Saturday, June 23, 2007

Utilitarian vs. Principled Ethical Thinking

The RedBlueChristian blog recently had an interesting post about different ways of approaching ethical questions (specifically related to the upcoming Presidential election). The discussion centers around James Dobson, who has said that he could not in good conscience vote for a pro-abortion candidate such as Rudy Giuliani, but would simply choose not to vote if he had no other choice.

The 2008Central.net blog (following the candidacies of those running for President in 2008) faced a similar issue when reporting that Sam Brownback, though adamantly opposed to abortion, said he would support Rudy Giuliani if he was the Republican candidate. The author of the 2008Centrl.net blog criticized Brownback for his stance, but I commented that Brownback seemed correct (and at least morally consistent) to me.


Who do you think is right? The utilitarian ethicist, picking the best candidate under the circumstances, even if you strongly disagree with them? Or the principled ethicist, choosing to make a statement or to protect your conscience through withholding your vote? Is there any issue that would push you to be a principled voter (or non-voter) rather than a utilitarian, even if it's not an ethical issue per se?


Mark

15 comments:

Shawn said...

Anyone know where Bloomberg stands on abortion? Totally not the question, just currious.

I personally would probably not vote. This is truely frustrating because it puts me in the same box as DR Dobson who I think had lost his "focus" (pun definently intended). This brings up another issue of "am I wrong for abstaining from a vote?" I understand we cannot all sit around and just choose not to vote because I am sure our vote counts as much as anyone else. I truthfully abstained last election. I honestly would love to see some opions about this I am very currious.

Kevin said...

Shawn, google leads me to believe that Bloomberg is firmly pro-choice.

Kevin said...

I'm having some difficulty understanding the "principled" side. Perhaps I'm missing something.

When one refuses to vote, one gives more weight to the population that does vote, essentially being a vote to that end. In that sense, one cannot escape responsibility for whatever option is chosen.

How could not voting result in a better moral outcome? Will such a huge portion of the population choose, like Dobson, not to vote, and the media somehow identify this as the reason for poor voter turnout, leading to the politicians on both sides bowing to Dobson in future elections? Is this the hope?

At some point, probability must come into play when morally choosing between outcomes. Indeed, I'd say that, at some point, it can become immoral to pursue a morally-ideal-but-nigh-impossible outcome over others.

Granted, because it is statistical, this "point" is not always obvious, which is why I can better understand voting for an also-ran than not voting. At least in that case, one is making a clearer statement of one's position. (Ah, to vote with Condorcet.)

Brian Trapp's Nazi analogy at RedBlueChristian for acting on principle lost me when he included the phrase "Even though you know all the prisoners will be killed by someone else anyway," since that destroys the moral dilemma in my mind.

Perhaps the defining moral dilemma should have been something like, "choosing option 1, there is a 5% chance that 100% will be saved; choosing option 2, there is a 90% chance that 50% will be saved." A "principled" person would choose 1. A "utilitarian" would choose 2.

However, part of my confusion in the definition of "principled" is that (I would imagine) there is some point at which every "principled" person would become "utilitarian" as the probability of saving everyone approached zero.

But I don't see Dobson's choice as being anywhere near that difficult. I think Mark argues this well by pointing to potential judicial appointments and other grounds.

It's terribly late here, I'm fading, and I fear I may have gone off on a tangent. Does the above make sense?

I ask because I'm inclined to conclude that we should always... hmm. never... bet the long shot. what? :)

Kevin

MamasBoy said...

This is a topic that interests me greatly, so thanks for bringing it up. Unfortunately, this will need to be quick, but I'll try to be back later.

I have voted for politicians who support fetal stem cell research because they are oppose abortion and the opponent was much worse on both counts, however, I would still follow in Dobson's shoes. If the best that can be put forward from a pro-life perspective is Guliani, then we're better off with Obama or Clinton. The swing vote is very crucial in elections. Pro-lifers make up a significant amount of the electorate overall. If they can be ignored in favor of Guliani, then what will the future be like. Pro-life people need to remain united and strong or their views will be taken for granted and basically relegated to the trash heap. As a retired fellow I know likes to say, "Sometimes it takes a few years of a guy like Carter to get a guy like Reagan. A conservative like Reagan would *never* had been elected, if Carter hadn't come right before. We may need a few years of Hillary to wake people up."

