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Utilitarianism Clark Wolf Director of Bioethics Iowa State University email@example.com
“Utilitarians suppose that we can consider all the alternative actions available to us and figure out which one will have the best consequences– which will result in the greatest “balance of pleasures over pains.” But we simply can’t do it: we don’t have a ‘happiness meter’ that we can apply to our actions and choices, and no one knows all the consequences of any action undertaken. The world is simply too uncertain. If one really tried to follow the advice of the Utilitarian, one would be paralyzed with indecision, unable to act at all because of all the unknowns involved.” Argument for Analysis:
“Utilitarians suppose that we can consider all the alternative actions available to us and figure out which one will have the best consequences– which will result in the greatest “balance of pleasures over pains.” But we simply can’t do it: we don’t have a ‘happiness meter’ that we can apply to our actions and choices, and no one knows all the consequences of any action undertaken. The world is simply too uncertain. If one really tried to follow the advice of the Utilitarian, one would be paralyzed with indecision, unable to act at all because of all the unknowns involved.” Interpretation: 1) Utilitarianism requires that we do what will produce the greatest balance of pleasures over pains. 2) We simply can’t know which action will produce the greatest balance of pleasures over pains. 3) We can’t know what actions are recommended by the utilitarian principle. 4) So we can’t follow the principle of utility. Conclusion: Utilitarianism is an unacceptable ethical theory. Argument for Analysis:
“Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine only fit for pigs. Human beings have higher capacities: intellect, nobility, sensitivity to beauty, loyalty and fellow feeling. These capacities are good in themselves, and we recognize them as good qualities of people who possess them whether those people are happy or not. To suppose, as do the Utilitarians, that human beings have no higher goal, no loftier pursuit than pleasure is to put human beings on the level of pigs, of mere beasts.” Argument for Analysis:
“Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine only fit for pigs. Human beings have higher capacities: intellect, nobility, sensitivity to beauty, loyalty and fellow feeling. These capacities are good in themselves, and we recognize them as good qualities of people who possess them whether those people are happy or not. To suppose, as do the Utilitarians, that human beings have no higher goal, no loftier pursuit than pleasure is to put human beings on the level of pigs, of mere beasts.” COMMENTS: (i) This author is trying to persuade you of something– what is it? Is the conclusion that Ut is only for pigs, or… is it rather that Ut is an unacceptable moral theory. (ii) Why does the author regard Ut as unacceptable? Because it fails to account for our and appropriately value our higher capacities– the things that distinguish us from animals.. Argument for Analysis:
“Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine only fit for pigs. Human beings have higher capacities: intellect, nobility, sensitivity to beauty, loyalty and fellow feeling. These capacities are good in themselves, and we recognize them as good qualities of people who possess them whether those people are happy or not. To suppose, as do the Utilitarians, that human beings have no higher goal, no loftier pursuit than pleasure is to put human beings on the level of pigs, of mere beasts.” An interpretation of the argument: P1) Human beings have higher capacities that distinguish us from “mere” animals. P2) Any acceptable moral theory should properly account for the special moral of value these capacities. P3) Utilitarianism values people only for their capacity for pleasure and pain. P4) The capacity for pleasure and pain are not among our higher capacities– they are capacities we share with animals. P5) Utilitarianism does not properly account for the special moral value of our higher human capacities. Conclusion: Utilitarianism is an unacceptable moral theory. COMMENT: This interpretation departs, in important ways, from the words of the passage itself. Is it an appropriate interpretation of the argument the original author had in mind? Can you see the relationship between the interpretation and the original? COMMENT: How would Mill respond to this objection? Argument for Analysis:
Argument for Analysis: “Some things are in our control, and some things are not. It is useless and pointless to worry about things that are not in our control. Therefore, if something is not in our control we should not concern ourselves with it. Death is not in our control: we cannot make ourselves immortal by wishing not to die. Therefore, we should not concern ourselves about death– it is irrelevant to us.” • -Adapted from Epictetus, Encheiridion. (Note: This argument is importantly different from the one offered by Epicurus– the one you are analyzing for your homework assignment. While the two arguments have the same conclusion, that we should not fear death, the reasons offered are quite different.)
