Archives for posts with tag: utilitarianism

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.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

There are only two moral positions: it’s OK to hurt other people, or it’s not. None of us hold either position consistently; on the other hand, it might still be fair to divide people into good and evil—based not, please note, on some notion of how they “really are,” but on their external behavior at a given moment.

We can make this absolutist dichotomy more reasonable-sounding by calling it a scale instead. We can say that there is a whole gamut, a spectrum of people, or rather of people’s behavior: something like

evil > conservative > liberal > good

Evil is when people act as if hurting other people is perfectly fine. The conservative style is to behave as if it’s a good idea to hurt at least some people, at least some of the time, if you reckon you’ve got a good reason. Liberalism when you treat other people as generally precious and generally not to be harmed, except under certain circumstances and only if you are exceptionally confident of your reasons. (Of course no one can ever agree on which circumstances are appropriate, or which reasons sufficient.) And finally we have the good person, who does not hurt other people, period.

I repeat. Our scale measures behavior, not ideas or words. A good person is one who does not hurt others, not one who thinks or says that hurting others is wrong. If you can refrain from hurting other people, you can ignore the whole idea of right and wrong. Tell us you’re doing it because Jesus told you to, or because you despise people who complain; tell us that you don’t know why you’re doing it. If you’re being good, it does not matter why.

Of course, if you’re hurting people, that too is independent of any ideas you might have of what’s right or wrong. There may be ideas that can reassure you that although you’re doing something bad, it’s not as bad as people might think, because you have good reasons for it; you’d be doing something good if you could, because you’re basically a good person. Well, I’m here to remind you how seriously lame an excuse that is. The people you are hurting do not know or care why you are hurting them. Nor should they. Hurting is hurting and while you are doing it, you are wrong, because hurting is always wrong. In fact, hurting is wrong by definition. That’s what ‘hurting’ means. You can’t do it and be in the right. The upside is, you will be right as soon as you stop—at that very moment (but no sooner!).

An interesting aspect of our simplistic scale is that almost everyone tends to rate themselves a notch or two higher than they are. People who exhibit evil behavior tend to say that sometimes you have to harm other people, it can’t be helped—a conservative position. In practice, of course, they do it anytime they want to. Die-hard conservatives will tell you that it’s only OK to hurt other people under exceptional circumstances. However, their behavior implies that most circumstances qualify as exceptional. And many liberals will swear that harming people is never OK; what they seem to mean is almost never, which is a whole different thing, seems to me.

Only being good is being good. It doesn’t matter what you think in your mind. It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter what books you read or what posters you have on your walls. Bad is never good. You can’t fake this or talk your way around it. It’s too high, you can’t get over it; you gotta come in at the door. Only good is good.

One’s beliefs regarding the parameters of ethical behavior depend on one’s beliefs regarding the structure of the world. For example, if one believed that suffering in this world leads to pleasure in the next world, one would be that much happier to endure pain, and that much happier to inflict it.

Fortunately, no one believes this.

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What ought we to do? More carefully put: how are we to judge what we ought to do? What are the principles? The question has a history as long as that of the human race, and most people believe, or pretend, that it’s still a real head-scratcher. But the answer is well-known, even if seldom acknowledged.

In the philosophical tradition it is called utilitarianism, but this is an awfully frumpy name for such a beautiful idea.

Judge your actions by whether you’re being kind to other people. That’s it. That’s how you tell. You should be regular, plain old, garden-variety good to people – in other words, benevolent, compassionate, friendly, gentle, helpful, loving, neighborly, peaceable, sweet, sympathetic, tender, understanding, warm. If you want to know how to behave, that’s how. It really is that simple. Ethics is no more and no less than the study of how to make acts of kindness more likely, and acts of violence, less.

The persistent philosopher might insist, “Yes, but why do we prefer tenderness to harm?” Resisting the impulse to slap this addle-pated misanthrope upside the head, we can point to an even more fundamental principle. We want people to be happy. (And yes, I mean all of them.) Therefore the task of ethics is to consider how to get them to treat each other well, because in general it is other people who have the greatest effect on each person’s happiness.

Happiness or the lack thereof is as near an absolute and eternal principle as human beings will ever find. As Janet Radcliffe Richards puts it:

I take it as morally fundamental that suffering is intrinsically bad. Some people deny this; and if they persist in this denial after clarification (they usually turn out to mean that suffering can sometimes be instrumentally good – which is a quite different matter) there may be nothing more that argument can do. And if people really don’t think it is morally important to avoid or prevent suffering, I’m not sure what you can do with them except put them on a desert island with no people or animals, so that they can’t do any harm. [Quoted in Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom (2003), What philosophers think, p.27.]

Will what you are about to do make who you’re about to do it to more happy, or less? That is the whole thing. The history of ethical philosophy is the history of attempts to evade this simple criterion – to invoke exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes. But there is no reasonable excuse for making others unhappy. We can’t prevent people from being mean, but we can refuse to be fooled when they claim that actually, they’re being nice, if we would just understand them properly. In most such cases we can reply confidently, “No, what you just did was not kind. After all, it’s not actually that hard to tell the difference.”