Why We Must All Be Philosophers: Ethical Education and A Poetics of Freedom  – EuropeNow

1. Definitions


Utilitarianism wins outright part 1 - by Bentham's bulldog

Let’s start by defining some terms. First, we ought to distinguish between what is positive and what is normative. A positive claim states what is, whereas a normative one states what ought to be. Through Hume’s famous guillotine, we cannot derive one from the other. Then it follows, if one were to act morally, what should one do?

Now, we move into the moral landscape. Let us begin with utilitarianism, a form of consequentialist moral theory. One may wonder what is a consequentialist moral theory, to put it simply it is an ethical position that derives normative claims from the expected consequences an action produces. Thus we move to the most famous form of consequentialism, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states at its most basic level that we should act in such a way that maximizes either total or average utility. What is utility? We have two competing definitions, utility based on pleasure, i.e. happiness minus suffering, and utility based on preferences. The first form of utilitarianism, known as classical utilitarianism as founded by Jeremy Bentham, is based on the former, and the second kind, known as preference utilitarianism coined by R.M. Hare, is based on the latter. In addition, utilitarianism may be categorized under two means of doing moral acts, act utilitarianism, based on the specific scenario, and rule utilitarianism, based on a given rule that maximizes utility. Thus we find at least 8 different forms of utilitarian moral theory (not to mention negative utilitarianism, which would up the count to 12).

Utilitarianism can be distinguished from two other moral theories, deontology and virtue ethics, which to misleadingly summarize, may be viewed as a moral theory based on rules and virtues respectively. For the sake of this essay, I will assume the reader must subscribe to any of the three moral theories and will be using total rather than average or negative utilitarianism, varying between rule and act and classical and preference-based as I see fit.

2. Counterexamples


a. Let’s say you’re a doctor looking after 5 ill patients, desperately in need of different organs, but without any hope of receiving said organs. Miraculously, you have another patient walk in, who is a perfect match for all 5 patients who need organs.

b. Suppose you’re a sheriff and the only way to prevent a riot that kills hundreds of people is to frame an innocent person.

Assuming all human beings hold equal utility, act utilitarianism dictates that in both scenarios one ought to use another human as a mere means to an end, a strict violation of Kantian deontology and moral intuition.

However, the clear rule utilitarian logic of such criticisms is "We should not allow (behavior X) in general, because if (behavior X) is normalized in society, everyone will be worse off."

For example:

a. We shouldn't harvest organs from hospital patients, because then no one will want to go to the hospital or see doctors, and everyone will be sicker.

b. We shouldn't want law enforcement to frame innocent people for crimes, because I and other innocent people don't want to have to live in fear of being framed all the time.

To add to the previous sentence, do people play the same games with deontology?

"You say the end doesn't justify the means, so if an asteroid was about to destroy the earth and the only way to get to the controls of the asteroid defense system was to punch a kid in the face, you'd let the world burn?"

What about virtue ethics?

"Lying is bad. Even if an axe murderer came to your house and asked where your friend was to kill them, you ought, to tell the truth."

As a side note, if one wants to see how a deontologist and a virtue ethicist would respond to the proposed scenarios, see Kant's categorical imperative and Aristotle's golden mean.

If one were to defend typical act utilitarian outcomes, biting the bullet may still produce better outcomes, after all, there exists no axiom that states one ought to act by their moral intuition than what a rigorous ethical theory justifies.

3. On Arguments from Hypocrisy and Conscience


Princeton philosopher Peter Singer encourages 'effective altruism' at Penn  | The Daily Pennsylvanian


We shall define the arguments from hypocrisy and conscience as arguments against utilitarianism because a supposed utilitarian does not adhere to strict consequentialist reasoning nor force it upon others respectively.

If someone were to bring up the argument against utilitarianism from hypocrisy, one may, as Scott Sumner did, point out the difference in the substance of an ethical theory (“what makes an action ethical”) and the demand for ethical behavior (“how adherent one should be to those ethics”).

If one were to bring up the argument against utilitarianism from conscience, one may point out that the classical utilitarian view is the one where happiness is maximized, after everything, including people’s natural selfishness, is considered.

Contra contra contra Bryan Caplan (an economist who makes these arguments), ethical systems, e.g. utilitarianism, can be used just as a tool for guiding policy rather than also guiding individual behavior, e.g. one can agree governments should follow the max-sum rule and adhere to virtue ethics in their daily life.

4. On Moral Obligation


Famine, Affluence and Morality / Peter Singer by nadav rubinstein on Prezi  Next


Utilitarianism does not necessarily imply moral obligation. It may be simply summarized as a rule to maximize social welfare, also known as the max-sum rule. When considering total social welfare one must also consider the innate selfishness of others.

Indeed, Christian and Kantian ethics are both “morally demanding” but that does not make their arguments any weaker. Utilitarianism simply as a goal for governments and legislative bodies to have is less morally demanding than even virtue ethics, let alone other ethical theories.

Even if it were demanding, just because Peter Singer buys a coffee doesn’t make utilitarianism incorrect, it means Peter Singer is incorrect in his moral actions.

5. On Utilitarianism’s Biggest Critiques


Robert Nozick and the Strongest Argument for Property Rights | Merion West

Parfit Bio - SJ BEARD

We shall face utilitarianism’s most famous critiques:

The Repugnant Conclusion by Derek Parfit

The Experience Machine by Robert Nozick

Here are my counterarguments:

The repugnant conclusion relies on moral intuition, which does not necessarily dictate what one ought to do. For a long time, allowance of homosexual acts violated moral intuition, however, is now often considered morally permissible.

There are two famous objections to Nozick’s criticism, the first by Joshua Greene who says “You wake up in a plain white room. You are seated in a reclining chair with a steel contraption on your head. A woman in a white coat is standing over you. 'The year is 2659,' she explains, 'The life with which you are familiar is an experience machine program selected by you some forty years ago. We at IEM interrupt our client's programs at ten-year intervals to ensure client satisfaction. Our records indicate that at your three previous interruptions, you deemed your program satisfactory and chose to continue. As before, if you choose to continue with your program you will return to your life as you know it with no recollection of this interruption. Your friends, loved ones, and projects will all be there. Of course, you may choose to terminate your program at this point if you are unsatisfied for any reason. Do you intend to continue with your program?”. If one intends to continue with the program in Greene’s example but does not enter the machine under Nozick’s example, then Green says one is facing status-quo bias. The second criticism is simple, the choice to not enter the machine does not conflict with preference utilitarianism.

6. Conclusion

Indeed utilitarianism as a moral theory can differ from our intuitions, but so do other famous moral theories. Kantian ethics states one ought to avoid exploitation even if it would benefit the lives of millions and virtue ethics may put greater emphasis on character rather than action. Thus I end with my utilitarian philosophy based on preference rather than pleasure.

Preference utilitarianism as a theory can be summarized neatly:

1. Assuming there exists a social planner, if everyone prefers A to B, then the social planner prefers A to B. (Positive)

2. If everyone except Bob were indifferent between A and B, whereas Bob prefers A to B, then the social planner prefers A to B. (P)

3. Assuming all were VNM-rational, the special planner's utility function would equal the sum of all utility functions. (P)

4. Moral affairs ought to be dictated by the social planner's preferences. (Normative)

5. Thus ethics should be dictated by what maximizes the sum of all social welfare. (N)

Considering that we see this form of utilitarianism in democracy and group settings it does not violate our intuition, in fact, this form of util. squares in neatly with moral intuition without sacrificing complexity. However, the acts utilitarianism justifies may be considered unintuitive in their morality. But utilitarianism is complicated because morality is complicated, whether based on eudaimonia or the maxims of one’s actions becoming universal laws. And to that, we ought to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.

Utilitarianism | Jeremy bentham, Pesquisa de imagens, Filosofia

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:14 AM

This is pretty superficial, and devotees no thought to other objections. Primarily, is utility calculable by any actual agent? Secondarily, why give equal weight to individual utility functions?


Is the utility of different agents comparable at all?

Also how do you distinguish between intentional acts and accidents? Or do you not need to?