Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/

Fatalism and counterfactuals in times of lockdowns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/09/2021 - 8:06am in


Dance, life, philosophy

One of the more curious phenomena of the last 18 months has been the fatalism on display on both sides of the lockdown divide. In the anti-lockdown brigade fatalism props up in the guise of “this was the inevitable outcome of decades of planning”, a view of humanity  wherein only ‘evil’ has agency and the rest is a passive victim of fate, though usually the adherents of such a story line make an exception for themselves and everyone who follows them (because only they can stop evil). In the pro-lockdown camp, fatalistic thinking is of the form “it had to be this way and there was nothing we could have realistically done otherwise”, which sometimes is followed by its somewhat revealing corollary “and there is nothing I am going to do about it because it is all inevitable”.

In both versions of fatalism, there is a negation of human agency, either as individuals or as a collective. It is pre-enlightenment thinking. Let me here expand on the fatalism I see in the pro-lockdown camp because I regard it as a mental prison I hope some in the pro-lockdown camp can escape from once they recognise it.

That is not a counterfactual!

The fatalism I have often seen in this pandemic by those going along with the lockdowns is of the form ‘we had no choice’. There are many variants of the ‘we had no choice’ meme, including the kiddy version (‘the virus forced us’), the political version (‘the political reality was that we had to do this’), and the intellectual version (‘I have not heard a realistic counterfactual’).

To understand how these variants are but branches of the same fatalism, we need a reminder of what the whole notion of ‘choice’ actually is in scientific, legal, and democratic thought. To understand fatalism we need to ask the perhaps strange question of whether choice really exists or is but a convenient invention.

At some level one can always claim with some justification that it was impossible for people to have done anything else than they did. After all, whatever the reason for what was done, that was then the reason it was done. One can thus always argue there was no real choice: the reason for what was done compelled what was done. It is the old ‘there is no free will’ argument that because a decision was made, it had to be made. Whether it was a decision made out of limited information, stupidity, political expediency, divine steering, or whatever, is something irrelevant to that type of thinking. The past can never be undone so it has no realistic counterfactual because it had a reason that cannot be undone. The only realistic (counter)factual is then what actually happened and all stories of “what could have been done” are absurd because they by design do not account for the compelling reasons for what was done.

It is an argument that cannot be disproven and has been adhered to in some societies for centuries (both the Greeks and the Vikings believed in ‘Fate’), but it makes for very poor advise on future choices. It also negates the notion of accountability.

Hence the true point of saying “there is always a choice” is to take individuals and collectives seriously as deciders, demanding they make choices in particular ways. Our societies need the notion of choice and free will so as to be able to hold anyone to account. We treat people and politicians as capable of making different choices so as to have a better functioning society.

So the law treats murderers as having been capable of a different choice in order to punish them for their choice and thereby to set incentives for the future and uphold a notion of justice. Democratic institutions treat politicians as capable of making choices for the public good so as to have a politics that is somewhat beholden to the public good and to have that accountability as our self-image of our society. The notion that ‘there is always a choice’ is thus a means of taking responsibility for our own fate. The fatalist might say that the idea of “having a choice” is always an illusion looking backwards (and they might seem to have a valid argument), but the point of the idea of choice is never to change the past but to have a better future by holding people accountable for past choices.

That enlightenment notion of agency replaced the fatalism widespread in the Middle Ages and is exactly how our institutions view policy choices. It is the basis of all cost-benefit analyses, impact analyses, event-studies, parliamentary inquiries about past choices, etc. It is how we depict elections (choose this or that!). It is also the basis of the notion of responsibility in our legal system.

The deep question is then the societal norm as to what ‘choices’ we deem could have been made. Where are the limits?

The choices that one deems ‘possible in hindsight’ are the choices for which we had the technical means. One hence then takes the ‘motivations at the time’ out of the picture. It is the essence of stepping back and gaining perspective: means are kept constant so as to judge the choice made on the basis of what else could have been done with the means.

This does not imply that scenarios constructed to help with choices are more than vague impressions of possible futures. When choosing between two types of coffee we do not ask what life will be like ten years from now if a different coffee is chosen, but which one is going to taste better the next two minutes. The means are constant (one can buy this coffee or another), and the choice is made on the basis of a stepping back to consider the main implications of what could have been done with the means (the taste experience of the different coffees). The important element in the scenarios of choice analyses, either looking back or forward, is thus to vary the main element that cause a lot of pain or gain.

So in choice scenarios one never tries to sketch a complete alternative of how things might have been. Only a dithering time-waster asks of a care-salesmen what two different cars would mean for every subsequent day in the future. So too for a voter asking for how a policy would change every aspect of the future. It is basically a form of hiding from responsibility to demand a complete alternative.

Consider the absurdity of demanding a complete alternative in a legal setting: “what would the murderer have had for breakfast in stead of what he actually ate the morning of the murder?” is not a relevant question in a murder trial. The counterfactual to a murder in a murder trial is that the murder did not take place, simply because it was in the means of the murderer not to murder. What would have been had for breakfast is not important and the murderer is not let off if the prosecution cannot establish with a 100% accuracy what that breakfast would have looked like.

