Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Was Lenin A Utilitarian?
Well, the Zizek thread was invigorating, eh? Let’s talk about something related but distinct. One thing that has come up repeatedly in these threads is the allegation that it is obviously absurd for me to label Lenin a utilitarian. Or rather: to it is absurd for me to characterize the philosophy of Leninism as a species of consequentialism. (I don’t claim that Lenin personally practiced utilitarianism with much success, but he certainly preached a form of it.) As I’ve said, I find rather annoying the persistent refusal to let Leninism-as-consequentialism pass on the grounds that some things are pretty darn obvious. (It’s true that it’s a bit hard to find scholarly articles that argue specifically, that Leninism is, broadly, a consequentialist philosophy. But it’s also hard to find articles arguing, specifically, that the Pope wears a funny hat.)
Well, here goes.
Let me review the ‘Lenin not a utilitarian arguments’, such as they would appear to be. Adam K. makes the point, a bit obliquely, by pointing out that a certain poem by Brecht, quoted by Zizek as a plausible expressionism of Leninist sentiment, does not actually advocate utilitarianism. Here is the poem: “You are our enemy. This is why we shall / Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration / of your merits and good qualities / We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you / With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you / With a good shovel in the good earth”. And if this poem is not utilitarian, but Zizek thinks it is Leninist, then Zizek presumably does not think Lenin is a utilitarian. So there must be some way to think of Lenin as a non-utilitarian.
Well, I suppose you can read it as Schmittian, about the primacy of friend-enemy. But who thinks Brecht is a Schmittian? Or that communists think class conflict is an end in itself, rather than a means to the ideal end of overcoming class conflict? Doesn’t it make more sense to read the poem as an expression of the view that some sacrifice of good things - even human lives - is necessary to achieve even greater ends? That is, the point of the repetition of ‘good’ - good man, good gun, good bullet, good shovel, good earth, is to emphasize that people, like tools, like fertile soil, are not ends in themselves but means to ends? So the poem is, in effect, a little anti-Kantian, anti-’rights talk’ vignette. The right does not trump the good. Very classically utilitarian. Assuming that Brecht is not just a Schmittian, how else to read it? What’s the non-utilitarian reading?
Anthony Paul Smith tries to argue that Lenin is a virtue ethicist. In part this is an argument that Lenin, personally, clearly wasn’t living up to any utilitarian philosophy. Ergo, he wasn’t a utilitarian. Well, you get no argument from me about the first bit. But I think the most that could follow is that Lenin was a bad Leninist, since Leninism, on the page, is utilitarian. Lenin certainly doesn’t say, in his voluminous writings, that it’s alright not to live up to the consequentialst high standards of his philosophy, so long as you exhibit the right sort of personality on the way. So if you read Lenin’s writings you won’t find much, if any, support for Anthony’s claims as to what you will find if you are “faithful to his texts”. Unless Anthony knows better, and can point to passages in which Lenin indeed argues that the truly important thing is to be the right sort of person, not to see that the right sorts of consequences are brought about overall.
In other words: I don’t think anyone would deny that Lenin was a strong personality. But it doesn’t follow that Leninism is a philosophy of Lenin’s particular sort of strong personality.
An analogous argument: if you see Peter Singer kicking a cat, it doesn’t follow that it is wrong to read Peter Singer’s philosophy as providing utilitarian arguments that animals ought to be treated better than they currently are. Rather, this would be evidence that the man is not practicing what he preaches. A different matter.
We’ll return to this point again in a moment.
In comments to Anthony’s post, Alex (dunno what his last name is, but he blogs here) quotes one scholarly passage (you can click to get the cite) to support the proposition that my claim that Lenin is a consequentialist is ‘bizarre’ and ‘scandalous’. “Despite their apparent resemblances, however, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism distinguishes itself totally from utilitarianism for the following reasons: (1) Not only the utilitarian notion of utility is, from the Marxian point of view, vague or ambiguous and therefore practically useless, but is also idealistic in the sense that it fails to take into serious account the historical and social realities through a concrete (Marxian) analysis of social classes and their contradictions. In other words, there is one and only one utility to be considered in the truly moral sense, and that is proletarian utility. (2) In spite of its flexibility in applications and sensitivity to the necessity of social change, (act-oriented) utilitarianism can never be a theory of revolution integrating each and every individual utilitarian’s choice-act into an over-all revolutionary decision making, in accordance with the principle of proletarian utility. Hence the utilitarian lack of a workable program for any urgent social change. (3) Utilitarianism, like all the other idealistic ethical theories, does not have a correct vision of ideal man and ideal society, without which the utilitarian notions such as justice or equality become ethically meaningless.”
Alex lets this passage stand for itself, but I don’t see how. I regard the assertion that, according to Leninism, “there is one and only one utility to be considered in the truly moral sense, and that is proletarian utility” as a less than ringing denunciation of utility as an ethical benchman for political action. Surely this passage actually confirms my basic claim. (Obviously Lenin is not a Utilitarian of the Bentham school. That is, Marxists all agree that it is laughable to suppose liberal property rights plus a free market will maximize true utility. But no one ever suggested otherwise - certainly not me.)
Back to Anthony’s post:
Consider some well known aspects of Lenin’s political action leading up to the successful revolution in 1917. Lenin strongly disagreed with many of the other revolutionary actors that were seemingly the most close to Lenin’s own position. Utilitarian consideration would have demanded that Lenin work with these groups as they would have added to the overall number of the revolutionary forces, but he was hard and stern and demanded instead that they conform fully to the Bolshevik position, because that position was right. It’s the same with his rejection of Capitalism, it wasn’t simply because Capitalism produces more suffering (or some other quasi-quantifiable aspect) than Communism, but because Capitalism creates bad societies. An (at that time) orthodox Marxist would be somewhat closer to a utilitarian position than Lenin (remembering that this should only be a heuristic device) because they would have seen some necessity in allowing Capitalism to progress through the proper stages towards Communism. Lenin, however, rejected this on the basis that the revolution was both possible but right to pursue in Russia, even if the historical conditions as such had not been met.
