Spartan morality and utilitarian fantasy

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I want to show how the morality on display in the movie 300, in which babies are cast into a chasm for minor deformities or other weaknesses and illnesses, is easily compatible with utilitarian logic. In doing so I hope to show that utilitarianism provides completely insufficient scaffolding around moral reasoning to eliminate almost any policy, norm or cultural practice you desire. Objective welfare analysis is a utilitarian fantasy.

I was motivated to write this post after discussions that were stoked by my take on the moral foundations of economics, particularly in relation to health policy. Why it is optimal from a utilitarian point of view to allocate medical resources to the young rather than the elderly? While my personal view is that in our current social and political environment this is probably appropriate, it is by no means a superior position by utilitarian reasoning, and certainly there remains debate about such welfare foundations.

To get this brief analysis started, here is a Wikipedia excerpt about life in Sparta:

Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the Gerousia by the child’s father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to be reared or not.

It is commonly stated that if they considered it “puny and deformed”, the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae. This was, in effect, a primitive form of eugenics.

Sparta is often portrayed as being unique in this matter, however there is considerable evidence that the killing of unwanted children was practiced in other Greek regions, including Athens.

Here’s that basic utilitarian rationale for the ‘Spartan morality’ of disposing of sick children. It requires a number of starting propositions.

  1. That people with life-long physical disabilities or other chronic illness have lower utility than those without
  2. The existence of these ill people reduces the utility of their carers
  3. The reduced ability to contribute to productive activity of disabled and their carers (and medical professionals) reduces the utility of others in society
  4. Disposing of sick children brings forwards births of non-sick children because of replacement reproductive effort
  5. There is relatively low utility loss from mothers and family of disposing of their sick child

In fact, we need not even invoke the 2nd and 3rd propositions in order for Spartan morality to be utilitarian, since the 1st, 4th and 5th clearly show that infanticide of the sick, “puny and deformed”, would be a straight substitute of one lifetime of low utility for one lifetime of high utility.

And that’s just about all you need.

I hope that this challenges your faith in the objectiveness of economic reason. As Joan Robinson would say, utility is a mere meta-physical construct – its existence resting on a series of circular reasoning, defining it in terms of itself.

Similar utilitarian reasoning could be applied to the subjects of gay marriage, slavery, or other such social practices to support any desired outcome.

We shouldn’t feel helpless in the absence of an objective method of social reasoning. We should feel freed from its shackles to debate the our underlying moral values, and why they are appropriate for a modern wealthy society.

Applying utilitarianism means you can support mutually contradictory ends and means. You can end up at the repugnant conclusion, or justify slavery to a ‘utility monster‘. Or if you take an average  principle of utilitarianism, you can get to the point of justifying killing disabled children by appeal to Spartan morality. Or, as we deem currently acceptable, arrive at the point where we should allocate the medical resources to children above the elderly in accordance to ‘need’.

There is no absolute reference point in utilitarianism. It is always applied with reference to current norms, customs and practices and can evolve to support different conclusions as society evolves.

Tips, suggestions, comments and requests to [email protected] + follow me on Twitter @rumplestatskin

Comments

  1. GunnamattaMEMBER

    Interesting post, which I suspect wont get too many touching it (Most Australians assume only socialists talk about morality).

    When you think about it just about all economic decisions involve a morality, and all economic ideas/theories are based on a set of morals – which brings us back to why the closing down of economics has revolved around denial of the moral issues – lack of ability to come to terms with moral hazard, changed consumer preferences, propensities to spend , assertions that a dollar here (in the hands of the uber rich) is the same as a dollar there (in the hands of the dirt poor) etc – and the inability of economics to put an intellectual position on broader issues. Far too often it is a sort of intellectual shield for the uber rich whim of the moment.

    Anyone want to consider the economics of suicide? or the economics of aged care provision? or even the economics of aged care provision as seen from a single family perspective?

    Or how about the morality of revenue streams from overtly corrupt environments to less corrupt environment, and factoring these flows into national economic policy?

    ….I’ll go have some coffee, a drive in the sunrise, and a joint…..

    [Edit]

    But 300 – a good film! I always associate the uber wealthy with insane bling wearing tossers leading feckless underlings towards a major overestimation of their abilities (or underestimation of their opposition) somewhere

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Or how about the morality of revenue streams from overtly corrupt environments to less corrupt environment, and factoring these flows into national economic policy

      The Italians call the clean up Mani Pulite (clean hands) because the less corrupt environment doesn’t stay less corrupt for long and will need disinfection (didn’t work so well for the Italians).

