The Straw Consequentialist Tries to Fix an Election

Elizabeth Picciuto points us to

It somewhat predictably turns into an opportunity to bash consequentialism.

There are no actual consequentialists who chime in their acceptance of Gowder’s suggestion. Rather, it’s posited that they probably would. This is befuddling to me because

  1. I am a self-described utilitarian, and the original suggestion seems like a transparently terrible idea on consequentialist/utilitarian grounds.
  2. Non-consequentialists seem to think the people who are most concerned with the actual effects of the things you do are almost uniquely bad at judging those effects. The opposite would seem true to me.

Let’s (mentally) dispense with the thought experiment. Think about how you’d actually implement this. How do you produce the flyer? Do you download swastikas from a neonazi web site? Where do you print them? At home? At Kinkos?

Do you live in a swing state? Would you travel to one for this purpose? Over what time frame should you hand out flyers? What times of the day? What areas? How do you fund this?

Do you hand the flyers out yourself? Do you look plausibly white? What do you say to someone who asks what you are doing? What do you do if someone who you hand a Klan flyer too takes issue with what you are doing? What do you do when you see a black man? What do you do when some real Klan people want you to come with them? How confident are you that you can pass the Klan-member Turing test?

Is this illegal? You are quite likely to encounter the police at some point. What do you tell them? Are you doing this outside of someone’s business? How are they going to be affected? How are all the people around who are not racist going to feel about receiving your flyer?

Will only Klan members be motivated to follow your flyers? Or will the people who you are most likely to motivate to vote be those who want to vote against the Klan to spite you and your hateful ideology? How many Klan members do you think you will bump into and how many people who hate the Klan do you think you will bump into? Will you in fact be misdirecting a large fraction of those voters you see as allies?

You shouldn’t do this. You could get beat up or in legal trouble. You might die. Even if your personal safety were assured, you might influence the election in a direction contrary to your intent.

klan flyer photo

Image by kwbridge


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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11 thoughts on “The Straw Consequentialist Tries to Fix an Election

  1. These sort of things appear a lot during the election time.

    Blackmun wrote a Supreme Court case about the kinds of time, place, and manner restrictions that were allowed at polling places during election day.

    IIRC this sort of thing is done fairly frequently, more so on the right than on the left. You do it pre election day. The opposition tries to counter the information and so do many civil governments. SF has a ton of information about how to find your polling place.

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  2. How confident are you that you can pass the Klan-member Turing test?

    I am going to say that if you believe that explicit KKK/white nationalist propaganda, then you have already failed the ideological Turing test.

    I’ve mentioned before that I was an undergrad philosophy major and that one of the things that stopped me from going further is that I never felt that I could have a home in either an analytic philosophy department or in the post-structuralist camp. And that left less than ten other programs in the country that do the sort of continental philosophy in which I was interested.

    I get that it is impolite to spend too much time critiquing thought experiments, but sometimes the thought experiment highlights a significant conceptual flaw in how folks are thinking about the issue at hand. This was always my biggest problem with analytic philosophy. It always seems based on these contrived scenarios and artificial categorization that does not really sync with how human beings experience the world or how we think and make decisions.

    Talking about the relative merits of consequentialist v deontological frameworks is useful to an extent, but taken beyond that, philosophy becomes little more than a act of taxonomy.

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    • I have to agree with you 100%, j r. I was originally going to study philosophy, but then I talked to a lot of philosophers (most of whom I liked!), and eventually realized that there was little that I found productive or interesting in philosophy, so I switched to economics, political science, and math.

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  3. And I have to agree with Vikram as well. Indeed, that the straw formulations of utilitarianism and consequentialism are so ubiquitous and defended so fiercely — and, IMnsHO irrationally — as canonical by professional philosophers is probably the biggest reason I left philosophy.

    The argument, stripped to its bare essentials, seems transparently fallacious:

    Utilitarianism is about doing what we like. Utilitarianism demands that we do X, but we do not like X. Therefore, utilitarianism is wrong.

    (There are equally fallacious arguments against subjectivism.)

    I came to the conclusion that philosophy as actually practiced, especially ethical philosophy, is mostly learning how to obfuscate fallacious arguments to avoid a conclusion that philosophers have been trying to avoid since Thucydides: there is no objective or absolute right or wrong, just what we want and what we can do to get it.

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  4. So, um, subtlety is apparently a lost art, and thus you muddle the argument about “Let’s Mislead the Klan” into “BUT WHAT IF I SCREW UP?????”

    I consider understanding even the subtle signs that you’re in a neonazi neighborhood to be a matter of life and death.

    [This may have something to do with living in the same house with someone who helps with the SPLC hate group list… The lawyers in the room are invited to envision exactly how useful that position is.]

    It is quite possible to construct a “misleading polling place form” and give it only to people who are racist shits.

    So can we please cut this argument back to: “is it okay to do so, if we only get 50% of the racists — and no people we like?”

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      • I’ll retreat from the assertion that there are NO false positives — but she’s also making the argument that “you can’t do this, because you might have more effect on people you want to vote”… and I’ll submit that simply isn’t true, if you’re willing to accept a decent passel of false negatives.

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  5. I’m wondering if the best thing that could happen is that, if it comes to that, Diebold steals the election for Hillary.

    52%. Man, how did the polls get everything so *WRONG*? Whelp, time to start nominating judges!

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  6. Clearly, you follow the lead of the Conservative Party of Canada, and use individually targeted robocalls.

    Obtain hacked / leaked Klan chapter contact lists and police arrest records for Klan members.

    Robocall only the listed Klan members with incorrect polling place information.

    When the criminal investigation comes around, arrange for an intern who wouldn’t realistically had access to all that information without considerable logistical support from within the party, to nonetheless be targeted as the sole culprit.

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