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Posts with tag "rawls":

Consensus Voting and Scanlon's Contractualism (A Case Study of The New School)

posted on: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 (10:24 pm) by Chase Stevens

In his 1982 work Contractualism and Utilitarianism, T.M. Scanlon, in an attempt to explain morality, formulated a new type of Contract Theory, building upon the work done by his predecessor Rawls. Scanlon's approach was novel: whereas contract theories posited before his time focused on what members of a society would mutually agree upon, Scanlon took the opposite approach by focusing on what people find unacceptable. This lead him to arrive at the following definition for a morally wrong act:

"An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any system of rules for the general regulation of behavior which no one could reasonably reject as the basis for informed, unforced general agreement […] An act is wrong if it is forbidden by a principle which no one can reasonably reject."
To simplify, under Scanlon's contractualism, an act is wrong if and only if someone can provide a reasonable objection to it. Conversely, an act is acceptable if no such reasonable objection can be provided by anyone. One ought also to include objections that would arise if everyone was well-informed, or those that would arise if coercive forces were not in play.

Ignoring this contractualism as an explanation of morality, I would like in this piece to examine the implementation (plus minusve) of Scanlon's "wrongness" criterion in consensus voting, via a case study of my former high school, The New School ("TNSK"), as well as how it handled (or failed to handle) cases or situations that serve as objections to said criterion.

First, however, I should provide some background. TNSK is a school run on democratic principles. The vast majority of decisions about the school and its governance (including such things as what classes are offered, the annual budget and the hiring of teachers) are made by students, teachers, parents, alumni (and alumni parents), members of the school's "Leadership Team" (on which I served from Spring of 2008 to August 2011), members of the Board of Directors of The New School Corporation (on which I served from Spring of 2009 to August 2011), and general members of The New School Corporation (i.e. anyone who has donated more than a dollar to the school). The majority of decisions made in the school (save for those made by the Board of Directors of the Corporation) are voted on or at least ratified using a voting system called "Fist to Five," a modified form of consensus voting.

Fist to Five diagram

When voting, a person can raise between one and five fingers or a fist. The one to five fingers represent the voter's amenability to the proposal, with five being particularly gung-ho and one being reluctant in the utmost, likely with several pressing concerns or objections. However, all votes except for a fist are forms of "yea", with the fist being the only true consensus-breaker. Although usually a proposal will be modified or, in some cases, dismissed because of low votes, the throwing of a fist by any single member of the voting body is the only action that technically and absolutely bars the proposal from passing per se.

Now, let's examine some objections to Scanlon. The first is not so much an immediate objection, but, rather, a question: What counts as a reasonable objection? Scanlon clarifies this a bit via several qualifiers. First, Scanlon deems it unreasonable to object to an act solely because it imposes a burden on yourself, whereas other acts would pose a greater burden on others. For example, suppose that I was a part of some club of five people which was going to increase its membership costs by four dollars. It would not be reasonable for me to object to this because I would be charged four dollars and to then offer an alternative in which everyone but me gets charged five dollars. Scanlon also says that reasons must be personal, not impersonal. As an example, an unreasonable objection to the paving over of a park would be that it "destroys the beauty of the city", whereas a reasonable objection might be "I would no longer have somewhere in which to play frisbee."