I hope this makes clear how absurd some of the “Show me the full counterfactual” brigade have been the last 18 months. They in essence have tried to hide their heads in the sand on the question of lockdowns by asking the equivalent of “what would the murderer have had for breakfast instead”? Their equivalent has been that anything short of extreme detail was “not a factual counterfactual”. It is a strange form of fatalism that avoids the question of the damage done by the murder and the culpability of the murderer.

I have thus often been asked the last 18 months by several people what the alternative was to going along with the panic and my essential answer has always been ‘not to panic and not to blindly sacrifice’. That is also the essential alternative I have advocated at every moment in time: ‘stop panicking and start optimising’. I have provided several more ‘fleshed out’ scenarios, but in essence I have viewed panic and sacrifice as a choice. That is the enlightenment notion of rational choice: the notion that we can look around, analyse the trajectory, consider the options, and choose what is both in our means and in our collective interest. That is the viewpoint baked into economics, the legal system, our democratic system, international law, etc. It not so much presumes agency but demands agency of individuals and institutions. It sometimes even demands changes so as to make some choices possible (such as the would-be murderer finding an alternative outlet for his or her feelings). In a sense, it is the viewpoint that creates agency by holding people accountable in that manner. My counterfactuals were thus designed to hold people, politicians, and communities to account for what they did, meaning that they sketch the main areas for where the pains and gains of actual choices occurred.

Within that strategy of looking at choices, one counterfactual to the choices Australian institutions and politicians have made are the choices made by Western institutions and politicians in different countries. So the Australian policy trajectory could have been the French one, the Serbian one, the Canadian one, the Singaporean one, or the Swedish one, basically because similar means were at the disposal of Australian politicians. Those scenarios were of course stylised alternative choices, for no Australian politicians could have exactly enacted the French reactions for the simple reason that they don’t even speak French!

Another counterfactual would have been the policies our own societies had prepared for the eventuality of a pandemic of the type we have had. So the blueprints Victoria and other places actually had are important counterfactuals. Yet another would be some notion of ‘business as usual’. Another is the choise that is ‘probably optimal from a wellbeing point of view’. These kind of ‘broad counterfactuals’ are exactly how cost-benefit analyses are done thousands of times in Australia and other countries. It is how the blue prints for the pandemic (that were ignored) came about: analysts run stylised situations against each other to discover what was likely of greater public benefit. That method of choosing has been of immense benefit to humanity the last 300 years because it has forced us to be much more aware of different possibilities and their benefits. How odd of some to abandon it now!

All counterfactuals are hence “not factual”. It is simply a meaningless thing to ask of a counterfactual. All there is are sketches of how things might have been done and how that would turn out. Impressionism is all one ever gets with counterfactuals, and supposed minute detail are merely pretend-details to help an audience ‘get it’. This does not mean there are no degrees of plausibility and degrees of comprehensiveness, but it does mean that the audience needs to engage with these acts of imagination. That is even true in a murder trial, where the counterfactual of ‘no murder’ needs to be imagined by the jury as the ‘thing that should have happened’.

The fatalism of those who demand the impossible (factual counterfactuals) is nowhere more visible than their own reaction to being asked to take a stand on what should happen next. I am yet to meet a counterfactual-doubter who is willing to take a clear stand, particularly not a stand that goes against authority. So not merely is the past viewed as something they had no agency in, but so too the future, absolving them in both cases of responsibility. I have been tempted to conclude from this that the true purpose of fatalism for many is that provides a means to live with the shame for their own cowardice. However, that would require the coward to be self-aware of that dynamic.

The enlightenment notion that we as individuals and communities have real choice thus allows a whole set of counterfactuals to be considered at any point in time: they are the choice set by which individuals and communities are held to account. This goes for both small choices and large choices. The point of doing so is to take people and communities as capable of making informed choices.

I do of course see the point of those who feel that if they or their leaders are held accountable for their decisions, then they need to be given some notion of what the alternative choices then would have been. That notion of ‘the choice set we expect’ is a social norm itself. When it comes to crimes being committed, accountability needs no more than the statement ‘dont do the crime’ counterfactual. Yet, it it is in many cases a matter of habit and law as to how much flesh is supposed to be on counterfactuals. Reality is so complex, changing, and varied that one should not get lost in a 1000 details when sketching alternative choices, but stick to the main points.

The reality of those wanting to be convinced on 1000 details before they are willing to face the accountability question is thus that they are avoiding responsibility. I am afraid I see them as groveling slaves that patiently await the next dictat of whomever the masters are, consoling and defending themselves with the intellectual equivalent of “que sera, sera”. It is a survival strategy, but bereft of honor. In a strange way, by asking me to view their situation in that way too, they are asking me to abandon hope for themselves: to grant them the death of the part of themselves that could be held accountable. It’s a lot to ask. I do not want to abandon them in this way, even though they ask it themselves.