I’m just baffled by this. It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve read about the subject and it seems conceptually incoherent. First of all, Anthony provides no reason for thinking that ‘utilitarian considerations’ would have demanded that Lenin compromise his own position. (Suppose you are a utilitarian and you think that, by taking a hard line, you can get everything you want? Why compromise, then, and settle for less? Makes no sense.) Second, I can’t remember reading anything in Lenin that says compromise is never tolerable because it is a violation of communist integrity (virtue ethics, of a sort). Third, I can remember (a bit vaguely) a lot of places where he says the opposite. And I just happened to find a paper that provides a conveniently illustrative passage from Lenin, and some famous historical context. So here goes.
The paper is “Lenin’s anticipation of Bernard Williams’s integrity objection to utilitarianism”, by Alexander Miller, in The Journal of Value Inquiry (31: 503–510, 1997). The author doesn’t argue that Lenin is basically a utilitarian. He just assumes it for paper purposes (which is pretty much the way I am used to seeing the subject treated.) But perhaps Anthony will be more impressed to hear, from Lenin himself, a specific argument against the view that communism demands an integrity-preserving, no-compromises-with-the-enemy virtue ethic. Rather, it demands rigorous utilitarianism. (And little potted examples will help us see that this is so, for good measure.)
But first, Williams’ objection to utilitarianism. Basically, it’s the objection that you can’t just expect me to shoot a good man dead like that, even if this will produce greater good. In short, Williams objection to utilitarianism is then, very specifically, that the outlook of Brecht’s poem is intolerably morally self-alienating. (They use the same example to prove opposite points, which just goes to show that examples will only take you so far. But I digress.)
We are partially at least not utilitarians, and cannot regard our moral feelings merely as objects of utilitarian value. Because our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can and cannot “live with,” to come to regard those feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one’s moral self, is to lose a sense of one’s moral identity; to lose, in the most literal way, one’s integrity. At this point utilitarianism alienates one from one’s moral feelings. (“A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in J.J.C. Smart and B. Williams Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 104
Here is the Leninist argument that this is all liberal hogwash, according to Miller (507-8):
After the October revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik dominated government of Russia found itself facing the following dilemma. On the one hand, it had come to power on a platform which included as a central component a pledge to end as soon as possible the Russian involvement in the FirstWorldWar; on the other, the only conditions on which the Central powers would settle peace terms with the Russian government at Brest-Litovsk involved massive territorial concessions and indemnities, the alternative being an all-out German offensive behind the Russian lines against a virtually nonexistent Russian army. The Bolsheviks clearly adhered to a consequentialist ethic, according to which the moral status of an action is determined by its consequences for the survival of the revolution. Given this, it is plausible that the Bolshevik morality demanded a peace settlement, indemnities and all, since the consequences of an all-out German attack would have been disastrous and probably fatal for the revolutionary regime. But, and this is the analogue of Jim’s moral repugnance in Williams’s example [Jim has to shoot the poor, good guy], the Bolshevik’s sense of who they were morally was plausibly at least in part determined by a commitment to avoid at all cost such concessions to regimes which they held responsible for the war and for the sorry plight of humanity generally. So in this case also it is arguable that adherence to a consequentialist ethic involves leaving ourselves open to a loss of integrity or moral identity, since a situation might arise in which the only means to the relevant consequences were in conflict with the most deeply held projects and commitments of those involved: there is always the possibility that a consequentialist ethic will sanction the application of putatively integrity destroying means. A response to Williams’s integrity objection is provided by Lenin’s reply to the charge that the signing of the treaty at Brest-Litovsk compromised the revolutionary integrity of the Bolsheviks. This reply is worth quoting at some length. Speaking of Radek and Bukharin, who had led a faction of the party opposed to the signing of the treaty, he said:It had seemed to them that the Brest-Litovsk peace was a compromise with imperialists that was inadmissible on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It really was a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the given circumstances, was obligatory. . . . Imagine that your automobile is held up by armed bandits. You hand them over your money, passport, revolver, and automobile. You are spared the pleasant company of the bandits. . . . But it would be difficult to find a sane man who would declare such a compromise to be “inadmissible on principle,” or who would declare the compromiser an accomplice of the bandits (even though the bandits might use the automobile and firearms for further robberies). Our compromise with the bandits of German imperialism was a compromise of this kind. . . . There are compromises and there are compromises. One must be able to analyse the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or each variety of compromise. One must learn to distinguish between a man who gave the bandits money and firearms in order to lessen the evil committed by them and to facilitate the task of getting them captured and shot, and a man who gives the bandits firearms and money in order to share in the loot. In politics this is not always as easy as in this childishly simple example.
In short, Anthony has it backwards. Lenin is the great proponent of compromising with anyone, so long as doing so produces the greatest good in the long run. The response to Williams then goes somewhat like this: there isn’t any loss of integrity, if you are called upon to shoot a good man dead, because true ethical integrity requires compromise for the sake of the utilitarian end. Not that this turns it into some sort of virtue ethic. Lenin just takes it to be obvious that virtue, insofar as there is any such thing, demands utilitarianism. Being virtuous just means: being a good utilitarian. Because utilitarianism is the true ethical philosophy. It is hardly going to be virtuous to do the wrong thing. So utilitarianism can never demand the sacrifice of personal virtue. How could it be shameful to do the right thing?
This isn’t a denial of values of integrity, but it is clearly an attempt to explicitly subordinate and perfectly harmonize the demands of virtue (of integrity) with the primary demands of utilitarianism.
See also: Brecht’s little poem.
Is there anything in Lenin’s writings that suggests any other picture than the basically utilitarian one? If so: where and what?
I should preface this by saying that I come to the table more as a student of Russian history than of philosophy, but with some interest in philosophy too.
