Counting out Morality

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Prominent "libertarian paternalist" Cass Sunstein reviews Sarah Conly's Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, in the New York Review of Books (HT: reader Snedcat). There are many, many things wrong in this piece, but one of the things that struck me the most was how trivially Sunstein seems to regard personal choice, and why he does so. (He discounts as "frustration" the way individuals rightly react to the government trampling their freedom, for example.)

Soon after the outset of his article, Sunstein proposes that "a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse" the central argument of John Stewart Mill's On Liberty, which he summarizes as follows:

Mill offered a number of independent justifications for his famous harm principle, but one of his most important claims is that individuals are in the best position to know what is good for them. In Mill's view, the problem with outsiders, including government officials, is that they lack the necessary information. Mill insists that the individual "is the person most interested in his own well-being," and the "ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else."
Americans would be wrong to argue for individual rights based on this, but let's run with it, anyway.

Let's assume that the individual is in the best position to know what is best for him and is most interested in his own well-being. (This is not always the case, and not simply due to ignorance and error. Evasion of what is best at any level can cause an individual to make poor choices.) Even in such a case, a relative lack of information by outsiders is hardly the only reason the government has no business dictating to people what they should do, even in the form of the velvet-gloved fist of a "choice architecture".

That government officials can force people to harm themselves due to bad information and their own cogitive errors is part of why preventive law and government regulations are a bad thing, and Sunstein readily concedes that risk. (He does downplay it, however.) Nevertheless, as I noted in the case of individuals, evasion, which Ayn Rand rightly called man's "basic vice", is also something government officials, as individuals, are perfectly capable of. Voters, too, and on a massive scale. Read on.

Sunstein's failure to consider normative arguments (including, by the way, how anyone (acting on his own behalf or as some sort of public guardian) is to determine what is good or for whom) causes him to blatantly ignore something that was obvious to America's founders: the prospect of tyranny. When individuals concede their autonomy to a government -- the sole social institution with the legal power to force them to do things -- they don't just open themselves up to being made to abide by mere mistakes by their "guardians" (which would be bad enough); they open themselves up to being forced to live with the consequences of whatever evil that a majority of voters or officials in the government feel they can get away with.

Ayn Rand put all this very succinctly when she summarized MIll's philosophy of Utilitarianism (and warned us against it) as follows:
"The greatest good for the greatest number" is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity.

This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.

What is the definition of "the good" in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.

If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.

There were seventy million Germans in Germany and six hundred thousand Jews. The greatest number (the Germans) supported the Nazi government which told them that their greatest good would be served by exterminating the smaller number (the Jews) and grabbing their property. This was the horror achieved in practice by a vicious slogan accepted in theory.

But, you might say, the majority in all these examples did not achieve any real good for itself either? No. It didn't. Because "the good" is not determined by counting numbers and is not achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. [bold added]
Although we are not discussing the establishment of concentration camps in America, the above quote shows us how tyranny slips in, and not just if some obviously evil faction were to come to power: It also explains some interesting "questions" Sunstein raises near the end of his review. Notably, we see Conly arguing against banning the use of food stamps for the purchase of soft drinks, and yet also arguing that cigarettes should be banned. Do notice further that neither Sunstein nor Conly ask about the propriety of harming some people (by taking their money) to allegedly help others (via the food stamps). We aren't enslaving anyone or committing genocide, but we are already being harmed by the immoral actions the government is making us do.

Sure, I can and do make mistakes, but do I want even more of this? Absolutely not. I'd rather remain free to do something Sunstein and Conly seem to assume I can't: learn from my mistakes and those of others.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "There are many, many things wrong in this piece..." Oh goodness yes! One might almost write a book upon saying "let me count the ways." For example:

“We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” [Who is "we"? Why should "we" care? Are we all interchangeable?] With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments [by whom?] about the costs and benefits [to whom?] of paternalistic interventions.

