Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

Nazi officerYou may have noticed that I don’t opine on quantum mechanics. Or jazz. The reason for this is that — although I’m very interested in both topics — I just don’t know enough about them. Not enough to be able to offer an informed opinion, at any rate. So I sit back, read what other, more knowledgeable people have to say about quantum mechanics and jazz, form my own second-hand opinion, and try to avoid embarrassing myself by pontificating in public.

Apparently, my friend Michael Shermer does not follow the same philosophy. At least, not when it comes to the field of moral philosophy. He has recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” which starts out simple (simplistic, really) enough, and ends in a crescendo of nonsense. Let’s take a look.

After asking whether you would politically oppress a people for a limited time, if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry, Michael explains that that’s utilitarianism, the philosophy started by Jeremy Bentham back at the beginning of the 19th century, often summarized with the slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number.” (Bentham, incidentally, is currently visiting New York, go see him, if you have a chance.)

Well, that is one of many versions of utilitarianism, and it was immediately abandoned, by none other than John Stuart Mill, Bentham’s student, who actually wrote the classic 1861 text entitled Utilitarianism. Indeed, before that Mill wrote two important articles, “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy” (1833) and “Bentham” (1838), in which he criticized his mentor and began to develop modern utilitarian thought. One of the major distinctions one can draw within utilitarianism still today is that between so-called act utilitarianism (where we must evaluate the morality of each act, a la Bentham) and rule utilitarianism (where we conform to rules that have shown overall to bring about the greatest amount of good, a la Mill). More generally, utilitarianism has a long history, and nowadays it is actually best thought of as a particular type of consequentialist philosophy. I could be wrong, but Shermer seems unaware of these distinctions.

Michael then tells his readers that “modern utilitarianism” is best instantiated by the (in)famous trolley problems. This is just flat out wrong. The original dilemma was introduced by Philippa Foot back in 1967. Here is the first version:

“Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.”

Contra Shermer, the trolley dilemma was proposed, and it continues to be used (not only in philosophy, but in social psychology), in order to probe people’s moral intuitions, not to “instantiate” utilitarianism. For instance, a deontologist would refuse to frame an innocent or switch the lever, on the basis of the Kantian notion that one ought never to treat others solely as means to an end. The fact that many people switch from utilitarian to deontological responses when considering different versions of the dilemma tells us that they tend to react emotionally, which leads them to deploy an incoherent moral philosophy.

Michael then says that “the problem” with utilitarianism is that there are situations in which following its precepts one would end up endorsing psychopathic behaviors, as in the famous case (which I pose to my intro philosophy students) of the surgeon who has five patients in the emergency room, each with a failing vital organ, and decides to pick up a stranger from the street, cut him up into pieces, and distribute his organs around to save the other five. Too bad that this sort of thing is precisely why Mill (remember, already in 1833) introduced rule utilitarianism, which blocks the psychopathic doctor in his tracks. Again, no mention of this in the SciAm article.

Shermer briefly mentions a recent paper in Psychological Review (which I have not read, so I will not comment on it), mostly to tell us that he took the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale test and scored 17/63. He ain’t no utilitarian, according to the test. Neither am I, apparently (phew!), since I scored 21/63. You can do the test yourself, here.

After a brief mention of Kantian deontology, the article really veers from simplistic to nonsensical: “Historically the application of a utilitarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures and accidents — better to incinerate the few to protect the village. More recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five million (Jews: “Aryan” Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.”

What?? No, absolutely not. Setting aside the obvious observation that utilitarianism (the philosophy) did not exist until way after the Middle Ages, no, witch hunts were the result of fear, ignorance and superstition, not of a Bentham- or Mill-style calculus. And this is the first time I heard that Hitler or the Hutu of Rwanda had articulated a utilitarian rationale for their ghastly actions. Again, they were driven by fear, ignorance, superstition, and — in the case of Nazi Germany — a cynical calculation that power could be achieved and maintained in a nation marred by economic chaos by means of the time-tested stratagem of scapegoating. (The latter is also what perpetrators of witch hunting and the Rwandan genocide did: prey on the weak, it’s easy to do and get away with it.)

