The Roots of Morality III: Universal Utilitarianism

In Part 2 of this series, we reached the conclusion that happiness is the ultimate value and we should strive to increase it. This result can be formalized into a secular ethical system I call universal utilitarianism, whose key tenet is as follows:

Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.

Granted, this simple statement hardly seems sufficient to undergird an entire ethical system. On the other hand, the statement “Allele frequencies change over time due to environmental pressures” hardly seems revolutionary either, and yet one who understands its implications can see how it forms the basis for a scientific theory that is vast and intricate enough to explain all the diversity of the living world. In this post, I will similarly unpack universal utilitarianism and show how it holds implications for morality that are very important indeed.

The first and most important principle that I believe can be derived from this ethical system is the primary importance of justice. Justice – defined as giving people what they deserve and not giving them what they do not deserve – is and must be a bedrock principle of universal utilitarianism. It is easy to see why: a society where justice is not ensured vastly increases both the actual and potential suffering of all its citizens, actual because of people who legitimately do not receive the reward their efforts merit, potential because all people will have reason to fear that the same will happen to them. Security and stability are major components of happiness; very few people can be happy when experiencing uncertainty and fear. By establishing strong guarantees of just treatment, we eliminate one of the major sources of these negative emotions.

By a very similar argument, we can establish a basis for many fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, the right to pursue happiness, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of protest and assembly, and the right to have a say in the running of one’s society, otherwise known as democracy. Again, these rights exist not for mystical or supernatural reasons, but because they are the principles that, when enshrined into law and consistently obeyed, create a society that guarantees the best chance of peace, security and happiness to all of its members. Conversely, a society that lacks them will easily stray into inflicting injustices and suffering on its citizens.

But universal utilitarianism can do more than just demonstrate the validity of basic principles. It can apply these principles in order to resolve moral dilemmas that are widely believed to expose some fatal flaw in other forms of utilitarianism.

One of the quintessential examples is that of a doctor with five patients, each of whom are facing death due to the failure of some vital organ. Would it be morally right for the doctor to kill one healthy person and split up his organs among the five to save all of their lives? If a utilitarian seeks to increase net happiness, treating the happiness of all people as equally valuable, then why (the interrogator asks) would this not be allowable? Or must utilitarians bite the bullet and assert that this intuitively horrific idea is morally legitimate?

It is neither legitimate nor allowable, and no bullet-biting is required. Universal utilitarianism can show us this. We can reason thusly: following the principles of justice and human rights and being consistent in doing so, even if an immediate gain can be realized by violating them, is the course of action that truly will produce the best outcome in the long run. There is and can be no conflict between universal rights and specific situations; the conflict is only apparent, due to our limited perception which can see the immediate consequences of an act but cannot as easily view all its ramifications.

Universal utilitarianism can make concrete the intuitive reasoning that leads us to reject the killing-an-innocent-person option in the doctor’s dilemma. Doing as the thought experiment suggests might save some lives, but consider the mortal terror that would be engendered in the vastly larger number of people by the knowledge that any routine doctor’s visit might lead to them being summarily vivisected to save the life of some total stranger. Consider the vast amounts of grief, despair and ruin that would overtake the families and friends of the victims of this procedure, who would have lost a healthy loved one with everything to live for. Consider, even, the suffering of the transplant recipients who must bear the unhappy knowledge that an innocent person was murdered for their sake!

Violating human rights in one instance, though it may produce some benefit, will be counterbalanced by the numerous currents of suffering inevitably engendered downstream by such an act. It is this corrosive effect of rights violation that leads the universal utilitarian to argue that these principles must be held absolute and not broken for the sake of expediency.

However, I acknowledge that in more ambiguous and complex cases the decision endorsed by universal utilitarianism will not be as clear-cut. This will surely be one of the principal criticisms urged against this system, that it is too vague and does not actually tell people what to do. A similar criticism is that our limited knowledge would not permit us to judge whether any decision truly was the best, in light of all relevant circumstances.