  2. Good post. Elements of the above were nicely highlighted by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last Thursday (13/03) – see ‘fox news and food stamps’. (If you have geo-unblock service you can watch the clip at http://www.dailyshow.com). A textbook mix of utilitarian argument peppered with the usual moral ingoncruitites one would expect from MSM elites.

  3. The issue you identify is at the core of the current renewed debate regarding the role of government and economic management.

    How can anyone hope that the management of the economy can reflect the values of a population when most influences on the level and type of economic activity have been locked away from public debate and parliament.

    The notion of ‘an independent Central Bank’ removes its actions in driving the level of economic debate and its methods of doing so (i.e the debt engine) away from serious debate.

    The notion of ‘free capital markets’ removes the issues of the ownership, the aggregations and sources of capital in an economy from serious public debate.

    A similar thing arises in relation to the markets for goods and the trade in goods and here we do see some debate because it is hard to deny the consequences or impact of supposed ‘value’ free economic natural ‘laws’.

    Of course though the high priests insist that the pain is always worth it because we are progressing to a higher state where the natural laws of economics are less sullied by the grubby ideas or needs of men.

    Of course we largely consent to it because we don’t trust our politicians or our policy makers as representatives of our values.

    “But we must rely on the natural economic laws because who trusts pollies or public servants”

    And that is the core of the problem.

    Until we build from the grass roots institutions of representation and public policy that better reflect our values we will find so called ‘value-free’ values being imposed on us as being the least worst option.

    In the mean time, the best we can do is constantly draw attention to attempts, to shut down debate on the ‘values’ involved in economic policy, that resort to claims of ‘natural economic laws’ for legitimacy.

    The worst of the lot are claims that attempt to draw a feeble long thread between the operations of a ‘competitive’ market (which is what they often misleadingly describe as ‘free’ or ‘unregulated’ markets) and whatever policy prescription they are promoting.

  4. I can remember at Sydney University in 1970, the anti- abortionists took advantage of the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth to explain that in the modern world, because his parents were syphilitic and troubled with other awful diseases, the greatest composer the world had ever experienced would have been aborted.
    At the tender age of 18 the leaflet received at the door of Fisher Library has always made me question the procedure, whether through abortion or through chasmatic destruction.
    There are some questions too difficult to ponder and which should remain the choice of the people in that desperate situation…suicide being another.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      I can remember at Sydney University in 1970, the anti- abortionists took advantage of the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth to explain that in the modern world, because his parents were syphilitic and troubled with other awful diseases, the greatest composer the world had ever experienced would have been aborted.

      The question left begging, of course, being whether or not anyone equally gifted (or maybe even more so) would have risen in his place.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Oh f#$k off smithy!!! How #$%*ing retarded are you?!?! You think Beetohovens grow in childcare?!

        Be honest with your deluded self for once. Or perhaps you have no taste for classical music and it all sounds like Coldplay to your hipster self…

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Are you even capable of a reply that isn’t a straw man built on a non-sequitur wrapped in ad hominem ?

        Nothing in your reply is relevant to the topic.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Nothing in YOUR reply was likewise!?!?!?! FFS!

        You think drowning Ludwig may have given us 1000 more.WTF?

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Nothing in YOUR reply was likewise!?!?!?!

        Someone outlined a textbook anti-abortion argument that if abortion were legal, Beethoven/Stephen Hawking/ would never have been born.

        This “argument” is fallacious on multiple levels. I was pointing out one of them

        You think drowning Ludwig may have given us 1000 more.

        Straw man. I said nothing of the sort.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        would have risen in his place

        Since speculation is a good for 1 as a 1000 yes you certainly did!

        I agree with your distaste of the original proposition (as far as that goes) but your counterpoint was atrocious I’m sorry to have to be the one to inform you.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Since speculation is a good for 1 as a 1000 yes you certainly did!

        I did not.

        You may engage in the sort of dishonest and selective quoting The Australian would be proud of if you wish, however, it does not change what I actually wrote, especially when it’s visible a page higher.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        The question left begging, of course, being whether or not anyone equally gifted (or maybe even more so) would have risen in his place

        The question left begging of course is whether you intended that remark to mean anything other than one human is as good as then next?!?!

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        The question left begging of course is whether you intended that remark to mean anything other than one human is as good as then next?!?!

        I intended it to mean nothing of the sort. Indeed, I struggle to see how anyone could reach that conclusion.