On Faust, Lord of the Rings, and lockdowns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/09/2021 - 8:10pm in

A major theme in our book “the Great Covid Panic” (now also on Kindle!) is how a whole layer of politicians, medical advisers, and opportunistic business people grabbed the opportunity for more power and money during the lockdowns of 2020-2021. We detail how they did it and what the effects were on their society. The tilt towards authoritarianism happened nearly all over the world to varying degrees, but nowhere more obviously than in Australia. Just last week, for instance, parliament passed a bill allowing the police to access and change any online communication (email, facebook, Troppo) that Australians engage in. That bill is symptomatic of a grab for power under the cloak of fear, which of course will mean a transfer of resources from poor to powerful. In Victoria one can think of Brett Sutton as an exemplar of someone seduced by power, whilst people like Fauci and Witty come to mind in the US and the UK, both sitting on top of rapidly expanding empires like the CDC in the US that even tried to grab power over housing (curtailed by the Supreme Court).

In this post I want to talk about something not in the book: the tragedy of these power-grabbers themselves. What do our greatest pieces of art say about what is in stall for those seduced by power? The Tragedy of Faust of course is exactly on the topic of how seductive power is and what it costs those who succumb to it. The Game of Thrones story-arc of Daenerys was also on that theme of how someone good became someone bad as fame went to her head.

The reasons for why and how power corrupts are directly related to evolution. A more powerful man or woman is better able to provide for their children. This makes them more attractive mates. So it makes evolutionary sense to want power, to mate with power, and to espouse its benefits to the offspring. Power brings respect, fame, and sexual attention. What is not to like, one might think?

As Lord Acton said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What Lord Acton also said was that as a result nearly all ‘great men’ in history were bad men, a lesson seldom told in history classrooms for the obvious reason that power is celebrated and fawned over in our culture, so we don’t want to hear the bit about its corruption, preferring to believe we and our favourite leaders are immune. That blindness too makes perfect evolutionary sense because an awareness of the loss that comes with power diminishes how hard we fight for it. It is only in great art that this most unwelcome lesson is truly allowed to come out in full force.

The Lord of the Rings saga perfectly reflects the thinking of Lord Acton. The ring of power corrupts everyone in it, with no exceptions. Frodo, the hero of the saga, is the most immune to the influence of the ring. He is physically weak, simple, loves nature, loves his people, and only takes the ring at the request of others, in order to destroy it. How noble can one get!? Yet even Frodo gets seduced by the ring as he cannot bring himself to part with it when it matters. It is only in the competition with someone else who wants the ring that the ring gets destroyed.

Even though it cost him dearly, Frodo still somewhat yearns for the ring years after it was destroyed, just like Bilbo still yearns to wear the ring over 50 years after losing it. The saga of the Lord of the Rings is thus a study in the universal corruption of power and how those who have had it will keep dreaming of regaining it, whatever their personal loss due to power has been. It is a very sobering tale, depicting power as a kind of all-consuming corrupting drug that never quite gets washed away with time. Some versions of the Faust saga are also of this ilk. A never ending hunger for power is thus one of the prices paid by those seduced by it.

The Lord of the Rings is a cautionary tale for another reason, which is that it lays out in extreme detail what the cost is to those seduced by power: in his quest Frodo gradually loses the ability to connect with the good things in life, such as memories of strawberries and fields, friendship and song. The ring of power starts to be his only reality and only joy. This is a lesson I myself examined at length in my book on love and power of 2013: how power makes one dismissive of the ‘small things’ in life and how it costs the powerful the ability to love others. They end up only loving themselves and what is needed to be powerful (the ring). In this way, power makes someone’s inner world smaller and reduces its joys. There is the loss of wonder and awe, replaced by ‘more me’.

It is not a choice I recommend for myself or those I love, nor a choice Tolkien recommended. Power might be seductive and impossible to resist indefinitely, but that does not make it a suitable or desirable goal of life. Power thus costs those seduced by it the things that make life most worthwhile: the ability to experience wonder and love.

This is the tragedy that I think has befallen Sutton, Witty, Fauci, and thousands of similar people in the world the last two years. ‘We’ have been their victims, but ‘they’ have also been let down by us in that we did not protect them from this temptation. We did not structure the institutions around them such as to prevent them falling prey like they have, and as everyone would have eventually fallen prey. As I said in my March 2020 lament for the victims that I knew were going to come “Forgive the doom-sayers, the bullies, and the health advisers. They know not what they have done.” They least of all know the tragedy to themselves.

The Great Covid Panic: now out!

It’s here, the booklet I am sure you have all been waiting for. The one which Gigi Foster and Michael Baker slaved over for 10 months. It is also on Kindle. It is dedicated to all the victims of the Panic, in poor countries and rich countries. They include our children, the lonely, and the poor.

The short publisher blurb: How to make sense of the astonishing upheaval of Spring 2020 and following? Normal life – in which expected rights and freedoms were taken for granted – came to be replaced by a new society as managed by a medical/ruling elite that promised but failed to deliver virus mitigation, all in the name of public health. Meanwhile, we’ve lost so much of what we once had: travel freedoms, privacy, a democratic presumption of equality, commercial freedoms, and even the access to information portals. Something has gone very wrong.