I don’t think you’ve overcome Alex’s point (1): you are talking about ‘proletarian utility’, but (especially for a Marxist), that is too ambiguous to serve as a basis for action. You mistake the depth of what I will call practical principle in Lenin’s Marxism - that means, not only that class conflict should be eliminated, but that this must happen in certain determinate ways. That means that any proposed alternative path to classless or communist society - other than by way of proletarian dictatorship - is inherently counter-revolutionary. This does not mean that there is no room for maneuver whatsoever, but it does mean that there are certain basic (practical) principles. Marxism in general and Leninism in particular are more than utopian visions - they are also commitments to the practical realization of those visions.
Marx is full of passages saying that the specific forms of social organization under communism will work themselves out once the foundation for exploitation has been destroyed. Lenin(ism) is quite open as well about what the final shape of the future society will be (which is why there was such extraordinary utopian experimentation of all kinds in the 1920s). Lenin(ism) is much less prepared to compromise about the path towards that future society. It is in a sense opportunistic - especially in 1917 - but that does not mean that it has only one principle.
Well, but couldn’t I just as easily argue that Bentham wasn’t a utilitarian because he, too, has quite deep commitments to social methods of getting there from here. He is committed to property and the market and so forth. So he’s more than just a generic utilitarian. It doesn’t follow that he isn’t one, after all.
I’m thinking of a famous passage from Marx, which I was just rereading (because we’re discussing Gerry Cohen’s new book over at CT):
“This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.”
Here we see Marx referring to highly characteristic views of Bentham that are not, per se, utilitarian. Bentham thinks utility can only be realized along certain paths. Just as Lenin thinks utlity can only be realized along certain paths. But I’m sure it wouldn’t occur to Marx to argue that therefore Bentham isn’t a utilitarian, after all.
There is a lot more to Lenin than utilitarianism (just as there is a lot more to Bentham, if it comes to that.) But that’s alright.
Three brief comments.
1. During his reading of Brecht’s poem, Holbo asks the question:
“Doesn’t it make more sense to read the poem as an expression of the view that some sacrifice of good things - even human lives - is necessary to achieve even greater ends?”
Suppose the answer to this question is, “Yes, it does.” It does not follow from this that the poem is utilitarian, unless every ethical system that recognizes and allows the sacrifice of immediate goods for more difficult future goods is utilitarian. See Just War Theory. More mundanely: when I cease eating burritos from Chipotle as part of a long-term effort to rekindle the flames of marital love, am I not sacrificing a good thing for an, arguably, even greater end? Does this make me a utilitarian? Of course not.
2. Also, it seems to me that Holbo (and Miller) significantly under-interpret the Lenin passage. Lenin’s thought-experiment could as easily be depicted as an Aristotelian reflection on the difficulty and necessity of political phronesis as it could be described in the way Holbo does: “compromising with anyone, so long as doing so produces the greatest good in the long run.”
3. When Holbo writes that “there is a lot more to Lenin than utilitarianism,” it seems to me that he admits a utilitarian reading of Lenin is helpful for heuristic purposes but fails to account for the whole of the man’s thought and career. Or does he mean by this something else?
I take your point, John, although I hope you don’t think I’m being obtuse if I try reversing it. You’re right that just because there is more to Lenin, it doesn’t mean that he is not utilitarian. (And the same does go for Bentham).
But then again, can we not say that everyone is +too some degree+ utilitarian, to the extent that everyone, at least some of the time, considers the likely consequences of their actions and uses that consideration as one factor in deciding what to do.
Then we get in to questions of degree - obviously Lenin is somewhat utilitarian (like every other thinking person), so the question becomes: to what extent is it useful or illuminating to call Lenin utilitarian?
I have to say that going back to some examples, I’m a bit more persuaded by your point of view - although I do have to say that I’m not sure where exactly this takes us in terms of interpreting Lenin, either historically or philosophically, but perhaps I am missing some context here.
But consider the following passage from Lenin’s ‘Letter to Comrades’ from October 1917, which addresses the concerns of a couple of Bolshevik party members who (still!) doubt that the time is right for a seizure of power.
“Just think of it: under devilishly difficult conditions, having but one Liebknecht (and he in prison) with no newspapers, with no freedom of assembly, with no Soviets, with all classes of the population, including every well-to-do peasant, incredibly hostile to the idea of internationalism, with the imperialist big, middle, and petty bourgeoisie splendidly organised—the Germans, i.e., the German revolutionary internationalists, the German workers dressed in sailors’ jackets, started a mutiny in the navy with one chance in a hundred of winning.”
And the Bolsheviks, he goes on to say, in a far better position than this, must support them:
“The war has fatigued and tormented the workers of all countries to the utmost. Outbursts are becoming frequent in Italy, Germany and Austria. We alone have Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Let us then keep on waiting. Let us betray the German internationalists as we are betraying the Russian peasants, who, not by words but by deeds, by their uprising against the landowners, appeal to us to rise against Kerensky’s government.”
There are two issues here. First, Lenin seems to suggest that the German revolutionaries deserve respect for their commitment to the cause, even though they took an appalling decision in terms of strategy and predictable consequences - for revolting even when the odds of success were stacked against them. Second is the notion of betrayal, which I think is interesting, and implies a different set of (non-utilitarian) principles at work.
Now, you can respond that these are mere rhetorical flourishes in the midst of a text that is basically arguing that the time is objectively right for a seizure of power and anyone who disagrees is so much of a coward that they are deluding themselves about the objective situation. But you did say you want to take Lenin at his (written) word, which surely means rhetorical flourishes-and-all (and it means that appeal to principle, such as betrayal being wrong, does matter).
On the Brecht poem, maybe I’m missing something huge, but I don’t see it either as very Leninist or very complicated. To me it’s a comment on the absurdity of a situation in which ‘little’ principles persist even as ‘big’ principles have been abandoned. So someone is prepared to resort to executing enemies, but wants to do it ‘nicely’. It’s the same absurdity or paradox as Hitler’s opposition to hunting animals for sport (how can one derive pleasure from killing the poor creatures? he wondered) or as the apparatus surrounding Stalinist show-trials: surely everyone knew that there was no ‘justice’ to be served, and everyone concerned knew the outcome, so why such great concern with correct procedure? Brecht’s point being that some political-ideological projects allow space for people to think that they are really doing the right thing (nice wall, nice bullets etc.) even as they are perpetrating the most unspeakably evil acts.
