Thursday, January 7, 2010

Henry Sidgwick on American Moral Depravity

Henry Sidgwick was a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and classical liberal. John Rawls calls his Method of Ethics the first modern academic work on moral theory. Sidgwick's writing, unlike the German idealists, is clear. His ideas are detailed and elaborate, so reading Method of Ethics is not light, but it is well worth your time. Although Sidgwick was an accomplished classicist, I don't think he does a great job on virtue ethics and Aristotle. Toward the end of his discussion of what he calls intuitionism, that is, duty based ethics (think of the Ten Commandments or Kant's dictum of practical reason that we should act as though our action is a universal law), Sidgwick recommends two universal duty-based ethical principles that are the most convincing that I have seen. The first principle involves duty toward ourselves and amounts to a statement of the importance of deferral of gratification or neutral time preference. The second principle involves duty toward others. Sidgwick calls it the benevolence principle. The principles are as follows (pp. 381-2):

1. Hereafter as such is not to be regarded neither less nor more than now...a smaller present good is not to be preferred to a greater future good (allowing for differences of certainty).

2. The good of any one individual is of no (greater) importance, from the point of view...of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realised in the one case than in the a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally--so far as it is attainable by my efforts--not merely a particular part of it...(so that) each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him.

Upon consideration of Sidgwick's two moral principles, that we should treat the future with the same respect as the present and that we should consider the good of others as much as our own unless it is less knowable or attainable than our own, that American society is morally depraved.

The first principle, deferral of gratification or neutral time preference, has been ignored by the United States government; by Keynesian economics; by the banking system; and by the Federal Reserve bank. The reckless borrowing, spending, inflation and waste in which the American economy has engaged would, in Sidgwick's view, be unconscionable. Even more so, he would view the subsidization of house construction at the expense of alternative uses and the future and the aggressive subsidization of such waste as depraved.

As well, Sidgwick's second principle has been ignored by business executives and by the government. The closing of successfully operating plants in order to reap short term stock option rewards at employees' expense; the manipulation of earnings to induce payment of bonuses and stock; the abuse of shareholders in order to reap excessive executive compensation, using spurious claims of market demand as a rationale (spurious in part because the executives cannot point to any ability with respect to which many others do not have better endowments and scrupulously avoid measurement of potential abilities with respect to recruiting; and when their firms fail they demand subsidies from the public) all evidence depravity in the planned corporate sector.

Even worse, governmental decision making is tainted with the corruption of special interest manipulation. It is laughable today to claim that the US or state governments represent the general good.

Professor Sidgwick would likely turn in his grave were he to see the ways in which the American dream has declined. (Sidgwick, again was British, not American, but he would surely have been deeply concerned with the American example.)

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