But Shermer doesn’t let Kant off the hook either. He brings up the famous example (which, again, I confront my intro philosophy students with) of lying: if it is the case — as Kant says in one formulation of the categorical imperative — that we should only accept as moral those principles that we would be willing to make into universal rules, wouldn’t that mean that I should never lie and give up the Jew I’m hiding in the basement if a Nazi officer (it’s always the Nazi!) politely asks me? Or, as Michael updates the scenario: “if you live in Syria and a band of ISIS thugs knocks on your door demanding to know if you are hiding any homosexuals they can murder in the mistaken belief that this fulfills the word of God — and you are — few moralists would object to your lying to save them.”

Notice the pejorative term “moralists,” instead of moral philosophers. Anyway, you would think Kantian philosophers would have something to say about this. Oh, right, they do! A good example is a paper by Helga Varden in the Journal of Social Philosophy, entirely devoted to Kant, lying and the Nazi officer. I do not have the time here to do justice to her analysis, but a couple of points need to be brought to bear: first, in that case Kant was writing explicitly within the context of a discussion of the doctrine of rightful interactions (the original, short paper in which he tackles the case is entitled “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy”). As Varden says, within that context, “we can make sense of why lying to the murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do wrong in general.”

More to the point, Kant was talking about a murderer (he, obviously, couldn’t have contemplated the Nazi), but when one changes the scenario to a Nazi officer — or an ISIS terrorist — it turns out that the problem dissolves itself, because “the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally punishable [within Kant’s framework] is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis.” Or to ISIS. Again, I didn’t notice any of these qualifications in Shermer’s article.

Michael, predictably, makes no mention at all of the third great framework in moral philosophy, virtue ethics, which would actually do a lot of the work he wants to do, against both utilitarianism and deontology — in their philosophically sophisticated versions, not the caricature we get in the SciAm article.

But never mind that. The true nonsense comes right at the end, when Shermer puts forth his preferred view, the one that, in his mind, has allowed for true moral progress throughout the ages: “both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are trumped by natural-rights theory, which dictates that you are born with the right to life and liberty of both body and mind, rights that must not be violated, not even to serve the greater good or to fulfill a universal rule.”

Setting aside that you get precisely the same result from Mill’s rule utilitarianism, not to mention that natural rights theory has no argument against Kant, “natural rights” are what Jeremy Bentham famously, and correctly, referred to as “nonsense on stilts.” There is no such thing as a natural right, and we, therefore, are not born with them (contra the mindless libertarian mantra that Shermer is repeating). Michael is confusing human desires and instincts — some of which are actually culturally dependent (it is empirically not the case that everyone on earth desires liberty of mind, for instance) with rights. But rights are, obviously, a human creation. Which accounts for why, as Shermer himself notes, they have to be written down in things like the Bill of Rights, and protected by the force of state-enabled law. It’s also why people have come up with different lists of rights at different times. The United Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, provides a much more extensive list than the one arrived at by James Madison and co. back in 1789.

To argue that rights are “natural” is to commit the most elementary logical fallacy in ethics, that of the appeal to nature. And even if one were to overlook that little problem, there simply is no consistent empirical evidence for most of such alleged rights (i.e., desires, instincts) in Homo sapiens or its recent ancestors. Yeah, we all prefer to be alive rather than dead, other things being equal, but natural selection does not care about mere survival, it only favors survival that leads to reproduction. And it favors it, it doesn’t guarantee it. (So you can’t derive a natural right to sex. Too bad!)

This is the sort mess one gets when Michael talks about moral philosophy. Or when I talk about quantum mechanics. Or jazz. Please, let us all stick to what we know. It’s hard enough as it is.

106 thoughts on “Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

  1. Massimo Post author

    Socratic,

    I always wondered myself about the actual necessity of introducing “consequentualism” as a separate term. But Singer, for one, seems to agree that consequentualism is broader than utilitarianism, and it encompasses some non-utilitarian philosophies (though I can’t think of one!) as well as, of course the many flavors of utilitarianism. Come to think of it, maybe one of those additional philosophies is rule utilitarianism, which is really no utilitarianism at all, as it begins to resemble deontology.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: In my view you continue to apply a connotation to ‘natural’ that it does not have in social contractarian thinking. The state of nature is simply the state of human life in which there are no social contracts, which means, no public authorities. The argument is that there are some fundamental things that people who are naturally (in that sense) equal and free are due, prior to the obligations and rights that accrue from the social contract, and I think that case is plausibly — if not, at the end of the day convincingly — made without theistic or other metaphysics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    “due” in virtue of what? “Right” is a strong word, as Shermer (and others) uses it, it has a connotation of inalienable. And all you are describing, seems to me, are desires, inclinations, and the like. Nothing I would call a right.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. saphsin

    “The state of nature is simply the state of human life in which there are no social contracts, which means, no public authorities.”

