Social Justice, Liberation, and “Negative Utilitarianism”

I’m listening to an interviewee, Toby Ord, on a podcast called “Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot” on choosing between ethical theories. He was talking about consequentialism when I thought of something: how does social justice fit into these theories? This has all been culminating from Micki Pulleyking’s ethics unit (which involved selections from Michael Sandel’s Justice), Phil Snider’s ethics course (Sandel again), and Kathy Pulley’s assignment of James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation and Miguel de la Torre’s Latina/o Social Ethics. It would probably fit under consequentialism/utilitarianism, or “in/action that would cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people” (what usually goes with this is “regardless of means”). I thought whether there is an inverse to that, action that reduces the sum misery of all (but which also goes, as far as possible, through painless means; but then, how much positive change is truly without its pains?). I might term this “negative consequentialism” or just come up with a cool name for it if it doesn’t already exist. I have communitarian concerns in mind when I think about this. As I’ve been wondering about various types of liberation–
here are some I can think of:

  • Gender- transcending binary stereotypes, and allowing for transgender, women having the freedom to maximize potential
  • Race- oppressed peoples (regardless of skin color) whose voices have been silenced by the powerful
  • Class- when the rich few control the social, economic, and political realities and opportunities of the mass, and don’t fairly distribute resources
  • Animal- they are given as natural of lives as possible; when endangered, helped; domestic animals allowed more freedom in life, freedom from too many unnatural strictures, even those bred to eat
  • Sexual- where sexual needs and desires are met as far as possible, with dignity for partners involved, protection from disease, protection from relational abuse or mistreatment, non-exploitative, unrestricted, not duty-bound but flows with desire
  • Psychological- freedom from the pains of mental illness, freedom from the stigma of “crazy,” opportunities for health, education, and career
  • Queer- ability to flourish without oppression due to one’s sexual orientation, to love whom one loves, to marry the person(s) of your choice (liberation from monogamous hegemony maybe?)
  • Dogmatic- where religion is used to stifle creativity or maintain a status quo based on uncritical acceptance of (a) charismatic leader’s(‘) influence and thought, where “other” is demonized or cast as “sinful” “heretical” or worthy of any type of this-worldly punishment at the hands of said community
  • Familial- where family members abuse others based on some form of power (parental, older sibling, size, economic, etc.)
  • Political- where one is constrained just a bit too much by the government
  • Etc.- each of these has more to say about it, are not mutually exclusive, and is not exhaustive in what one can be liberated from. Pretty much all of this looks like escape from the definitions, abuses, and clutches of the powerful.

I’ve wondered at what the ideal society would look like. To me it would be where voices aren’t shut out because of marginality. Voices would be heard irrespective of their origins. People would have dignity with no fear of attack on their persons. People wouldn’t be stifled based on constructed otherness. Basic needs would be met and psychological needs would be apt to be met. Communities would think things out critically and for extended periods. The arts and humanities would flourish. With this idea of negative utilitarianism, I would need to think through what I believe misery is, its causes, and then think of ways out. What do you think? Does liberation strike chords with you positively or negatively? Can you think of types of liberation I’ve omitted?

One thought on “Social Justice, Liberation, and “Negative Utilitarianism””

  1. I think Michel Foucault has captured some of this issue and I agree with him. Liberation as a goal is problematic for a few reasons. First, one can never truly be liberated in any sense of being freed from power structures. Freed from hierarchical dominance to what? To democratic tyranny. From the aristocrat? To the farmer prince. Freedom and knowledge are always associated with some form of power. That is, power relations are defined by the type of structure one is in. Liberation sets a false goal of liberation from power, but is there any time when power doesn’t express itself in an asymmetrical use of strategies to ensure dominance of one group over another? Foucault suggests that it isn’t any time like that.

    Resistance, rebellion, further disassociation from the powers, and finally setting up a new way of life insulated from the enclosing power structure in a sub culture with its own rules is the way history records the eventualities of efforts toward liberation. Liberation as a goal ends with another power structure that hopefully addresses the defects of the prior structure, but it is still a power structure with its own human reasons of whatever kind in the background.

    Looking at the USA experiment, it is easy to see that even in the beginning, there was no lack of strategic efforts to drive the fledgling nation in directions that often, and problematically mirrored the errors of the British. Take the whiskey rebellion. The Brits thought to tax the colonists to pay for foreign, unpopular wars. The colonists took exception to that, but when the US government was stuck with the job of paying its debts incurred in prosecuting the revolution, it found the newly stamped citizens as unwilling as the revolutionaries were to let the products of their labors go.

    Power is ubiquitous, and as deeply ingrained in human society as the need to eat. Part of being a rational being, a being capable of living in a society, is that some individuals inevitably reach toward the asymmetries of power relations that subvert any form of liberation. In addition the division of resources required for any advanced society needs management, and bureaucracies are the inevitable result.

    What’s left is refinement, finding ethical justifications for writing laws that equitably redress those whose rights have been violated, and those who by the law have been subject to unfairness in the inevitably changing environment. Liberation is only the desperate cry of the poor and weak who have been systematically neglected in the tactical efforts toward dominance.

    One can tell how just a society is by how its weakest members are treated. And a just society will make efforts to increase opportunity to those same members.

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