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The attempt to predict the future lies at the heart of strategic planning in almost any of today's companies, esp. if the company intends to invest/bet a lot of capital on future market success - so it is in the economic arena that the prediction of future outcomes is now the norm rather than the exception. I suppose it is for this wide-spread practice that outcome-focussed ethics has also become so common-place (as Arendt suggested already 50 yrs ago).

Well.
Despite the aspiration to challenge my core beliefs and provoke my most ardent debating faculties, I haven't felt too provoked or inspired to answer...a dull but busy few weeks of data mining, and not much intellectual inspirado. So all I have are these bullet-point-style notes.

Utilitarianism : pleasure and pain is an entirely subjective measure, and measures of utility at the societal level are quite harder to gauge. Even at the individual level one doesn't exist in splendid isolation. So this is an entirely artificial metric on which to judge ethical decisions.

Prediction : Well never say never. People are creatures of habit. Prediction for a person is hard - this doesn't mean it is methodologically hard (it is quite hard, but we're improving). Data mining is a wonderful thing.
On a larger scale, some experts claim that everything is ultimately engineerable, some disagree. Penrose claimed that consciousness was non-algorithmic, and that's all you need to deny any predictability of human action (based on current technological capability or potential). Of course, we may improve in that regard. The issue here is that the means of prediction must belong to processing resource rich parties. Then we need to envision an existence where we are all processing resource rich (approximately, you'd need processing for each person that would dwarf that possessed by all the world and all its computers today).
Again, that is not inconceivable, but you're into science fiction and the possibility that we would cease to be human in any meaningful way.
(Wrote about prediction before, not sure how much I agree with my past self though!)

Ethics : since it's the future, whose ethics are we discussing anyway? Its the future, it doesn't belong to us. The people who'll live there may not thank us for our democratic decisions, even if they are our future selves. After all, when you talk about government's will vs the will of the many, who has the better insight when it comes to the future? If one person is very bad at prediction, then a large group of them will be statistically worse, because of crowd influence effects.

Ends justify the means : well of course not! Except, maybe...sometimes this is all we have to go on! The entire green movement is based on this, since we cannot tell if what we do to combat global warming has any effect for many years. We can barely prove that we contributed to the warming in the first place!
So yes, we need a mechanism to prevent leadership abusing this principle. National security, to my mind, is one of the less important things we have to worry about (since I don't rate the concept of the nation very highly). So human rights accords are a good start. More than this, we want input from all informed parties in a timely fashion. This is why I'm interested in the online petitions regarding Burma - democracy needs to be fast. Four year old verdicts let leaders off the hook. People should be allowed to voice their opinion instantly, in a way which can be tallied - massively multiplayer nationstates. I believe that inherent human morality should serve us sufficiently, when it is expressed in large enough numbers. If there were less rules, but more inclusive, flexible and timely systems of emancipation, I think we could begin to see the best aspects of a humanity which evolved in tight-knit social groups exported to global effect.

The Future : the biggest issue with most arguments in principle, and thus with most ethical discussions, is that they don't sufficiently address change. All is change, most trends of change are either slower, faster or a different macro shape (i.e. cyclical, linear, etc) than we intuitively experience/view them as. From my perspective, the beauty of living now is that we have come to realise our experience of existence is a model provided by our senses, and this gives us the perspective to understand that much of local, relevant reality is amenable to modelling. In turn, this will allow us to formulate, with greater and lesser accuracy, the circumstances and trends of change that we find ourselves in. There is hope in that, the hope of control. Much as your hope, Chris, seems to lie in basic human goodness, mine is bet on basic human intelligence.

zenBen: thanks for getting around to this! It's interesting to see your perspective here...

On the subject of prediction, while we will no doubt get better at identifying trends, this is insufficient to predict the future to any reasonable degree, and we already see many limits to our methods. I don't see even a hypothetical future predictive capacity sufficient to base ethics solely on consequences.

Regarding whether future ethics are other people's ethics, well, yes from a certain perspective, but what we are really talking about are present ethics about the future - for which you need predictive capacities, which as already discussed are not robust enough for the task. :)

I feel it is important to deny that the ends justify the means, and stand firm that certain means are not acceptible. This is the human rights position, of course.

"massively multiplayer nation states" I have mixed feelings on this... there are benefits to that speed of response - but there are disadvantages too. We are already well aware of the limits of majority rule, and this kind of approach can heighten these problems even further.

Your optimism about the capacity to predict change is not something I can share; I just don't see anything like the capacity you are hoping for coming about. The odd thing might be predicted in isolation - we will certainly get better at this in certain cases - but I don't see this ever forming a capacity to full anticipate change. The nature of change is that we are so busy worrying about what we think we know that we fail to anticipate where change will come from. :)

"Much as your hope, Chris, seems to lie in basic human goodness, mine is bet on basic human intelligence."

You're betting on human intelligence? You are a brave man! :) Be careful you don't project your own intelligence onto the rest of the world...

So, in summary, you seem to reject my attack on Utliitarianism on the grounds that you believe the problems of predicting the future will be overcome in the future. But what will you do for your ethical system until then? ;)

Many thanks for taking the time to write this up, and best wishes!

No, I don't think I am rejecting your attack on Utilitarianism as it stands - its sound enough to withstand simple attacks, and I have no urgent need to defend Utilitarianism. I may be in that box as it stands, but thats due to a muddiness of personal definitions. I am only ever aware of my position with respect to some thing. As I've said, principle arguments (where you argue to the general case), require more precision than they usually get short of world class professional philosophy (those that stand on porches for 20 years).

Thus, I've offered my ideas on the topics at hand, but they are only facets of the argument, and the whole is too far to go. If you want some kind of rebuttal, I can only say that I don't think your post has the necessary depth to be a convincing argument either. Both of us, I suppose, are constrained by working out of our armchairs.

"Both of us, I suppose, are constrained by working out of our armchairs."

Indeed; in order to keep this piece short enough I had to cut various details, including all of Rawls' arguments against Utilitarianism, thus missing out the meat of the argument.

Also, I accept your point that utilitarianism is simply the name of the country within which your ethics can currently be found, and the destruction of the "Government of Utilitaria" doesn't stop you living there. :)

Best wishes!

zenBen: "From my perspective, the beauty of living now is that we have come to realise our experience of existence is a model provided by our senses, and this gives us the perspective to understand that much of local, relevant reality is amenable to modelling..."

This pretty much what Plato already talked about, is it not?

"In turn, this will allow us to formulate, with greater and lesser accuracy, the circumstances and trends of change that we find ourselves in."

It's the combined ideas of phase/state space (Gallilei-Newton-type Mechanics and all that followed), convergence and calculability that are new, but are they meaningful to what you hope will arrive one day?

I'd argue (following the late Douglas Adams ;-)that the only way to calculate "The Model" is to do one thing - live.

...and add the idea of probability to the above list...

"This pretty much what Plato already talked about, is it not?"

Plato didn't have computers and fMRI!

"Plato didn't have computers and fMRI!"

Just as well. We've spent two thousand years trying to dig out from under the problems Plato handed to us - I dread to think what mess he could have made had he had access to computers! >:-)

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