For many people, a benefit may consist precisely in their ability to choose freely even if the outcome is disappointing. [So free choice is just a benefit to be counted in a calculus of morally equivalent weighted sums?] She responds that autonomy is “not valuable enough [to whom?] to offset what we lose [who?] by leaving people to their own autonomous choices.” [Repeatedly, who the hell is "we"? Why are we all suddenly one unarticulate blob of interchangeable social units?] Conly is aware that people often prefer to choose freely and may be exceedingly frustrated if government overrides their choices. If a paternalistic intervention would cause frustration, it is imposing a cost, and that cost must count in the overall calculus.

Why? And even on its own terms, how? Will Conly "weight" the cost the same as I would in a (whose?) calculus of ends and means? Not bloody likely--so why should I follow her weighting instead of my own? And here we see one of the maligner consequences of the methodology in the modern social sciences of abstracting away individual features to arrive at a generalized, simplified model of one aspect of humanity, be it homo economicus, homo politicus, or who have you; while such models are valuable for understanding aspects of and factors guiding human action, should they be the basis of politics?

Put another way, in such traditions as Austrian economics, ends are extraneous to the field--but given that people have ends, what follows? And by following up the consequences of this observation, this approach is extremely valuable--but note that because it takes these ends as given, it can't by itself be used to argue against the pretensions of Conly, Sunnstein, and their icky ilk who talk the same lingo and, calling themselves "paternalist libertarians," seek to impose over the autonomy and individual judgments of other people the ends of any petty dictator lusting to stand eternally in loco parentis over a society of adults--though, of course, keep in mind that under their educational policies, a significant number of their victims would be adults only by chronology and courtesy.

Snedcat said...

Part II:

But Conly insists that people’s frustration is merely one consideration among many. [Whose considerations are to be taken into account here, hers or those of the people she wants to rule?] If a paternalistic intervention can prevent long-term harm—for example, by eliminating risks of premature death—it might well be justified [on what basis? by whose system of ends and means?] even if people are keenly frustrated by it.

To Mill’s claim that individuals are uniquely well situated to know what is best for them, Conly objects that Mill failed to make a critical distinction between means and ends. True, people may know what their ends are, but sometimes they go wrong when they choose how to get them.

So what if they do? Why are ends sacrosanct but means subject to government control? Why are people to be free in their own minds but not in the realm of physical action, free agents in the universe of ends but not free to take whatever actions they see fit to attain their ends without the interference of others? Remember Rand's identification that liberals and conservatives both leave free the realm of human life they consider unimportant but seek to control what they see as central to humanity--the mind in the case of conservatives, the body in the case of liberals.

And besides this, there's the fact that ends are often only intermediary to more basic ends and count as means in that respect. Taken to the logical extreme, this will leave humans free to dream up any idea of the good life they (somehow) might dream up but, to the extent it differs from the view of humanity their self-styled betters have imposed on society, unfree to actually act on or towards it.

In her words, paternalism is justified when "the person left to choose freely may choose poorly, [but freedom of choice entails precisely the possibility of choosing poorly! in other words, it's just a half-measure towards eliminating freedom of choice entirely, whether Conly realizes it or not] in the sense that his choice will not get him what he wants in the long run, and is chosen solely because of errors in instrumental reasoning."

And who is she to decide in our stead what are "solely ... errors in instrumental reasoning"? And why should we stop at regulating "instrumental reasoning"? Concern for the autonomy of the individual? If so, we wouldn't infringe autonomy at all outside the requirement of a system of laws to ensure the equal autonomy of all legal adults--once you've scrapped that, there's nothing but half-measures on the way to abolishing autonomy entirely, for autonomy is of a piece.

Note too that this question will not be decided individually or case by case but for all people everywhere under Conly's purview, regardless of what specific knowledge of the particular circumstances they possess or innovations in knowledge and reasoning they might have discovered. But this is, as you point out, secondary.

Snedcat said...

Part III:

If the benefits [to whom?] justify the costs, [to whom?] she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, [whose and in what respect?] not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so.

