Tuesday, 7/21

Utilitarianism II







Given the CoViD-19 break we took, I began today by reviewing our discussion of Utilitarianism. We discussed how the utilitarian can respond to arguments that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good simply by changing how the utility of an action is measured. That is, the utilitarian can avail herself of:

  • Hedonism: Pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, simpliciter;
  • Qualified Hedonism: Pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, but there is a distinction between higher pleasures and base pleasures--Mill's position as it happens;
  • Idealism: Intrinsic goods are many and can collectively understood in terms of best interests; and,
  • Preferentialism: Without knowing the aims of others, measure utility instead in terms of the extent to which preferences are satisfied.

Thus Classical Utilitarianism's (CU) assumption that happiness is the sole intrinsic good (eudaimonism) may be problematic, since it can be argued that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good. Indeed, it would seem that such things as honor and friendship are also intrinsic goods given our arguments. As outlined above, responding to this objection often consists of changing the measure of utility. If happiness is not the sole intrinsic good, then we reject happiness as the measure of utility, with some of the possible alternatives as above. The upshot is that by changing how they measure utility, the utilitarian is able to meet the criticism that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good by developing what amount to alternative utilitarian ethical theories to CU. Utilitarianism thus shows us that the idea of utility is rich indeed.

The very notion that consequences are all that matters for morality may, however, pose problems the utilitarian, who cannot give up consequentialism without abandoning utilitarianism altogether, cannot escape.

That is, CU assumes that consequences are all that can be used to determine the morality of an action. Yet this is problematic because it gives rise to the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments we described before we took a couple of days off. Note that the utilitarian response cannot be to jettison consequentialism, since that would be to give up on the very idea of UET.

It is important to understand the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments so as to appreciate the utilitarian response. Specifically, we found that the utilitarian responds to these arguments by changing from an act-evaluative theory to a rule-evaluative theory. Thus, instead of calculating the utility of alternative actions, we calculate the utility of all actions done according to a specified rule. That is, instead of considering the consequences of a particular action, the rule-utilitarian looks instead at the consequences which accrue from consistently acting according to a particular rule or policy.

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. To see what I mean, 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.

To help improve our grasp of the differences between each of the various utilitarian ethical theories, we discussed several cases. With regard to applying Rule utilitarianism, we discussed the consequences of adopting a law as described in the case, Smokin Ride. Arising from that discussion, of course, are broader worries about legislative over-reach--that is, well-intentioned laws designed to maximize utility but which incur disutility by dint of unintended or unforeseen consequences. To exemplify that discussion we considered the closely analogous case, Obesity as Child-Abuse.

Turning from rule-utilitarian to act-utilitarian considerations so as to better focus on the enormous impact different ways of measuring utility have on overall considerations of alternative actions, we took up the case Adolescent Breast Augmentation. Although time did not permit a full discussion, I also pointed to the case Body Dysmorphic Disorder as analogous to it, yet with much more at stake in utilitarian terms.

Also today, I assigned and we read and discussed the third of your Case Studies. In general, utilitarian arguments (whether rule or act) tend to be lengthy, complicated, and are often helped with further background research to understand the kinds of consequences involved. To be sure, this is a difficult and disturbing case. Tomorrow we take up an extremely important alternative to utilitarianism which starts with a rather fundamental critique of the entire approach utilitarians embrace.