Contra Herok On MacAskill On Bentham On Homosexuality
Herok is wrong about the force of MacAskill's argument
You will know them by their fruits.
One Tomasz Herok has written an article arguing against an argument made by MacAskill for utilitarianism. MacAskill said in a podcast
Will MacAskill: One [argument] that I think doesn’t often get talked about, but I think actually is very compelling is the track record. When you look at scientific theories, how you decide whether they’re good or not, well significant part by the predictions they made. We can do that to some extent, got much smaller sample size, you can do it to some extent with moral theories as well. For example, we can look at what the predictions, the bold claims that were going against common sense at the time, that Bentham and Mill made. Compare it to the predictions, bold moral claims, that Kant made.
When you look at Bentham and Mill they were extremely progressive. They campaigned and argued for women’s right to vote and the importance of women getting a good education. They were very positive on sexual liberal attitudes. In fact, some of Bentham’s writings on the topic were so controversial that they weren’t even published 200 years later.
Robert Wiblin: I think, Bentham thought that homosexuality was fine. At the time he’s basically the only person who thought this.
Will MacAskill: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. He’s far ahead of his time on that.
Also, with respect to animal welfare as well. Progressive even with respect to now. Both Bentham and Mill emphasized greatly the importance of treating animal… They weren’t perfect. Mill and Bentham’s views on colonialism, completely distasteful. Completely distasteful from perspective for the day.
Robert Wiblin: But they were against slavery, right?
Will MacAskill: My understanding is yeah. They did have pretty regressive attitudes towards colonialism judged from today. It was common at the time. That was not something on the right side of history.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Mill actually worked in the colonial office for India, right?
Will MacAskill: That’s right, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: And he thought it was fine.
Will MacAskill: Yeah, that’s right.
Robert Wiblin: Not so great. That’s not a winner there.
Will MacAskill: Yeah. I don’t think he defended it at length, but in casual conversations thought it was fine.
Contrast that with Kant. Here are some of the views that Kant believed. One was that suicide was wrong. One was that masturbation was even more wrong than suicide. Another was that organ donation is impermissible, and even that cutting your hair off to give it to someone else is not without some degree of moral error.
Robert Wiblin: Not an issue that we’re terribly troubled by today.
Will MacAskill: Exactly, not really the thing that you would stake a lot of moral credit on.
He thought that women have no place in civil society. He thought that illegitimate children, it was permissible to kill them. He thought that there was a ranking in the moral worth of different races, with, unsurprisingly, white people at the top. Then, I think, Asians, then Africans and Native Americans.
Robert Wiblin: He was white, right?
Will MacAskill: Yes. What a coincidence.
Herok gives a few objections to this.
One problem with this argument is that MacAskill conflates what philosophers think follows from their theories with what actually follows from their theories. It’s true that Kant held all sorts of weird moral views, however it’s often far from clear how those views – mostly expressed in his Metaphysics of Morals – can be justified with the theory expressed in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Many contemporary Kantians argue that Kant was simply wrong about the implications of his own theory for issues like women’s rights, animal rights, and many others.
Several things are worth noting.
It’s obviously more likely that a theory entails crazy things if its proponents use it to argue for crazy things. While not decisive, it’s certainly some evidence.
It’s very easy to claim that a theory after the fact has implications differently from what it was used to show at the time—especially if the theory is not well defined. However, if a theory is able to make correct moral “predictions,” based on limited data, that’s very good evidence. Imagine if you had two ways of deciding the correct answer to a math problem—one of them used one formula and another used a different formula. However, both formulas involved lots of subjectivity—the numbers weren’t strictly determined by the problem. Both of them involved looking at a data set and coming up with a hard to verify rough approximation, such that different observers would get different results based on different approximations. We then look at the rack record of both of them. One of them is used to solve math problems that it takes us an extra 200 years to solve independently—and happens to be right. This extraordinary record of correctness happens repeatedly. The other one, however, gets results that are wrong—spectacularly so. It’s off by orders of magnitude. However, two centuries later, now that everyone is in agreement, the proponents of equation two claim that people were just picking out bad numbers. Had they applied it correctly, theory two proponents claim, they would have gotten the right answer. They have some handwaivey proof of this relying on a narrow range of numbers that no one choose at the time. I think it’s safe to say this would be good evidence for equation 1. And yet, this is exactly the situation with morality. Morality is not a super precise formula that would lead to the same judgments for all people, so if a moral theory is able to independently get the right result over and over again, that’s really good evidence for the theory.
But this is not even a very serious problem, compared to the main one, which has to do with what MacAskill means by “predictions”. If moral theories make predictions, they aren’t about what people will consider morally acceptable in 200 or 300 years, they are about what actually is morally acceptable. So in order to evaluate the predictions, we need to first know what’s morally right and wrong. How can we know that? How can we know that, for example, there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage? There are two options: either it follows from utilitarianism, or from some other theory. If it follows from utilitarianism, then MacAskill’s argument is circular. If it follows from another theory, then what’s the point of justifying utilitarianism, given we already know that some non-utiliarian theory is correct? Moreover, MacAskill seems to believe that utilitarianism is generally incompatible with alternative theories. So if some non-utilitarian theory is correct, then utilitarianism cannot be correct.
In short, MacAskill is saying that utilitarianism is true because utilitarianism is true, or that utilitarianism is true because utilitartianism is false. Either way, his argument takes the biscuit.
This is badly confused about moral methodology. Morality doesn’t only work by deducing a normative ethic from first principles and then applying it to cases. Rather, we can employ other arguments establishing a normative conclusion. Totalist utilitarianism entails the repugnant conclusion, but many like Huemer have argued for it independently.
So utilitarianism said that slavery was wrong and homosexuality was permissible hundreds of years ago. Now, we can employ other arguments that don’t rely on any single normative ethic, to determine that slavery is in fact morally wrong and homosexuality is permissible. We can employ independent analysis to “double check,” the claims made by the utilitarians. One would be hard pressed in the modern age providing a rational defense of slavery or a criticism of homosexuality.
Additionally, assuming there’s a non trivial chance of moral progress, the probability of morality becoming more utilitarian over time, given utilitarianism, is higher than the probability of it if utilitarianism were false.
These can be easily seen with an analogy. Darwin’s theory made lots of predictions that were later confirmed. The process of confirming them didn’t just involve plugging in the theory—it involved testing them. One could make a parallel statements about evolution to the one made by Herok.
But this is not even a very serious problem, compared to the main one, which has to do with what MacAskill means by “predictions”. If scientific theories make predictions, they aren’t about what people will consider correct in 200 or 300 years, they are about what actually is scientifically correct. So in order to evaluate the predictions, we need to first know what’s scientifically right and wrong. How can we know that? How can we know that, for example, there are transitionary fossils? There are two options: either it follows from evolution by natural selection, or from some other theory. If it follows from evolution by natural selection, then MacAskill’s argument is circular. If it follows from another theory, then what’s the point of justifying evolution by natural selection, given we already know that some non-evolution by natural selection theory is correct? Moreover, MacAskill seems to believe that evolution by natural selection is generally incompatible with alternative theories. So if some non-evolution by natural selection theory is correct, then evolution by natural selection cannot be correct.
In short, MacAskill is saying that evolution by natural selection is true because evolution by natural selection is true, or that evolution by natural selection is true because evolution by natural selection is false. Either way, his argument takes the biscuit.