        I pointed out that one of the multiple fallacious assumptions in the argument presented was “Beethoven not being born excludes the possibility of someone else equally gifted being born”.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        can remember at Sydney University in 1970, the anti- abortionists took advantage of the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth to explain that in the modern world, because his parents were syphilitic and troubled with other awful diseases, the greatest composer the world had ever experienced would have been aborted.

        The question left begging, of course, being whether or not anyone equally gifted (or maybe even more so) would have risen in his place

        You pointed out #[email protected] nothing I did it for you and you still had a go instead of clarifying your atrocious speculation!!!!

      • @smithy @ mig

        A big part of it is adversity, surely.

        We’ve just had the Olympics for the disabled… People who have shown that great strength can come from adversity.Thankfully these people have proved their “utility”.

        Nothing to do with people equally gifted, rising in their place.

        I think most of us can look back on our lives and thank adversity for spurring us on.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Begging the question; otherwise known as circular argumentation – if another may have risen to replace or perhaps excel Beethoven then his loss who not have been noticeable.

        You absolutely speculated/implied that his loss will be negligible were another with similar talents replaced his absence.
        Is the grammar clearer now or can you see how that is implied speculation?

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        You absolutely speculated/implied that his loss will be negligible were another with similar talents replaced his absence.

        I did not. I made no speculation whatsoever on the probability of that happening.

        I pointed out the people making the anti-abortion argument assume – fallaciously – such a thing could not have happened.

        It’s like arguing if Newton had been aborted we wouldn’t have calculus.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Yes and no, calculus was really a Keplerian development (relative acceleration and deceleration of planets when passing the apogee of their elliptic orbits) which was much better defined and elaborated by Leibniz but that’s all by the by.

        Artistic expression is necessarily individualistic and incapable of being expressed/deduced by anyone else. But seeing as we’ve had the discussion around art before I have no idea why I’m explaining this to yo now… but I get it its personal…

  5. Great post but I’d like to defend welfare economics.
    I think it is unfair to criticize welfare economics as morally deficient because it is a tool that is used by a practitioner. It is up to the practitioner to apply it morally. Saying the discipline is morally deficient is like saying modern medical diagnostic technology is morally deficient. Can doctors misuse it? Yes. Is it imperfect and are there misdiagnoses? Yes. However, has it improved the welfare of society significantly? Absolutely.
    What the disciple forces the practitioner to do is systematically weigh up the relative values of costs and benefits of a policy decision. That is a significant improvement from times when it was up to say up to the ‘wisdom of King Solomon’.
    Some decisions and implications are difficult and unpleasant. However, in my opinion, shying away from making tough decisions and accepting the status quo can lead to a worse and arguably immoral outcome itself (i.e. if there was an opportunity to improve society and you don’t do it because “things aren’t black-and-white”, then you’ve deprived the greater good).
    Turning to the health policy example and that’s a great one. Yes it does lead to the judgment call that a disease-free life of a young person is preferred to a disease-free life of an elderly person (or some variation of this), all else equal. That is uncomfortable and unpleasant, sure. Here’s a possible robust explanation:
    – The commodity we are trading in is ‘disease-free life years’;
    – If $100 is to be spent, welfare economics says it should maximise benefits;
    – An elderly person might be expected to have 5 ‘disease-free life years’;
    – A young person might be expected to have 70 ‘disease-free life years’; and
    – 70 > 5.
    All else equal it is better to spend $100 for the younger person. It is a tough call but what is the alternative?
    Don’t treat anyone? That would be immoral.

    • I didn’t understand the post to be a criticism of welfare economics – more that there are no easy answers supplied by calling on notions of utilitarianism.

      The issues you raise about the care of elderly v young are exactly the issues that should be discussed.

      How a society resolves them is the challenge that we should not shy away from.

      One important caveat is that as far as is possible people should be encouraged to plan and arrange their affairs so decisions concerning their life are made by them and not some well meaning policy maker who believes they have reached the ‘rational’ answer for every situation.

      • “I didn’t understand the post to be a criticism of welfare economics –”

        Pointing out the flaws or deficiencies in something is by definition, critical.

        “more that there are no easy answers supplied by calling on notions of utilitarianism.”1

        Actually, welfare economics works really well in many cases (especially the less controversial ones). So it does provide “answers by calling on notions of utilitarianism”.

        Wrong again.

        “The issues you raise about the care of elderly v young are exactly the issues that should be discussed.

        How a society resolves them is the challenge that we should not shy away from.”

        A platitude with no real point?