MB

Kevin said...

To clarify my closing attempt at humour, I think judgement should be a function of both the probability and the moral distance between outcomes.

I think MamasBoy is basically arguing those two factors, to which I have some questions:

(1) Wouldn't voting for your ideal, also-ran candidate be more effective than not voting at all? Or is blending into other non-voters part of the strategy?

(2) Has this strategy of non-voting been successful in the past? If so, is the set of all willing pro-lifers large enough to make a difference in this case?

(3) What progress do you foresee your ideal future President making on this issue? Is Bush pro-life?

(4) What value do you place on judicial appointments and similar factors which cannot be so readily reversed after 4 years?

Kevin

MarkC said...

MB,

Sounds like you're taking a utilitarian approach, albeit an unusual one.

The standard utilitarian approach runs like this: "Option A, though far from ideal, is at least marginally better than Option B, so I'll choose Option A."

The standard principled approach runs like this: "Option A and Option B are both far from ideal, so I will abstain, or write in Option C, or something similar."

MB's approach appears to be: "Option A is far from the ideal. Therefore, I'm going to vote for Option B (or at least tacitly support the election of Option B) so that everyone can see how really bad that will be, and we can have more support for a better Option A in the future."

That's an interesting utilitarian approach. It strikes me as having a high probability of undesirable consequences.

Mark

MamasBoy said...

Mark: "MB's approach appears to be: "Option A is far from the ideal. Therefore, I'm going to vote for Option B (or at least tacitly support the election of Option B) so that everyone can see how really bad that will be, and we can have more support for a better Option A in the future.""

MB: Actually, it's more along the lines of, Option A is far from ideal so I'm going to write-in an acceptable (though sure to lose) candidate to send a message to the system that there are alot of people who are unhappy with the choices available.

Railing against both of the choices is a far cry from tacit support for B.

This approach has tremendous potential, if one can unify a core group of voters. Third party candidates have decided 3 of the last 4 elections and their votes are very coveted. The drawback to the approach is that it requires a significant number of people to sign on board to what is known up front as a losing cause in the short term. It is difficult to convince people to show up at the poles to vote for somebody they know will not win. However, base dissatisfaction is also measured in other ways, such as people not voting at all and grass-roots apathy. There are a variety of factors that political parties look at to determine how to set the plank and motivate potential voters.

Kevin,

1) Yes. Addressed above.
2) Non-voting can be tough to measure. Voting for write-in candidates is better. Yes, the pro-life consituency is certainly large enough to make a huge difference, but only if they remain unified. Just look at the success that the much smaller gay lobby has had, especially in local politics (e.g., Portland, OR).
3) There were lots of missed opportunities for Bush this last year. For one thing, while he has been supportive of the pro-life cause in public, he hasn't publically advocated for even the most popular pro-life measures such as one requiring hospitals to comply with the born alive infants act to get federal money or tax exemptions.

In the years following the passage of the born-alive infants act, it was revealed that the procedure was much more common than previously known and hospitals that were found to be killing babies after being born were getting away with it.

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=183
http://www.nationalreview.com/arkes/arkes200505160828.asp

I think that pro-life people have been taken for granted as being GOP in the last several years. I don't think the cause should be married to a particular party or candidate, unless that party/person delivers results. I've been very frustrated with the lack of support for pro-life initiatives at the executive level. If the best candidate the GOP can put forward is Guliani, then its time to remind them that they can't win without us. And that's a fact.

4) The value of judicial appointments is tough for me to measure, at least at the lower levels. At the Supreme Court level, the issue is a bit clearer. However, I don't think there is a snowball's chance in hell that a Guiliani will even try to get a moderate pro-life appointment past the senate, should that chance arise.

------
I'm sure it comes through that I'm both passionate and frustrated about this topic. So little has been accomplished compared to what could have been done. If pro-life politicians aren't willing to publically stand up for common sense measures like born alive infants act enforcement and take the issue to the voters, then we will continue to lose the PR war. That (in my estimation) is incredibly significant. If Bush is supposed to be very pro-life, then what will an avowed pro-abort do?

