Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Justice with Michael Sandel - Episode 2
Bentham's Utilitarianism Cont.
A form of Utilitarianism, used by companies and governments,is known as cost-benefit analysis. Cost-benefit analysis involves placing a value, usually a dollar value, on various proposals in order to evaluate their desirability. Dr. Sandel describes a cost-benefit analysis conducted by Philip Morris on smoking in the Czech Republic:
"Recently in the Czech Republic there was a proposal to increase the excise tax on smoking, Philip Morris, the tobacco company, does huge business in the Czech Republic, they commissioned a study of cost benefit analysis of smoking in the Czech Republic and what their cost benefit analysis found was, the government gains by having Czech citizens smoke. Now, how do they gain? It's true that there are negative effects to the public finance of the Czech government because there are increased health care costs for people who develop smoking related diseases. On the other hand there were positive effects, and those were added up on the other side of the ledger. The positive effects included, for the most part, various tax revenues that the government derives from the sale of cigarette products but it also included health care savings to the government when people die early; pension savings, you don't have to pay pensions for as long and also savings in housing costs for the elderly, and when all the costs and benefits were added up, the Philip Morris study found that there is a net public finance gain in the Czech Republic of 147 million dollars, and given the savings in housing and health care and pension costs the government enjoys a saving, savings of over 1200 dollars for each person who dies prematurely due to smoking. Cost benefit analysis, now those among you who are defenders of utilitarianism may think that this is an unfair test, Philip Morris was pilloried in the press and they issued an apology for this heartless calculation. You may say that what's missing here is something that the utilitarian can easily incorporate, namely, the value to the person and to the families of those who die from lung cancer. What about the value of life?"
Next Dr. Sandel discusses a cost-benefit analysis conducted by Ford on the Pinto:
"Some cost benefit analyses incorporate a measure for the value of life. One of the most famous of these involved the Ford Pinto case....This was back in the 1970s...the Ford Pinto was...subcompact car, very popular, but it had one problem, which is the fuel tank was at the back of the car and in rear collisions the fuel tank exploded and some people were killed and some severely injured. Victims of these injuries took Ford to court to sue. And in the court case it turned out that Ford had long since known about the vulnerable fuel tank and had done a cost benefit analysis to determine whether it would be worth it to put in a special shield that would protect the fuel tank and prevent it from exploding. They did a cost benefit analysis, the cost per part, to increase the safety of the Pinto, they calculated at 11 dollars per part...at 12.5 million cars and trucks, came to a total cost of 137 million dollars to improve the safety. But then they calculated the benefits of spending all this money on a safer car, and they counted a 180 deaths and they assigned a dollar value 200 thousand dollars per death, 180 injuries at 67 thousand and then the cost to repair, the replacement costs to repair two thousand vehicles that would be destroyed without the safety device...700 dollars per vehicle. So the benefits turned out to be only 49.5 million and so they didn't install the device. Needless to say, when this memo of the Ford Motor Company's cost benefit analysis came out in the trial, it appalled the jurors who awarded a huge settlement. Is this a counter example to the utilitarian idea of calculating? Because Ford included a measure of the value of life. Now who here wants to defend cost benefit analysis from this apparent counter example? Who has a defense? Or do you think this completely destroys the whole utilitarian calculus?"
The students then discussed the merits and flaws of utilitarianism within the context of the two examples.
Throwing Christians to the Lions
Next, Dr. Sandel asks the class how many disagree or agree with the utilitarian approach to law and the common good. More of the class agrees than disagrees.
One student then objects to the principle due to its potentially harmful effects on the minority. As an example to this, Dr Sandel talks about when the Romans would throw Christians to the lions in the Colosseum for entertainment. Does the happiness experienced by thousands of Roman spectators outweigh the pain of a few Christians thrown to the lions?
Objections to Utilitarianism
The obvious moral answer that it does not is followed by Dr. Sandel's statement that "we really have here two different objections to utilitarianism. 1) One has to do with whether utilitarianism adequately respects individual rights or minority rights and 2) the other has to do with the whole idea of aggregating utility or preferences or values, is it possible to aggregate all values to translate them into dollar terms."
Dr. Sandel then goes on to talk about a social psychologist named Edward Thorndike who in the 1930's tried to address the second question by trying to prove what utilitarianism assumes, that it it possible to translate our desires and aversions into a dollar terms. He did this by conducting a survey of young recipients of government relief, asking them how much they would have to be paid to endure various unpleasant experiences. The experiences included having a front tooth pulled, having a little toe cut off, to eat a six inch live worm, to choke a cat to death or to live the rest of your life on a farm in Kansas ten miles from any town. The results were:
Pulled Tooth $4500
Choke Cat $10000
Cutoff Toe $57000
Eat Worm $100000
Live In Kansas $300000
Thorndike thought his study supported the idea that utility is measurable. But does it really "support Bentham’s idea that all goods, all values can be captured according to a single uniform measure of value or does the preposterous character of the different items on the list suggest the opposite conclusion?"
