Tuesday 2 April 2024

Fair Enough!

Sounds About Right: It would seem that the realities of practical politics makes utilitarians of us all.

DOING THE GREATEST GOOD for the greatest number has long been the ethical rule-of-thumb for New Zealand politicians. At least, that is how they would argue if challenged to justify their own, or their government’s, actions. What’s more, if they present their crudely utilitarian arguments with sufficient force, then most New Zealander’s will nod decisively, and bestow upon them that supreme Kiwi benediction: “Fair enough!”

It was not always thus. Within the living memory of more than half the New Zealand population, the ethical quality of a political decision would have been judged according to how closely it followed the precepts of Christianity. But, are the moral calculations of “Do as you would be done by” really all that different from determining government policy on the basis of how many will benefit from its introduction?

A utilitarian calculation indicating that a policy’s benefits are likely to be received by 90 percent of the population will, in almost every case, allow it to proceed. Providing they are not too severe, the policy’s detrimental impact on the remaining 10 percent, will not be enough to stop it. It is this, the ruthlessness of utilitarian reasoning, that has contributed to the popular uneasiness that often accompanies its application.

Certainly, the utilitarian calculations that led to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government introducing the vaccination mandates left a bitter aftertaste. Pushing vaccination rates up to 90 percent was generally accepted as being “a good thing” – even “the right thing” – to do by a clear majority of citizens. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the pain and suffering inflicted upon the 10 percent of Kiwis who refused the Covid-19 vaccine – not to mention the fury of their reaction at being made outcasts in their own land – raised considerable doubts as to its moral safety. The utilitarian arguments presented by those who believed that, for the sake of the economy, Covid-19 should be allowed to do its worst, were no more palatable, and even more unsafe from an ethical point-of-view.

Christian reasoning, however, is no less fraught. If we are bound to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then the art of godly politics is immediately reduced to making the same political calculations as all the others.

Would a farmer welcome the construction of a hydro-dam that drowned three-quarters of his farm? No. After he had been offered generous compensation for the land lost? Probably. After he has been told how many people will benefit from the energy generated? Of course! If the farmer, no less than the hydro-electric company, is bound to do as he would be done by, then his objections will, perforce, be tempered by the Golden Rule.

It would seem that the realities of practical politics makes utilitarians of us all.

What, then, should the political philosopher make of the Coalition Government’s decision to repose with just three Cabinet Ministers – Shane Jones, Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown – the power to decide upon the utilitarian merits of nationally significant, if environmentally questionable, development projects, personally?

In many respects, the use of words like “nationally” and “significant” makes the Ministers’ jobs considerably easier. Half the utilitarian battle is won before the ministerial calculation has even begun. If what is being proposed is in the interest of the nation, and will be to the significant benefit of its people, then, for the arguments of environmentalist objectors to be upheld, they, too, will have to demonstrate that a significant national issue is at stake.

By the very nature of environmental issues, that is no easy matter. Especially since Economic Development Minister Shane Jones has already made it abundantly clear that arguments claiming a project will threaten the survival of a rare species of native frog will no longer be enough to stop it. It is the greatest good for the greatest number of human-beings that is being weighed in the ministerial balance – not the greatest number of frogs.

It is difficult to see how environmental issues – most especially those relating to Climate Change – can be judged according to anything other than anthropocentric considerations. Since concern for the environment is an entirely human phenomenon, the political response to deforestation, species extinction and global warming will be determined according to the usual utilitarian question: What is the policy response that produces the greatest good for the greatest number?

To your average Greenpeace member this question is a no-brainer. Obviously, the planet, and all the living things that depend upon it for their existence, must come first. Unfortunately, while such simple sentiments look fine on a T-Shirt, the politics of “saving the planet” are just a little more complicated.

For a start, neither the planet, nor all but one of the living things dependent upon it, get to vote. Indeed, in the more than 4 billion years of its existence, the planet has seen species come and go with monotonous regularity. What’s more, as a ball of hot rock, circling an average-sized star, in an average-sized galaxy, it really doesn’t care who, or what, is circling with it. The quality and duration of the ride on the planet’s crust is of importance only to the 8 billion murderous apes who call themselves homo-sapiens.

Tell these homo-sapiens that their lives must be made inconvenient by, for example, the banning of all fossil fuels, and see how the utilitarian calculation unfolds. If, for a very large number of the voting public, the “greatest good” is interpreted as meaning “free access to the latest, gas-guzzling SUV”, then the Greenpeace member better hope that the “greatest number” of voters, like her, defines it differently.

Tell these clever apes that, in order to save an utterly indifferent planet, the overwhelming majority of them will have to renounce all the wonders of fossil-fuel-based civilisation and make do with the subsistence existence “enjoyed” by their ancestors, and they are likely to insist that you run the utilitarian calculation again – this time remembering that it is they who constitute the greatest number. Chances are high that the resulting definition of the greatest good will have little to say about the planet.

