Please join our Facebook group – “The American Utilitarian” to continue discussion
If you aren’t familiar with the material I’m about to cover let me put you on the right path, you’ll need to read THIS article in its entirety before moving forward. However if you are familiar than you’ve probably been waiting for the beginning of this series. I’m sure you can imagine – given the current political atmosphere – I’ve had a busy couple of weeks. What I intend to do with this is illustrate a few things to give clarity to “political utilitarianism.” Its intent is aimed at bypassing partisan politics to create solutions that will allow our government to move forward. I will detail the philosophical history of utilitarianism as well as how the political history of America has lead us to our current position – extreme polarization.
Utilitarianism – The History
The man pictured above on the left is named Jeremy Bentham – he is credited with creating the ethical theory that is now called “classical utilitarianism” (or Benthamism). According to him, “utility” is the total sum of pleasure minus the total sum of suffering created from a single action – a ‘happiness’ metric. This theory is the simple idea that the best action is the one that produces maximum utility (the most happiness). Now, from a theoretical standpoint I can see the flaw in this. This would automatically put people in minorities at a disadvantage because according to this form of utilitarianism the simple majority of people who are made happy with an action implies that the aforementioned action is the correct one. While the intent was pure, when specific stipulations or scenarios are applied the outcome can be perceived as questionable.
Then came the man in the middle of the photo above, John Stuart Mill – he is actually the man who coined the term utilitarianism. He tried to further explain what Bentham had started by elaborating in more detail to how this ethical theory worked. He believed that not all pleasures were equal and that quality (adding desire and value) should be considered as well as quantity. He also argued that the proof ‘utility’ existed was frankly a man’s basic desire to pursue happiness. The problem with his version of this theory was determining how one could decide the desirability of an action. What I consider desirable may not be desirable to you. This also means one would have to assume what the desires of others are – so still a flawed system.
Let us fast forward to “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism” which became popular through debate in the 1950s and 1960s. These two were created to further escape the fallacies of the theory. Act utilitarianism leaned on the classical definition stating that the right action is the one that produces the maximum amount of happiness. Rule utilitarianism is when you maximize utility while having a specific rule or stipulation applied.
The man on the right in the above photo is R.M. Hare – one of the most recent experts in utilitarianism. He believed that the rule method eventually broke down in to the act method because if a rule didn’t allow the maximum utility it would have to be amended or have a sub-rule attached to it. This led to his development of “tw0-level utilitarianism” which is where our history lesson ends. He described two sets of rules to be viewed – one that was omniscient and had no bias, and a second that was ignorant and incapable of critical thinking. This isn’t all of them though there are many forms of utilitarianism. I wanted to give you the history first so you’re aware of the roots for the future. I’m sure people will try to debate the theory (as they have with me already) so it’s best to know its origins.
The point of all this is to demonstrate that since its inception utilitarianism has been tweaked, modified, and molded to shape various different ways of thinking and decision making. We have decided to take this ethical theory and use its foundation as a basis for a political philosophy. Now that you have a clear understanding of utilitarianism and its variants, let’s get in to this new point of view.
While I’ve mentioned the idea of a ‘third party’ the main intent here is to abandon the grouped philosophies that are now plaguing our political system. This would be a form of rule utilitarianism, and that rule would be to maximize utility using our main political ideologies. When you say “I’m a liberal,” or “I’m a conservative,” or even “I’m a libertarian,” this immediately gives you a predetermined answer for every issue. People assume your positions based off your label, and people who share your label expect you to share their views on positions – you’re pre-programmed. Our goal is to look at each individual policy objectively and create a solution that is the best for everyone. This grouped philosophy approach is a big factor in creating polarization. The best thing about political utilitarianism is there’s no doctrine that is set in stone. It evolves with the positions and views of society, so new ideas are welcomed rather than shrugged off. As I stated in my previous writing, I believe new ideas are the only way to possibly sway those already in a polarized environment.
As I’m sure you know by now, we initially put policy together under this banner by using two liberals, two conservatives, and two libertarians. This is where utilitarianism comes in to play – you make the best policy you possibly can that each side will agree to, thus creating maximum utility among constituents. By creating policy based off the best ideas from each political school of thought, you maximize utility because the policies that come from this appease the maximum number of voters instead of just a single base – unity achieved through compromise. The purpose here is to say, first of all, maybe all your ideas aren’t as bad as we thought. And secondly, to create a constituency that will be as happy as possible. Another thing I’d like to point out is that innovation occurs through necessity. Most of these ‘new’ ideas we created were due to the necessity of having to achieve a compromise on each stance, which yielded great results.
Let’s go back to the ‘third party’ suggestion for a moment to see how we can achieve it and what obstacles would be placed in our path. According to Duverger’s law (a law in political science) when you have a voting system that only allows voters to make a single vote per race within an electoral district it tends to favor a two party system. This is the rule that is cited to discourage the idea of third parties from breaking through to the mainstream. I’d like to point out first that even under the umbrella of this law there have been instances where a third party has came and took the spot over the weaker ‘mainstream’ party – like when the Whigs were replaced by the Republicans. The best way I could see this happening within today’s political system would be if a caucus split from one of the main parties to create a new party all together – like the progressive caucus abandoning the Democratic Party.