The longer blurb that our publisher chose for it is over the fold! There is also a website that will tell you where book launches will take place, which bookstores sell it, and who has liked it sofar.

To make sense of it all, the Brownstone Institute is pleased to announce the publication of The Great Covid Panic: What Happened, Why, and What To Do Next, by Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker. Combining rigorous scholarship with evocative and accessible prose, the book covers all the issues central to the pandemic and the disastrous policy response, a narrative as comprehensive as it is intellectually devastating. In short, this is THE book the world needs right now.

In the Great Panic of early 2020, nearly every government in the world restricted the movement of its population, disrupted the education of its children, suspended normal individual liberties, hijacked its healthcare system, and in other ways increased its direct control of people’s lives. Attempts to control the new coronavirus in most countries made the number of deaths from both the virus and other health problems rise. Some countries and regions snapped out of the madness in early 2021 or even before. Yet other governments, still in 2021, were ever more fanatically obsessed with control.

Why did 2020 become, so suddenly and so forcefully, a year of global panic over a virus that for most people is barely more dangerous than a standard-issue flu virus? This book reveals how the madness started, what kept it going, and how it might end. This is also a book about stories and experiences, some real and some fictionalized to protect identities. Join Jane the complier, James the decider, and Jasmine the doubter, the three core protagonists of the narrative part of the book. Their experiences illustrate what happened to individuals and through them to whole societies, telling us — if we care to listen — how to avoid a repeat. This literary presentation is mixed with detailed reports of the actual data and deep research that has generally been obscured in the midst of media madness and obfuscation by public-health authority.

“A tour-de-force on how the pandemic response was driven by fear, crowd thinking, big business and a desire for control, rather than by sound public health principles. This is bound to be a classic.” ~ Professor Martin Kulldorff, Harvard Medical School

“When I received the manuscript, I was hooked from the first page and knew then that I would miss a full night’s sleep. I did indeed. My heart raced from beginning to end. As the publisher, I must say that this book is a dream for me, the book I never thought would exist, the book that I believe can change everything.” ~ Jeffrey Tucker, Founder Brownstone Institute.

Do lockdowns work in Europe?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/07/2021 - 10:56pm in

Let us divide the countries in Europe that have at least 1 million inhabitants into three groups: the ones that had high movement restrictions in 2020, the ones with almost no restrictions, and the ones in between. The graph below gives you the punchline that countries with more restrictions had higher numbers of covid-deaths, but in order to discuss the many other implications, I need to explain how the graph was put together.

I take the data on restrictions from the Oxford Blavatnik Stringency Index that gives a daily severity level for all countries in the world since January 1st 2020. This stringency index combines information on nine government policies: school closures, workplace closures, cancellation of public events, restrictions on gatherings, closure of public transport, restrictions on internal travel, restrictions on foreign travel, and the presence of a covid-cautioning public information campaign. The lowest value is 0 and the highest 100. One can think of a lockdown as having a score above 70. By that metric, the UK spent 4 months of 2020 in lockdowns and Australia about 3 months. From January 1st 2020 to now, the average world citizen spent about eight months in lockdown.

I take the claimed numbers of covid deaths by countries from the Oxford Blavatnik website as well, which essentially reports the daily data as claimed by countries themselves (so sometimes when a country revises downwards you see negative numbers for that day). I define the high-restriction European countries as those with at least 60 days of lockdowns in 2020. That includes 92% of the population and most of the large countries. I define minimal restriction countries as those with average restrictions in 2020 below 40, which turns out to hold only for Belarus and Estonia. The pragmatic countries in between are all the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland), Switzerland, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Latvia. Interestingly, the Scandinavian countries all had very similar average restrictions. Denmark, for instance, had an average restriction level of 51 whilst Sweden scored 54. Only Sweden had no lockdowns at all in Scandinavia, whilst Finland had 18 days of lockdowns and Norway 34 days in 2020, for which the Norwegian health authorities later apologised.

The total deaths per million till July 26th was 1449 for the lockdown countries, 1123 for the pragmatists, and 433 for the minimalists.