People in this country hold conflicting views on abortion. There is a huge disconnect between popular perception and actual law/practice. Until that perception is challenged, the pro-aborts will continue to win the overall support of the people by painting even moderate pro-life proposals as radical encroachments on the right to kill one's offspring.

The worst thing that can happen to the pro-life movement is for politicians to take their support for granted even more than they already do.

MB

Kevin said...

MB,

Thanks for responding to my questions so well.

Your mention of the Born Alive Infants Act seems apropos of this discussion, considering that Obama repeatedly opposed an IL state version of it.

Giuliani's stated position has waffled, though he sounds significantly less likely to veto such a measure. Rudy also claims he would appoint judges "very similar to, if not exactly the same as" those Bush appointed. But maybe he's just not believable.

Also, the lack of participation of Bush and the fact that the Born Alive Infants Act had overwhelming support in Congress might suggest that such progress could be made even without a pro-life President.

This whole hypothetical is a bit strange. You say that "the pro-life constituency is certainly large enough to make a huge difference," though, in this particular scenario, they must also be small enough that they wouldn't be able to effect the election of a pro-life candidate in the primary, even with their threat. And, presumably, if they lost, it would only be because some people didn't take their threat seriously.

Furthermore, in that case, Giuliani must not be elected President, lest pro-lifers be proven to be ineffective and marginalized. I suppose it is not required for whomever is elected to be bad, as suggested by your Carter analogy which Mark pursued, though I do wonder what scenario would be most beneficial.

P.S. thanks for the Hadley Arkes links. The second one seems like a decent summary of the first. Do you know if he supports Dobson's strategy?

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

Whether overwhelming Congressional support (of the kind that the Born Alive bill mustered in 2002) is still there--or would be there after the next election--then becomes another complicating factor in the hypothetical voter's analysis.

In general, I vote (in some manner: I utilize the "write-in" option rarely, but I have been known to resort to it, though not yet in Presidential elections). I think you're giving up your franchise, and effectively handing your vote to someone else whose voting strategy you don't know and can't control (and must, therefore, assume is hostile to yours...), if you don't vote.

In a wide-open primary, various strategies are available. In Washington, we used to be able (though not any more) to "cross over" into the other party's (parties') primary if we wanted to, to vote for the contender that we thought would fare worst against "our" likely front-runner.

Once you are down to two candidates (or two meaningful candidates, though as some have said, third party candidates have affected the outcome between the big contenders in recent elections), then I would start by ranking the two vis-a-vis the issues and positions that I deemed the most critical.

In recent elections, overall, Americans seem to have ranked their domestic concerns behind their foreign policy-security-terrorism concerns (voting, in many cases, "against their pocketbooks"). Though less so this last time around (at least from some points of view...heh heh).

That doesn't mean any given voter is bound by that same ranking of priorities, obviously.

So you rank your priorities (paying some attention, as Kevin suggests--and MarkC, with his comment about Supreme Court candidates--to what it is that a President can actually accomplish on his or her own), you then rate your candidates based on those priorities, and then--in my case--I'd probably just VOTE.

But I now see that some, at least, would step back and engage in a more convoute and protracted analysis. If the candidate who ranks higher on my personal issue/priority list seems quite unlikely to prevail, even if he/seh garners all the votes of folks who feel like me, then what?

Lend them your vote anyway, to make the outcome more respectable and "hearten" your party and your fellow-adherents for future contests?

Or withhold your vote, as wasted on your candidate and ethically improper to sling the other candidate's way (which might depend on the degree of differential ranking between the two--can you "tolerate" the other candidate, even if you cannot "favor" them?)...

Of vote FOR the "bad" candidate, in the (to me, rather novel) theory that maybe things-getting-worse should be expedited, so forcing perceptions/attitudes to a future day of reckoning may be hastened?

To me, that seems rather far-fetched (that is, not logically incredible, but simply dependent on way too many imponderables/incalculables in the chain of logic).

So I'm voting for my guy (or gal).

But I at least now understand that the calculation can be a lot more complicated than I had simplistically imagined.

steviepinhead said...

Convoute ==> convolute.

He/she ==> he/she.

Of vote ==> Or vote...

(Sigh. More caffeine needed. Or should I abstain? Or...)

MamasBoy said...

