Friday, April 13, 2007

Some Notes on Utilitarianism

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

-- Anne Frank


1. What is it?

2. Why would anyone think it’s true?

3. What are the arguments against it?

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that provides answers to certain questions, such as:

What makes right actions right (or what makes morally permissible actions morally permissible?) and what makes wrong actions wrong? What are the right and wrong-making features or characteristics of actions that make them right or wrong?

What is the fundamental difference between a morally permissible action and a morally impermissible action?

What rule(s) must our actions conform to if they are to be morally permissible?

Utilitarianism is designed to give a fully general answer to these questions: the answer is supposed to apply for all actions.

One possible way to reason towards utilitarianism (or any moral theory):

Think about what seem to be clear cases of right and wrong actions, develop a hypothesis about what makes them right and work with that to develop it into a more precise theory.

E.g. Our vivid examples from the beginning of class:

One the basis of these examples, come to think this:

a. pleasure / pain = bad , happiness / unhappiness = good

b. less pain is better than more, more pleasure is better than less, the most pleasure/happiness and least pain/unhappiness is best; consequences where pleasure is produced and pain lessened are better than others;

c. you should bring about the best consequences you can, i.e., produce the most pleasure / happiness and minimize pains / unhappiness that you can.


[Utilitarianism is the view that] we should always do whatever will produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness for everyone who will be affected by our action. (RTD 11)

Another statement of the theory:

Utilitarianism is the view that an action “A” is morally permissible for a person if, and only if, of all the alternative actions available to the person at the time, action “A” produces the greatest overall net happiness; if it does not produce the greatest overall net happiness then it is wrong.

“net” happiness = total “amount” of happiness – total “amount” of unhappiness caused by the action

The theory is about improving the world: very concrete.

Not just following “the rules,” whatever their consequences.

If following some rule has good consequence, follow it. If there’s a time it doesn’t, break it!

So, no “absolute” moral rules, except for the rule “Do what will produce the most happiness!”

Lying, stealing, killing, breaking promises …. Only “rules of thumb.”

A rather “progressive” theory: it’s been appealed to in condemning:

  • “Old style” Prisons and punishment (where there was no concern with rehabilitation), child labor, the oppression of women (On the Subjugation of Women), racism
  • Why is this? Because everyone’s pleasures, if similar pleasures, are equally good, and everyone’s comparable pains are equally bad. Pleasure is good for men, women, blacks, whites, etc. and plain is bad for everyone also, regardless of sex, race, class, etc.
  • This is true of species also: Bentham: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Utilitarians oppose anything that causes pain and suffering for little or no comparable happiness or pleasures (next issues: euthanasia). It requires that we do what produces the greatest overall happiness.

Some objections to utilitarianism:

1. Pleasure and pain, narrowly and simply construed, are not the only things that are bad and ; happiness and pleasure, narrowly and simply construed, are not the only things that are good.

Rachels’ examples. The cheered up pianist; your are happy yet your “friends” are not really your friends!

Utilitarians have generally responded by broadening their view about what’s good and bad.

New view: you should produce the greatest net good you can.

2. Objections that utilitarianism either permits or requires injustice:

The organ transplant case.

The case of “Racially motivated injustice”: EMP p. 103

1. If utilitarianism is true, then the sheriff should do the action that produces the best consequences, i.e., produces the greatest net happiness. (True)

2. If the sheriff should do the action that produces the best consequences, i.e., produces the greatest net happiness, then the sheriff should lynch the innocent man. (True? Or False?))

3. But the sheriff should not lynch the man. (True? Or False?)

4. So, it’s not true that the sheriff should do the action that produces the best consequences, i.e., produces the greatest net happiness.

5. So utilitarianism is not true.

[These objections take the same logical form as the others:

If utilitarianism is true, then X is morally right, but X is not morally right, so util is not true.]

  • An objection that utilitarianism either permits or requires rights violations: (EMP p. 104)
  • An objection that utilitarianism is “too demanding”
  • An objection that utilitarianism requires us to not give preference to friends and family.

Other cases: Williams “integrity” objections; Nozick’s “experience machine”. Both from RTD.

How utilitarians generally respond:

  • deny that these would be indeed be best consequences,
  • “bite the bullet” and argue that “common sense is wrong.

No comments: