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.

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The (Un)Importance of Intentions in Ethics

It is sometimes discussed whether people’s intentions are irrelevant or not when it comes to comparing seemingly identical consequences. Many people seem to think intentions and motives are highly relevant, for instance when it comes to assessing collateral damage in warfare; Hitler killing 100.000 civilians is simply not the same as Roosevelt or Churchill killing 100.000 civilians.

As a consequentialist it is, however, hard to attribute any intrinsic value to intentions. And if we contemplate the morality of an action that seems to be, so to speak, a one-shot activity, the intentions become basically irrelevant. We might, for instance, imagine someone who because of temporary desperation attempts a burglary and tries (but fails) to pick a lock, which wakes up the person in the apartment, who would otherwise have died because of an undetected gas leak. The consequences of this action would be the same as if the mailman put mail through the mail slot in a loud fashion, which wakes up the person inside. The mailman acted on perfectly legitimate intentions, while the burglar, presumably, did not. But if we assume that the burglar got so nervous from this attempt that he decides never to try something illegal again, then the intentions seem rather irrelevant when it comes to assessing the consequences. The failed burglar never actually does anything bad (or at least nothing illegal) in his whole life, and he saves one person from dying; and we could say the exact same thing about the mailman.

In reality, however, intentions are usually valuable when it comes to predicting the future behavior of a person. After all, a burglar will usually make more than one burglary in his life (perhaps we wouldn’t call him a “burglar” if he only does it once in his life…). If we fail to blame someone who by mere chance does something good while intending to do harm, we increase the chance that she (or someone else) will try to do something harmful in the future. By the same token, blaming someone for accidentally doing harm when aiming to do good would perhaps make people reluctant to attempt to to good in the future. Intentions are, in other words, almost always important because of their connection to actual consequences.

Intentions in themselves, however, should be irrelevant. We could even imagine cases where it would be good to have what is normally regarded as wicked intentions, i.e., where bad intentions are actively utilized to get good consequences (as apart from the gas leak example above where the good consequences were accidental). For instance, there are rare cases when it would be justified to torture someone in order to save lives, and in such cases one may have to employ a torturer who doesn’t care about saving those lives, but who enjoys torturing people. This would be someone who does (overall) good for what is ordinarily regarded as the wrong reasons, but we would not blame him for it.

One can also image someone who has the best of intentions but mostly does harm instead. A general who works for the UN to stop genocides and other gross human rights violations, but who uses his troops and resources in a thoroughly incompetent way, which leads to many unnecessary deaths, should probably be blamed for his actions, even though his intentions were extremely humanitarian. Good intentions cannot, in other words, always trump bad consequences, just as bad intentions cannot always trump good consequences.

The Standing of Utilitarianism

[This is a translation of a post previously published on my Swedish blog, April 2016]

Recently I have been trying to assess the standing of utilitarianism in normative research and in ethical discourse in society in general. This is not a very easy task. I, myself, am a political scientist (“political theorist”) and, thus, not connected to the same institutional framework as the philosophers, even though the research that I do and that philosophers do very often overlap.

Within the subdiscipline political theory it seems fairly obvious that utilitarianism is as good as dead, and that it has been in that state for a long time. Many textbooks in political theory discuss utilitarianism very briefly and repeat the same objections to it that have been raised for decades (and which can be refuted quite easily by utilitarians). When one turns to the most common academic journals in political theory it is also easy to notice how rare it is that someone is arguing from a utilitarian perspective.

Thus, when it comes to political theory I believe I can plausibly conclude that utilitarianism is rather unpopular. When it comes to fields like “pure” moral philosophy, applied ethics etc., my conclusion will become less clear. Some (qualified) people seem to think that utilitarianism still has a strong position in these disciplines (see, e.g., “utilitarianism” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Moreover, I recently read a book (by Anne Maclean) which claimed – and lamented – that bioethics (i.e., ethical research concerning moral choices in light of modern technology, medicine etc.) is virtually dominated by utilitarianism (or at least that this was the case in the 1990s, when Maclean’s book appeared).

Now, If it is the case that utilitarianism still has a strong standing within moral philosophy (unlike in political theory), then one has to say that professional philosophers have done a bad job in spreading this doctrine to people outside academia. My impression is that when a utilitarian philosopher gets the chance to talk in regular media (in Sweden it is usually Torbjörn Tännsjö, internationally it is often Peter Singer) they seem to encounter at least as much criticism as assent.

Perhaps it is really the case that although utilitarianism has during certain periods been somewhat popular among normative researchers, it has never been very popular among ordinary people. But if this is true, the reason for this is probably not that people have found another moral theory that is more coherent than utilitarianism; it is, rather, the case that people in general do not care very much about endorsing a coherent or “logically” satisfying moral theory. They mix elements from utilitarianism (most people seem to care about consequences at least in some cases) with other ideas as they see fit. And this way of “philosophizing” has spread to academia. The academics who reject utilitarianism often seem not to do it because they have found a theory that to a higher degree satisfies the demands for argumentative stringency which one should be able to demand from a “scientist”.

Anyway, it is a shame that the rejection of the moral theory that I believe has the least theoretical problems – hedonistic utilitarianism – is often based on rather loose objections, with the aid of counterarguments which are quite easy to respond to, and (which is probably more important) which are made from moral perspectives that would hardly survive the same kind of scrutiny that utilitarianism is usually subjected to. Other moral theories (at least those that are in fashion at the moment) do, in other words, receive a milder treatment when it comes to the amount of objections one is expected to be able to handle in order to claim that one has a defensible theory. A Rawlsian perspective, for instance, is usually considered as less problematic than a utilitarian perspective, even though the writings of Rawls can be demolished quite well by most philosophy undergraduates.

What is “Utility”, and Can It Be Measured?

Some people say that you can’t make interpersonal comparisons of utility. You can’t, in other words, say that Anne gets more utility from a piece of chocolate than Bill, or that Claire gets more disutility from a punch in the face than David. Everyone has their own scales of utility (based on an ordinal ranking of things) and those scales do not transfer between people. This means that the only thing you can say is that Bill gets more utility from a piece of chocolate than what Bill gets from an apple (at least at a certain point in time), and this can be proven by, for example, examining how much he is willing to pay for chocolate or apples.

To assess whether this is a good objection to utilitarianism we first have to establish what is meant by “utility”. Jeremy Bentham was quite clear about what he meant: utility is basically the same as usefulness (and when people in general say “utilitarian” the usually mean “useful for practical purposes”). Then, of course, we have to ask: useful for what? Bentham’s answer is, of course, pleasure. A law or an action has high utility if it contributes to maximizing pleasure.

If “utility” is interpreted in this way, there is no problem (at least in principle) of interpersonal comparisons. What we are interested in is actually pleasure, and not utility in itself. And if we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain (and I can’t see how anyone can deny this, because that would be the same as denying that human beings can have meaningful social interactions with each other), then we can also discuss meaningfully which actions or laws have more or less utility.

However, when people (often economists) say that you cannot make interpersonal comparisons of utility they have another conception of utility in mind. By utility, they usually mean something like “degree of satisfaction”. And I would agree that you cannot really compare degrees of satisfaction between different individuals, because that is really a mystical concept. How much sense does it really make to say “Wow, I feel so satisfied”, without connecting this feeling to something more tangible – and morally relevant – like pleasure? (Just try to satisfy someone sexually without giving them pleasure…)

Still, economists thought that they were becoming more “scientific” when they, during the second half of the 19th century, switched from pleasure to utility as the thing that should be studied and maximized. But this made economics less relevant for politics, because isn’t pleasure (happiness) what we want politics to bring, rather than maximization of “utility”?

Furthermore, “economic” preference-utilitarianism seems to disregard wishes that cannot be “revealed” or “demonstrated” by monetary transactions (or perhaps by barter). It seems rather strange that we can only say that a person’s preferences (or scales of utility) is revealed by how she has in fact (ex post facto) spent her money or managed her resources. This would mean that a very poor person cannot have the preference of owning a fancy car and a big house, and that he would get very much “utility” from those things, because we have not observed that he has spent any many to acquire those things. His actions seem to reveal that he “prefers” (gets the most utility from) having a hard, low-paid job instead of choosing the career that would get him a fancy car and a big house.

Thus, to make sense, preference-utilitarianism has to take account of imagined preferences, as well as revealed or demonstrated ones. Otherwise it has no relevance for the real world and people’s real wishes and aspirations. But then we all know that wishing for some things does not guarantee that you will be happier once you get what you wish for. On the contrary, many studies have shown that people who suddenly win a lot of money may get happier for a short while, but that they quickly return to the same (or lower) happiness levels as before their lucky break. Again, “utility”, perceived as preference-satisfaction, has no meaning when it is not connected to maximization of pleasure (and minimization of pain).

Anyway, when you hear someone complain against utilitarianism by claiming that you can’t make interpersonal comparisons of utility, you can just relax and reply that you are not a preference-utilitarian, but a hedonistic utilitarian; and we hedonists are not concerned about comparing and maximizing utility, but pleasure. So if your antagonists want to continue this line of criticism they would have to deny that we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain. They must deny that we can, for example, say that Anne gets more pain from being burnt at the stake than what Bill gets from the prick of a needle on his finger.

Of course, one can deny that such comparisons can be made, and claim that we humans are inscrutable mysteries to each others, and that we can’t make any – not even rough and imprecise – general statements about what goes on in most people’s brains and nervous systems. But I suspect that only a philosophical curmudgeon would make such a claim. A more reasonable objection would be to claim that we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain, but that they are too imprecise to count as scientific. Then I would just reply that ethics cannot be a precise science, just as the art of living a good life cannot be a precise scientific endeavor.