Epictetus on Death: An Interpretation of the Argument: P1) Some things are in our control, and some things are not. P2) It is useless and pointless to worry about or concern ourselves with things that are not in our control. P3) Death is not in our control. Conclusion: We should not fear death. (Epictetus argues that we should not even concern ourselves about it). Conclusion: Fear of death is irrational and unnecessary. Comments: Is the second conclusion supported? We haven’t been given an account of what’s rational or what’s necessary. What’s the relation between ‘worry’ and ‘fear?’ What would we need to add to make the argument for the first conclusion deductively valid?)
Utilitarianism Clark Wolf Director of Bioethics Iowa State University firstname.lastname@example.org
Division of Moral Theories: • Consequentialist Theories: The consequences of an action are the only thing that is relevant in determining whether an action is right. (Shorthand: Only consequences matter.) • Non-Consequentialist Theories: Consequences are not the only thing that matters. • What might matter other than consequences? • Virtues? • Principles of right? • Rights? • Are there other morally significant considerations?
Maximizing Consequentialism: • Theory of ‘Right’: An actions is right iff(df) it has optimally good consequences. (‘Optimific’) That is, an act is right if and only if its consequences are at least as good as those associated with any alternative action. • What makes consequences good?
Maximizing Consequentialism: • Theories of the ‘Good’: A theory of the good is a theory about the evaluation of consequences. • Intrinsic Good: Something that is good in itself. • Instrumental Good: Something that is good only because its achievement is instrumental to the achievement of some intrinsic good.
Maximizing Consequentialism: • Hedonism: Only <pleasure,pain> is intrinsically <good,bad>. • Eudaimonism: Only happiness is intrinsically good. But ‘happiness’ is complex, not simply resolvable into pleasure and pain. (Need to say more?) • Pluralism: There are several different things that are intrinsically good. No simple theory is adequate to account for the wide range of things that have intrinsic value.
Utilitarianism: • Consequentialist theory of “right:” Actions are right iff they have optimific consequences. • Evaluation of Outcomes: Consequences are better if they have more happiness and less unhappiness, worse as they have more unhappiness and less happiness. • Question: Is this one principle or two? What if the aim to “maximize happiness” supports different actions than the aim to “minimize unhappiness”? • Equal Consideration of Interests: Everyone’s happiness counts equally.
Jeremy Bentham: “By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question; or what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”
John Stuart Mill: “According to the Greatest Happiness Principle… the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as free as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments.”
Mill on Equal Consideration: “This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, it is necessarily also the standard of morality, which may accordingly be defined, as the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observation of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole of sentient creation.”
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure." Classical Utilitarianism (Mill):
Utilitarianism: The Classical Version • Rachels’ Three Propositions (Really four): 1) Actions are to be judged right or wrong solely by virtue of their consequences. 2) In assessing consequences, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is created. Everything else is irrelevant (from the moral point of view). 3) Each person’s happiness counts the same. 4) Right actions are those that produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness, with each person’s happiness counted as equally important.
What does this mean? • Add up all the happiness produced, subtract out all the unhappiness. The result is the “balance of happiness over unhappiness.” • What if there’s more unhappiness than happiness? Then presumably we minimize unhappiness. • What do we do when we can’t do the figures?
Does this sound weird? • Economists typically assume utilitarianism without much thought or consideration of alternatives. • Utilitarianism has been effective not only as a philosophical movement, but as a social movement: The utilitarians were social reformers who put their views into practice.
Mill: Utilitarianism Mill begins by noting that there is little agreement about the basis of ethics, but that everyone agrees that ethics is important. It’s a bad state of affairs. Only if we know what we’re pursuing can we make sensible ethical choices: • “All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.” (Ch 1 Par 2)
Mill: Utilitarianism Notice the section in which Mill refers to Kant: We’ll come back to it later, after you’ve read some Kant. “I cannot help referring, for illustration, to a systematic treatise by one of the most illustrious of them, the Metaphysics of Ethics, by Kant. This remarkable man, whose system of thought will long remain one of the landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation, does, in the treatise in question, lay down a universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation; it is this: "So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings." But when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.” (Ch 1, Par 4)
Mill: Utilitarianism Defining the Theory: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Ch 2, par 2)
Mill: Utilitarianism The “Doctrine of Swine” Objection: Mill: Some people object that “To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure- no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit- they designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine…” (Ch 2 Par 3)
Mill: Utilitarianism • Mill’s Response to the “Doctrine of Swine” objection: Some pleasures are better than others: Human happiness requires that we pursue happiness that is appropriate for creatures like us, with our unique capacities: “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.” (Ch 2 par 5)
Mill: Utilitarianism Mill on the Value of Higher Pleasures: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Ch 2, Par 7)
Mill: Utilitarianism • Questions about Mill’s Complex Conception of ‘Happiness:’ • 1) Is Mill’s view overly intellectualized? By valuing intellectual pleasures more, does he offer a theory only an intellectual could accept? • 2) Currency Problem: Is Mill’s view consistent? Is it plausible to say that there’s only one currency (pleasure) but that some items of currency have more real value even though they have the same face value?
