One Ideology to Rule them All
Tod Kelly is setting out to murder ideology.
Of course, the problem isn’t really our ideologies; it’s everyone else’s. My hope in this post is to convert you to mine. Utilitarianism holds (roughly) that policies that have good expected consequences are good, and policies with poor expected consequences are bad.
All other ideologies are ideals to be followed either regardless of their consequences or because their consequences are assumed to always be beneficial. Here is Wesley Snipes’s ideology:
The problem with such ideologies are that they are not constructed of principles that have been shown to work best in all circumstances. Rather, they are collections of ideas chosen mostly for aesthetics and a non-empirically-based faith that they yield good outcomes. A successful ideology is psychologically compelling to a listener regardless of its usefulness in implementation.
With such an opponent, Tod can easily identify how any given ideology, faithfully followed, leads to horrible things because the ideology was constructed to capture mindshare, not to avoid horrible implications.
This probably also applies even to the most well-intentioned ideologies like the golden rule(1) or the categorical imperative(2).
None of these critiques, however, apply to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ideology that give consequences supreme importance.
Should we increase the minimum wage? Only the utilitarian lacks a ready answer for this question. The utilitarian needs to know how many people in what kinds of jobs earn the minimum wage, what unemployment is among workers likely to earn that wage, what the present day minimum wage is, and what has happened within different economies in similar circumstances when the minimum wage has been changed.
To the utilitarian, however, such a question cannot be addressed without researching the likely consequences of the policy, preferably informed by empirical study. “We should study this” is not much of a rallying cry, but it does have the attribute of being the only sensible thing to do, which means it is precisely the thing no one does.
Utility is always the last resort
Even if you are consider yourself an ideologue of a different stripe, you will probably shade yourself with utilitarianism once you are completely naked. When you argue for your ideology, look at what arguments you make.
Q: Why should taxes be lowered?
A: Because it spurs economic growth!
Q: Why should taxes be raised on fat cats?
A: Because it won’t retard economic growth and helps pay for important services!
Both the above appeal to consequences of the policies. This is no accident because the language of consequences is the only means of communication you have with people who do not already share your ideology. And if you ever hope to convert someone to your ideology, it will only be because you have convinced them that the consequences of your ideology are better.
Occasionally, you’ll have to work a bit to get there, but if you ask “why” five times, you will eventually get someone to admit that the reason the support an idea is because of its consequences. Ex:
Q1: Why should taxes be lowered? A: Because Grover Norquist!
Q2: Why should we care about him? A: Because he’s smart!
Q3: Why should we care that he’s smart? A: Because he makes good decisions!
Q4: Why are his decisions good? A: Because they will help the economy! [Bingo! A consequence!]
Once all the webs are cleared the only reason to ever do anything is because it is better that way.
The problem is that people haven’t come to grips with the ultimate implication of this method of argumentation and decision-making: if the only reason your ideology has value is that it has good consequences, then it has no advantages (and probably has some disadvantages) over pure utilitarianism.
If you have an ideology other than utilitarianism, even if you promise to be rational and respond to evidence, you will allow your ideology to set your default. E.g., you will always support tax increases on fat cats unless it is opposed by a mountain of evidence. And that one study your opponent cited was obviously flawed.
The more of a non-utilitarian ideologue you are, the more mountainous the evidence requirements become on one side, and the shallower the requirements on the other. This is not the proper outlook of a truth seeker. The truth seeker initially views all sides of an issue with equanimity and allows the evidence to make the decision. Equanimity can only come when you let go of the pseudo-instinctual answers offered by most ideologies.
Converting to utilitarianism is a little tricky. After I became one, I retained a lot of the beliefs and biases of my prior ideology. Still, admitting that I would support ideas with good consequences was an important step towards not having a ready answer to every question. If you strive to be a consequentialist, you are more likely to get there.
(1) If I am ever put on trial, I would want to be acquitted, even if I am guilty of the crime. The Golden Rule would have me unconditionally acquit if I were a juror. (You might counter that I would feel differently if I were to ask what I would want to be done if I were the victim, but this is just pointing out another problem with the Golden Rule: it can lead to contradictory advice since not all actions are done unto a single other.)
(2) The categorical imperative is that you should act in a way that is consistent with what a universal law should be. E.g., you shouldn’t steal because if it were a universal law, then everyone would be stealing all the time, and that would be bad. It breaks down eventually because doing something does not in fact make something a universal law. If it did, then we would not steal nor would we lock our doors. These would be great universal laws, but the second could be disastrous to follow in practice.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons