Meet the Kahn-Sequenzes

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised September 25, 2007

The Characters in "Meet the Kahn-Sequenzes"

Persons Not Part of the Kahn-Sequenz Family

Theo, who holds the Divine Command Theory:
God's will alone determines which moral rules the moral agent should obey.

Randy, the libertarian:
The basic standard of what is permissible and impermissible is non-interference rights (especially to life, liberty, and property).

Libby, the egalitarian liberal:
Everybody has basic human rights, including a mix of non-interference rights, political participation rights, and some social and economic rights to assistance from society.

The Kahn-Sequenz Family

Eudora, the oldest child (a college student).
A "general" utilitarian, she holds people should choose the act or policy, out of the available options, that is likely to produce the greatest happiness (i.e., when all the positive and negative impacts on everyone affected are included in the calculation)

Allison, slightly younger.
An "altruist," she holds that persons should choose the option that is likely to produce the greatest happiness < . . . > except that the decision-maker should not include the likely positive or negative impact on herself.

Colleen, younger than Allison.
A "collective egoist," she holds each person should choose the option likely to produce the greatest happiness when all positive and negative impacts on everyone in her group are considered. The chooser's "group" may not include all those affected.

Percy, the baby of the family (who is old enough to have opinions of his own).
A "personal egoist," Percy wants everyone to choose the option that is likely to maximize his own (i.e., Percy's) total happiness.

Ernie, the "ethical egoist," older than Percy but younger than Colleen.
Ernie holds that everyone should choose in such a way as to maximize his or her own self-interest. (Ernie's approach requires people to consider the options and include the probable positive and negative results in their reasoning; however, these results are only those that affect the interests of the person making the choice.)

Hedda Eudora Kahn-Sequenz, the mother.
A hedonistic utilitarian, she follows the general utilitarian approach [See Eudora] but understands happiness as pleasure and its opposite as pain.

Presley Kahn-Sequenz, the father.
A preference utilitarian, he follows the general utilitarian approach [See Eudora] but understands happiness as satisfaction of preferences and its opposite as frustration of preferences (=occurrence of what people prefer not to happen).

Background to The Dialogue

Presley Sequenz met and Hedda Eudora Kahn met at college, fell in love, and got married. They combined their last names and are now known as Presley and Hedda Eudora Kahn-Sequenz. Now, about 20 years after they married they have five kids:

Both Presley and Hedda Eudora are utilitarians in their moral thinking. But they differ slightly in the way they are utilitarians. Presley is a preference satisfaction utilitarian and Hedda Eudora is a hedonist utilitarian.

The Kahn-Sequenzes frequently have family councils to talk about decisions that affect everybody. Everybody gets a chance to speak, starting with the youngest. Ultimately Presley and Hedda Eudora decide but they try to please or satisfy the whole family as much as possible.

The family has a long weekend, no school or work obligations. They have enough time to drive out of state and visit grandparents.

The Dialogue Itself

Percy: We should go. I always have lots of fun at Grandma's. She always makes the sweets I like and takes me out to see the farm animals. I love to watch the farm animals. I don't care whether Ernie enjoys being at Grandma's. I don't care whether Dad and Mom get tired from driving the whole distance. I don't care if Colleen gets bored not being with her girlfriends.

Ernie: Everyone of us should think about whether going or staying at home would give himself the most happiness or satisfaction.

Hedda Eudora: You know, Ernie, that if everybody decides that way, some may choose going, while others may choose staying. Your father and I have already told you everybody goes or nobody goes. We can't send Percy to Grandma's all by himself if he's the only one who wants to go.

Ernie: I agree, we could end up choosing different decisions that way.

Colleen: We could let everybody vote and go with the majority vote. I support that method because I think that if everybody voted, then the result would likely produce the greatest happiness for everybody in the family. Even better, however, would be this: Everybody list the pleasant results for him for going and the painful results for him for going. Then list the pleasant results for him for staying and the painful results for him for staying.

Eudora: You're starting to sound like a hedonistic utilitarian, like Mama.