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @melbguy actually your “best buck” argument is flawed utilitarianism because we know from the travelling salesmen problem that you can not ever know/achieve maximum optimality, just local optimality, so your “best buck” is mythical.

        I have no idea why you’d seek to defend welfare by reductionist logic.

      • Melbourneguy,

        “All else equal it is better to spend $100 for the younger person. It is a tough call but what is the alternative?
        Don’t treat anyone? That would be immoral.”

        How about treat both of them and spend $200 and save $100 elsewhere.

        Your simplistic problem posing doesn’t address the issue that the allocation of resources across the economy involves a lot more than artificial King Solomon scenarios.

        The values of a society should inform the overall pattern of economic decisions.

        The factors you raised in the problem scenario are relevant (and will carry some weight) but they are not the end of the story.

      • “moral” is also a problem word along with utilitarian.

        Were the Spartans immoral? Or would it have been immoral to let the weak flourish till they were overrun by a stronger enemy?

        Is morality a relative concept, or a concept based on indoctrination?

        Is religion the only basis for morality, or is religion largely a falsehood based superstition that is relevant only in that it’s adherents have a joint power to influence policy? And which religion?

    • Rumplestatskin

      “I’d like to defend welfare economics”

      I’m glad – the whole point is to generate some decent discussion.

      “it is unfair to criticize welfare economics as morally deficient because it is a tool that is used by a practitioner. It is up to the practitioner to apply it morally”

      I would like to think this is the case. But if it welfare economics was merely a tool, like a measuring tape, we would get the same answer no matter who used it. But we don’t, because it is not an objective tool. It’s like getting to use a measuring tape AND decided how long a metre is.

      To your example, that was the core point I make. It is easiest to see the alternative when we talk about other animals. We knock them on the head because ‘it’s best’. Involuntary euthanasia is ‘the right thing’, and so on. We are Spartan when it comes to animals, not people.

      • Agree with a lot of your reply.

        Yes it is requires judgment and in some cases (some more than others) moral judgment. Therefore you’ll almost always get a different measurement if applied by two different economists. Incidentally sometimes the policy case is so overwhelmingly positive (or negative) that every practitioner should get the same answer (yes/no) and very close measurements.

        However, if our goal is to improve society, where does this fact lead us? Do we discard or fundamentally alter our imperfect tool? What’s the alternative? Clearly, we would be worse off if we discarded it altogether. How about fundamentally altering it? Yes if someone can come up with a variation/alternative that proves to be more effective than the current version …. but no one has.

        It would be like saying we shouldn’t perform heart surgeries because you can’t be guaranteed a positive outcome. Two different surgeons, same patient could end up with two different outcomes (a healed or dead patient).

        As for the humans vs animals question. That (the broader issue) I think is one of the biggest moral judgments. The broader issue is that of the importance off the reference group of a welfare economics study and ‘everyone else’. If assessing a VIC state policy, do you care about the whole of Australia or not because it is just Victorian taxpayers’ money. If Australian policy do you care about 3rd world impacts or no? How do you value foreign aid?

        I think these are the hardest judgments. If there is any scope for improvement, it is in the application/practice of welfare economics (to transparently note assumptions and consider alternative perspectives) than in the framework. Or a complementary framework for dealing with these sorts of tricky moral issues (have you come across any in your research)?

        However, it would be to the detriment of society to throw away something that actually helps make our lives better overall (just like we wouldn’t stop doing heart surgeries).

      • Good comment melbourneguy. The reference group stuff is a massive challenge. I recommend Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes if you want to some more discussion on that topic

        http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Tribes-Emotion-Reason-Between/dp/1480538728

        I also considered this issue in a recent post

        “Further, most economic analysis applies utilitarianism in an ad hoc manner, by considering only the population within national borders. Unless you are a ‘national utilitarian’ (a distinct moral position), it can never be appropriate to consider domestic policy in terms of the utility of local residents while ignoring effects on the utility of those abroad.

        A truly utilitarian analysis must always and everywhere adopt a global perspective, which would make it exceeding difficult to justify any domestic policy in the developed world that didn’t entail a massive redistribution from that country’s wealthiest to the world’s poorest.”

        http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2014/02/economics-is-applied-morality/

    • What if you cure the young person and they do something reckless as young people are prone to do within a year and ends up in a wheelchair or dead?

    • The extortionist – sorry practitioner – will inevitably serve his own self interest. The welfare state fails the test of morality because it assumes a moral class distinct from the rest of society. Imagine being the 70 year old who has had his money stolen from a “practitioner” all his life, facing that same thief now coldly weighing his right to live.