The graph and the data shows and suggests many things:

  1. Lockdowns in Europe ‘do not work’ to prevent covid deaths. Rather, the data shows that the more restrictions in 2020, the more covid deaths in both 2020 and in 2021. So the data strongly suggests lockdowns lead to more recorded covid-deaths. At the very minimum the data shows that countries without lockdowns do not experience the covid-Armageddon that is even today prophesised by doom-medics in lockdown countries. That alone makes liars out of an entire layer of government advisers, model builders, and politicians throughout much of Europe who daily fan the flames of covid-hysteria.
  2. The lockdown countries have less flat curves in spring 2020 (March-June) than those of the pragmatists and minimalists.
  3. Covid-deaths are highly seasonal, with the numbers going down in summer times. This was not clear in 2020 when many suspected (including myself) that covid was ‘done’ in much of Europe. Now we know that new variants and differing circumstances lead to another winter peak.
  4. The covid-death numbers in the lockdown countries in the summer of 2021 look very suspect: we are now talking about vaccinated populations in a season where in 2020 there were very few recorded covid deaths, and where in the pragmatist countries there are again almost no covid deaths in the summer of 2021. One has to strongly suspect that the lockdown countries are counting people as covid deaths that in truth died of other causes, but who tested positive at some point in time. [You btw also see in the excess death graphs a total lack of any summer excess]. The suspicion has to be that we are now looking in the lockdown countries at artificial claims, either because of false positives in tests or due to counting of minimal covid-levels as the cause of death.
  5. The rest of Scandinavia does not ‘disprove’ Sweden: restriction levels are similar across Scandinavia and none of them are lockdown countries.
  6. In most regions of Europe, there is some country close by to which those who enjoy their personal freedoms can move to if they want to. Central-Europe can go to Serbia or Bulgaria. North-East can choose between Latvia and Estonia. North-West can go to Denmark or further up still. Southern Europe can head for the Swiss alps to taste freedom (what does that remind me of?).

Pragmatic utilitarianism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/06/2021 - 11:01pm in

I have been a utilitarian for about 30 years now and am seen in my academic work as an extreme version of the genre. I did my Phd on the topic. I do not merely say that governments should make policy for the benefit of the wellbeing of the population, but have spent years in the weeds of government bureaucracies to help them figure out how to do it. I just published the first real Handbook on that subject, almost 500 pages long, which is already heavily used as a reference work by the UK bureaucracy. I set up and still co-organise the World Wellbeing Panel, dedicated to finding out what the wellbeing experts around the world think is the policy and behaviour that optimises wellbeing. After that effort, I feel I co-own the term utilitarianism and am allowed to say some unusual things about it.

Mainly, I think most philosophical discussions of utilitarianism – for or against – are irrelevant to decision making in this world. My own take on what utilitarianism is about and why one should be one differs from most takes I read on the subject. Let’s go over the three crucial issues.


Idea 1: a utilitarian in his/her own life pursues the wellbeing of humanity.

You hear a lot that a utilitarian should be the ultimate do-gooder in his or her private life. The effective altruist bunch are like this.

Well, I certainly am no angel of that type. Utilitarianism is the decision criterion I advocate as a decision-making principle for society, which is not the same as my personal decision criterion. So I want society to adopt the rule to save the whole population of Boston over any random person in the world. But if that random person is my wife and I would have to personally choose, then it is just bad luck for Boston.

Also, like anybody else, I do not make decisions solely on the basis of a calm considered calculus. If an adult hits my child in my presence, my first reaction is to hit back hard and wonder later about the calculus of utility that might or might not rationalise it. Afterwards, I would feel nothing but pride that I defended my child in the moment itself, not even needing the pretence that it was somehow utilitarian as well. That is healthy normal behaviour and an outcome of quicker systems of decision making than considered action.

Indeed, no one is as rational, as consistent, or as observant as a ‘utilitarian in private life’ would have to be if you took the principle as an actual command. It simply can’t be done. The strain of observing and analysing the world as it is, a necessary ingredient for deciding what is optimal, would already be far too much for anyone to achieve. We humans are not capable of observing reality or ourselves as we truly are, no matter how much we try. We are not the type of animal that could be a totally truthful decider.

Importantly, I have the same reaction to all other systems of ethics I read about, like liberalism, Christian ethics, situational ethics, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They are just as impossible to actually be in both a procedural sense and a human sense. Most of them for instance include the idea that one should start with seeing the world as it is, which I regard as a complete impossibility for anyone to achieve more than to a very faint degree. So, for instance, anyone swearing to speak ‘the whole truth’ is simply engaging in a lie. In any actual human society you’d be an outcast if you didn’t brazenly lie a fair percentage of the time. Also, like utilitarianism, the other ‘systems of ethics’ require a super-human psychology.

So what does it then mean to be an avowed utilitarian? Principally, it means one professes utilitarianism as the preferred system of ethics for society, and that one uses whatever political power one has towards that idea. One advocates it, votes accordingly, and in representative roles tries to decide accordingly.

So I premarily regard any avowed system of ethics as a public stance, a kind of political clothing. I see all such ‘philosophies’ as attributes of societies in which people are supposed to have public stances, hence societies in which some kind of public clothing is deemed important. I don’t think hunter gatherer society, in which humans lived for most of evolution, was like that at all: then humans lived with their friends and family their whole life, so there was no-one to have a public versus private stance towards. To have an ethical stance at all is playing along with a game societies demand some of us play. As a result, I look in bemusement at people who stolidly claim their system of ethics has something timeless about it, as if I am watching an actor who doesn’t realise she is in a play. I find the question why some people latch on to a particular ethical story much deeper than the story itself.


Idea 2: a utilitarian government calculates all effects of all possible actions for a population from now till ever, choosing the one with the highest sum of ‘utils’.