Dr. Sandel continues from the second objection raised against utilitarianism from the last class; that is whether or not it is possible to translate all pain/pleasure values into a single measurable value. He tells the story of St. Anne's girls which I think has more of a comedic value rather than a solid, real world example of the application of utilitarianism. But then he raises a secondary aspect regarding the concern about the practicality of aggregating values and preferences.
"Why should we weigh all preferences, that people have, without assessing whether they are good preferences or bad preferences, shouldn't we distinguish between higher pleasures and lower pleasures? Now part of the appeal of not making any qualitative distinctions about the worth of people’s preferences...is that it is nonjudgmental and egalitarian. The Benthamite utilitarian says, everybody's preferences count and they count regardless of what people want. Regardless of what makes different people happy, for Bentham all that matters, you will remember, are the intensity and the duration of a pleasure or pain. The so-called higher pleasures or nobler virtues are simply those, according to Bentham, that produce stronger, longer pleasure. He had a famous phrase to express this idea, “the quantity of pleasure being equal, push pin is as good as poetry.” What was push pin? It was some sort of child’s game, like Tiddley Winks, push pin is as good as poetry Bentham says. Lying behind this idea, I think, is the claim, the intuition, that it's a presumption to judge...but is that right?
Think back to the case of the Romans in the Coliseum. One thing that troubled people about that practice is that it seemed to violate the rights of the Christians. Another way to objecting to what's going on there is that the pleasure that the Romans take in this bloody spectacle, should that pleasure, which is a base kind of corrupt degrading pleasure, should that even be valorized or weighed when deciding what the general welfare is?"
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a nineteenth century anglo-scottish philosopher who tried to address some of the objections to utilitarianism. "What Mill tried to do was to see whether the utilitarian calculus could be enlarged and modified to accommodate humanitarian concerns like the concerns with respect to individual rights and also to address the distinction between higher and lower pleasures." In his book, Utilitarianism "he makes it clear that utility is the only standard for morality, in his view, so he’s not challenging Bentham’s premise, he’s affirming it. He says very explicitly “the sole evidence that it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people actually do desire it.”
Higher vs Lower Pleasures
So he stays with the idea that our de facto actual empirical desires are the only basis for moral judgment, but then on page eight, and also in chapter two, he argues that it is possible for a utilitarian to distinguish higher from lower pleasures." How can a utilitarian distinguish qualitatively higher pleasures from lesser ones base ones, unworthy ones?"
A student named John answers: "if you’ve tried both of them and you will prefer the higher one naturally always."
Michael Sandel: "So, as John points out, Mill says here's the test. Since we can't step outside actual desires, actual preferences, that would violate utilitarian premises, the only test of whether a pleasure is higher or lower is whether someone who has experience both would prefer it. And here in chapter two, we see the passage where Mill makes the point that John just described. “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it,” in other words no outside, no independent standard “then that is the more desirable pleasure.”
The experiment on higher vs lower pleasures
Let's do an experiment of Mill’s claim. In order to do this experiment we’re going to look at three short excerpts of popular entertainment. The first one is Hamlet's soliloquy. It will be followed by two other experiences. See what you think."
The first excerpt from Hamlet is shown. The next excerpt is from an episode of the t.v. show Fear Factor. The final excerpt is from the t.v. show The Simpsons.
Michael Sandel: "How many like The Simpsons most? How many Shakespeare? What about Fear Factor?" The students overwhelmingly like The Simpsons the most. "Now let's take the other part of the poll. Which is the highest experience or pleasure?" Most thought Shakespeare was the higher experience, though not overwhelmingly.
"I’d like to hear from someone...who thinks Shakespeare is highest but who preferred watching The Simpsons? Yes.
Laneshia: "Like I guess just sitting watching The Simpsons it’s entertaining because they make jokes and they make us laugh but like someone has to tell us that Shakespeare was this great writer, we had to be taught how to read him, how to understand him. We had to be taught how to kind of take in Rembrandt and kind of analyze a painting."
Michael Sandel: "Laneshia, when you say that someone told you that Shakespeare is better. Are you accepting it on blind faith? You voted that Shakespeare is higher only because the culture tells you that or teachers tell you that, or do you actually agree with that yourself?"