All of which may suggest that it is better to leave the judgement of what constitutes the greatest good to those who fully appreciate what’s at stake. Problem being, that even Philosopher Kings and/or Philosopher Technocrats cannot, indefinitely, ignore the interests and preferences of the greatest number.

Which can only mean that the essence of successful politics (which is not at all the same as rational politics) lies in persuading the greatest number of voters that your party’s definition of the greatest good, while not entirely fair, is “Fair enough!”

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 1 April 2024.


DS said...

With the benefit of hindsight, however, the pain and suffering inflicted upon the 10 percent of Kiwis who refused the Covid-19 vaccine – not to mention the fury of their reaction at being made outcasts in their own land – raised considerable doubts as to its moral safety

The Friends of the Virus were inflicting their own suffering. Stop defending them.

John Hurley said...

In Bolognia Jacinda talked about the problem of agricultural emissions and I immediately thought of those massive cruise liners such as Ovation of the Seas. Greenpeace doesn't care about that (too close to their privileged lifestyles perhaps)

Rangunui Walker said The people of New Zealand have already opted for zero population growth by limiting family size to an average of 2.1 children. That intuitive decision of the people to balance human reproduction with the internal resources of the country is being contradicted by the government determining unilaterally to mount a pro-active immigration policy.

Julianne Genter says: "More people isn't a problem"

Effesso Colins wrote that
Higher density is better for the environment and encourages people towards active and public transport. Opting out is a step backwards.

My friends and their two children (immigrants from Japan) came here for the Kiwi dream, they wish they could afford a house and garden (instead they have to compete with the Chinese and Indian middle classes).

When Christchurch had half todays population half the population cycled. Would the public (if given a choice) choose density and a short walk or their backyards and a longer bike ride?
The Greens come across as over cocky and arrogant; the in-house party of the MSM and academia.
Checkout the 1200 who signed the counter letter to the Listener 7. Start at the top and see the number of followers on X - quite the tight connected bunch; the "political machine".

LittleKeith said...

Honestly Climate Change is the best hijacking of the political narrative since witches! The religious zeal in which it is practised is so similar. The repercussions for being a modern non beleiver aren't as violent but the character assassinations are!

You've got to accept that "Climate Change", the man made version, is actually real, or even the ridiculous notion we can make the blindest bit of difference. We've been told repeatedly that if we don't do X within 5 years then Armageddon will be visited upon us. Hasn't happened.

You need to ignore the ever growing coincidence that this tale of death and destruction underlines woke philosophy and so far it's worked, although it's effect is waning and alternatives like population explosions are now thrown into the mix to ramp up the terror, again.

And in the shifting sands of this basis to an intolerant religion, one has to keep getting used to new challenges thrown up at us on the road to purity and paradise. The latest being actual human carbon emissions based on what you eat, now the next sin. Only veganism makes you an exclusive climate disciple. I shit you not!

You have to hate humanity in just the right amount of self loathing and depression to buy into this crap.

And I'm guessing Ministers Bishop, Jones and Brown don't! They know it and are through actions, saying what we are all too scared to say. The climate emperor has no clothes. Its time to get real and they are!

Larry Mitchell said...

Spot on CT. My thoughts exactly and very well said. "Democracy- is a short title for your piece.

Tom Hunter said...

Heh. As soon as I saw the title I immediately thoguht of a Tom Scott cartoon from 1981.

The scene has one of the leaders of the Anto-Tour movement (not Minto) tied to a firing squad stake with Muldoon as the squad leader. The guy at the stake says:

But you said our actions only bordered on treason?

To which the Muldoon character replies:

Fair Enough. Okay, Chaps, aim for the edge of his heart

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to seeing how the government, and the opposition, handle Maori interests in the "fast tracking" process.

As a member, I was invited to join a Forest & Bird webinar on organising opposition to the fast track bill. (Recording now available on You Tube). I fully share F&B concerns about the irrigation dam project in the Hawkes Bay, stopped by F&B legal action. That will flood some conservation land, should it now be resubmitted, and approved on the "fast track".

But Nicola Toki was very clear F&B does not have a blanket opposition to all economic development. The exception she specifically stated is in the case of Maori interests being involved. One stalled project that could be resubmitted is a Ngai Tahu proposal for salmon farming off Rakiura (Stewart Island).

Shane Jones will probably enjoy saying with a straight face (and he might even be sincere!) he's approving Ngai Tahu salmon farming in the interests of Maori economic development. (If he was mean, he could rub sea salt in the wound by adding words to the effect that the Maori consideration was vital, a similar project without Maori involvement would not have been approved). And can the government find Maori interests in every project they want to "fast track"?