This one is particularly important because it goes to the heart of my own academic work and the way in which utilitarianism is depicted in many textbooks. The picture painted is that of a super-calculator working out all effects of all possible actions over time, choosing the action that has the highest sum of outcomes. Economic journals are full of such fantasies.

No-one has actually ever done this, could ever do this, or should be trusted with the power to do this. Hence the central problem with the claim is that it involves a god of sorts, namely someone or some single unit with the actual ability to make these impossibly complex calculations and then the power to decide on such a basis. That whole depiction falls apart on many counts.

For one, the depiction, if taken to its logical consequences, requires the possibility of making all relevant decisions about the far future at one supreme moment in time at which in essence all future decisions of everyone else get set in stone. The problem is not so much that there are uncertainties, but much more importantly that the future has no say in anything: all those yet to be born or everyone yet to change their minds has their futures set in stone by this mythical utilitarian optimiser that sets everything involving the future on an optimal setting. That is undemocratic, impossible, megalomaniac, and all the rest of it. There is a hidden vision of an omnipotent god in that depiction.

Second is the fantastic amount of knowledge needed, invariably depicted as a kind of rational centre on top of a more automatic measuring and obeying population. There is the assumption of unlimited intelligence, zero costs of information, and absolute unquestioning loyalty in that description. Even as a stylised description that one finds in economic textbooks, it is the stylised vision of extreme fascism, with the hyper-intelligent expert on top. It is a horrifying image when one reflects on it, dismissive about the agency and limitations of humanity.

I have a similar problem with nearly all other systems of ethics that yield some decision about the far future of humanity based on zero costs of information and computation, combined with implicit total obedience: it is pure hubris and a power fantasy to engage in that type of view of ethics. It is neither possible not ethical at all to give oneself, or anyone else, that actual power in reality. Surely one can do better, as fantasies go.

I know that some people then try to rescue the argument by saying one should see the depiction as an ‘in principle goal’ or a ‘unanimous agreement by humanity if they could all live at this moment and think just like me’ point of view, but that is really just a higher level power fantasy. Consider the elements of this kind of ‘the whole of humanity choosing from the veil of ignorance’ fantasy.

In what imagined world does it makes sense to speak of the whole of humanity from now till the infinite future as being present to agree to some set of principles or future actions? It slips in very weird notions of humanity. As if humanity remains the same species over time. As if real cultural disagreements can be overcome by the right argument. As if people in their actual lives could be represented by themselves at some particular moment, locking all other selves into obedience. As if people have or could be a kind of all-understanding presence capable of grand decisions about their whole lives. Etc.

So from start to finish, the whole notion of timeless ethics and decisions made for the whole of humanity over time is preposterous, requiring some god-like entity somewhere in the depiction. In that sense, Thomas of Aquinas was quite right: any notion of choosing the ‘Good’ begets a god-like entity somewhere in the argument.

I knew all this 30 years ago but I am still a utilitarian, so what does that then mean? What decision scenario do I have in mind for utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism as a public stance to me means that the wellbeing of the population should be the joint goal of those with some power over what a group does to try to make decisions on the basis of how decisions will work out for the sum of utils of that whole group. That means utilitarianism is what I advocate as the joint responsibility of those with some group power, a joint quest. So when asked what is good for society, I myself respond in keeping to that quest with the answer that I personally believe would lead to the highest utils.

I accept that it is impossible for anyone to know what the ‘optimal’ decision truly is, but take the essence of pragmatic utilitarianism to run with what one thinks is the optimal decision anyway. One runs with what one thinks is best until one discovers something even better after which one should run with that. In that sense I am a practising utilitarian, willing to be counted. It forces one in many cases to have no opinion on what is optimal, and to look around widely before having an opinion on important matters, precisely because to be pragmatic requires one to run with what one has come up with.

Note that the means of ‘trying’ can be varied and do not actually need a computation except in rare circumstances. After all, families can pursue the wellbeing of a family without anyone measuring those utils openly. They use theories, implicit measures, introspection, conversations, and other methods to tell them what is good for the family as a whole.

So trying also allows for the possibility that in many cases people have no idea what would be good for the utils of some group and that they apply various heuristics for which they have no better justification at that moment than ‘well, this seems to have worked out in the past’. It thus allows for a whole environment in which lots of people make decisions on the basis of lots of rules, habits, and guesses which lack a utilitarian calculus. A utilitarian tries in important cases to make some reasoned guess as to whether or not the laws and customs in place are moving in roughly the right direction from a utility point of view, nudging the system towards better customs and laws if that then is required. Numbers and formulas can certainly help, but not always. Indeed, not all that often.

Crucially, it is not utilitarian at all to presume that to try and openly measure and calculate everything is necessarily the best in all decision circumstances. That is a control fantasy that falls apart as soon as one realises there are costs to gathering information and analysing anything. Indeed, it is downright uneconomic to envisage a utilitarianism without costs of information and calculation. It slips in a good with a zero price.