I think we can safely say that John Holbo is not a utilitarian, or at least does not live by utilitarian standards in his day-to-day actions and blog posts.
It seems to me that in our actual discussion, the question was whether there was a plausible non-utilitarian way to interpret Lenin—if there wasn’t, then you were justified in your article to default to the position that Zizek believes Lenin to be a utilitarian (and thus must misunderstand Kierkegaard). Anthony seems to me to have provided a plausible non-utilitarian interpretation. I provided another one, with particular reference to Kierkegaard. The very existence of those views, the fact that they were at least considered interesting (i.e., worthy of discussion—which seems to me to indicate “not obviously crazy and implausible") by you and other participants in the thread, seems to me to indicate that your position that we must default to the utilitarian reading of Lenin in the absence of alternatives cannot be justified. Or as I said in the other thread: “If it’s not obvious to us that Lenin is a utilitarian, maybe it’s not obvious.”
And to review, if that move is not justified, then you are guilty of the mistake I accuse you of: namely, subsituting your own view of Lenin for Zizek’s and using the resulting hybrid as evidence that his reading of Kierkegaard is incorrect.
We had a lot of psychologizing of me in that past thread, and I objected to that, rightly I think. But now I think it’s hard not to wonder why you’re so insistent here. I mean, it’s a book review. It’s already been published and referred to and discussed to the extent that it’s going to be—in fact, to a far greater extent than you could’ve possibly ever dreamed when you initially published it. It’s not like they revoke the CV line if someone finds a mistake in your argument!
Sorry, Adam, here’s your mistake: from the fact that certain views are sort of interesting, in the abstract, it doesn’t follow that they are automatically plausible interpretations of certain figures.
I’ve told you that the philosophy you call Zizek’s, for example, is more interesting than what I see in Zizek. But I don’t see it when I read Zizek. You can’t then fire back: but it must be, because it’s interesting. That doesn’t make sense.
Likewise, it might be that Anthony’s view is plausible, in an abstract sort of way. That is, it might be an interesting philosophy he is sketching, potentially. But it doesn’t follow that it is at all plausible as a reading of Lenin.
“But now I think it’s hard not to wonder why you’re so insistent here.”
Well, I don’t think there’s so much mystery. When a a few people strenuously call you a scandal against scholarship for asserting something you think is obvious, it’s sort of tempting to try to defend yourself. Alex was practically jumping up and down on his hat, saying that it was very suspicious that I didn’t try to cite any more evidence about Lenin. Obviously I had something to hide. Well, now I’ve tried to show that is not the case.
Beyond that, utilitarianism is interesting. I was struck by the fact that Williams’ objection to utilitarianism collides directly with the Brecht poem.
And it seems to me rather interesting, frankly, that people would actually miss this basic feature of Lenin’s philosophy. I’m sure the reason is that he doesn’t discuss it explicitly all that much. But that’s just because he regards it as beyond doubt.
I’m sorry you aren’t interested in this stuff, but we haven’t actually had a Lenin thread before. So, for what it’s worth, this is not just a repeat of the old stuff.
Wouldn’t the key to any discussion of X as utilitarian be determining whether “maximalizing individual happiness” is X’s ultimate goal?
If you think that it’s simply *wrong* to oppress the working class or allow abortion or whatever, then you’re not a utilitarian, right? I’m supposing that’s what “virtue ethics” means? It’s only utilitarian if your logic is, “Right now, the many poor are sad while the few rich are happy. After the revolution, the many poor will be the many happy because they’ll be the many not-so-poor, while the few rich will be the few sad because they’ll be either the dead or the not-so-rich.”
Sorry, some comments were waiting in queue all night and I somehow didn’t get notified so I didn’t turn them on, so I responded to Adam only, because I hadn’t seen simon and wj yet.
Let me work backwards. “If you think that it’s simply *wrong* to oppress the working class or allow abortion or whatever, then you’re not a utilitarian, right? I’m supposing that’s what “virtue ethics” means?”
I think that’s more like Kantianism, actually. Some sort of categorical imperative not to oppress. The problem with the three-corner struggle between Kantianism-utilitarianism-virtue ethics is that the distinction between the first two seems pretty clear (though of course there are problems.) But virtue ethics is hard to distinguish. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine admiring a certain sort of person (personal virtue) without thinking that the goodness of this personality type connects up/is explained by some considerations of rightness or goodness. (So some other view is peeking from behind the curtain.) On the other hand, it is impossible to suppose that people really think like Kantians or utilitarians in practice. This is sort of Williams complaint, actually. So it seems that Kantianism and utilitarianism need to have some sort of adjunct virtue ethics. It is all rather confusing, admittedly.
In short, utilitarianism and Kantianism are normative theories, not moral psychologies. But you’ve got to have SOME moral psychology. On the other hand, virtue ethics is definitely a moral psychology, but in order to think that some psychology is GOOD, you’ve got to have some normative theory over and above the psychology.
Now simon: “Brecht’s point being that some political-ideological projects allow space for people to think that they are really doing the right thing (nice wall, nice bullets etc.) even as they are perpetrating the most unspeakably evil acts.”
Gosh, I think that’s exactly the opposite of what Brecht intends. You are reading the poem the way Williams would - as morally monstrous. But I think Brecht wants you to take it straight.
As to the general considerations about betrayal and virtue: yes, but no. In part what you are citing amounts to proof that Williams is right to object that no one could seriously BE a utilitarian, because it would be self-alienating. it’s too thin and bloodless and inhuman. You couldn’t uphold any kind of sense of integrity. In practice, Lenin couldn’t be rhetorically effective, being a pure utilitarian. But, at the same time, it could hardly make any sense for him to suppose that these considerations about betrayal and loyalty amounted to the ethical bedrock. He would have to say that, under it all, there is utilitarian aiming at good ends. That is, if someone said, ‘but Lenin, these notions of loyalty are just bourgeois left-overs. Antique value notions,’ he would say. ‘You are right. But it’s ok to appeal to them as necessary. Ultimately it is our best shot to support the German’s even if their chances are very bad. We’ve got no better shot.’ That sort of thing.
