Tuesday 7/23

Utilitarian Case Analysis




Applying a Utilitarian Ethical Theory like Ideal Act Utilitarianism or Ideal Rule Utilitarianism (for example) to determine the morality of an action is non-trivial, as we discovered today when broke out into groups to consider the cases Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Adolescent Breast Augmentation, and Obesity as Child-Abuse. To further flesh out the distinction, read the following two applications I wrote as examples.

What one discovers in considering these and other applications of utilitarian theories is that:

  • It is generally much harder to apply a theory than one might imagine; theories are not 'moral calculators' or 'black boxes' that spit out a judgment about an action given sufficient input;
  • Rule-utilitarian theories diverge significantly from act-utilitarian theories in terms of how they are applied. In applying act-utilitarian theories, we compare the utility of an action with the utility of each of its alternatives. In applying rule-utilitarian theories, we compare the total utility of a world as much like this world as possible, except that the rule in question is operative in the world, with the total utility of this, the actual world; and,
  • Different measures of utility--e.g., happiness, pleasure, best interests, or preferences--often result in very different implications for action.

Although it may be challenging to apply these various theories without straying from their basic assumptions, it helps considerably that utilitarian analysis is not alien to us: We do it all the time, we just haven't (until now) thought about it in these terms, or made the sorts of distinctions we must on careful investigation.