Pragmatic utilitarianism is thus about trying to move the dial of decision making somewhat towards the notion that the overall goal is the utils of society and that ‘we’ have choices to make that either help or hinder that goal. How to help and what the best strategy is, is then not up to some central god-like character, but the joint quest of many, requiring lots of rules of thumb that hopefully become better.

This stance also brings very different requirements for what a utilitarian should be spending time on. They should, in my opinion, spend far less time wondering about the perfect measure for a util and far more about the decision system that is there and that needs improving. In effect, I accuse most utilitarians of not caring at all about the utils of the population because they want to sit on cloud cookoo and waste their time dreaming of perfect systems in which effort and measurement is costless, with all power bundled in their hands. That is not utilitarianism but a form of narcissism.

Over time, pragmatic utilitarians thus need to learn such things as to whether in fact the system is better off without any open calculations at all, or whether it is better off with lots of local deciders determining their own use for numbers. Hence I can easily imagine a society of with lots of utilitarian policy Mandarins but with no calculations or powerful centres at all.

Why did I then spend years of my life trying to figure out how to do calculations and adjust government decision making systems? Because my judgment at the time was that in the society I found myself in, that was a sensible way forward, ie that enough big mistakes were made right now that would be avoided with more knowledge of reasonable measures somewhere in the system. The point of counting and calculus is that it reveals things one truly wouldn’t know or be convinced of unless one did some measuring and counting. It can thus itself be useful. I did not advocate things any classic utilitarian would recognise as 100% what utopian utilitarian had in mind, but I hope many will see why I think my suggestions are improvements upon the current system towards the joint goal.

This then brings us to the third idea.


Idea 3: a utilitarian deeply believes in the foundational assumptions, such as a deep convictions on the equal innate value of all humans.

There are many variations of this idea, but they all boil down to the notion that people are utilitarians because they ‘in their soul’ believe strongly in something. They have axioms or convictions.

I have always found such arguments extremely weird, bizarre even. As if any of us believe anything deeply in our souls. Laughable. Asking me to fully sign up to axioms is like asking me to join the ‘pantomime of deep convictions’.

Myself, I am more or less a utilitarian by accident.

I first became a utilitarian 30 years ago, when confronted with the different ethical systems around me, largely out of mental laziness. It sort of seemed right to me and I liked the fact that utilitarianism allowed me to have lots of strong opinions on lots of topics without needing to put in much effort to rationalise them. Utilitarianism was intellectually very easy for me and I felt I was supposed to have a system of ethics. I can pretend I had utilitarian convictions at that time, but my truly deep convictions at that age (around 20) were confined to sex.

Over the years, it mainly kept feeling right to me. The story that people were equal fit my culture that celebrated democratic values, and I liked the mythology of rational choice. It was the system that fit my education and how decision making in my society was depicted to me. As a result it seemed to be the long-run winning view to me, even more so because so many people were always bitching about it. I reasoned that the philosophy everyone loves to hate must be the one that everyone actually believes will win in the long run. I definitely wanted to be with the long-run winning team.

I think I also liked the god-view implicit in how utilitarianism was described to me at that time, ie the idea that I could decide everything for the whole of humanity. For their own benefit, of course. And yes, you might say that that is not a noble motivation, but, well, guilty as charged: young men will dream of power, one way or the other!

Over time, I started to see it more and more as a means of relating to people, just like any clothes make one part of a club. As a recognised ‘philosophy’ my efforts towards making utilitarianism a reality made it possible to relate to many others with similar quests. It also in my own mind allowed me to feel I was being the ‘good shepherd’ that my family wanted me to be. It furthermore allowed me to feel connected to thinkers and populations long dead or yet to come. It is a pleasant feeling to have that sense of recognition with others in time and place on the basis of what one works towards, even if the words used are different. I thus still wear the utilitarian clothes gladly and rejoice in meeting others wearing the same gowns.

Indeed, many of the people I regard as ‘the most utilitarian’ don’t think of themselves like that at all, including pastors and parents just looking after their local flock. I for instance see many sex-workers who get pleasure out of pleasing and connecting with their clients as a kind of ultimate applied utilitarians, bringing more total utils to the population than most supposedly dedicated effective altruists I know.

So, my sales pitch to all you non-decided seekers of some ethical clothing out there: become a pragmatic utilitarian. It’s good fun, easy, winning, and gets you around.

Scott Morrison’s covid dilemma

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/06/2021 - 12:53am in

Pre 2020, I considered Scott Morrison a political enemy of the policies I wanted for Australia, but since then have sympathised with every attempt he has made to get Australia out of its love-affair with covid-mania. Over the fold is my take on what I think Scott Morrison’s view of the covid-period is and the dilemma that he now faces.

I see it as very likely that Morrison’s view of the last 16 months is nearly identical to that of his predecessor Tony Abbott and hence almost the same view as mine: this has been a mass-hysteria that has lead to the emergence of more nationalistic crowds that have done immense damage to themselves in a sacrificial reflex towards a minor threat. I think it likely Scott Morrison would have liked to have had the policies of Florida or Texas as they became at the end of 2020, which means to be totally open for business, to have schools and hospitals function normally, and to treat covid as no more than a severe flu.