“When Holbo writes that “there is a lot more to Lenin than utilitarianism,” it seems to me that he admits a utilitarian reading of Lenin is helpful for heuristic purposes but fails to account for the whole of the man’s thought and career. Or does he mean by this something else? “
I am actually saying something closer to the opposite. I make no claim that thinking of Lenin as a utilitarian gives good heuristic guidance to his career or personality. Pretty clearly it doesn’t, in fact.
Nevertheless, it is true that Lenin is officially committed to utilitarianism, and this is pretty important to him philosophically.
Compare: just knowing that Charles Darwin was a biologist is not much of a heuristic guide to his thought. There are too many different ways to study biology for that to get you very far. But it’s still pretty important to know that he was a biologist - not a poet or a carpenter or any of the many other things he might have been.
John, I know nothing about the philosophical use of these terms, but you seem to be flouting any difference between means-end thinking and utilitarianism. And that seems wrong to me.
You might not think anyone “actually” thinks that X is right or wrong without consideration of the happiness it brings. But whether you think it’s true really has nothing to do with its truth, right?
But even if an agent acts with *some* idea of the value of consequences, that does not make the agent utilitarian. If I kill a million people to make my overlord happy, I am certainly not a utilitarian. If Antigone buries her brother in part for the kleos, that doesn’t make her utilitarian.
So it seems to me that unless Lenin was acting to bring the maximum amount of pleasure to the maximum number of people, he’s not utilitarian. And you present no real evidence of such thinking in Lenin’s writings or the historical record.
That he was willing to make compromises for a goal is not a sufficient condition to call him utilitarian. Plenty of anti-abortion activists are willing to make compromises in the name of some ultimate goal, but they have no sense that that ultimate goal—banning abortions—will bring happiness to anyone. Unless you just want to be like Dr. House and insist, cynically, that any time anyone does anything, one gets some pleasure.
Cognitive therapists would distinguish between all-or-nothing thinking and other forms of thought. You seem to suggest that any form of ethical thought that is not all-or-nothing is then utilitarian.
But how many people have to tell you it’s not obvious that Lenin is a utilitarian—indeed, how many people have to tell you he probably isn’t—before you’ll concede it’s not obvious? It’s apparently obvious to you—but to be obvious in general requires, I don’t know, general asset. I have yet to see anyone, in any of these threads, who’s agreed with you that Lenin’s utilitarianism is obvious. So far we have a student of Russian history who disagrees. We have multiple people who have studied Marxism and Leninism in-depth who disagree. We don’t seem to have anyone who actually does agree.
In short, you seem to be missing some very important facets of the concept of obviousness.
And another thing.
The difference between deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics is whether or not we attach the word “bad” to the word “actions” regardless of the goal.
So if Lenin thinks compromise is wrong but that a wrong might be necessary to accomplish a higher right, then he’s not a consequentialist. Whereas a utilitarian would say that the higher good makes the compromise itself good.
A quotation from *Les Miserables* clarifies the former position. Enjolras has just executed a fellow insurrectionist who wrongly killed a civilian. He explains:
“In executing that man, I obeyed necessity, but necessity is a monster of the old world, the name of necessity is Fatality. Now the law of progress is that monsters disappear before angels, and that Fatality vanish before Fraternity. This is not a moment to pronounce the word love. No matter, I pronounce it, and I glorify it. Love, thine is the future. Death, I use thee, but I hate thee. Citizens, there shall be in the future neither darkness nor thunderbolts . . . As Satan shall be no more, so Michael shall be no more.”
That antithesis captures the difference from utilitarianism: “Death, I use thee, but I hate thee.” That is, the end does not justify the means. It simply gets us past the evil involved in having to use those means in the first place. But the means are still evil. Enjolras admits: the revolution is evil. But it’s an evil that is necessitated by the evil of the old world. And it’s an evil that will move us beyond good and evil.
Luther writes: “John, I know nothing about the philosophical use of these terms, but you seem to be flouting any difference between means-end thinking and utilitarianism.
Not exactly. But for Kant it’s precisely important that, ultimately, people are to be treated as ends not means. (Kant doesn’t mind you treating other sorts of things as means, but rational moral agents have to be treated as ends in themselves.)
“You might not think anyone “actually” thinks that X is right or wrong without consideration of the happiness it brings”. This I just don’t understand. Why might I not think this? I obviously actually know perfectly well that some people think that right is different from maximizing happiness. What point are you trying to make here? I’m just not getting it.
“But even if an agent acts with *some* idea of the value of consequences, that does not make the agent utilitarian. If I kill a million people to make my overlord happy, I am certainly not a utilitarian. If Antigone buries her brother in part for the kleos, that doesn’t make her utilitarian.”
Right. Aristotle preaches a certain sort of moderation as the proper virtue ethic. (This is seriously oversimple, but let’s just agree that Aristotle thinks moderation is a key element of virtue.) Why does he think moderation is so great? Obviously he has ideas about how a society of moderate people will tend to be happy and stable and well-governed and not afflicted with insane levels of violence and so forth. So, to some degree he is looking to the good EFFECTS of virtuous personality types. But he isn’t going whole Bentham hog. There are degrees.
“You seem to suggest that any form of ethical thought that is not all-or-nothing is then utilitarian. “
I don’t understand this. How do I seem to suggest this? I certainly don’t think this.
Adam writes: “But how many people have to tell you it’s not obvious that Lenin is a utilitarian—indeed, how many people have to tell you he probably isn’t—before you’ll concede it’s not obvious.”
Sheesh Adam. First, I don’t so much care about the ‘obviously’ bit of ‘obviously true’. I care more about the ‘true’ bit. I do find it bizarre that something I find obviously true seems obviously false to Anthony and Alex and, perhaps, you. But that isn’t worth fighting about endlessly.