Kevin,

K: "This whole hypothetical is a bit strange. You say that "the pro-life constituency is certainly large enough to make a huge difference," though, in this particular scenario, they must also be small enough that they wouldn't be able to effect the election of a pro-life candidate in the primary, even with their threat."

MB: You point out a serious weakness in my theory. The pro-life consituency is definitely large enough to swing elections. They are much larger than that actually. All that is needed to swing an election is a small fraction of voters (off the top of my head, maybe 10-15%). However, if they lack unity to even swing a primary, how likely is it that enough unity can be maintained to impact the general?

K: "P.S. thanks for the Hadley Arkes links. The second one seems like a decent summary of the first. Do you know if he supports Dobson's strategy?"
MB: You are correct that the second link didn't add much. I probably should have spent more time drudging stuff up or left it off. To address your question, I don't know if Arkes supports Dobson's strategy.

MB

MamasBoy said...

Kevin,

Regarding Guliani's potential judicial appointments, I don't believe a word he says about appointing strict constructionists similar to Bush. I think it is simply his wink and nod toward pro-lifers in an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. The NY mag, the Village Voice has more on his flip-flopping and details of his appointments to the Health and Hospitals Corporation in NY. FREE late term abortions were common at HHC hospitals under Rudy appointments.
http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0726,barrett,77041,6.html/full

MB

Kevin said...

Thanks for the link, MB. Flip-flopping seems to be the death knell for politicians. Your skepticism does seem warranted.

MarkC said...

MB,

I think I understand now. From your perspective, if there is a Clinton v Giuliani decision, you have no utilitiarian v principled ethical dilemma to deal with. From your perspective, those two choices are equally bad from a utilitarian perspective.

Fair enough. I frankly haven't paid enough attention to Giuliani one way or the other to have any reliable feel for him as a candidate, and that really wasn't the point of my post.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, if we were to concoct a hypothetical candidate who was pro-choice, but not adamantly so... so that he/she would be willing to put judges on the Supreme Court that would be willing to, for instance, uphold parental notification laws and similar limitations on abortion... and who would be unlikely to veto such legislation if passed on Congress. In short... a pro-choice candidate who nonetheless offered some measurable utilitarian benefit over the opponent.

In that situation, would you vote for the pro-choice candidate with the (even marginal) utilitarian benefit? Or would you choose the principled ethical approach, refusing to vote for a pro-choice candidate as a matter of conscience?

And, for any of the rest of you who might still be reading this conversation... are there any issues that are so deep in your value system that you would not be able to bring yourself to vote for a candidate who opposed your position, but was marginally better from a utilitarian perspective?

I've been considering it for myself, and I can't think of any. Politics, in my perspective, are almost completely utilitarian, built on compromise and negotiation. I don't think I would ever withhold my vote in a situation where there was even marginal utilitarian difference between the options, no matter how much my selected candidate disagreed with my core principles.

And Kevin, I agree... I long for some sort of alternate voting system that will allow us to express both our principled most-desired choice and our utilitarian better-than-the-alternative choice.

Mark

MamasBoy said...

Mark: "I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, if we were to concoct a hypothetical candidate who was pro-choice, but not adamantly so... so that he/she would be willing to put judges on the Supreme Court that would be willing to, for instance, uphold parental notification laws and similar limitations on abortion... and who would be unlikely to veto such legislation if passed on Congress. In short... a pro-choice candidate who nonetheless offered some measurable utilitarian benefit over the opponent."

MB: Personally, I am not completely opposed to voting for a pro-abort in principal. If we were living in a country with the morality of Russia, I would probably do something like that. Honestly, though, with the potential strength of the pro-life vote, I would probably not do so in the US today. The law of this country is way out of step with the people. The US has more liberal abortion laws than most of Europe and politicians who simply play to the status quo and (at most) give lip service to opposition of our extreme abortion laws. The action and rhetoric on this issue does not do justice to the potential voting power of pro-lifers. That will only change if pro-lifers are willing to act cohesively in a principled manner.

That's a long way of saying, I'm not opposed to utilitarian voting in concept, but (from a utilitarian perspective) I don't think now is the right time in the U.S to vote for someone like that.

Its also another reminder, that as much as Christians in America thumb their noses at secular Europe, their laws and behavior are often far more Christian in character than laws and behavior in the US.

MB