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Smart an outline of a system of utilitarian ethics

Smart: An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics

“…act utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e., on the effect of the action on the welfare of all human beings (or perhaps all sentient beings).” Smart and Williams, p. 4

Discuss together
Discuss together

  • (1) Formulate a statement explaining act-utilitarianism in your own words (see p. 4)

  • (2) What does act-u tell you to do when faced with a moral situation? What are you supposed to think about? How do you decide?

  • (3) Is this a type of reasoning you’ve used before?

  • (4) What’s the difference between hedonistic and ideal u? (p. 12-14)

  • (5) Does pleasure adequately describe happiness? Is the happy life the life with the most pleasure?

Prominent utiltiarians
Prominent Utiltiarians

  • Jeremy Bentham: Principles of Morals and Legislation 1781.

  • John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism 1863.

  • Henry Sidgwick: The Methods of Ethics 1907.

  • RM Hare The Language of Morals 1952.

Normative ethics v meta ethics
Normative Ethics v. Meta Ethics

  • Normative ethics considers questions like: What should we do? What makes an action right? What makes an action wrong?

  • Meta-ethics: [Meta=above] considers whether we can have knowledge of moral statements. Is morality like other spheres of knowledge and can it be true and false?

Cognitivism v non cognitivism
Cognitivism v. Non-cognitivism

  • Non-c makes “our ultimate ethical principles depend on our ultimate attitudes and preferences…” (p. 3)

  • Non-cognitivism=the view that moral statements are not statements that are candidates as judgments of fact. Emotivism says that they are statements of the speaker’s attitudes or emotions. (So, as Smart says, they are like “Boo!” or “Hooray.”)

  • Ethics depends on us.

Act utilitarianism

  • “The rightness or wrongness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e., on the effect of the action on the welfare of all human beings/[sentient beings]…” p. 4

Advantages to utilitarianism
Advantages to utilitarianism

(These issues are important later on.)

  • Utilitarianism doesn’t depend on metaphysical presuppositions such as natural law, etc. Good or bad consequences are empirical/factual.

  • If we don’t let consequences determine our choice (e.g., if we let duty or principle determine it as in deontological theories) we may have a situation where human welfare suffers, people are miserable, etc. This opens the deontologist to “the charge of heartlessness in preferring abstract conformity to a rule to the prevention of human suffering.” (p. 6)

What motivates us to act morally
What motivates us to act morally?

  • Another crucial foundational question in ethics is: What is a moral motivation? What motivates a moral reason?

  • Smart’s answer is: General benevolence, i.e., a general (impartial) desire for everyone’s welfare.

  • Our moral motivation arises out of the moral sentiments, “the disposition to seek happiness, or at any rate, in some sense or other, good consequences for all mankind, or perhaps for all sentient beings…” (p. 7)

  • The maxims of u. are “expressions of our ultimate attitudes or feelings.”

Act v rule utilitarianism
Act v. rule utilitarianism

  • Rules seem important to moral action.

  • Rule-u “is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the goodness and badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform in like circumstances.” Which rules lead to the best consequences?

  • Act-u: Concern oneself only with the consequences of discrete actions.

  • Actual v. possible rule.

  • Kant modification: “Act only on that maxim which you as a humane and benevolent person would like to be established as a universal law.”

Smart s problem with rule u
Smart’s problem with rule-u

  • What if following the rule leads to significantly bad consequences?

  • Smart: Then requiring people to follow it even though it was not beneficial would be ‘rule-worship.’

  • By this he means: You’d follow the rule in that particular case because it is a rule, not because it is better to follow the rule. The rule would trump human well-being.

Hedonistic v non hedonistic
Hedonistic v. Non-hedonistic

  • Hedonism regards happiness as pleasure. Bentham was a hedonist.

  • Hedonistic u=The happy life is the one with the most pleasure. Happiness=pleasure

  • What objections might someone make to this?

  • Do you see an advantages to this?

  • Ideal-u (Moore)=There are some intrinsic goods. Some states of mind (acquiring knowledge) have value independent of their pleasantness.

Js mill
JS Mill

  • Smart calls Mill a ‘quasi-ideal’ utilitarian.