Mill: Utilitarianism • Objection: Not all “competent judges” seem to go for the higher pleasures. Some people become selfish and lazy when they get older. • Mill’s Response: Our ability to make refined judgments can be killed by misuse: “Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.” (Ch 2, Par 9.)
Mill: Utilitarianism The judgment of those with appropriate experience is the only place we can hope to find a verdict: “From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final.” (Ch 2 par 10)
Mill: Utilitarianism (Start here Tues 14th) Some Objections Mill Considers in Chapter Two: (i) Happiness is an unattainable goal! (ii) Happiness isn’t our right: we don’t deserve to be happy! (Carlyle) (iii) Only by renunciation (Entsagen) can we achieve virtue and nobility.(Carlyle) (iv) Utilitarianism is a “Godless Doctrine.” (Surely not: A good God would desire the happiness of his creatures. And those who are religious often attribute utilitarian motives to God.) (v) Utilitarianism is an immoral doctrine of expediency! (This is just a mis-use of words. Utility doesn’t recommend that people do what’s easiest or convenient.) (vi) There’s not time to weigh the effects of our actions on general happiness.
Mill: Utilitarianism Some Objections Mill Considers in Chapter Two: (i) Happiness is an unattainable goal! (ii) Happiness isn’t our right: we don’t deserve to be happy! (Carlyle) (iii) Only by renunciation (Entsagen) can we achieve virtue and nobility.(Carlyle) (iv) Utilitarianism is a “Godless Doctrine.” (Surely not: A good God would desire the happiness of his creatures. And those who are religious often attribute utilitarian motives to God.) (v) Utilitarianism is an immoral doctrine of expediency! (This is just a mis-use of words. Utility doesn’t recommend that people do what’s easiest or convenient.) (vi) There’s not time to weigh the effects of our actions on general happiness. (We’ll spend time on objections one and six.)
Mill: Utilitarianism Mill on attainable happiness: (Objection i) “Of this the philosophers who have taught that happiness is the end of life were as fully aware as those who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” (Ch 2, Par 14) “Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind - I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties- finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.” (Ch 2, par 15) Mill further insists that there is no reason why happiness should be available only to a lucky few: unhappiness results only from ignorance, poverty imprudence, injustice, and faulty social institutions
Mill: Utilitarianism • On Utilitarianism as a “Godless Doctrine:” Mill responds that (i) a benevolent God would take a utilitarian perspective on the happiness of His creatures, and (ii) Utilitarians can claim the Golden Rule: • “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” (Ch 2 par 21) • “As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes; so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being's sentient existence.” (Ch 2 par 21)
Utilitarianism: Act v. Rule • Act Utilitarianism: The principle of utility should be used to choose individual actions. • Rule Utilitarianism: Right actions are those that would have the best consequences if they were followed by everyone.
Utilitarianism: Act v. Rule • Example: Why not lie? • Act Utilitarian: This lie will have bad consequences. • Rule Utilitarian: If everyone lied, it would be much worse. • Example: Why not slice up one patient to save five? • Act Utilitarian: If it would have the best consequences, you should do it. • Rule Utilitarian: The consequences would be better if everyone followed the rule “don’t kill others.”
Mill: Utilitarianism • Objection vi: There’s not time to weigh the effects of our actions on general happiness. Mill: “The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand.” (Ch 2, Par 28)
Mill: Utilitarianism “Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions of wise and foolish. And this, as long as foresight is a human quality, it is to be presumed they will continue to do. Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life, is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy.” (Ch 2 par 30) • Question: Does this make Mill a “Rule Utilitarian?”