    There may be no formal political structures in hunter gatherer societies, but there are social structures, different ways of how human beings organize. I don’t see any inherent ethical differences between these forms of social organization and people operating under governments. So I’m not sure I can even imagine what “state of nature” would be in the absent of all this. All I see are ethical ways of organizing societies and ways that are not, and “rights” are useful fictions to put on paper to enforce the better organizations. The only thing I see “natural” is human nature, and we can draw ethical conclusions about how to organize society (how to treat human beings) from that. But “rights” don’t come out of that, they’re social constructs.

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  5. saphsin

    “I always wondered myself about the actual necessity of introducing “consequentualism” as a separate term. But Singer, for one, seems to agree that consequentualism is broader than utilitarianism, and it encompasses some non-utilitarian philosophies (though I can’t think of one!) as well as, of course the many flavors of utilitarianism. Come to think of it, maybe one of those additional philosophies is rule utilitarianism, which is really no utilitarianism at all, as it begins to resemble deontology.”

    It’s been dominated by utilitarianism so it pretty much colors what consequentialism is to people. Mozi came up with another form of consequentialism that wasn’t utilitarian, though it looks to me more of a political ethics.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    ““rights” don’t come out of that, they’re social constructs.”

    Exactly. So I’m not positive Dan thinks they are anything else. If he does, then I don’t see how he arrives at that, Locke or no Locke. If he doesn’t, then that’s not the issue we are talking about in terms of the Shermer article.

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  7. saphsin

    Ethics is prior to Rights, not the other way around. In fact, one can imagine a society where there is no Tradition of Philosophy of Rights but people organized society in a similar way on the basis of human obligations or another ethical framework, though I think that’s hard to do for our society at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. brodix

    In the state of nature prior to civil structures, there were Gods and other spirits. The purpose of which seemed to be to inform people as to the rules of nature and how to interact with nature and one’s fellow beings.

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  9. SocraticGadfly

    Saph, I think this is kind of what Hume was getting at in my quote from him on the previous page. Again:

    “(P)hilosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos’d state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never cou’d have any reality.”

    “Supposed” and “mere philosophical fiction.” Sounds about right.

    We see this outside of anthropology, in battles over what pre-agricultural societies were “really” like, when we try to extrapolate from current non- (but not pre-) agricultural societies 10,000 years. Even without putting them on pedestals, we simply can’t draw any real information that way, whether we go down Hobbes’ fork, Rousseau’s, or somebody else’s.

    What we’re really getting at is, IMO, kind of parallel to where Massimo said he was a moral non-realist, and explained what this stance meant as nuanced against moral anti-realism.

    ==

    And, per Mozi and the information on Wiki I posted, I think that’s about the right interpretation of him.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    brodix,

    “In the state of nature prior to civil structures, there were Gods and other spirits”

    there were? That’s news to me…

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  11. SocraticGadfly

    Bottom line for me on this issue is that, riffing on Hume, I see a “state of nature” as kind of like a bastard form of Platonism trying to sneak in the back door, and in general, when I see talk of Platonism, like Hanns Johst (no, not Goehring) I take the safety off my Browning.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. brodix

    Massimo,

    The point being that the instinct for some top down authority seems pretty organic, aka natural.

    Energy is bottom up, order is top down.

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  13. brodix

    saphsin,

    “Ethics is prior to Rights, not the other way around.”

    Keep in mind the in-group, versus out-group dynamic and the extent it has become totally blurred. No matter how it gets whitewashed, that dichotomy is very primal.

    Those we will die for and those we will kill.

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  14. brodix

    It occurs to me the maturity level of libertarianism is mid teens. When we have started to outgrow parental authority, but haven’t quite understood why it is in the first place.

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  15. marc levesque

    Brodix

    I think that rights and gods can exist as social constructs.

    “The point being that the instinct for some top down authority seems pretty organic, aka natural.”

    Maybe, but rights can (primarily?) also be constructed on a consensual basis.

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  16. brodix

    marc,

    As I see it, gods are a logical, anthropomorphized, step from a primal state to some form of civil structure. Lawgiver.

    Sort of like monarchy is a logical step from tribal leaders to institutionalized government.

    The problem of consensus is that the exceptions are more notable than the rule. Society functions because, by and large, the majority prefer there be some structured order to the community. It is when this consensus about how that structure functions and who might benefit more, etc, starts to break down, that sufficient numbers of people get their panties in a twist and “government is the problem.”

    There will always be that relationship between socially expansive, aka liberal tendencies and civil/cultural consolidation, aka conservatism, which becomes a main point of fracture, but that is not necessarily the cause of the fracture, just the sides the community breaks into. As I have been pointing out, the current treatment of money as a commodity to be mined from society, rather than the essential economic contract/medium, that has squeezed the vast majority, for the overwhelming benefit of a few, is a major cause of that vanishing consensus and the resulting fracture.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. ejwinner

    Yeah, the problem with “natural Rights” theories – and I admit I’m not familiar with the classical arguments, eg. Locke’s – is that they seem to presume a primitive asocial existence – or rather, a primitive social existence with no form of governance – for which there is no evidence. Anthropologically, peoples who can be said to still live according to social protocols that have been in force for many centuries, in fact have fairly rigid social protocols and expectations, none of which seem to develop out of or respect any “natural right,” but rather serve the evident interests of the community, as the community understands these.

    Also, insistence on “natural rights” opens the door to misguided interpretations of ethological studies on other primates, leading to the mistaken hope that the truth of human ethics can be found in the behavior of chimps or bonobos. That’s just not going anywhere.

    That said, I respect the historic moment when “natural rights” arguments seemed to be viable. After all, the Declaration of Independence clearly presumes these, and some of these linger on in the Constitution.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Massimo Post author

    ej,

    “they seem to presume a primitive asocial existence – or rather, a primitive social existence with no form of governance – for which there is no evidence”

    I think it’s worse than that. Even had those socities existed one would still not get any thick ontological meaning of “rights,” but only agreements based on desires and preferences. But as I said before, if that’s all people mean by “natural rights” then they are not getting what Shermer et al. want out of the concept.

    Liked by 5 people

  19. SocraticGadfly

    EJ, yes, and, per Massimo’s response, and my backdoor Platonism comment, some seem to presume an Idealistic version of such existence.

    Massimo, i think that’s where some people try to grasp for a thicker ontological meaning, hence my comment about backdoor Platonism.

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  20. brodix

    Massimo,

    ” Even had those socities existed one would still not get any thick ontological meaning of “rights,” but only agreements based on desires and preferences. But as I said before, if that’s all people mean by “natural rights” then they are not getting what Shermer et al. want out of the concept.”

    So where does the idea come from and why does it have such a strong emotional following?

    As biological organisms, we grow up and out, filling out whatever niches are available and adapting to them. As such, humanity has spread across the planet, for the last 500 years filling out the New World. As we reach limits on spreading out, we adapt to ever closer circumstances and construct structures to do so, both physical, as in multistory buildings, and social, through complex societies and the regulatory devices to make them work. With all number of feedback loops between this elemental growth and the resulting adaptions.

    So, as you say, it is desire that drives this sense of claiming what we feel we should be entitled, to live a healthy and fulfilling life, yet against the multitude of others desires.

    There are limits to how much pressure we can and are willing to tolerate, before rebelling against social order, so this desire cannot be dismissed.

    Also, as the leadership of the community reaches levels of how much it can find releases for this pressure, it comes in conflict with the community and consequently goes into a defensive state and starts to predate on the resources, further stressing the situation and giving vent to that fundamental desire.

    Which is where a better understanding of money as the social contract and medium that allows large societies to function, not just a resource to mine from them, is the next social evolutionary step.

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  21. wtc48

    Saphsin: “There may be no formal political structures in hunter gatherer societies, but there are social structures, different ways of how human beings organize. I don’t see any inherent ethical differences between these forms of social organization and people operating under governments. So I’m not sure I can even imagine what “state of nature” would be in the absent of all this.”

    I think there’s a tendency to conflate “natural” with “fundamental,” in the effort to find what we’re really like at bottom. But humans are hardly unnatural, and the complexity of the products of our culture doesn’t make them unnatural, any more than the mating structures of the bower birds or the hives of bees.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Yeah, the problem with “natural Rights” theories – and I admit I’m not familiar with the classical arguments, eg. Locke’s – is that they seem to presume a primitive asocial existence – or rather, a primitive social existence with no form of governance – for which there is no evidence.