  • Mill: Socrates dissatisfied is better than a fool satisfied.

  • Bentham: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.”

  • Mill says ‘higher pleasures’ (e.g., intellectual activity) have a greater quality of pleasure than lower pleasures (e.g., bodily pleasures).

  • Smart (p. 15) B. would agree that maybe being a philosopher is better but his preference is extrinsic.

  • 2 brothers: The brother who pushes for scientific success does something extrinsically valuable that the brother who “enjoys himself hugely” sunbathing, etc.

So what does this mean for hedonistic v non hedonistic u
So what does this mean for hedonistic v. non-hedonistic u?

  • We are not talking about contentment like a contented sheep. “Pleasure is a balance between absence of unsatisfied desires and presence of satisfied desires.” (16)

  • Thus, we’re likely to be creatures that like to do “complex and intellectual things.” It might not make such a large difference whether we are hedonists or quasi-ideal utilitariansf or this reason.

Objection the electrode operator
Objection: The Electrode Operator

  • If happiness is a matter of pleasure, what if there were an electrode machine that you could hook yourself up to and receive maximum pleasure. [Or a Total Recall machine that would make you think you were doing something important.]

  • Would such a person live a happy life?

  • Smart: Prospectively, we wouldn’t like this. But during the experience, we would be fine.

  • ‘Happy’ is partly evaluative. Ryle: To be enjoying oneself, you want to do what you’re doing and not do anything else.

  • Smart dodges the question of whether the person is *really* happy because he thinks it does not make a practical difference.

  • Long term, overindulgence if sensual pleasures often brings unhappiness—the full out hedonist admits this.

Objection the happy sadist
Objection: The Happy Sadist.

  • Are there any pleasurable states of mind that have negative intrinsic value? Suppose “there is a universe consisting of one sentient being only, who false believes that there are other sentient beings and that they are undergoing exquisite torment” and this gives him “great delight.” (25)

  • Is this better or worse than a universe with no beings at all? Smart: The universe with the deluded sadist is a better one. He is happy.

    Smart: The reason we don’t like this is because sadists normally cause pain and pain is bad. But there are no intrinsically bad pleasures.

Average happiness v total happiness
Average Happiness v. Total Happiness

Average v. Total Happiness doesn’t make a practical difference, according to Smart.

He argues total is preferable: Suppose you had two universes, each of equal average happiness but universe B had higher total happiness than A because it had 2 million inhabitants and A had 1 million. Smart says B is preferable to A with a higher total.

Negative utilitarianism popper
Negative Utilitarianism (Popper)

  • A negative utilitarian would minimize suffering rather than maximize happiness.

  • What sort of issues might this raise?

    What’s the best way to minimize suffering?

Rightness and wrongness of action
Rightness and wrongness of action

  • The right for the utilitarian is defined in terms of the good.

  • Each counts as one and no more than one. This includes oneself. [A principle of impartiality.]

  • We compare total outcomes of each action.

  • We consider long term consequences.

  • We cannot assign perfect numerical values to probabilities. We don’t need to worry about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. But we do this type of prediction with our ordinary decisions all the time. We have to do it to plan out our lives.

  • However, he does worry about the lack of objective probabilities in decision making.

Equity distributive objections
Equity/Distributive Objections

  • In Smart these issues are minimized.

  • 4 boys: Send one to Eton and 3 to mediocre public school? Or send all to public school?

  • Smart says these cases are rare and there are also diminishing marginal returns (i.e., there is a topping out of happiness.)

  • The distributive issue has 2 complicating factors: One is about justice. Suppose we could benefit 1,000 massively by oppressing 15. Should we.

Separateness of persons objection
Separateness of persons objection

  • 2nd complicating factor is the separateness of persons (from Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.)

  • The utilitarian doesn’t care who gets what. So I can prevent my toothache pain by going to the dentist pain. But what if Jones’ going to the dentist prevented my pain? Etc.

    The distribution of pains/pleasures in a group doesn’t account for the fact there are different people.

    Smart says there are reasons for accepting fairness as a ‘rule of thumb.’ [Meaning: A rule that one can break that we should generally follow because it usually leads to good consequences.]

Rule utilitarianism v rules in act u
Rule utilitarianism v. rules in act-u

  • A basic rule utilitarian theory says to act on that rule that promotes the best consequences were everyone to act on the same rule. Rule-u avoids some of the justice-based objections of act-u.

  • Rules are important to moral reasoning

  • (1) We don’t always have time to deliberate. E.g., if someone is drowning. (p. 43)

  • (2) We make mistakes.

  • (3) We need rules for moral education.

  • (4) They aid in the development of social trust.

Praise and blame
Praise and Blame

  • ‘Rational’ commends an action for being the thing likely to produce the best consequences.

  • ‘Right’ for being the thing that does in fact produce the best consequences.

  • So do we only praise and blame those acts that produce the best consequences?

  • Smart says ‘no.’ If someone jumped in the river and saved Hitler, we should still praise him because the point of praise is to get people to emulate actions that are likely to produce good consequences. (p. 49)

  • You ask ‘who is it useful to blame’? P. 54 [Prior poem]


  • A ‘good’ agent usually does what is optimific and a good motive is the motive that usually results in good consequences. [Right and wrong are about actual consequences. Good and bad acts describe likely consequences.]

  • However, it might not make sense for everyone to think like a utilitarian.

  • Sidgwick: “doctrine that Universal Happiness is the ultimate standard must not be understood to imply that Universal Benevolence is…always the best motiveof action…general happiness will be more satisfactorily attained if men frequently act from other motives than pure universal philanthropy.” (p. 51)

  • Are there any problems with your motives not being your standard?

Prior s objection
Prior’s objection

  • “But wouldn’t a man go mad if he really tried to take the whole responsibility of everything upon himself in this way?” (p. 54)

  • Smart: Wrongness =/ blameworthiness.

  • We can relax (p. 55) because we must to do good works tomorrow. Relaxing will help us be better utilitarians.

Time sensitive considerations
Time-sensitive considerations

  • Some moral considerations are backward-looking, such as promise keeping.

  • E.g., suppose I am on a desert island with a man and he tells me where his hoard of gold is and says to give it to the S. Australian Jockey Club. But I give it to a hospital. (p. 62)

  • What does the utilitarian say to do?

  • Did I do something wrong if I follow the utilitarian principle?

Are rules a safeguard u and the future
Are rules a safeguard (u and the future)

The deontological objection: “it is my doctrine which is the humane one…it is these very rules which you regard as so cold and inhuman which safeguard mankind from the most awful atrocities…In the interests of future generations are we to allow millions to starve…” etc. (62) The objector points out the “consequentialist mentality” “at the root of vast injustices…today.” (63)

Smart suggests if we were really sure we’d save hundreds of millions in the future, it would be the right thing to do to let tens of millions die now.

But the utopian dictators, etc. aren’t right about the future.

The further future is not well known to us
The further future is not well known to us

  • Technological transformation affects what’s going to happen. E.g., positive eugenics. Suppose we could transform human beings into some super creature without causing harm.

  • [He suggests it would be a new species.]

  • Whether utilitarianism is a trans-species morality is relevant. I.e., if the good is happiness it is the happiness for any species capable of experiencing happiness.

Utilitarianism and common moral consciousness
Utilitarianism and common moral consciousness

  • Smart’s reply to the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with “So much the worse for common moral consciousness.” (68)

  • Most objections take the form of: ‘U says X in case Y but our moral intuitions/psychology/common moral consciousness reject doing X in case Y.’

  • The famous example is of a surgeon who cuts up one patient to save 5. (U-s reject that as a real consequence of U but the objection takes that form.]

  • Does a moral theory have to fit with our intuitions/current practice/shared views, etc.?

Mccloskey the case of the scapegoat
McCloskey: The Case of the Scapegoat

  • The sheriff of a small town can prevent a serious riot that will cause the deaths of many people by framing an innocent man for the crime.

  • The act-utilitarian says to frame him.

  • Smart: Says this is a difficult case. Also, there is a lot of disutility because of what kind of person the sheriff would become. And there is a risk of being found out.

  • However, Smart has to bite the bullet if enough suffering is caused by failing to hang the man. Justice can’t be of moral concern independently of happiness. So is this case devastating for the act-utilitarian?