Colleen: I haven't finished explaining the procedure I recommend. For each of the positive results, give it a positive number, from +1 to +10, depending on how positive it is. For each of the negative results, give it a negative number from -1 to -10, depending on how negative it is. Then add up all the numbers related to going and all the numbers related to staying, taking the numbers of everybody here into account. If the total numbers for going are greater than the total numbers for staying, we go; if the numbers for staying are greater, we stay. That's the Kahn-Sequenz way in my opinion.

Eudora: You're assuming that only the results for the immediate family count. I've told you that while you may be a Kahn-Sequenz, you always put a collective egoist spin on it. You decide on the basis of results for a limited group to which you belong. You don't take everyone affected into account. If you did-if you reasoned as a utilitarian, you'd also think about whether Grandma and Grandpa would enjoy our visit, whether the farm animals would like it when Ernie pulls their tails, and so on. You'd take everybody affected into account.

Allison: I want to decide on the basis that Eudora recommends except that I will leave my own interests out of the account. I want us to do what's best for everybody else, including Grandma and Grandpa and the farm animals, but I won't include how going or staying would affect my interests. And if you follow my advice, you won't include your own interests when you are trying to reach a decision either. Concern for the well-being of others should be our way of deciding.

Presley: That way of deciding might be possible in many cases if the decision was merely up to one person, although it would require an unusual degree of generosity. But if we did that on this question, Allison, we could very well end up without an agreement.

Everybody's total score for Going and Staying could be different, because they would each be omitting a different person's interests, their own. Because their total scores would be different, some might arrive at a Go decision while others would arrive at a Stay decision.

As your mother told you, we cannot leave anybody here if we decide to go. I know you're a very generous person, but your decision-making method is not helpful in this case.

Hedda Eudora: I'll tell you how I think we should decide. My approach would be like Eudora's but I would be more specific about the results we should look at. We should look at the positive results for each of us in terms of pleasure and the negative results in terms of pain. We should include the consequences for Grandma and Grandpa and the farm animals too. If the decision is likely to impact still others we should consider the pleasure and pain each option would mean for them and include those numbers too.

Then we should add them up and get a total happiness for Going and a total happiness for Staying. Whichever sum is larger determines what we should do. In other words, consider the positive and negative consequences for everybody in pleasure and pain terms. Do it for each option-fortunately there are only two in this case, which makes things simpler than they might have been. Choose the option whose net pleasure is greatest.

Eudora: No need to vote.

Hedda Eudora. Right. If we avoid mistakes in calculation and in determining how much pleasure or pain is likely to be produced for each sentient being-each human or animal--affected, we should all get the same result.

Presley: Now it's my turn. Your mom and I pretty much agree on strategy and that means my preferred approach is also close to Eudora's. Instead of measuring pleasure and pain, which is very private and hard to estimate accurately when it occurs in somebody else, we should consider the preferences of everybody involved. Everybody here can give us a valuation for Going and Staying. If we prefer to Go very much we give it a +10, if we have no preference for going at all-it is indifferent, we give it a 0. If we prefer very much to Stay Home we give that option a +10 and so on. Nobody's preferences are weighed more because of social status, like adult or child, or sex, or gender. Then we do the summing and comparison, as your mom suggested, and we choose the option that produces the greatest total, once the negative totals are subtracted from the positives. Whatever option produces the greatest total of preference satisfaction-I should say net preference satisfaction because the negative results cannot be ignored and must be subtracted from the positive results-that's the option we should choose.

Hedda Eudora. I see how we could do that with everybody here, because even Percy can say whether he likes or dislikes a plan a great deal or a little or somewhere in the middle.

Presley: We can phone Grandma and Grandpa and ask about their preferences.

Hedda Eudora: We cannot do that with the farm animals.

Eudora: That's right, they cannot speak to us in our language and tell us about their preferences on a scale of -10 to +10.

Presley: The main reason for using my preference utilitarian method is the more public nature of the evidence that we are using. Once people state their preferences for and against each of the options, those values can be recorded, on a recording device if need be. Also, language is public in a way that feelings are not. It's true, the animals cannot be directly included.

Hedda Eudora: I think it is important to take the animals' interests into account. That's why I try not to buy meat from animals that are raised under factory farm conditions that are known to make the lives of farm animals miserable.

Presley: You know I respect your opinion about that, Hedda, without accepting your specific version of utilitarianism. Note that my method would indirectly take your concern into account by including in our calculation the numbers representing your preferences that the animals not suffer.

