I’m Not a Utilitarian, But I Play One on TV

Peter Singer says, “Oil would have little value if society did not provide the infrastructure that enables us to use it. Wealth does not exist without society, and the security that society provides.” I agree, and I believe in providing that security. Perhaps that leads to a point about inequality. But it seems more obviously to lead to a point about property rights. Suppose we substituted “property rights” for “society” in Singer’s sentence. It would seem to be a more precise way of making Singer’s point, but perhaps he has something else in mind. In any case, I am a big fan of living in a society. I wish other people were as mindful of how grateful we should be for the prosperity it has given us. Or more precisely, for the prosperity it enables us to produce, when it enables us to produce.

Singer adds, So instead of asking what gets us to the conclusion that “we have a right” to interfere with market mechanisms, why not ask, instead: “Would interfering with market mechanisms make people, on the whole and in the long run, better off?”

Singer is asking an honest question here. I do not read this as a debating point. So, I’ll try to answer in the spirit in which I believe it was asked. First, I think some people believe in rights and some don’t. Of the people who believe in rights, some people are content merely to assert that we have the rights they think we have. Other believers in rights want to produce an argument. To produce an argument for rights, they have to start from premises that do not beg the question by assuming the rights for which they meant to argue. So, suppose one honestly came to the conclusion that the answer to Singer’s question is, no: at least some kinds of interference, say interfering with people wanting to vote, people wanting an abortion, people wanting to buy and sell marijuana, or whatever you like, indeed do more harm than good. That starts to approximate a real argument that we have reason to treat people as having a right not to be interfered with in those ways. I realize that confirming the premise that interference does net harm does not clinch the conclusion that there is a right against such interference, but I wasn’t saying it does. I’m just saying that confirming the premise accomplishes quite a bit beyond merely asserting rights. Deontologists would not be impressed with an argument that begins this way, but actually, I think they should be, because the point is that we could start from utilitarian premises and still end up moving in the direction they think is called for by their deontological premises.

I am not a utilitarian, but I play one on TV. Not really, but I do take utilitarian arguments seriously, because even though I am not persuaded to buy into the theory wholesale, I think utilitarian arguments tend to be the least question-begging kind of argument for conclusions about rights, and also for sorting out why I should believe in one rights-claim rather than another, in cases where I have no particular ax to grind. (Drug legalization would be one such case.) One thing I like about utilitarians as such. They grasp what should be a plain fact: that showing that some people don’t have rights does not begin to imply that anyone else has a right to interfere. More controversially, I agree with utilitarians that to justify a claim to have a right to interfere, one has to show that interference does more good than harm. I do not agree that this is sufficient. Nonutilitarians will grant me this point. Utilitarians won’t, and I won’t blame them for refusing to concede. To engage utilitarians, I would have to argue from their own premises (because that’s where they are). I would have to argue that making it legal for people to sacrifice one to save five would systematically have bad consequences, and so is not to be systematically permitted even from a utilitarian perspective. Actually, as I recall, I already made that argument, so I won’t cover it again here.

A small digression. It occurs to me that when I read a newspaper, I get the impression that it is wildly unsafe to drive a car, or more generally, to leave the house at all. It’s also unsafe to stay at home. I get the impression that normal people get shot at every day, unless they get run over by a drunk driver first. I also read in the newspaper that people are starving, and that to have the income of a graduate student is to be utterly desperate. I get the impression that I and everyone I know are the lone exceptions to the rule that people are desperately short of the means of looking after themselves. Every time a newspaper reports a plane crash, people overestimate the odds of plane crashes for a while. Anyway, my impression is that inequality is news, where equality isn’t. Just a thought. How much do you know from personal experience about how much worse it is to be relatively poor these days, compared to, say, fifty years ago?

Peter Singer notes one of the many good points made by Brighouse and Bertram, namely that there are more egalitarian societies in which the relatively poor are wealthier in absolute terms than are the poorest Americans. Maybe Norway is an example. One thing I wish I knew: Are the poorest Norwegians a lot richer than the poorest Norwegian Americans? Are the poorest Spanish a lot richer than the poorest Spanish Americans? My point (I make no claim to originality here) is that America is a huge, diverse country. If you look to Europe for a population that big and that diverse, you’d have to be looking at the whole of Europe. If we did that, would we discover that Europe is a lot more egalitarian than America? Would we find that Europe’s poor do a lot better than America’s poor? I don’t know, but I thought it would not hurt to raise the issue.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • When Inequality Matters by David Schmidtz

    “Everyone cares about inequality. Caring about inequality, though, is not enough to make inequality matter,” writes political philosopher David Schmidtz. “Unless we have the right sorts of reasons to care, equality does not matter, at least not in the way justice matters. So, why care about inequality?” Drawing on his illuminating new book, Elements of Justice, Schmidtz lucidly clarifies which inequalities matter, and why, in a world where our fellow citizens are partners in a cooperative system of joint production, not competitors in a race.

Response Essays

  • Why Care About Equality? by Peter Singer

    “When Jeremy Bentham first suggested that the pains and pleasures of an African should count as much as the happiness of an English person,” philosopher Peter Singer writes, “this view had radical implications, for slavery was still legal in the British colonies. Today, the suggestion that the pain of a nonhuman animal might count as much as the pain of a member of our own species is still radical. That is why this sense of equality remains important.”

  • Which Inequalities Are Ours to Arrange? by Tom G. Palmer

    Picking up where David Schmidtz’s lead essay ends, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Tom G. Palmer argues that a common line of reasoning used to justify the authority of the state to rearrange the unequal distribution of wealth is based on a mistake. The kind of equality that matters, Palmer argues, is the “equal right of every person to exercise choice over his or her own person.” The inequalities that emerge from the voluntary interaction of persons exercising that right are not “ours” to reconfigure.

  • Down to Earth by Jacob Hacker

    In his reply to David Schmidtz’s lead essay, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker agrees that material inequality as such is not our greatest concern. “The problems arise,” Hacker argues, “when resource inequalities translate into substantial, cumulative, and self-reinforcing inequalities of political power.”

The Conversation