How did TNSK handle this? When I first started attending the school, there was no "reasonableness" criterion or criteria that had been established, at least to my knowledge [Edit: I was informed by a former classmate of mine that this was not, in fact, the case, and that displaying a fist has always required at least a moral objection to a proposal. However, I have left this section intact, for the sake of completeness]. One could fist a proposal at will. Naturally, it would seem as though this is problematic, as anyone could hold up the entire governmental process for petty or even nonexistent reasons (although I can't recall an instance of this ever occurring). At some point, it was decreed (by the principal, not through democratic process) that, to put up a fist, one must have "moral objections" to a given proposal. This seemed problematic on several levels. Firstly, to require moral objections without specifying a system of morality is useless; one could easily say that their moral system was a kind of hedonistic solipsism that required they not do anything they didn't care to do. On the flip side, I was at the time and still am an error theorist, which presumably left me with no right to object to anything whatsoever. Moreover, it wouldn't appear that one has to have a moral objection to very, very strongly refuse to accept or endorse a policy, or indeed for a policy to be worth objecting to. For example, let's say that there was a proposal to remove the roof from the school: although I may not have any moral qualms about this, it still seems like I should be able to object to this course of action and stop the proposal from going through. The final requirement of which I am aware (and which was also added without any democratic process) was that any person who fisted a proposal would have to come back later with an alternative proposal. I think this is very clearly fallacious, being tantamount to saying "Well, do you have any better ideas?" Simply because I am unable to think of a better proposal does not mean that I de facto lose my right to object to a proposal. Again, an example: Suppose the school is facing a large deficit, and suppose also that I have no knowledge of fundraising or how to handle finances. I would still seem to be within my rights to object to a proposal that all the teachers be fired, despite not having any alternative proposal for alleviating the school's financial troubles.

The second objection to Scanlon I'd like to present is that of aggregation. Scanlon's contractualism is fantastic in that it helps us avoid scenarios in which we might consider allowing one or few to suffer greatly against their will to bring an even greater amount of happiness or benefit to others (for example: gladiatorial games). Consider the following, however: Suppose that there are two groups of drowning people. One group contains five people, the other group is comprised of a single man. There is a ship that can save either one group or the other, but not both, as a group will have to drown during the time it will take to save the opposite group. In this case, it seems that the lone man has very strong grounds on which to object to the captain of the boat saving the group of five, seeing as he would die. However, each of the group of five has the same claim. In this case would could say that the needs of the many (the group of five) outweighs the needs of the few (the man), but doing so would severely undermine the contractualist system that we've established. The same can easily be applied to TNSK: Suppose that there are five seniors, all of whom need a half-credit of math to graduate. Suppose also that the math teacher is already teaching seven classes, far more than is normally expected of a teacher. It would seem that all five students can reasonably object to a suitable math class not being offered for them (i.e. could fist a proposal that did not include a senior-level math class). However, the teacher also seems to have the reasonable objection that teaching an eighth class would present too much of a burden (and therefore could fist any proposal that did include the additional senior-level math class). I remember clearly an example of this occurring some time during the first few years I went to TNSK. The school had been presented with an American flag by the Daughters of the American Revolution (if I remember correctly). There was a proposal made for us to purchase or otherwise obtain a flagpole and fly the American flag on it. One or two students, citing aversions to U.S. foreign and domestic policy as well as nationalism and patriotism in general, threw up a fist for the proposal. As facilitator for one of the many meetings we had on the subject, I asked for a fist-to-five vote on the proposal of not displaying the flag we had been given, a proposal which a greater number of people fisted. Both this issue and that of what constitutes a reasonable objection pose a grave threat to the voting system employed by TNSK and, I would argue, to consensus-based voting systems in general.

As a final thought: If you're a current member of the TNSK community (or of any other democratic school that uses consensus voting) that found the above to be concerning (or even simply a matter worthy of discussion and contemplation), be you student, parent or teacher, I deeply encourage you to bring up your feelings at your next student meeting, committee meeting, all-school meeting, or meeting of the corporation. Frank conversation regarding the tenets and foundations of governance at the school can only lead to a better and more open system. Of course, if you found this post enlightening, please check back regularly, as I plan on making this the first in a series of pieces examining TNSK's governmental structure, philosophical underpinnings, et cetera.