As to missing important facets of the concept of ‘obvious’ - I think you are the one doing that. I am using ‘obvious’ in primarily an epistemic sense. That is, I am asserting that there is strong evidential support for what I am saying. You, on the other hand, are using ‘obvious’ exclusively in a psychological sense. So you think the way to settle the question of ‘obviousness’ is to look inside your own head to check what you already think. I think the way to settle the question is by reading Lenin to see what is true. Do you see the difference? Something can be ‘obvious’ to you, in that you strongly believe it. But still there might be no evidence for what you believe, and strong evidence that what you believe is wrong. In that sense, what you believe might not be ‘obvious’ - yes, even though you really believe it! Funny old world.
Can we just discuss Lenin? The discussion is actually going sort of well, I might note.
So you think the way to settle the question of ‘obviousness’ is to look inside your own head to check what you already think
You’re ridiculous. That’s not what I think, nor what I’ve said. Do you not notice that I keep citing the multiple people who don’t agree that it’s obvious? That when I use the first person in this regard, it’s in the plural?
There is something other than objective truth and subjective certainty, namely the intersubjective—it’s to that intersubjective zone that, as far as I can tell, obviousness belongs. Take the pope’s hat example—there’s nothing objectively funny about it. It’s funny because everyone agrees that there’s something odd about it. No one but the pope walks around in such hats.
I think I just figured out what Luther was trying to say in that first comment, and it relates to something Simon said that I didn’t address. So here goes.
Everyone is a little bit utilitarian, because everyone thinks instrumentally in some cases, to some degree. A good way to illustrate this is with typical critiques of Kant’s categorical imperative, which is supposed to be so free of utilitarian considerations. Very often (and plausibly) he is accused of smuggling in thoughts that much be, basically, consequentialist.
But it isn’t clear that this makes ‘utilitarianism’ a meaninglessly expansive category. Utilitarians are the people who think very strongly and explicitly and relatively systematically in these terms. They kick away the stops - or most of them - that other people think should check utilitarian calculations. (Thoughts about rights. Thoughts about human values of integrity that can’t be recast as truths of utilitarianism, which utilitarianism then threatens to destroy.) The question is: is Lenin one of these people who thinks very strongly in utilitarian terms? I am saying: yes.
Now, Luther’s case: “Death, I use thee, but I hate thee.” This is, in fact, a perfectly utilitarian thought. Utilitarianism sees cost as well as benefit. It hates cost but it pays cost for the sake of benefit.
The general point about how surely even these utilitarian revolutionaries have notions of honor and duty and personal loyalty: of course they do. But do they have a place for these in their philosophies? I don’t think Lenin really does. Which, I think, shows that utilitarianism is ultimately too narrow an ethical platform. I don’t think it shows that, secretly, Lenin had a broader theory. I think it would be better to say that the man’s own life shows up the thin-ness of his official line. He has to help himself, rhetorically and personally, to things he is strictly obliged to deny himself.
One final note about consequentialism-utilitarianism-virtue ethics. The point isn’t to rest on this three-legged stool. It’s obviously damned wobbly. But it gives a starting point, from which to complicate things.
Look, Adam, the way to argue about whether it is reasonable to believe something is not JUST to cite the example of several people who believe that thing. Because it could very well be that the several people are very confused.
To put it another way: I am, in a sense, making a sociological claim when I say something is ‘obvious’. But I am also, to some degree, NOT making a sociological claim. And the latter bit is considerably more interesting. It is the bit that is concerned with deciding what to think about Lenin and utilitarianism. Do you have anything to say about this bit?
I have nothing to say but no on that latter topic. For those interested in the concept of obviousness, I have attempted to limn its contours.
But the categorical imperative says it’s good (for people) when an individual does only what all people should do.
Which is to say: you can add “for people” after good and turn any deontologist into a consequentialist.
I still think the essential difference is whether or not the agent believes the means are *good* because the end is good. The *Les Miserables* quotation is precisely Kantian: absolutely no one should kill ever, and it’s evil to kill. But Enjolras will kill (and be killed) to stop killing. Just as Kant says it’s wrong to lie but acknowledges that one will do that wrong if a murderer is insisting you tell him where his next victim lives.
Enjolras is saying that killing is categorically wrong. He’s saying that the goal of stopping killing doesn’t justify killing. He is punished for killing and willingly accepts the punishment. So he might instrumentally use killing but he’s not a utilitarian.
A utilitarian would not, say, prosecute those who hurt a few to bring happiness to the many.
Another example: King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he argues that he is breaking a law, that he accept punishment for breaking the law, but that he wants to bring attention to the wrongness of the law. He has a goal, but he does not believe that that goal makes his means good. (Effective does not equal good.)
Another example: Fiona Apple once discussed her rape in an interview and said how she has to reconcile the horror of the rape with the fact that the rape pushed her into songwriting and performing. The “means” (rape) is not justified by the “end” (success as a songwriter), even if the means is effective for achieving the end.
Machiavelli says the value of an action is determined by the value of the goal. Hugo argues that the value of the goal is one thing while the value of the means is another, and both are absolute.
"But the categorical imperative says it’s good (for people) when an individual does only what all people should do.
Which is to say: you can add “for people” after good and turn any deontologist into a consequentialist.”
Well, this is certainly one of the standard critiques of deontology. Namely, that unless it’s secretly just consequentialism after all, then it’s very unappealing. But the deontologist will reply: no, I’m actually not secretly adding the ‘for people’.
“Enjolras is saying that killing is categorically wrong. He’s saying that the goal of stopping killing doesn’t justify killing. He is punished for killing and willingly accepts the punishment. So he might instrumentally use killing but he’s not a utilitarian.”
This gets pretty weird and interesting, actually. And I wrote a paper about something related a while back. Short version: do we need to believe in something like ‘miasma’ - moral pollution - to make sense of the statement that something is wrong, and yet you should still do it. That is, you sacrifice yourself - become a bad person - for the sake of a higher good?
The other cases are a bit different. One problem here is that we actually need to distinguish between different sorts of utilitarians before we decide that “A utilitarian would not, say, prosecute those who hurt a few to bring happiness to the many.” Some might (rule utilitarians). Others might not (act utilitarians).