And once she has taken this step, and especially when her case is put in those terms, what is to stop the next generation of petty tyrants from asking why their subjects should be allowed to strive towards their own goals rather than the goals they themselves see as proper? In her view, "society" personified in government should respect autonomy of ends but not means; once she has made way for the force of the state to restrict and eventually abolish autonomy of means, what can she possibly say against those who say that autonomy of ends is antisocial, harmful to others, and likewise fit to be infringed? For surely her position is merely a private end, and why should she be free to take the means to put it into effect? If it is proper for government to restrict autonomy of means, why shouldn't it restrict her autonomy of means in favor of another view of ends? Government has to have some aim; why should that aim respect an individual's autonomy of ends if it may restrict that same individual's autonomy if it thinks it better for him in attaining his ends--why better for him and his ends and not the sakes and ends of others? Why not the "common good," whatever the hell that might be? Why not the good of the state?

Because hers is a paternalism of means rather than ends, she would not authorize government to stamp out sin (as, for example, by forbidding certain forms of sexual behavior) or otherwise direct people to follow official views about what a good life entails. She wants government to act to overcome cognitive errors while respecting people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values.

But in fact this proposal does not respect "people's judgments" in a wide swath of human action, and cannot defend its disarmed subjects in turn against more broadly tyrannical proposals that respect even less of human autonomy. Conly attacks autonomy in means by dismissing it as "instrumental reasoning," so who is she to stand against those who more consistently attack all independent reasoning?

More generally, Sunnstein's review is revealing in its segues, which reveal the stages by which we arrived at the possibility of petty dictators like him dictating policy over us. Section 1 deals with "default settings." This is a real issue in any system of government, of course, for a system of law will have to assume some background knowledge and common circumstances on the part of actors. For instance, to take just the first example off the top o' th' ol' noggin: What institutions should be set up for the care of orphans? What degree of family relation should be considered for default lodging and care until adulthood? What should be the responsibilities and expectations of foster parents and of orphanages--should they be required to provide education and of what sort? And so on.

Historically and in theory, such defaults would be chosen on the basis of what would be most convenient for the common run of possible actors in a given period and society, assuming no one's rights are thereby violated. But of course in our benighted and darkening day and age, individual rights are right out, and defaults are just another wedge for dissolving yet more spheres of individual autonomy.

Snedcat said...

Part IV:

Section 2 then turns to the recent trend among social scientists to dismiss the efficacy of individual reason--humans aren't computers, therefore their imperfect reasoning discredits them as rational actors (there's that social science abstraction again), and thus there is no basis for respecting their autonomy there, either. That of course doesn't follow--rights are not created by or predicated on the ability to reason perfectly or to possess a certain degree of intelligence (hence the basic fallacy of a certain former pseudo-Objectivist who used to comment here dwelling with sick regularity on the supposed universal inferiority of the intelligence of women and blacks as a basis for stripping away certain of their rights), but by the requirements of a conceptual consciousness of unforced decision and judgment and the ability to observe the equal rights of others. That people display imperfect reasoning is at best only a mandate, or more properly an occasion, for reasoned argument, moral suasion, and voluntary educational programs; it does not discredit their autonomy.

Section 3 then introduces Conly's book. Where 1 and 2 indirectly attacked individual autonomy--nibbled around the edges from unstated premises--this section attacks certain broad swathes of autonomy, and the last section tries to sweeten the pill by saying that Conly's not even that radical; she's only building on what the regulatory state has already started--which is true, and of course to an audience of modern readers probably quite convincing. And as for those of us who have long pointed to precisely that fact as a basic reason to abandon the regulatory state and have pointed to the resulting infantilization, regimentation, and shrinking of autonomy as its inescapable consequences, well, even mentioning us would give us more credit and respect than that audience wants for us. After all, that might make someone doubt the supposed commonality of ends that Conly and Sunnstein want everyone to swallow as the basis for their social engineering.

So yes, while Sunnstein and Conly protest that they "respect" other "people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values," they don't respect other people's judgments in practical life, and really, that's all they ask, just a little more power so they can make sure all you other peons do exactly what they think you should do--your reasoning is imperfect, but don't worry your little heads, their thinking and reasoning is much more perfect than yours and they're more than happy to do your thinking for you.

Gus Van Horn said...


Two brief notes:

(1) Thanks for your further comments, which helped show more of what was wrong with the review, although by no means all.

(2) I liked your line about some people being "adults only by chronology and courtesy". I have long thought something like this about the kind of people you bring up, but had not come up with a pithy way to put it.