavoidable sentiment and slip into a good-because-unavoidable sentiment. As long as one avoids that slippage I believe the dilemma of unavoidable egoists is fairly manageable. At least as long as the egoists are not the majority.

So, that was the simple story of my political ideology. Less egoism in the world, that’s it. Not a complicated message, one might think. Of course, I am always ready to defend this ideology on a more philosophical level, but in – what I have called – real life such defenses are rarely called for; and I am beginning to think I am wasting my time with philosophical details.

Let’s Take the Power Back

Many people complain about different things around them every day. If we exclude purely “domestic” complaints, the most common themes are probably things like traffic jams, lack of parking spaces, trains or buses not running on time, stress at work, the price of a cup of coffee, littering, ill-mannered teenagers, etc. Less common (because they affect you less in everyday life), but not too infrequent, are complaints about taxes, pensions, crime rates, queues in the health care system, corrupt politicians, and so on. The list of examples could, of course, be much longer; but the point is that all of these things are to a large degree affected by political decisions (by what the politicians do or don’t do).

In spite of that, many people seem to prefer to complain in private, without engaging in any way in political life. Perhaps it may be psychologically satisfying to blow off some steam in private, but it does nothing to solve the problems. I must confess that I get more and more pessimistic about changing anything for the better in this world, just because of this general reluctance to get involved in political life. I am not saying that everyone should run for office or go to demonstrations every week, but the least one can do is to try to become a somewhat more informed voter – and this means keeping a constant interest in politics, rather than watching a few debates during election time. It would, however, be good if many more people could join political parties and become active members.

The underlying concern here is that democracy seems to be slipping out of our hands more and more every day. Most likely the important thing for people who want to change things radically (no matter in what direction) is not to discuss among themselves what policies would be best in the ideal world. The important thing is to reach out to “common people”, to wake them from their political slumber and apathy. If we sincerely believe in democracy, then we must show the political elites who really should have the power. At this stage I am almost tempted to say that the contents of the policies are relatively unimportant, as long as policies are really in line with what the people want.

The important thing now is to, so to speak, take the power back. When things like universal suffrage was achieved people got the power in the first place. But in most places this power was quickly relinquished to party apparatuses, which made it easy for “special interests” to manipulate the parties behind the scenes. What we need, in short, in politics today – besides a voting system that allows for many political parties to be represented in the parliaments – is much more transparency, popular participation, and popular interest and knowledge. More participation by totally uninformed people, on the other hand, would only lead to blind “populism,” whereby the masses themselves are manipulated by charismatic leaders; therefore increased knowledge as well as participation is vital.

Anyway, if we cannot achieve these things, it is futile – for the few of us who are interested – to discuss alternatives to the present “world order”. But I believe “real” democracy can be achieved. It is possible to envisage a culture where, perhaps not all, but many more people take an active interest in learning about politically relevant matters and in discussing them openly. Of course, this might entail some sacrifices; for instance, it might leave people with a little less time for pure recreation. But if we, the people,  cannot make that sacrifice, then maybe we do not deserve to live in a democracy anyway.