      • Yes

        The fewer opportunities for ‘decision making’ left in the hands of ‘welfare practitioners’ dispensing their interpretation of the ‘good life’ the better.

  6. A dollar invested by the wealthy or a dollar invested by the the poor, I have not considered the path of current society in such terms, but that surely is the track we are on. WW

    • migtronixMEMBER

      As opposed to the old guy who without medical intervention will absolutely die a year later? Odd weighting of probabilities there.

  7. migtronixMEMBER

    Spartan morality was a belligerent one not a utilitarian one! The enforced homosexuality and male dominated fraternity by the ruling Spartan was not utilitarian, in fact the marriages were. The healots who were under the heel of the Spartans for centuries visited no such horrors upon their progeny, which reinforces that the resolve was militarist rather than utilitarian – otherwise why not enforce the same morality on everyone?

    Sorry for bringing history into this, I’m gunna join Gunna in drive + joint in a minute; o probably to Gunnamatta beach! Last 30 days we’ll have this “summer” I imagine.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Again apologies for getting nerdy but isn’t Utilitarianism a political philosophy that is a sort of modern reductionist theory proposed by adherents of the insane scepticism of Hume? Stuart-Mills et al? And is precisely a justification for merchantilism and worth about as much. Its a peculiarly British/Anglophile economic philosophy and should have been discarded long ago.

      • You’re well read but don’t have the depth of understanding to support what you’re saying.

        In layman’s terms all welfare economics does is help society get the most “bang for its policy buck”. Being scared of it if you don’t understand it makes you ….. well …. sort of a Luddite.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @melbguy: I wasn’t passing any comment whatsoever on welfare policies — just philosophical thought…

        Welfare policies don’t need utilitarian arguments merely compassionate one, I don’t believe St Francis ever put forth such reductions in defence of the least…

  8. Don’t know much about Spartans – don’t sound like the ideal parents do they?
    Empathy & compassion seem to have gone MIA.
    Did they die out as a race through lack of love or what?
    Re the contention that older people should receive more medical assistance than younger ones, I disagree. I am closer to death than birth by a long way & have no desire to end my days hooked up to tubes and pipework. Beyond a certain point, what is the point? One breath at a time, love it.
    While the movie ‘300’ sounds like an exciting step back into action-figure land where angry dudes rule, I prefer to watch something with a bit more substance, depth and hope, eg.
    ‘The White Hole in Time’ by Peter Russell:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qs-4QCTYWsg
    Re utility/morality confusion: that is where the import of the above video comes into its own.
    The days of running with the pack are drawing to an end, time to grow up.

  9. Thanks Rumples for lifting our eyes from the everyday battle over the ‘Controlled Depression’.

    Economics, despite its vigorous pointing to mathematics and flag-waving about freedom, is a discipline ultimately guided by ethics and morality. It looks past individual selfishness and hand-wringers demanding we ‘play nice’ to larger themes.

    Overwhelmed hospital emergency departments and ambulance officers at disasters are trained to perform triage: ignore those who will live and those who will die and focus solely on those whose lives may be saved. Heartless? No, all heart, all compassion.

    Robert Menzies once said (and I wish I could find the quote) that his task was to look after the middle class and that the rich “can bloody well look after themselves”. His call to the ‘forgotten people’ resonated after the struggle to repay debt all through the 1930’s and a devastating world war.

    We have just elected a government with the most reactionary leader in our history. He does not see the people of Australia as citizens. Class struggle defines him. Sadly, the battle over share of the pie has no ultimate winners, only losers.

    There is one area of genuine endeavor for this government: tax reform. If we can rid ourselves of the deadweight losses in bad tax design and restore incentive for all, we can grow the magic pudding without cost. There will be pain, noise and fireworks – but we already have those every day of the year.

    Most tax reform tasks are in state and territory governments. They rely heavily on the feds for revenue – here is Mr Abbott’s persuader stick, which he can use for good or bad. So, I am back at the morality of government and economics. The task is the pursuit of prosperity, not sectional advantage. I can only hope this government will set its course toward the cornucopia rather than heap advantage on privilege.

  10. I think that the example you gave was crude, as utilitarianism is a bit more nuanced and compassionate than that. I don’t defend it as I prefer virtue ethics but I think that that is an unfair representation of it. For a good discussion on the the two two see J.C. Smart and Bernard William’s ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’. As an aside, my ethics lecturer told me that Australia was predominantly a utilitarianism country in academic circles. That was ten years ago so I’m not sure which way the wind blows at the moment. Smart did lecture here for a very long time and of course Peter Singer is our most famous proponent.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Its very popular here, one of the last hold outs of the old Empire Anglo conservatism – with its obligatory pomo twists.