While researching I stumbled on to the “New Party Manual” written by Carl S. Milsted Jr. of Holistic Politics. He claims to have found two loopholes in Duverger’s law and they make a lot of sense. The first is triangulate – viewing the political field from a multidimensional point of view to open pathways to new bodies of voters. He uses the ‘Nolan chart’ to demonstrate this very theory to display the Libertarian Party:
He also made a chart to display what he believes is a possible electorate that is still currently untapped and could be enormous if tapped in to:
What this demonstrates is by thinking outside the box and creating new ideas the potential could be substantial. Our target was moderates because they make up an overwhelming majority of the total voters (which he also details how flawed that can be). We feel that the only way to reach these moderates is by compromising ideologies to take the best ideas from each school of thought. The response? Even though moderates vary, the online reception from them has been overwhelmingly positive – even with something they may not totally agree with. Compromise would also play in to his rule that states a successful third party must avoid extreme positions to be successful. You don’t want to alienate yourself if at all possible. Whether we like to admit it or not, a major part of politics consists of marketing.
The second loop hole he suggests is to use gerrymandering to our advantage and run in districts that would normally have a race that with no opposition. This would actually play in to Duverger’s law and create a two party race. In a district which is gerrymandered that heavily, one would assume the incumbent would tilt more to the extreme side. Being a ‘moderate’ candidate may pull voters from their base while also giving those who are unrepresented a person to vote for.
How Did We Reach This Point?
There are various circumstances that have had an influence creating our current hyper-partisan atmosphere. We can point fingers at media, soceity, among countless other things and be right in every instance. However I’m going to begin my analysis with three conditions from social psychology.
First is “group polarization” which is a phenomenon that causes people who share an ideology, when grouped together, to make decisions that are more extreme than one would make individually. Picture a group of people hyping each other up before doing something stupid. It tends to occur hand in hand with the second condition, “attitude polarization.” This is when people who share the same ideology, when grouped together, reinforce their way of thinking through discussion resulting in the strengthening and intensification of the already existing bias they have. This is an effect of the third condition, “confirmation bias.” This plays off one’s cognitive dissonance and is defined as:
The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
Think about this: our entire culture is built to maximize and amplify these very effects that keep us so far apart. Social media has greatly intensified this. On Facebook for instance, you ‘like’ the pages that share your beliefs. You join in groups with people who share your beliefs. You subconsciously group together with those who share your ideology. I’ve even seen people ‘unfriend’ others who didn’t share their beliefs. This results in a constant feed of ‘confirmation bias’ paired with both attitude and group polarization because people choose to surround themselves with those of the same school of thought. Now turn on your television, and what do you watch? The news channel that fits your political bias. What websites do you seek information from? The ones that fit your political bias. See where I’m going with this?
We have fostered an environment that creates a 24/7 ‘echo chamber.’ Due to the three conditions I’ve listed this chamber self-sufficiently grows and reinforces itself daily through every aspect of media. This is gradually driving the wedge further between us as each minute passes. This is why ‘fake news’ is thrown around so loosely now. This is why ‘alternative facts’ can be allowed to exist. Yet this is another positive with political utilitarianism – while theoretically one could assume the positions of others to create policy on an individual basis, it’s strongly recommended (if not required) to venture outside these ‘groups’ and engage in dialogue with those who have different beliefs. The result (if the group is trying to be mature adults atleast) is what you seen in the first article, critical thinking, unification, innovation, and positive dialogue. The silver lining? It also simultaneously begins dismantling the echo chambers as well, thus resulting in a well informed population.
The photo above is from this Washington Post article that illustrates just how polarized Congress has become from 1949-2011. When I was in high school I was very interested in pursuing law after graduation. One of the first things I did was take Lincoln-Douglas debate which teaches you to take two positions on a topic – the affirmative and the negative. My polarization was indoctrinated in me at the age of 14. Lawyers in many cases have to take a firm stance on their position regarding law. I thought maybe this contributed to this polar train of thought, but:
As you see the number of lawyers in Congress has declined in contrast to polarization increasing during that same span. That obviously indicates that even if there’s any law related influence that it’s minimal. Does that mean media is the sole perpetrator? While my answer is no, I will say that I feel it is the biggest factor in our present situation.
So how do we fix this? The first step to correcting a problem is admitting that it exists. A person has to be willing to dig deeper beyond the comfort of reaffirming one’s own beliefs. I find myself catching my own bias now that I have came to terms with our modern political system. A person has to be willing to look at things objectively and find ways to empathize with the other side rather than try to prove that it’s wrong. A person has to realize that there are instances where something you once thought was a positive may not be as positive as they perceived. A person has to have an open mind, an open heart, and a clear understanding that the cumulative goal is to make things better.
I learned from our experience debating policy that being wrong is okay sometimes, and other ideas may yield a better result. Political utilitarianism can make a ‘no government libertarian’ realize that government can be capable of really helping with the right people behind the steering wheel. It can make ‘big government liberals and conservatives’ realize that some times we need to remove government intervention to let things play out justly. It can make those from the right realize that welfare isn’t actually as bad as it seems. It can make those from the left realize that helping business may actually be good for business when done correctly. It allows us to use critical thinking as well as understand the feelings behind each others actions. We must begin to abandon bias and seek the truth whether it’s reaffirming or not.The only way we fix this system is by fixing ourselves first.
– John Streaker
Be on the look out for the rest of the series, I will begin writing the details behind various policy positions next! Join “The American Utilitarian” group on Facebook to discuss what you want to know in detail as well as other things!