Eudora: If Allison and I agree with Mom that we wish to minimize the suffering of animals and express that in our preferences, we might outweigh your preference when the family tries to reach a decision by using your (preference utilitarian) approach.

Presley: Excellent reasoning. On my own principles, we would have to give those preferences weight because they are the preferences of people affected by our choice. If I insisted on getting my way because my preferences by themselves lean toward Going or Staying, that would be a Form of Egoism. I wouldn't be a utilitarian at all.

Percy (thinking to himself): If I were the Dad, I would insist that what I most prefer -- or what would please me the most-- be what we choose.

Ernie: I think everybody should first reach a decision on the basis of his own interests, whether they be pleasure and pain, or preference satisfaction. I know that could lead to different results and if we all acted on them, we would have chaos. So it's in everybody's interest that we have a method to solve the conflict. I suggest a vote, not because the particular result-Going or Staying--would make me happier, but because chaos would make me very miserable. I think if everybody else thinks about it, they will realize that chaos would make them more miserable than Going or Staying, whichever of the two they least prefer. So a vote is a good idea.

Eudora's Conversation with Her Friends at the University

[After the family decided--how they finally decided is not all that important to us, Eudora shared with them a conversation she had had at the university with some of her classmates, Theo, Randy, and Libby. She had been telling them about the Kahn-Sequenzes' family values and the variety of moral decision-making strategies used by the members of the family.]

Theo: Yeesh! You all want to make up your mind by looking at the results of your possible choices, not the goodness or badness of the choices in themselves.

Eudora: That's right. We all agree that the only way you can justify an action or a rule is in terms of consequences for real beings, whether just humans or all beings that can feel pleasure and pain.

Theo: Then you don't see that Lying is wrong even if nobody suffers from it. I know Lying is wrong because God tells us not to bear false witness. There may be significant negative consequences for people when lies are told, but even if there were none, it would still be wrong because it's against God's will.

Libby: I say that lying, or misrepresentation, at least in certain important circumstances, is wrong-say, when you are considering a sexual involvement with somebody and they want to know whether you have been checked for STD's and if so what the result was. Lying is wrong not strictly because of the probably painful or unpreferred results, but also because in those circumstances the person to whom you are speaking or writing has a right to know.

Randy: I agree with Libby on this. If you are selling a car and you set the odometer back to make it look like it had only been driven 1000 miles when it actually had been driven 100,000 miles, that violates the buyer's right to know what he is purchasing. I don't care if it is an exceptionally good car that has easily another 100,000 miles on it, so that the buyer will not suffer much if he believes the lie, it's still wrong.

Eudora finished relating this conversation and asked her parents, "How can I show them that our view makes sense?"

How the Kahn-Sequenzes Respond to their Critics

Hedda Eudora: You can tell them about the massive negative consequences that sometimes occurs when one follows a rule or respects a right regardless of the predictable harmful and beneficial effects. This is especially the case with rules whose sole justification is that God, according to somebody or other, demands it. The idea that a piece of territory already inhabited by other peoples with other religious practices is promised by God to the invaders often leads them to conclude it's God's will that the original inhabitants be massacred.

Presley: You can tell Libby and Randy that you and your parents generally support many of the rules they favor, rules governing honesty, respect for personal possessions, life, and liberty of others. We generally support these rules because we think that if all or most people followed them more personal preferences would be satisfied and fewer preferences would be frustrated.

Hedda Eudora: And there would be more happiness and less misery in the world. The advantage to the utilitarian Kahn-Sequenz approach to rules is that if circumstances change and preserving the old rules would cause more misery and less happiness than they once did, we're ready to modify them. When there's no great gap between rich and poor in society and government is cheap, it might be tolerable to tax almost everybody at the low same rate and not have a graduated income tax. But when there is a large gap between rich and poor and government has undertaken so many important tasks that it needs more resources, the least misery might be caused by taxing the rich at higher rates.

Eudora: Randy with his emphasis on property rights would not agree with us.

Presley: You have to admit at least that he'd be consistent. If there is an absolute right to property in, say, one's gross income, any taxation at all, even at the same rate, would be questionable, and a graduated income tax would be clearly wrong.