King is another case like this. Civil disobedience is neither here nor there, with regard to utilitarianism and deontology (and virtue ethics). Different attitudes towards law-breaking can be justified, or not, within each ethical perspective.
The Fiona Apple case is a bit different because, whether or not she is reconciled, presumably she isn’t going to far as to try to figure out some way in which the act of rape was justified. But utilitarianism is largely concerned with justification, not reconciliation.
Let me simplify a little: what Luther is noticing is that, most of the time, asking whether so-and-so is a utilitarian, or deontologist, or virtue ethicist, produces, at best, puzzling or indeterminate results. Because people are complicated, and these theories look one way, now another, depending how you turn them. And mostly the things the theories label don’t occur in pure forms in human nature, as it were. And mostly people don’t have worked-out normative theories. They have personalities, or psychologies, so trying to peg them as theorists is a bit unwieldy.
So what’s the point? Well, at least in Lenin’s case, I would say that the fact that calling him a utilitarian makes pretty clear sense shows, in the first instance, that he was a relatively unusual person. He tried to have a philosophy that made rational, coherent sense and was supposed to ground out in this ultimate ground: utility. Of course then it turns out that he didn’t really follow through. But the fact that he at least tried to be a relatively ‘pure’ sort of ethical type is interesting.
"Just as Kant says it’s wrong to lie but acknowledges that one will do that wrong if a murderer is insisting you tell him where his next victim lives.”
Where does he grant this? If he does, it can only be as a sop to “human frailty”; in the “Supposed Right to Lie for Humanitarian Ends” essay, he’s adamant that there is no such right, that any such liar would be partly culpable for any wrongdoing which resulted from the lie (since the lie is a wrongdoing in and for itself), and that regardless of how terrible the consequences are, all moral agents are absolutely forbidden from telling lies, no ifs ands or buts, full stop, world without end.
“But the categorical imperative says it’s good (for people) when an individual does only what all people should do.
Which is to say: you can add “for people” after good and turn any deontologist into a consequentialist.”
What is “good for people” would be a bit of metaphysical knowledge, like what Aristotle claimed to have. Which Kant doesn’t allow we can know. The categorical imperative doesn’t say anything about what is “good”, but merely says “Do this“. It doesn’t have any basis in what is “good to do”; it’s founded solely in the self-legislating nature of practical reason. Which doesn’t tell nature what is good or bad; it only causes certain things to happen (actions) in line with Kant’s solution to the “third antinomy” in the first Critique.
I’ve never gotten why this “good for people to do their duty” thing is supposed to have teeth against Kant. Kant seems pretty clearly committed to saying that if fulfilling one’s duties leads to the extinction of moral agency for all time, then it’s nonetheless obligatory. And if doing one’s duty doesn’t kill us all, or bring about hell on earth, or drive us all permanently insane, then this is just a blessing of fate. We’d have the same duties even if our actions were all always certain to fail, or if they all had monstrous consequences. (And we could fail in all our actions, or bring about a living hell, and retain the utmost goodness of will through it all. It is only the intentions that are morally relevant.) The sheer indifference with which Kant considers consequences is pretty staggering.
(Put another way: If showing forth a good will is supposed to be a consequentialist good, then more of it should be more good. But Kant isn’t bothered by the possibility that doing one’s duty might lead to the impossibility of doing one’s duty ever again (because it kills us all). It remains one’s duty. Whether or not acting in accord with duty leads to further actions in accord with one’s duty is a matter of no moral import.)
Daniel is right. Kant is rather implausibly adamant on the lying point. (I can’t regard this as a mark in his favor, but it is highly distinctive.)
"King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he argues that he is breaking a law, that he accept punishment for breaking the law, but that he wants to bring attention to the wrongness of the law. He has a goal, but he does not believe that that goal makes his means good. (Effective does not equal good.)”
I hope this isn’t too much of a digression, but Luther, I don’t think you’re reading King correctly here. King writes:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
That doesn’t look like a utilitarian or ends-based framing, but a moral one. King seems to be saying that breaking an unjust law is not just a matter of ends ("arouse the conscience of the community") but that the means themselves are good: “an individual who breaks a law that his conscience tells him is unjust.” That’s how I read him, anyway.
Tomemos: I agree. But I was trying to suggest that King is not a mean-end thinker. He’s demanding that we do our duty, even if it seems wrong (to some people). I also think he’s making it clear that a noble goal does not justify any means. He’s clear that you can’t just break any law in the name of a good. You can break the unjust law to bring attention to its injustice, but you can’t break a good law to bring attention to a bad law. So “breaking the law” is still, ultimately, a wrong, right?
Daniel: I guess I assumed that Kant knew no one could or would actually live up to the categorical imperative. I admit I know nothing about Kant.
"Daniel: I guess I assumed that Kant knew no one could or would actually live up to the categorical imperative. I admit I know nothing about Kant.”
Well, as a matter of fact, he does think that. “From such a crooked timber as humanity is crafted, no entirely straight thing can ever be made” and all that. “Radical evil”.
But, from a practical point of view, he has faith that we are all immortal and that (at least) some of us will continue to improve our moral conduct until we have a purely good will and are rewarded by God with (perfect) happiness in proportion to (perfect) virtue. So, from a practical (i.e., moral) point of view, Kant doesn’t think that obvious facts about what humanity is capable of are worth all that much. Because, you see, we live forever (or at least our souls or something do). Maybe we get better sometime in the infinite future. Our knowledge about what we can do is, after all, given by experience with humanity, and experience teaches only what is contingent (says Kant).
(This is not one of the points contemporary Kantians tend to bring up, but it’s clearly tied in to a lot of other things Kant says.)
You guys and your obsession with ‘is’!
Late to the party as always.
Finally read through this. Have a few remarks, though, I’m not optimistic about them being received.
Whether or not acting in accord with duty leads to further actions in accord with one’s duty is a matter of no moral import
Isn’t that taking Kant’s indifference to consequences a little too far? (Genuine question) I’m thinking here of the inherently rational, universalising nature of the categorical imperative. The point is that one must be able to rationally universalise the maxim—which is to say the universalising of the maxim must not bring the maxim into self-contradiction by undermining its very premise.
