by Jonathan Baron
Utilitarian Jonathan Baron plows through dozens of issues ranging from global warming to conflicts in India. Utilitarian, in Baron’s usage, means choosing alternatives that result in better consequences over alternatives that result in worse consequences. It does not mean maximizing pleasure. Benefit and harm are colossally important and Baron recognizes that fact. Yet many “moralities” give little attention to benefit and harm.
Baron contrasts utilitarianism with seven ideas he calls "intuitions" and "reasonable" rules of thumb (heuristics):
· Do no harm. (Many individuals will reject a policy simply because they can think of some small harm to someone, no matter how great the benefits, even when the some individual deserves the small harm.)
· Status quo is best.
· Natural is best.
· Group loyalty.
· Fairness (meaning keeping agreements and pursuing various forms of equality).
· Autonomy (meaning absence of restraints) and individual rights.
These ideas should not be lumped together as seven deadly sins. The first four are not good premises for believing and doing things. It is occasionally the case that you should do no harm, choose the natural, keep the status quo or be loyal to something, but these are conclusions that need the support of well-reasoned arguments. For example, "You should steal (conclusion) because you should be loyal (premise)," is nonsense. But "Be loyal to us (conclusion) because we need you to save lives (premise)," could be part of an argument that could lead somewhere.
The final three--retribution, fairness and rights--can be elements in both consequentialist and deontological theories and can sometimes serve as good premises or good conclusions or both. And sometimes they do not. That criminals deserve a certain punishment can sometimes be outweighed by consequentialist considerations about the costs of ignoring more important crimes, the rights of taxpayers and so on. The fact that people often give too much weight to the wrong rights does not make rights wrong. Consequentialist arguments are mighty, mighty important, but they are not everything. Acts and omissions are not always morally equivalent, even when the consequences are morally equivalent. Failure to prevent a death is bad but not as bad as murder.
Too many issues fill this book with too few alternatives explored and too many good points left out. The author claims it is acceptable for the government to stick the wetlands tag on private property without compensating property owners. This tough luck theory of property rights is a bad idea. The government should compensate property owners because atrocious consequences result otherwise:
· Officials will engage in greedy, arbitrary or vengeful tagging and confiscation.
· Tagging will really tick individuals off. Hell hath no fury like someone whose land has been stolen by the government.
· Tagging will seriously undermine property rights and trustworthiness in economic affairs.
(I happened upon another review of this book while browsing through a psychology journal. That reviewer used the typographical error heuristic almost exclusively, rejecting Baron's arguments because of spelling and grammar errors.) Worth skimming.
Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.