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Morals of Society and the Individual

November 8, 2012

Moreover, the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. . . . So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.
F. A. Hayek

The morality of the microcosmos, of the Dunbar circle, is pretty well established and well reinforced in most people’s lives. You get immediate feedback when you do something that offends others, you can learn from the mistakes you make throughout your life, and your instincts basically give you good advice on how do deal with others. It is beyond the scope of any moral philosophy to substantially change how people deal with one another in the small group setting and there really is no use for moral philosophy in such an environment. People only start to need to develop sophisticated moral philosophies when they move to settled, agricultural societies. You need writing in order to develop a code of laws, and in order to develop writing, a civilization need to be permanent enough for leaving piles of clay tablets or scrolls lying around to be worthwhile. A well developed moral code allows a society to coordinate norms, and coordinated norms are really only useful if you have a ton of people to coordinate with. In the ancient world, the Greek system of virtue ethics allowed them to organize highly coordinated armies, including the phalanx, which would be impossible with a less disciplined civilization. The moral philosophies of the Scottish Enlightenment allowed the British and their cultural compatriots to develop divisions of labor and webs of trade to a degree which no other civilization had ever reached before. The western legal system is a cultural device designed to to break cycles of revenge. Instead of the group harmed by the crime taking revenge, an unbiased judge gets 12 random people to look at the evidence and determine punishment, and the cycle is stopped before it ever started. Successful civilizations are full of these counter-instinctual norms which allow them to coordinate large groups despite human nature. So while I love to read Haidt and other experimental psychologists about how people’s moral intuitions are formed, I don’t think that line of research has any bearing on moral philosophy unless it considers how those intuitions act in the context of supporting the macrocosmos of society at large.

Utilitarianism gets a bad rap because “the greatest good for the greatest number” is useless without a preexisting notion of what constitutes a good life, and even if you have that, what is considered good varies between people. There’s this tension between the seeming uniformity of treatment of people and lack of a fixed system of judgement for individual outcomes. Utilitarianism can’t have one fixed framework of what is good, because that would itself imply that only one person’s values matter for determining utility. We have to weight everyone’s outcomes equally, and at the same time the system for measuring those outcomes itself much be determined by each individual being measured. It’s simultaneously simple (“greatest utility for the greatest number”) and hopelessly complex (“utility”???). But the strength of utilitarianism does not lie in its ability or lack thereof to render judgements on the actions of individuals, but on its framing of societal welfare. Utilitarianism is radically egalitarian in its approach. Prior to utilitarianism, moral philosophies focused on the individual actions. The Greek system of virtue ethics and later Christian ethics were about cultivating a set of values that allowed one to act rightly. Deontology, despite its focus on rules which apply to all of society, still focuses on the individual. All along, moral philosophies were there to support society, but not until utilitarianism did any explicitly recognize it. I think utilitarianism is useless by itself, but at the same time is a required framework for any philosopher in the modern world to have in addition to another moral philosophy to determine the rightness of individual actions. Why do I know that people should consider the impact of their actions on society as a whole? Because utilitarianism tells me so.

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