Laneshia: "Well in the sense of, in the sense of Shakespeare, no, but earlier you made a an example of Rembrandt. I feel that I would enjoy reading a comic book more then I would enjoy kind of analyzing Rembrandt, because someone told me it was great, you know."
Michael Sandel: "Right, so some of this seems to be you’re suggesting a kind of a cultural convention and pressure. We are told what books, what works of art are great."
Joe: "Although I enjoyed watching The Simpsons more in this particular moment in Justice, if I were to spend the rest of my life considering the three different video clips shown. I would not want to spend that remainder of my life considering the latter two clips. I think I would derive more pleasure from being able to branch out in my own mind, sort of considering more deep pleasures, more deep thoughts."
Michael Sandel: "Joe, so if you had to spend the rest your life on a farm in Kansas, with only Shakespeare or the collected episodes of the Simpsons. You would prefer Shakespeare? What do you conclude from that about John Stuart Mill's test, that the test of a higher pleasure is whether people who have experienced both prefer it"
Joe: "Can I cite another example briefly?"
Michael Sandel: "Yeah."
Joe: "In biology, neurobiology last year. We were told of a rat, who is tested, particular center in the brain where the rat was able to stimulate its brain and cause itself intense pleasure repeatedly. The rat did not eat or drink until it died. Umm so the rat was clearly experiencing intense pleasure. Now if you ask me right now if I would I rather experience intense pleasure or have a full lifetime of higher pleasure. I would consider intense pleasure to be low pleasure. I would right now enjoy intense pleasure but… Yes, I would, I would certainly would, but over a lifetime. I think, I would think almost the complete majority here would agree that they would rather be a human with higher pleasure then be that rat with intense pleasure for a momentary period of time. Now in answer to your question, I think this proves. Well, I won't say proves, I think the conclusion is that Mill’s Theory that when the majority of the people are asked what they would rather do umm they will answer that they would rather engage in a higher pleasure."
Michael Sandel: "So you think that this supports Mill….. You think Mill is onto something here?"
Joe: "I do."
Michael Sandel: "All right, is there anyone, who disagrees with Joe and who thinks that our experiment disproves Mill’s test, shows that that’s not an adequate way, that you can’t distinguish higher pleasures within the utilitarian framework? Yes."
Student: "Ahh If whatever is good is truly just whatever people prefer, it’s truly relative and there’s no objective definition then there will be some society where people prefer The Simpsons more ahh, anyone can appreciate the Simpsons but I think it does take education to appreciate Shakespeare."
Michael Sandel: "All right you are saying it takes education to appreciate higher things. Mill’s point is that the higher pleasures do require cultivation and appreciation and education. He doesn't dispute that. But once having been cultivated, and educated, people will see, not only see the difference between higher and lower pleasures, but will actually prefer the higher to the lower. You will find this famous passage from John Stuart Mill, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied and if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion it is because they only know their side of the question.” So here you have an attempt to distinguish higher from lower pleasures, so going to an art museum or being a couch potato and swilling beer and watching television at home. Sometimes Mill agrees we might succumb to the temptation to do the latter, to be couch potatoes. But even when we do that, out of indolence and sloth, we know, that the pleasure we get gazing at Rembrandts in the museum is actually higher, because we have experienced both, and it is a higher pleasure, gazing at Rembrandt, because it engages our higher human faculties.
What about Mill’s attempt to reply to the objection about individual rights? In a way he uses the same kind of argument, and this comes out in chapter five. He says, I dispute the pretensions of any theory that sets up an imaginary standard of justice not grounded on utility, but still he considers justice grounded on utility to be what he calls the chief part and incomparably the most sacred and binding part of all morality. So justice is higher, individuals rights are privileged but not for reasons that depart from utilitarian assumptions, justice is a name for certain moral requirements which regarded collectively stand higher in the scale of social utility and are therefore of more paramount obligation than any others. So justice is sacred, it’s prior, it’s privileged, it isn't something that can be easily traded off against lesser things. But the reason is ultimately, Mill claims, a utilitarian reason once you consider the long run interests of humankind, of all of us as progressive beings. If we do justice and if we respect rights, society as a whole will be better off in the long run. Well is that convincing or is Mill actually, without admitting it, stepping outside utilitarian considerations and arguing for qualitatively higher pleasures and for sacred or especially important individual rights? We haven’t fully answered that question, because to answer that question, in the case of rights and justice, will require that we explore other ways non-utilitarian ways of accounting for the basis of rights and then asking whether they succeed."