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The Cunning Tyranny of Abstract Notions of the “Common Good”


While I come from what might be called the traditional left, or what today can perhaps be called the RFK, Jr left, I have always been very interested in reading thinkers from other schools of political thought, especially libertarians. This, owing to their generalized disdain for war and empire, their fierce belief in the need to protect our constitutional rights, and their marked ability—in comparison to so many people in today’s left and mainstream right —to engage in frank, vigorous, and respectful debate. 

That said, I’ve never been a huge fan of the ever-present Tyler Cowen. And even less so since he, a supposed lover of liberty, acquiesced (I’m being kind), during the Covid emergency to what Justice Neil Gorsuch rightfully termed “the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country.” 

A few days ago, however, he made himself look good by comparison by debating the high priest of animal rights and hedonistic utilitarianism (his term not mine), Peter Singer. 

Reading and listening to Singer, it is easy to get seduced by the vision of the future he paints, one in which human populations will, little by little, come to embrace the kinder angels of their nature and usher in a world marked by much less cruelty to both human beings and animals. 

Who could be against that? 

The problem lies in the methods he proposes, or perhaps more accurately, obliquely suggests for getting us from here to there. 

He speaks a lot about “happiness” and the “general good” and the essential role that “rationality” plays in achieving them. 

But he never, at least in this admittedly relatively brief exchange with Cowen, comes close to admitting the immensely problematic nature of all of these concepts. 

Who decides what is “happiness” or the “universal” or “general good” in a society? Is it true that “rationality” is coterminous with knowing, or that rationality is the only true path to happiness and moral improvement? Or, for that matter, who exactly is it that has decided that general happiness, however defined, is the supreme moral good? Billions of Christians and Buddhists around the world, to take just two examples, with their belief in the fundamental value and importance of human suffering, might oppose that notion rather strenuously. 

When Cowen rightly tries to gain more clarity on his ideas on happiness—by talking about what one should do in a putative encounter between humans and extraterrestrials supposedly possessed of the ability to generate and spread happiness better than humans—Singer admits the possibility that there may not a common metric for happiness between such groups, and should this be the case, he wouldn’t know what to do in terms ceding to, or fighting against, the alien invaders. 

Similarly, when Cowen challenges the difficulties of firmly establishing an idea of the common or general good in society, Singer simply changes the subject and repeats his belief in the concept. 

COWEN: How do we know there is a universal good? You’re selling out your fellow humans based on this belief in a universal good, which is quite abstract, right? The other smart humans you know mostly don’t agree with you, I think, I hope.

SINGER: But you’re using the kind of language that Bernard Williams used when he says, “Whose side are you on?” You said, “You’re selling out your fellow humans,” as if I owe loyalty to members of my species above loyalty to good in general, that is, to maximizing happiness and well-being for all of those affected by it. I don’t claim to have any particular loyalty for my species rather than the general good.

Are you catching on to the game? 

Singer goes around mouthing immensely problematic concepts like these, and building an edifice of ethical imperatives around them for others to follow. But when challenged on basic aspects of their coherence he is unwilling to provide any answers. 

Let’s be serious. 

Do you really think someone, a supposedly really smart someone, who immediately admits, in the example of the extraterrestrials he and Cowen used, the inoperability of his theory of the common good in the absence of a common metric of happiness, is incapable of seeing the enormous question it begs about his vaunted theories about the same thing when applied to the immense cultural, and therefore value diversity of the human species? 

I don’t for a moment think he’s incapable of seeing this obvious point. I think he simply does not want to go there. 

And why might he not want to go there? 

We get the first hint as to why when, in a response to a Cowen query about the existence or not of a “general faculty of reason”—the thing which Singer had just presented as the fundamental source of a more evolved human ethics—he speaks of the possible need of a more rational and therefore presumably more moral elite to effectively impose their superior ways of seeing things on the less enlightened majorities. And again notice the initial hedging when pressed about a fundamental element of the moral edifice he uses to generate very non-ambiguous moral imperatives for others. 

Cowen: You’ve written plenty about many, many other examples. Is there really this general faculty of reason that overrides those evolved intuitions?

SINGER: I think there certainly can be, and I think there is for some people some of the time. The question would be, is everybody capable of that? Or even if not everybody, are we capable of getting a dominant group who do follow reason in general, universal directions, who use it to develop a more universal ethic that applies to a wider group of beings than their own kin and family and those that they’re in cooperative relationships with? I think there’s evidence that that is possible, and we don’t yet know to what extent that can spread and start to dominate humans in future generations.

