I want to take issue with some remarks made by Russell Blackford in the context of a review of Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life. I believe that he misunderstands the utilitarian project. He writes, for example:

Once we question the burden of utilitarianism, any attempt to justify it becomes circular.

It is true that utilitarianism has no a priori foundation; this is true of all moral systems. I share his resistance to Singer’s suggestion that we avail ourselves of “the point of view of the universe”. It’s close to obvious that the cosmic point of view is tout ça m’est égal — nothing we humans do can make much difference to the sum total of everything existing.

But this does not mean that every argument for utilitarianism is circular, only that, as Wittgenstein said, every explanation comes to an end somewhere. The idea that there could be an objective justification for any moral system is a myth. Religious apologists tell us that they have such a system; in their case, the claim is risible, but the idea of such a possibility has caught on. We need to discard it. There is no a priori basis for any ethical system; that’s not how life works. But it doesn’t have to be a priori to be convincing, practical, or beneficial.

The justification for utilitarianism is utilitarian. But this is not a circular argument. It starts with the factual observation that we are conscious beings with desires and aversions. One can imagine a universe in which this were not true, so it is not true a priori; still, for us humans on this planet it does happen to be true. Call it contingent if you wish, but in this world it is a fact. Now, the observation of this fact is easiest in the first person, but one sees routinely, indeed one cannot help seeing, that it is true for everyone else as well. I am clearly a conscious being with desires and aversions, and just as clearly I am surrounded by similarly configured beings. This means that everyone in the world divides experiences and situations into preferred and rejected; sought and avoided; enjoyed and detested. Everyone in the world can sincerely say, “From my point of view, temporarily putting aside everyone else, I prefer a world in which A, B and C happen, and not-A, not-B and not-C do not.” This means that it is at least conceivable that there exist (potentially) worlds in which everyone on Earth is happy, is satisfied, has no reason to complain.

OK, right away, several hands go up. And, yes, dozens of philosophers have devised hundreds of clever cases, designed to show either that the utilitarian proposal is incoherent, or that it would not have the positive results that are claimed for it. What if, for example, some people are only happy if their neighbors are suffering (sadists) — or when they themselves are suffering (masochists)? Such hypotheticals miss the point. Any system is going to have gray areas, edge cases and outliers. Such problems are not special to utilitarianism. Let’s stick to the basics for a bit.

What is the utilitarian principle? What does it tell us to do? It says that when deciding on a course of action, it is best to take account of your actions’ probable effects on all the sentient beings around you, and to choose those actions which will maximize (to whatever extent this is possible) the satisfaction of the preferences of those beings. Why is this the “best” thing to do? Because it maximizes utility. Do we know that maximizing utility is a good idea? Not “objectively”, but not a single person whose utility is getting maximized is likely to object! And if everyone who is affected is in favor, isn’t that pretty much all the approval one could ever need?

Here is what I take to be a second misconception. In the same piece, Blackford writes:

Utilitarianism’s burden would destroy our freedom to live our own lives, turning us, in effect, into slaves of the general utility of all others. … Utilitarianism requires us to treat ourselves and other individuals as mere instruments in the greater cause of maximising general utility, which is incompatible with having loving relationships where we care for other individuals for their own sake. … A utilitarian must suppress the dispositions to show love or loyalty, or friendship or tenderness, if ever she believes they are detracting from her goal of maximising general utility.

It seems to me that this description ignores the symmetry of the utilitarian ideal. I am no more a slave to others’ utility than I am to my own. Besides, how on Earth would maximizing general utility be incompatible with having loving relationships? There’s a heck of a lot of utility in loving relationships. Under what conditions would there be a genuine conflict between my loving someone and my being kind to others? That sounds like a very special situation, which means that the considerations mentioned earlier apply. First, there will always be puzzling cases, and second, all systems will have them, not only utilitarianism. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet describes a world in which to help one person is inevitably to harm another. And the playwright’s explicit moral is: that world is far from optimal.

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

Arguing that utilitarianism is wrong-headed strikes me as perverse — like insisting that “aim for the best result possible” is not known with certainty to be good advice. What the heck is the alternative? Utilitarianism is not so much an argument about how things should be as it is an observation of how things are. People do suffer, and you can sometimes prevent it. And if you can, you should probably want to. That’s what it is to be good. The typical counter-proposal seems to amount to, “You can’t tell me that I have to care about other people.” Well, that’s true. You don’t have to care — but not caring hardly constitutes a coherent framework for moral action.

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