Tags: contract theory, contractualism, education, error theory, government, morality, philosophy, rawls, scanlon, tnsk, voting

The Problem with Idealized Desire Fulfillment Theories

posted on: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 (6:51 pm) by Chase Stevens

A pervasive matter of debate in the field of philosophy is that of what constitutes prudential value; this is to say, what things in life are good in themselves (non-instrumentally good)? Let's look at something like eating your vegetables. Most people wouldn't say that eating vegetables is good in itself, but rather that it's good because it serves another purpose, or is instrumentally good. In this case, eating your vegetables is good because it increases your overall health. Is being healthy non-instrumentally good? Although you could argue that being healthy is in and of itself a good thing, it again would seem that a more reasonable explanation is that being healthy is good in that it causes some other effect. For example, being healthy could be said to increase your overall happiness. We can then ask another question: is happiness non-instrumentally good? It would seem to be the viewpoint of many people that being happy is good in and of itself (and, conversely, that pain is bad in and of itself). After all, I can't imagine that most people want to become happy to further some other end. Moreover, if we were to compare two people, it would not be unreasonable to say that, all else being equal, the one who had experienced more happiness and/or less pain in life was better off than the other (indeed, this might seem intuitive). This viewpoint is one theory of prudential value, known as hedonism, which has gone on to be the foundation for a number of influential philosophical works, including (perhaps most famously) John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Although hedonism is a subject well worth covering, I won't be doing so today. Instead, I'll be presenting a theory of prudential value known as "Desire Fulfillment Theory", or "DFT". DFT's take on why health is good for you is that you have a desire to be healthy, which being healthy fulfills (rather self-explanatory, isn't it?). A more formalized definition of DFT might be as follows:

Something is good for someone if and only if (and because) it fulfills their desires.
Again, we can provide an example of how this might work: Al and Bob are identical brothers that have led identical lives. Both of them want a candy-cane. Al is given one, fulfilling his candy-cane desire, whereas Bob is not. DFT would then say that Al is (however slightly) better off than Bob. Make sense so far?

Unfortunately, DFT has several faults, perhaps the most potent and obvious of which is the case of addiction. Addicts definitely have intense cravings and desires for whatever substance they're addicted to, but it is plainly wrong (from an intuitive sense) to say that the fulfillment of these desires is good for the addict. In fact, I think most of us agree that the satiation of such an addiction carries negative prudential value for the addict. Although I wouldn't say this goes so far as to refute DFT, it more than certainly poses a serious problem, namely, that people sometimes (perhaps often?) desire things which simply aren't good for them, whether due to incomplete knowledge, delirium, addiction, or what have you. To solve this, some philosophers refined DFT into Idealized Desire Fulfillment Theory (IDFT). IDFT essentially states that things which fulfill the desires a person would have in a perfect world are good for that person. More formally:
Something is good for someone if and only if (and because) if fulfills the desires they would have in some idealized condition C.
So, if we again take the case of the addict, in an "idealized condition" they would not be addicted, would be well informed of all the pros and cons of abusing whatever substance, and would (presumably) not have a desire to take that substance (or even a desire to not take that substance). Hooray! Are we done?

Well, consider the case of Charlie. Charlie, a pleasant fellow, happens to be walking along one morning when he crosses paths with a rather cross looking old man. To himself, Charlie hopes that the old man's day gets better. Although he doesn't see the old man again, the old man does, in fact, go on to have a lovely day. Although Charlie doesn't become aware of this fact, his desire has been fulfilled. Yet it doesn't really seem that Charlie is "better off" for having had his desire fulfilled. In fact, it seems strange to say that the old man's day had any impact whatsoever on Charlie, considering that Charlie never learns of the old man's fate and does not come to interact with him again. Furthermore, it doesn't really seem like our "idealized condition" helps any in this circumstance: Charlie's pleasant wish doesn't seem like the type of thing that would change if Charlie had better judgment or a more complete understanding of the world. However, we can solve this by adding yet another condition onto our theory, creating "Self-Regarding Idealized Desire-Fulfillment Theory". Basically, let's narrow down the scope of desires which, if fulfilled, would be good for us to those that personally affect us. Again, more formally:
Something is good for someone if and only if (and because) it fulfills a self-regarding desire that they would have in some idealized condition C
Obviously, this solves the problem of Charlie but, as you might have guessed, raises some questions. What counts as self-regarding? Let's say that Charlie hopes that his mother has a good day. Will the fulfillment of this desire be sufficiently self-regarding that Charlie could benefit from it? If so, how far out from Charlie can we go before his desire no longer counts? His distant uncle? A cousin of a cousin? On the other hand, should we say that the only desires that could benefit Charlie are those which directly benefit himself, it would seem like the fulfillment of a desire that his own son lead a good life would, if fulfilled, make Charlie no better off, which would seem to be a clear violation of our intuitions. This same question applies to the "idealized condition C" under which we've been operating since IDFT: what exactly is the condition? Is it tantamount to omniscience? If our desires are supposed to convey some level of abstraction from our actual lives (e.g. so that we don't make decisions based on addictions), how far removed are the desires supposed to be? John Rawls offers an amusing reductio ad absurdum in A Theory of Justice, quoted here as re-stated by Roger Crisp in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"Imagine a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about the options available to her, who develops an overriding desire to count the blades of grass on the lawns of Harvard. […] This case is another example of philosophical ‘bedrock’. Some will believe that, if she really is informed, and not suffering from some neurosis, then the life of grass-counting will be the best for her."
Overall, the problem seems to be that, with the addition of each modification of DFT, we are moving away from actual human desires and, in some sense, rejecting their validity. Instead, it would seem that SRIDFT's theory of prudential value is something along the lines of "It's good for you to get what you want, and what you want should be what's good for you." This statement not only fails to really provide a framework for what has prudential value and what does not, but it's almost tautological! So is this it, then? Should we abandon DFT entirely?