Mill: Utilitarianism • Mill turns out to be an Act Utilitarian: “We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved; and if only one, there can seldom be any real doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognized.” (Ch 2, par 31)
Evaluating Utilitarianism:Are Consequences All that Matter? • Justice:What if we must frame an innocent person in order to stop a riotous mob? (p.105) (Anyone else find the example on p. 105 disturbing?) • Rights: Think back to the “surgeon’s dilemma” case discussed early in the term. One plausible moral we discussed was that people have rights that would be violated. • Backward-Looking Reasons: Promises, deservingness, gratitude, rectification of past wrongs… These are clearly moral considerations, but thoroughgoing utilitarians will regard them as irrelevant from the moral point of view.
The Charge that Utilitarianism is Too Demanding: Peter Singer’s argument: (To be discussed later in this class.) 1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. 2) Principle: Two versions. Version i) If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. Version ii) If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of moral significance, we ought, morally to do it. Ex: If I'm walking past a shallow pond, and I see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. COST: Muddy Clothing. BENEFIT: Child's Life Singer's Claim: Whenever we spend on ourselves or our loved ones money we could use to address the more pressing moral issue of absolute poverty, we are violating a moral principle that we rationally/reasonably accept. What is the relationship between this argument and utilitarianism? Should we conclude that utilitarianism is too demanding, or rather that we are reluctant to do what we have an obligation to do?
Is Utilitarianism Too Demanding? Personal Relationships: (The “Near and Dear” Objection to Utilitarianism.) Surely it is permissible, and perhaps even morally required that we sometimes give preference to those who are near to us.
The Defense of Utilitarianism • The First Line of Defense: Fanciful Examples Don’t Matter: “You can’t test a theory by imagining what it implies in unreasonable and fanciful circumstances. In the real world, acts commonly regarded as morally wrong really do have bad consequences.” • Rachels: The response “contains more bluster than substance.” The real world contains some real counterexamples to the claim.
The Defense of Utilitarianism • The Second Line of Defense: Utility is a Guide for Choosing Rules, not Acts: • Rule Utilitarianism: Actions are right iff they are consistent with rules which, if followed by everyone, would lead to the best consequences. • Brandt: ‘Morally wrong’ means an action that “would be prohibited by any moral code which all fully rational persons would tend to support, in preference to all others or to none at all, for the society of the agent, if they expected to spend a lifetime in that society. • Question: Is there a single moral code that all fully rational persons would support in preference to all others or to none? Or might there be a broader set of rationally acceptable codes, different but individually sufficient? • Rachels is more sanguine about rule utilitarianism: The theory “cannot be conviced of violating our moral common-sense. In shifting emphasis from the justification of acts to the justification of rules, the theory has been brought into line with our intuitive judgments to a remarkable degree.
Is Rule Utilitarianism Self-Defeating? It is sometimes argued that rule utilitarianism is ‘self-defeating,’ since commitment to the rule will break down whenever the rules come in conflict with the principle of utility. “Consider the rule that instructs us to keep our promises. If I am reasonably sure that breaking this promise would have better consequences, then (the objection goes) as a good utilitarian I should break it. But then the rules are doing no work: any time they come in conflict with the underlying principle of utility they are to be abandoned! So rule utilitarianism ‘breaks down’ into act utilitarianism.” Is this argument persuasive? How might a rule-utilitarian respond?
The Defense of Utilitarianism • Third Line of Defense: Common Sense Cannot be Trusted: • J.C.C. Smart “Bites the Bullet”: So much the worse for Common Sense. “Admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view ‘so much the worse for the common moral consciousness.’ That is, I was inclined to reject the common methodology of testing general ethical principles by seeing how they square with our feelings in particular instances.” • Upshot: Believe it if you can.
Next: Does the end justify the means? Are there some things that are always wrong, regardless of the consequences? • Nonconsequentialist Theories: Consequences are not all that matter from the moral point of view. • Deontological Ethics: Some duties or obligations are absolute and unconditional.
Next: Does the end justify the means? Are there some things that are always wrong, regardless of the consequences? • Torture? • Arbitrary imprisonment? • Unprovoked attacks? • Curtailing of fundamental rights? • Slavery and oppression? • Exploitation of others? • Lies and deceit? • Others…?
Kant: • Categorical Imperative: Act only such that you could will the maxim on which you act as a universal law.