What then would F&B, having explicitly made Maori interests an exception, say or do in further opposition? And what of Labour, Greens, and TPM? And could they agree on a united opposition stance? It's going to be interesting to find out.

new view said...

If Utilitarianism means getting things done I'm all for it. As Chris has described politicians use the process because in the end someone has to do something, and if the majority of us are convinced it's the right thing lets get on and do it. The ridiculous opposite is when the people want something and the politicians don't, they use the democratic non binding referendum to kill it. Democracy at it's worst. These days the minorities as in the anti vax group, hold the big power of social communication, and of course when it comes to what we put in our bodies, we don't give a stuff about the majority even if the proof says it's the best over all action. In the case of the CHB Ruataniwha Dam proposal Utilitarianism didn't work because The minority convinced the majority that the moss and rare frog along with cost, was more important than secure water for CHB and the whole of the Ruataniwha plains. Of course the majority were urban dwellers that couldn't see the benefits for themselves of which there were plenty. no one seems to complain now about the flooding of apricot and cherry orchards to create lake Dunstin near Cromwell because its been proven that the greater majority benefited because of it, but I wonder whether that would be allowed to happen now. Luxon, Peters and Seymour are making decisions on their own that will either be good or bad. If some of those decisions fail it will come back to haunt them. If big decisions go bad and affect the whole country that's more serious but no worse than whats gone on in the past. I'd rather have a government that gets stuff done even if some of it's wrong, than a government that achieves nothing.

Jonzie said...

Looking at the desperate and angry writing on The Daily Blog, and associated commentary from its downright rude and hard-line lefties fan base, it's a good thing you've pulled away from it. Don't go back either! Reading your stuff vs what's published there...well, it's just chalk and cheese. Always a great read on Bowalley Road. (Betcha box of beer I will cop flak now from one of them...here it comes..)

John Hurley said...

Our Growing City - Understanding the challenges of change in a growing city Panel discussion

Rod Oram I just love cycling or walking to the top of any of the longer, any of the cones to look around at that, and imagine a city where there are 2 million or more of us living comfortably and having a lot of what we need quite closely to us. I'm very much drawn to the 15-minute city concept.

But also then being able to get around very easily by whatever mode of transport we may choose. But particularly active transport and public transport, to avail ourselves of all the other things.

wrote a book called "Generation Rent", and a lot of it was one having that punchy little hook instead of, that imagery that, what are we creating? What are we losing?

Kind of this, almost this visceral sense that there is something of New Zealand that is being lost. And a lot of our work was really trying to describe how we got there. What was the reason? It wasn't because you were a bad person. It was because we had all this rules and regulations that over time cumulated into this incredible pressure. And then I think what we tried to show was there is a way forward, and it wasn't just us, right? There were a whole bunch of different people who were working in this space, and slowly the narrative shifted from house prices are going up, it's great and rich, to house prices are going up, it's a problem, to going house prices are going up because we are not doing enough on planning, infrastructure, transport, all those other things that go together.

Even without an organized following, members of the highly educated middle class are able, by virtue of the positions in the media, the universities, education, welfare, and reform groups, to put political questions on the public agenda if they wish, as was evident in the 1987 debate on the Australia Card.
A number of intellectuals, as a consequence of the kind of work they do, have privileged access to the means of communication. In many cases the opinion that is actually heard is either that of members of the national �lite or it is the opinion of intellectuals. Intellectuals can form an 'attentive public', actively engaged in political debates and controversies and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the kinds of opinions voiced at seminars and conferences, in media interviews, and in 'letters to the editor' will be taken as the working equivalent of 'public opinion'. But there is no necessary reason why educated and articulate opinion should mirror public opinion in general and by the late 1970s the educated and the less educated were at odds on the question of immigration. The general opinion of people with tertiary qualifications was quite unlike the general opinion of less educated people.


The Program on density begins with a. We have to deal with climate change b. "there are projected to be 5m people moving to Auckland by...."

The message (of necessity) is (as Jon Haidt says) the sacred value is migration and the rest is justify the intutition. So Helen Clark has the famous individual from New York, Clark refers to opposition as a vocal minority. Grey power (Density session) begins by pointing out that we already havd a livable city.
My Grandfather had a picture of The Cardinals (plotting). These people are the cardinals.

Unknown said...

Top Economist etc

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the structures of good faith agreement and action are always relevant to what has gone wrong in politics and policy. At least some of our problems are being caused by criminal behaviour - a kind of evil - the public is simply not told about.

John Hurley said...

To me this is cynical exploitation. The disabled were whole in Maori society then colonisation changed that.
It's sad on a number of levels.

as Herman Daly puts it, there is a philosophical divide relating to the ethical divergence between deontologists and consequentialists