Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Roughly 90% of the courses I teach are in moral and political philosophy, which means I am regularly given cause to lecture on utilitarianism. In my experience, almost all students arrive in the classroom as what I call "default utilitarians." I say "default" because I think, in most cases, their's is not so much a considered position as it is evidence of the way that the social, political and economic forces of their world shape them as subjects.  I teach J.S. Mill's short 1861 tract Utilitarianism, one of the chief virtues of which is that it carefully and systematically addresses what Mill views as common misunderstandings of utilitarianism.  Among these misunderstandings is the conflation of "utility" (that which tends to produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people or, correspondingly, reduce the greatest amount of pain for the greatest amount of people) and "expediency" (that which promotes self-interested ends).  In all fairness, Mill doesn't do a very good job of making this distinction clearly or effectively, but in an Intro-level class it serves well enough to force students to think about whether or not their evaluations of the "happiness" their choices might produce is self-interested or not.

That's a non-trivial distinction, and one that seems to register with students in what I have found to be incredibly quixotic ways.  For example: students are, in general, willing to concede that an action that produces a great amount of happiness for the agent/actor, but at the expense of a considerable amount of unhappiness for others, does not satisfy the requirements of the utilitarian calculus, but only when the student is him- or herself the "Agent/Actor" or when the student will him- or herself suffer the unhappiness of the Agent's decision.  So, a student might say: yes, I ought to pull the lever in the Trolley Problem even if it is my mother who will die as a consequence, if doing so saves five innocent people.  Correspondingly, students tend to say that Random Anonymous Agent ought to pull the lever in the Trolley Problem if they are one of the five people on the track and Random Anonymous Agent's mother is on the alternative track.  The "Greatest Happiness Principle" of Mill and of utilitarianism is not that difficult to calculate in this scenario, after all,

Where this gets more complicated, I think, is when the student is neither the Agent nor the one who suffers. Recently, I employed the example of Martin Shkreli, who grossly inflated the price of life-saving anti-AIDS drugs for profit, and I asked students if his was a morally permissible decision. Despite obvious pangs of conscience, most were inclined to say: well, yes, he's a businessman and he made a decision that satisfied the requirements of utility.  (I don't have AIDS. No one I know has AIDS,.It is of course unfortunate that people who have AIDS will be harmed by this decision, but a person can't be expected to go out of business for their sake, now can he?)  My impression was that students' moral "instincts" (if there is such a thing) inclined them to tut-tut Shkreli's decision, but they found themselves incapable of articulating a principled objection to the same effect.

Why?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's because we live in a fundamentally instrumentalist (capitalist, neoliberal) world in which universalizable principles are always subordinated to (profit- and power-driven) consequentialist calculations.  I don't blame students for this.  We are all the sorts of subjects that tend to reproduce the power-formations that produce us qua subjects.

Recently, I've begun to wonder what it might be like if the opposite were true.  What if students arrived to class as dispositionally inclined against instrumentalist thinking as they currently are disposed towards it?

I posed this thought experiment to a (philosophically-inclined) friend at a dinner party the other night and he quickly objected to its hypothetical nature.  "They are fundamentally 'principled' agents," he said, "they just aren't trained to articulate their principles as such." For the next two hours or so, he gave me a soul-crushingly detailed, blow-by-blow account of the harms done by our collective and obsessive emphasis on testing in elementary and secondary education, of the Common Core curriculum, of rankings and assessment rubrics and No Child Left Behind.

"What else have they ever been given cause to think about other than quantifiable consequences?", he asked, "They aren't really consequentialists, Get them out of the classroom and you'll find that they make choices, conduct their lives, according to principles.  But, inside the classroom, they calculate. They calculate in order to not be left behind, in order to have a chance in the game, in order to survive."

Mind. Blown.

I have a niece who is a Junior in high school right now, which is maybe the only reason that I've begun thinking seriously about what sorts of skills primary and secondary education is equipping students with these days.  To wit, the recent article in the Washington Post "Why kids-- now more than ever-- need to learn Philosophy. Yes, Philosophy" is a must-read.

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