Tag Archives: utilitarianism

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

On Making Yourself Useful, Or Not

The Effective Altruists have persuaded Rhys Southan that his screenplay-writing is of no social value and ethically idiotic. They may be right, but he’s going to keep doing it anyway.

Good for him, I suppose. Keep trying, expect failure and look for unexpected outcomes. Take some time to think about why you want to write a screenplay or make a film or pursue a project. (This post by Jay Webb is a good place to start.) But don’t bother with people who tell you to make yourself useful.

Southan is bothered by them, I gather, because he seems to be confused about what art is and the work that artists do — a theme I touched on the other day in a post about the misappropriation of a sentence from Aquinas’ Summa, and a couple of weeks ago in my post on the word “sullen,” where I discussed Ingmar Bergman’s disciplined solitude.

He seems to understand his screenplay-writing and for that matter all art as “self-expression”; and then he asks that art improve society. On the one hand, he reduces art to vanity — not a disciplined encounter with humanity of the kind Bergman describes, but an elaborate selfie. On the other, he subordinates art to half-baked social engineering schemes and encourages didacticism or morally uplifting platitudes of the sort Alain de Botton has foisted on to the collection at the Rijksmuseum.

To ask whether art is useful is to ask the wrong question of it — or at least to invite a Thomistic quibble that restricts the meaning of the term and helps move the conversation away from confused Romantic ideas: as an operative virtue, art is useful to the artist. “The craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping.”

What’s more, to live merely by calculations of utility of the kind the Effective Altruists urge is not to lead much of a life at all: you may set out to do others some good but you probably won’t have a very good life. May I enjoy a fresh fig or a cigar, split town and head for the coast, putter around in my garden, consider an idea, make love or make a friend without submitting to a utility calculation?

Of course I can and should and will, and this isn’t just a matter of opting for pleasure over other considerations of utility.

A person who becomes my friend, or professes to love me, based on calculations of utility would have to be a sociopath or a monster of some kind. A person who tells me how I might make myself useful — appealing to moral criticism in order to advance a social improvement scheme — would be equally suspect.

To question the altruism of Effective Altruism may ultimately be an altruistic thing to do.