Things become clearer still when we take the time to consult a paper, Secrecy in Consequentialism: a Defense of Esoteric Morality,  mentioned later in the interview, that the Australian philosopher wrote in cooperation with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek in 2010. 

In it, the authors defend Sidgwick’s concept of “esoteric morality,” which Singer and Lazari-Radek sum up in the following way: 

Sidgwick famously divided society into ‘enlightened utilitarians’ who may be able to live by ‘refined and complicated’ rules that admit exceptions, and the rest of the community to whom such sophisticated rules ‘would be dangerous.’ Therefore, he concluded: ‘. . . on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice and example.’ ” 

Maybe I’m being precipitous, but I find it hard to believe that, given his obvious intelligence and renown, Singer does not consider himself to be one of the ‘enlightened utilitarians’ who may be able to live by ‘refined and complicated’ rules that admit exceptions, and the rest of the community to whom such sophisticated rules ‘would be dangerous.’

If this is the case, would it be so wrong to suggest that when Singer blithely and repeatedly uses concepts he is unwilling to minimally subject to the scrutiny they clearly deserve, he might be playing the very game of “esoteric morality” he defends in his article on Sidgwick? 

I don’t think so. 

If we were to have the ability to eavesdrop on the uncensored internal train of Singerian reason, my guess is we’d find perorations similar to this:

I know most of the boobs out there are a lot less thoughtful than me and, again, unlike me, will probably never transcend their irrationality enough to ascend to see the truths of the new moral universe toward which I am trying to impel them. Therefore it is important for me and others in my enlightened caste to withhold a lot of details which would just get balled up in their convoluted minds, and instead keep the repeated rhetorical emphasis on vague and deeply compelling notions like increased happiness and the general good which will appeal to their less developed brains that will, in time, eventually allow them to be herded into “our” superior castle of ethics. 

I wish I could say Peter Singer is an exception in our current socio-political landscape, but he is not. 

Rather, Peter Singer’s peek-a-boo world of vaguely defined, but at the same time supposedly deeply urgent, moral principles is the world toward which many, many very powerful forces are trying to drive us.  

Indeed, these same people just ran a very successful 3-year experiment in conditioning us to accept more debasement of our individual rights in the name of at best unprovable, and at worst, flat-out false ideas of the “common good.”  

And given that so few rebelled and spoke out during this experiment in the name of the concrete individual human being with a name, a mortgage, and a pesky sense of his own dignity and destiny before the unfathomable complexity of creation, they’ll be back for more. 

Will those who went along with the hustle have by then reconsidered the consequences of their meek acquiescence to these abstract schemas that insouciantly snuffed out so many people’s basic claims to dignity and autonomy? 

One can only hope so. 

For their sake as much as anyone else’s. 


Because power has no loyalty. 

For while this time around the conformists may have gained a sense of energy and virtue from being on the “right,” majoritarian side of the supposed campaign to enforce the abstract, and as it turned out, completely lie-ridden notion of the common good—with all that this implied in terms of the ephemeral joy of demonizing others —there is no guarantee that the same rules and alignments will apply the next time around. 

Indeed, one of the cardinal precepts of today’s Machiavellians and their esoteric court philosophers is the imperative of rewriting the operative rules early and often to the point where only the most stubborn and mindful among the rubes have the will to object to their carefully planned campaigns of moral disorientation. 

Eventually, however, the campaign to change society in the name of abstract notions of the common good engineered by those avid for power will touch on something that the one-time cheerleaders for the Covid mob and now the Trans and Climate mobs deeply cherish as part of their essential humanity (that is if they haven’t yet abandoned that concept under the weight of external pressures) and they will once again have the choice of fighting or acquiescing. 

Maybe then those suggestions they made about cries for bodily sovereignty and informed consent being mere fig leaves for justifying puerile Oedipal intransigence or flat-out scientific illiteracy, will look a little different to them. 

Then again maybe they won’t. 

Maybe they’ll simply go along with the stealthy extirpation of that thing they once cherished about their individual humanity without a fight and, after ceding to the messaging of self-anointed rational and moral clairvoyants like Peter Singer, convince themselves it was all necessary for guaranteeing the “march of progress” that will end in more happiness for all. 

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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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