    = = =

    Again, they presuppose no such thing. The State of Nature is a hypothetical construct, and needn’t have existed, anymore than Rawls’ Original Position.

    And I think it is very important to have some conception of natural right, where what one means — as the social contract theorists do — is rights that are prior to those granted by states and which cannot be infringed upon by states. Indeed, it is this that often provides the vantage point from which to characterize the laws and actions of states as unjust.

    Apropos Hume, he, of course, was one of the few Enlightenment philosophers who was an anti-contractarian in politics. That of course was his prerogative, but as a result, he really has no compelling account of the source of political authority. That, of course, is another important element in the State of Nature construction: it makes it possible to give an account of the source of political authority, by appeal to the natural authority that each person has over him or herself, which then can be transferred when we make the social contract.

    Again, the social contract theorists may be wrong, but their views and reasonings are not “nonsense on stilts.” To the contrary, they remain the best accounts we have for any number of fundamental political concepts and ideas, for which we have not yet found better, though, of course, some day we may.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. brodix

    wtc,

    Keep in mind how much this impulse to solve problems is due to tensions that are themselves fundamental. Youth and age, conservative and liberal, risk and security, etc.

    Like

  24. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    thanks for engaging in this discussion, it is helping to clear my own thoughts about it. You say:

    ” The State of Nature is a hypothetical construct, and needn’t have existed, anymore than Rawls’ Original Position.”

    Right, but the big difference is that Rawl is trying to establish what reasonable people ought to do, while talk of natural rights usually attempts to establish an ontological reality. The former is something that can be done via thought experiments, not so for the latter. Or we would have real p-zombies around…

    “rights that are prior to those granted by states and which cannot be infringed upon by states.”

    How is that possible? How is it that states cannot trump natural rights? Of course they can, because rights are human constructs, legal constructs, to be precise, informed by a society’s understanding of morality.

    ” is this that often provides the vantage point from which to characterize the laws and actions of states as unjust.”

    No, what is considered unjust is the reasoned agreement of the members of a society, whether there was a contract or not, a government or not, and so forth. It makes no sense, to me, to say that rights pre-exist, somehow, not just governments, but societies. Morality is an eminently social thing. It does not exist in the “state of nature,” hypothetical or not.

    “”he really has no compelling account of the source of political authority.””

    I don’t see this as a problem, and of course Hume has such an account. Political authority emerges from either the agreement among people or the imposition of force, both of which are eminently naturalistic (i.e., “Humean”) explanations.

    ” it makes it possible to give an account of the source of political authority, by appeal to the natural authority that each person has over him or herself, which then can be transferred when we make the social contract”

    But we agreed that such an account is fictional, and therefore accounts for nothing. Again, unlike Rawls’ attempt, which concerns how things should be, not how they are.

    Finally, nobody said that social contract theorists engage in nonsense on stilts, only that the specific notion of natural rights is. One can be a contractarian without invoking natural rights.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. brodix

    Dan,

    What specifically are the rights in question?

    Do you mean those resources required for a reasonably healthy, productive life?

    It does seem somewhat implicitly theological, as in: “All men are created equal.”

    By whom, or what? Samuel Colt?

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  26. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: Last few things I’ll say on this, as I think we’ve pretty much covered it all.

    I don’t think Locke’s account of natural law and natural right is — or need be — metaphysically thick.
    By “cannot” be infringed upon by states, I meant — “if infringed upon by states, is blameworthy.”
    Authority is the legitimate exercise of power. One of the key questions in political philosophy concerns the source of that legitimacy. When you say its source is “the people,” that’s essentially the contractarian argument, but it relies on the idea that authority is in some sense “natural” to individuals (again, ‘natural’ in the sense of, pre-contractual), from who it can be transferred. But imposing force — i.e. merely exercising power — does not in itself confer that exercise with any legitimacy.

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  27. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    agreed on legitimate authority. But then, again, why talk about “rights,” which does sound (and is used by people like Shermer) metaphysically thick? My guess is because Locke was trying to establish a parallel notion to the theological one, sans the theology. But we don’t need that anymore.

    So (yes, I know you said this was your last contribution, so fee free to ignore), do you agree that rights are a human construct based on human desires, preferences, etc.?

    Liked by 4 people

  28. Daniel Kaufman

    So (yes, I know you said this was your last contribution, so fee free to ignore), do you agree that rights are a human construct based on human desires, preferences, etc.?

    = = =

    And reason. Yes.

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