I guess the question here is whether the destruction of all rational beings (ignoring for the moment that Kant believed in angels, etc.) would amount to an undermining of the maxim’s premise—though having just written this question out, I’ve started to convince myself that Kant would say it wouldn’t.
At any rate, onto the real issue: it seems that utilitarianism is being conflated, quite frequently, with consequentialism. Utilitarianism is generally considered to be but a species of consequentialism, such that the end justifies the means, only if the end is the maximisation of pleasure/happiness and the minimisation of pain (i.e. greatest good for the greatest number). A utilitarian would have to run some kind of utility calculus: I am trading this small number of people’s brief, possible, light pain for the outcome of ensuring this larger number of people’s extended, probable high quality pleasure.
Dagnabbit, the comment thread at AUFS closed before I caught up. So, mise well post it here. No sense letting it go to waste. (CAPCHA is “enough26”; CAPCHA is pretty clever sometimes.):
On the Dennett-Zizek note, I found a citation via a few seconds of Googling. It’s in “Consciousness Explained”.
I’ll let you look at Zizek’s footnote 15 yourself to get the page number. I was amused.
Also, I’m hoping this [ed: that] post hasn’t delayed Holbo’s post about Kierkegaard. Which he admitted he’s on the bill for. Why isn’t Kierkegaard (or Johannes de Silentio or Abraham or whoever) just crazy, if he’s not Lenin? (Or not Montgomery Scott, pushing things when “they cannae ta’e any more, cap’n!")
Thanks for that footnote, Daniel.
Don’t know why Adam K got SO annoyed that he shut down that thread. (A LITTLE annoyed, sure, sure, who wouldn’t be?) No accounting for taste, however. We can just pick things up over here, I suppose.
As to the Zizek piece you link. How ... confusing. I can’t really map it onto what Adam was saying, but maybe I just need to think a bit harder.
As to Kierkegaard: I don’t have the time just right now, but I do acknowledge my on-the-hookness. The short version might be this. If someone really hates elaborate and rather self-regardingly rationalistic toeings right up to the line of mysticism (see also: Wittgenstein), it’s best not to try to get them to like Kierkegaard. They are just going to find the whole sensibility repulsive.
But this piece of advice isn’t really a very positive advertisement, is it?
rob, thanks for your late comment. You are right that utilitarianism and consequentialism are getting conflated. At a couple points I said that I really only meant ‘utilitarianism in the most general sense’ and explained that this was, basically, consequentialism. Sometimes people use utilitarianism in that more general sense, but sometimes they don’t. So consequentialism is the better term. I happened to use the other in my original paper because I was quoting someone - Edmund Wilson - who used it.
I hope you’ll forgive me for taking so long to respond, only I didn’t feel I had anything more of any use to say. But I had the privilege of hearing a very stimulating talk from Boris Uspenskii this evening, including a mention of Lenin, which set my mind to work about this with (I hope) a bit more clarity of thought than I achieved last time around.
I agree with you that Lenin is interesting and unusual in outlook, and also that Lenin is not a Kierkegaardian. But I think that what is distinctive about him is that he is a utopian. Borrowing from Uspenskii: Lenin is concerned with what ought to be more than with what is. And Lenin’s vision of what ought to be cannot be compromised. So revolution is essential to his thought. If someone suggested to Lenin (and in 1917, many did) that a seizure of power by the Bolsheviks would never succeed, and that the greatest hope for improving the lot of Russia’s oppressed masses was a reformist course – and effort to steer the nascent parliamentary-democratic regime in the direction of social justice – he would have rejected it outright. Now, one can argue about whether that kind of reformism was a realistic option in 1917, but the issue here is that Lenin’s thought simply could not accommodate it, even if it had been. For Lenin, there could be no compromise on the goal of political action. Now, you are right to say that he saw proletarian dictatorship as the only hope of genuine popular emancipation. But for a consequentialist, if I have understood this correctly, a small chance of genuine popular emancipation can’t trump a great chance of real, concrete improvements in the welfare of the majority of the population.
It seems clear to me, then, that he is not a consequentialist – because a consequentialist would have to at least be able to consider the kind of compromise that Lenin rules out from the start.
About Zizek, I’m permanently perplexed, but my understanding is that he does not think Lenin was a Kierkegaardian, but he sees the future of emancipatory struggle in some kind of (to me, not very well defined, and possibly self-contradictory) fusion of elements of what can be found in Lenin and in Kierkegaard.
"It seems clear to me, then, that he is not a consequentialist – because a consequentialist would have to at least be able to consider the kind of compromise that Lenin rules out from the start.”
Thanks, simon, but it seems to me that what we should really say is that officially he is committed to consequentialism, which may call for disagreeable compromise (per the post) but that personally he was such a fanatic, burning with revolutionary flame, that he couldn’t ever bear soapy water half-measures.
Jeremy Bentham wanted his corpse to be rolled into meetings, to have a certain moral effect on his descendants. But we don’t therefore thinking of Benthamic Utilitarianism as a peculiar, oddly Egyptian cult of personality and mummification. Nope, that was all Jerry, not his philosophy.
Now in the Zizek case, it is reasonable to say: he admires Lenin’s personality, not his philosophy. But then it is important to notice. But then there’s no philosophy, because Lenin’s style of reasoning about these questions can’t really justify Lenin’s own patterns of behavior.
It is certainly true that Zizek does not think Lenin is a Kierkegaardian, but he does think he was, as a man, something like a knight of faith. But I think that just reduces to: he was an interesting fanatic. And that is not interesting enough, as a position. No one thinks that the way to improve politics is JUST to stock it with more interesting fanatics. But that seems to be about where Zizek’s politics exhausts itself, although he makes it sound fancier.
"But we don’t therefore thinking of Benthamic Utilitarianism as a peculiar, oddly Egyptian cult of personality and mummification.”
Maybe you don’t.