Instead, Scott Morrison finds himself at the helm of a country with a population largely wedded to extremely destructive policies, wherein even normally sensible intellectuals are running with the modern variant of the idea that “one has to do something”, namely that not to panic was not an option they could call for. To politically survive, Morrison has had to go along with it all, teeth gnashingly increasing the national debt at a phenomenal rate, closing the borders to most students and skilled migrants, pretending not to see the damage to school children and the lonely, and ignoring the pleas of his business buddies in the airline and hospitality industries. He finds himself with a population that in various State elections rewarded a totally unsustainable set of policies that are simply making the country less healthy, less educated, and closer to bankruptcy.

So, instead of being able to open up to the world, Morrison is asked to preside over the opening up of federal quarantine camps. Instead of keeping state borders open, he has to cajole and bargain with state governments frequently doing the opposite in their own attempt to gain popularity at the expense of the actual wellbeing of their own population and the national purse. Only the unexpected 250% increase in the prices for iron ore, Australia’s biggest export product, has shielded Morrison from the full financial repercussions of the choices made, but that has proven a mixed blessing as it has also meant he has less of an excuse to stop printing money to buy off dissent.

His hopes were probably on the vaccines proving to be the wonder weapon that would allow him to declare victory and open up soon. But he bet on the wrong one and it now in any case turns out that these vaccines are not as useful as hoped for, with well-publicised deadly side-effects and the high likelihood that new mutations will arise that go ‘around’ the vaccines. He must have watched in horror as the most-vaccinated country in Europe (the UK) is seeing increased case-numbers again, during summer-time no less (though I bet he, like me, suspects a strategic change in test-regime)!

What is he to do? Play to the public and go all tough-guy, calling for national school shutdowns and the like at the first hint of anyone in the country sneezing? The danger of that strategy is that if the population comes to its senses, he is going to blamed as the top-man who did stupid things. Besides, it is bad for the country and risks locking Australia up for years to come in an unending cycle of (local) lockdowns and unaffordable subsidies for those told to stay home. It would build up even more underlying political tension. His business buddies wont like it.

What then? Go the full North-Korea and attempt in the coming years to build an economy without physical interaction with most of the rest of the world? Export iron ore in stead of bronze statues, which are the prime export article of N-Korea? The problem with emulating North-Korea is that one then gradually becomes as poor as N-Korea. Does Morrison really want to be Kim-Yong-Scott, the First of His Name, Maker of Chains, Father of Job-keeper? Surely unlikely.

Maybe go the full Florida then right after the next election and use all the powers of the Commonwealth to open up Australia, no matter what the States and opposition politicians say? The danger in that is that he and his party might then be branded as traitors and murderers. Indeed, that accusation is then pretty much a certainty, a gamble that only pays off if the number of visible covid-deaths is close to zero in the reopening years. That’s an awfully risky thing to do for someone who needs to keep his parliamentary colleagues on board. One might even say courageous. Thus politically impossible.

Muddle on, trying to resist the covid-mania on the sly, such as via media-buddies, the pronouncement of a former Prime Minister, and high-profile business buddies? That is pretty much what he has done so far and it has to be the front-runner for what he is going to do the next 12 months.

Here is thus what I think Morrison and his government will do: muddle on with vaccines so that he can’t be blamed too much either way; grab whatever can be grabbed; try to distract the population by talking up other fears (of China and such); hope the resource boom will last; hope hyper-inflation wont come, but keep printing money to pay for the impossible expectations of the population; reward the right mates who can protect him in the media and in key constituencies; and hope the population comes to its senses as it sees the fruits of returning normality in the US (which is opening up rapidly now) and parts of Europe.

Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/03/2019 - 8:59pm in


Film, Dance

A discussion about the book Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century. Part of 'A Book at Lunchtime' series This volume represents the first systematic attempt to chart the afterlife of epic in modern performance traditions, with chapters covering not only a significant chronological span, but also ranging widely across both place and genre, analysing lyric, film, dance, and opera from Europe to Asia and the Americas. What emerges most clearly is how anxieties about the ability to write epic in the early modern world, together with the ancient precedent of Greek tragedy's reworking of epic material, explain its migration to the theatre. This move, though, was not without problems, as epic encountered the barriers imposed by neo-classicists, who sought to restrict serious theatre to a narrowly defined reality that precluded its broad sweeps across time and place. In many instances in recent years, the fact that the Homeric epics were composed orally has rendered reinvention not only legitimate, but also deeply appropriate, opening up a range of forms and traditions within which epic themes and structures may be explored. Drawing on the expertise of specialists from the fields of classical studies, English and comparative literature, modern languages, music, dance, and theatre and performance studies, as well as from practitioners within the creative industries, the volume is able to offer an unprecedented modern and dynamic study of 'epic' content and form across myriad diverse performance arenas.