I would say that doing so is not necessary. However, it is the case that we cannot continue down the path that we're being led on by IDFT and SRIDFT. What a successful version of DFT must instead focus on are real desires, specifically, second-order desires. What is a second-order desire? Essentially, they're desires about other desires. "I want you to want me" is a good example. Another might be "I want to want to do my homework", or "I wish I wanted a simple life". Although these may seem abstract, they prove incredibly useful in that they allow us to formulate Second-Order Desire-Fulfillment Theory (2DFT). Although there doesn't appear to be much in the literature on this theory (please contact me if you know otherwise!), Baylor University professor Alexander Pruss helpfully provides a definition on his blog:
According to second-order desire fulfillment theories (2DF), A is bad for me if and only if I desire that A not occur, and my desire that A not occur is either endorsed (the stronger variant) or not disendorsed (the weaker variant). A desire is "endorsed" if and only if I have a desire to have that desire. A desire is "disendorsed" if and only if I have a desire not to have that desire.
The inverse of this might be "the fulfillment of a desire is good for one if and only if the desire is either endorsed or not disendorsed." Ergo, if I want to go skydiving and either A) want to want to go skydiving or B) don't have a desire not to want to skydive, then skydiving would be a good thing for me. But say I was an addict: although I most certainly want whatever I'm addicted to, I don't want to want it. I want not to want it. In this way 2DFT brings out a more "idealized" version of my desires without having to resort to IDFT. We can also look at the case of Charlie yet again: he may have a passing desire for the old man he saw to have a good day, but does he truly want to want for him to have a good day? Is his desire strong enough to explicitly provoke this second-order desire, as the stronger variant of 2DFT would require? It would seem unlikely. Thus, we can also avoid the pitfalls of SRIDFT. Most importantly, we have stopped short in their tracks any objections about vague hypotheticals and defining the good in terms of the good: second-order desires are real, human things that have been well-explored in the field of psychology (readers who find second-order desires intriguing may want to investigate the works of Harry Frankfurt and Richard Holton, especially Holton's excellent work on akrasia (a.k.a. weakness of will)).

2DFT is by no means perfect. It fails to take into account a spate of counterexamples, such as situations in which one wants to want something we would intuitively consider bad for them (such as if an addict wanted to be addicted), situations in which our well-being is increased despite not having a desire fulfilled, and (embarrassingly enough), the case of having our well-being increase despite our already being dead. Nevertheless, I consider 2DFT an important step in the right direction, namely, away from prescriptive definitions of the good and closer to descriptive desire-fulfillment theories that continue to respect human autonomy.

Tags: akrasia, desire, frankfurt, hedonism, holton, philosophy, pruss, rawls, the good, value, will