Is the rise of utilitarianism unstoppable?
By Scott Sumner
If I might be allowed a bit of armchair philosophical speculation, it seems to me that the advance of technology and utilitarianism are two of the most relentless trends in world history. The growing importance of technology is easy to see, while utilitarianism requires a bit more explanation.
Over time, people in developed countries have become more aware of the need to show compassion to other races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and even to some extent animals. Today it seems obvious to many people that gays should be allowed to marry, but I’m old enough to recall a time when most people, even most progressives, regarded the idea as preposterous.
What is the next frontier of this growing circle of inclusiveness? Perhaps foreigners. First let’s recall that even many progressives haven’t accepted the idea of treating foreigners equally, much as their forerunners couldn’t wrap their minds around gay rights. Here are a couple examples, first from the New York Review of Books:
Some US drone operators have resigned because of the physical and psychological stress of conducting these attacks. They are a potent symbol of American exceptionalism; as Wittes and Blum ask, would the US tolerate the Assad regime targeting Free Syrian Army members in the US on the ground that the US was unwilling to detain them?
As long as the administration defies any accountability for its actions, they will never be deemed legitimate. And it’s worse than that. The Obama administration seems to have adopted a policy on accountability most likely to incur resentment in others: the only strikes it acknowledges are those that kill Americans. In 2013, the administration admitted that four Americans had died in drone strikes. It has never offered a figure for foreign victims, which others have reported number in the thousands. And in April 2015, President Obama publicly apologized, as well he should have, that a January strike in Pakistan had killed two Western hostages, US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto.
But why apologize only when we kill Western innocents? Are not Arab and Muslim innocent victims equally deserving of apologies? This practice of selective accountability is surely the worst double standard of all.
And then from an interview of Bernie Sanders by Ezra Klein:
You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …
Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.
Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …
But it would make …
Excuse me …
It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?
It would make everybody in America poorer –you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.
I’m not trying to argue that President Obama and Bernie Sanders are particularly nationalistic; indeed you see significantly more nationalism in some GOP politicians. And of course it’s difficult to succeed in politics without being at least somewhat nationalistic. Rather, I find it interesting to see the split between generations on this issue. Ezra Klein is much younger than Sanders (or Obama) and so is Dylan Matthews, who responds as follows to the Sanders comments:
Bernie Sanders’s fear of immigrant labor is ugly — and wrongheaded
If I could add one amendment to the Constitution, it would be the one Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley once proposed: “There shall be open borders.” There is no single policy that the United States could adopt that would do more good for more people. An average Nigerian worker can increase his income almost 15-fold just by moving to the United States, and residents of significantly richer countries like Mexico can more than double their earnings. The humanitarian gains of letting everyone who wants to make that leap do so would be astounding.
So I was disappointed, if not surprised, at the visceral horror with which Bernie Sanders reacted to the idea when interviewed by my colleague Ezra Klein.
Then after arguing that open borders would benefit Americans, Matthews discussed the implications of viewing all humans as having equal moral worth:
The second problem isn’t a matter of facts, but of values. As a US senator, Sanders believes he is obligated to put the interests of the United States — and of Vermont in particular — ahead of the interests of any other country. That means, for him, heavily discounting the interests of people in other countries.
Even if you think this makes sense, it doesn’t make restricting immigration acceptable. Privileging the interests of Americans doesn’t mean that US policymakers have the right to needlessly hurt foreigners. Not even the most ardent nationalist would say that the US has a right to, say, massacre 10,000 foreign civilians to save a single American life. And make no mistake: Using force to restrict access to the United States hurts foreigners dramatically.
Just as young people find it much easier to accept gay marriage, the young also seem more open to viewing foreigners as being equally deserving of respect.
This is not to suggest that a majority of the young favor open borders, far from it. Right now Americans probably value the life of one African lion more highly than 1000 victims of Boko Haram, or 1000 victims of the West’s restrictive immigration policies. But things are beginning to change, and the gay rights experience teaches us that ideas viewed as unthinkable by one generation might be viewed as blindingly obvious by the next.
The following story (also by Dylan Matthews) shows how this is affecting philanthropy:
But if putting countries on a sustainable growth path is hard, making them less poor is easy: You can just send over money. And that’s exactly what more and more philanthropists and aid organizations are starting to do. Case in point: Good Ventures — the foundation founded by Facebook and Asana cofounder Dustin Moskovitz (net worth: $9.6 billion) and his wife, Cari Tuna, who oversees its day-to-day operations — just gave $25 million to GiveDirectly, a charity that sends unconditional cash grants of about $1,000 each to desperately poor people in Kenya and Uganda. Of their gift, $16 million to $19 million will be part of those transfers.
That seems more consistent with utilitarianism than giving the same sum of money to Harvard, or the Met. It appears that the logic of utilitarianism has especially strong appeal to tech entrepreneurs. I can imagine that Bill Gates thinking to himself, “Where in the world can my money do the most to reduce human misery” leads one in a different direction than if Bernie Sanders asks himself: “How can I tax billions of dollars away from Bill Gates and give it to the bottom half of the income distribution in America?”
In this post I’m not trying to argue that open borders is or is not a good idea (an issue I’ve addressed in other posts). Rather I’m trying to understand the likely future evolution in our view as to which people are deserving of equal consideration, and which public policies are ethical. Elsewhere I’ve argued that both left and right wing liberalism are fundamentally utilitarian ideologies, and that the best way to understand their evolution over the past few centuries is to assume that over time we have achieved a different (and probably better) understanding of what utilitarian values ask us to do.
PS. There is one important distinction between equal rights for foreigners and the other gains in liberalism cited above. Open borders might (and I emphasize “might”) require substantial sacrifices by the population of richer countries. That’s less true of some of the equal rights gains achieved by gays, blacks, religious minorities, etc. And this makes me somewhat less confident about the prospects for open borders in the near future.