    • Rumplestatskin

      “utilitarianism is a bit more nuanced and compassionate than that”

      No. If you want to interpret utilitarianism as more nuanced and compassionate, then that’s your view. As I said, the principle of utilitarianism provide scope for both compassionate views and the Spartan views. To argue for one or the other you need to bring in additional moral/ethical principles outside of utilitarianism.

      • utilitarianism is built on majority self interest ie it is in the interests of the majority to bring the greater good to the majority. I guess the problem is that it is not always in the self interest of some individuals to embrace this principle eg if you have a really big army you might be better off reaping havoc. So it is really either dependant on a) power not being concentrtated in a few OR b) if it is those few being happy to ceed some of their interests becasue they are nice people. To that end utilitarianism doesnt ever really guide our ethics, rather we either have 3 broad scenarios a) negotiated allocation of rights/resources among a large number of participants or b) enlightened compassion from the few that hold power or c) tyranny from a few that hold power

  11. casewithscience

    Utilitarianism is fine until people stop wanting to be involved in the society.At that point, the social contract breaks down and chaos rules.

  12. felixthecatMEMBER

    I would have thought that the whole issue of spartan infanticide rested on the fact that a small militaristic elite was subjugating a large number of helots.

    Therefore the less than perfect individual physical
    specimens were a threat to the “whole” or the ideal of the whole,…. a physically supreme soldier. Therefore the decisions are based around the survival of the “Whole” as oppossed to the survival of an individual. For the record I think Ancient Sparta sucked glad I missed out.

    • Good insight there into “supreme soldier” – felt threatened by imperfection of children even – LOL.
      All the hallmarks of fragile egos run amok, little wonder the Spartas died out – they weren’t up to the task.

      • 300 against thousands…not that smart either.

        That was a long time ago.
        They had to wait another 20 years before that short-arse from Macedonia …young Alex…was born.
        He didn’t get shafted due to stature.

        Then you move on to Hawke and Howard….ahh forget it.

  13. although its not popular to admit it for secular humanists, human rights as practised in the West rests on the idea of sanctity of life – the first human rights theorists and founders of international law were Catholic priests. This means that some things are non negotiable REGARDLESS of the utilitarian reasons. If you strip god out iof the picture, and remove souls and ulterior purpose from humanity, ultimately all you have is matter and energy. All our ethical/moral decisions reduce down to the way our brains are configured, we are not free to make decisions.

    … personally I dont see the point in having conversations about ethics inside this materialist paradigm – what will be will be. I remember Christopher Hitchens being asked if he beleived in free will – the answer was “no”, but he had no choice to act as though it did.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Hitchens is clever but too far by half. He is effectively a Lockean or Humist and has sceptical issues with free will though like his more cerebral antecedents he fails to reconcile the reduction with the objective and never addresses the unmoved mover argument – which is the essence of free will. The unmoved mover is a philosophical construct that embodies/personifies/reifies the free will concept because only free will can be the unmoved causation. That probably probably added nothing to the debate sorry.

    • casewithscience

      Was the Justinian Code a good example of human rights being espoused by Catholic priests?

      Seriously, the first assessment of universal ethical rules in the dealing with humans was long before Jesus came about. Just a brief read through the nicomedian ethics or the republic shows the Greeks were tinkering with the idea, albeit with two different sides of the coin (deontology and teleology respectively).

      The difference between the greeks (athenian, not spartan btw) and the catholics (and why the west is borne of greece and not christianity) is that the greek concepts formed from a basis that all men were free until bound by government (ie liberalism) as opposed to the christian concept that all men are born in bounds (ie original sin).

      In reality, the catholics were much closer to the spartans than the athenians ever were.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Absolutely St Augustine was a neo platonist and Plato was rather pro Spartan political demographics

  14. When argunig about improving society and taking a world view of utilitarian judgements, don’t forget a time independent view.

    What about preserving resources for the future generations by taking less now? Can you discount the value of a decent life for your grandkids and decide that the NPV of a decent life for you now has a higher NPV than a decent life for them?

    What about preventing more and reversing recent climate change because even if the science is wrong (I believe it is right), a risk management view says we should act in the interests of avoiding severe damage to future generations. After all, the coal will be there to be extracted and burnt by our grandkids, it would just be a form of national saving not to burn it over the next 20 years.