To the first of these criticisms, I reply that universal utilitarianism does give us an unambiguous goal to aim at. Moral reasoning is complex, but it is not arbitrary: all people claiming to follow universal utilitarianism must justify their actions with a plausible account of how they will increase happiness. In this respect, universal utilitarianism enjoys a particular advantage: it brings moral reasoning into the light, so to speak. Under this system, moral conclusions must be justified by reasons that anyone can examine, and therefore moral deliberation must be performed in public.

This stands in sharp contrast to other moral systems – especially religious systems – which allow deliberation to take place behind a private veil of faith that hides the reasoning and presents only the conclusion. Conclusions reached by faith in this manner are usually held sacrosanct and immutable, meaning that when advocates of different moral beliefs clash, the only results are deadlock or one overwhelming the other by force. On the other hand, conclusions based on reason can be debated, criticized and changed by persuasion. I agree that using this method to untangle thorny issues will require much debate, dissension, and critical reasoning. I believe that this is a point in favor of this system and not against it. No realistic ethical system – no ethical system actually capable of coping with all the complexity of the real world – could possibly derive unambiguous guidelines for behavior in every situation in a way that left no room for dissent.

Regarding the second criticism, I do not claim that it will always be easy or even necessarily possible to tell exactly what the right action is. Universal utilitarianism is a heuristic method of decision-making, not an exact algorithm. But again, it is no different in this respect from other objective systems of thought such as science: just because we cannot be absolutely sure that a decision will be the right one is not an excuse to refrain from decision-making altogether. Instead, it means that we should make the best decisions we can, guided by the best evidence available to us, and if in retrospect they turn out to be wrong, we can use that data to refine and improve our future decisions.

Lest all this abstract reasoning about maximizing happiness strike any readers as chilly or overly removed from tangible human concerns, I would like in conclusion to offer a more down-to-earth description of what universal utilitarianism stands for. I believe such a description can best be given as an answer to this question: What kind of world do you want to live in?

Would you prefer – truly prefer – a world of selfishness and struggle, where every person is out for themselves and is always striving to gain whatever they can at the expense of everyone else? Or would you prefer a world of conscience and compassion, one that does not exclude merit-based competition but that also recognizes that we are all in this together and should do what we can to help each other, and treats anyone’s suffering as everyone’s problem? Would you prefer a world where most of the people you meet are strangers or enemies, or one where the recognition of our common humanity unites even strangers together in friendship?

The second scenario, I believe, describes the world where everyone is a follower of universal utilitarianism. It can also be described as “perfect-world morality”, because what it asks us to do, in essence, is to imagine what a perfect world would be like – perfect in the sense of the way human beings treat each other – and then to act as we would in that perfect world. By doing this, we are taking steps toward one day bringing that world into existence.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher

    Firstly, you do realize that the definition of juctice you gave is very flexible, don’t you? How does one decide what people “deserve?” Even the the term “deserve” itself is a matter of personal opinion.

    Example: a certain man has his home broken into and loses all of his earthly possessions. He may claim that he didn’t deserve for this to happen to him. Another man, who has a long-standing grudge with the first, may see this as being “justice” being delivered to his nemesis for a percieved wrong. Furthermore, the robber may have the view that his victim didn’t defend his home well enough, and thus was asking to be robbed. Who’s right in this circumstance?

    Since they all have different ideas as to what constitues “deserve” they can’t decide. Since no object definition is availible, they all use arbitrary standards to measure this relative term.

    As for your example with the five patients who need new organs, I suggest that the doctor quietly arranges for a condemned criminal with the propper requirements be “liquidated” and then use his organs. This a case where everyone’s a winner (except the criminal, that is…): the patients recover their health, society has one less scoundrel in its overcrowded prison system, the families are relieved, and no one ever needs to know that it even transpired.

    Secondly, about the “perfect world” you want us all to imagine: what is “perfect?” One man’s vision of “perfect” might be a world like the one you describe, while another’s idea of “perfect” might be one where humanity is extinct! Personally, the word “perfect” has no meaning to me: it’s just an imaginary state that most humans wish that they lived in, nothing more.

    To me, there is no “perfect” (I hardly ever even use that word), just a state of improvement or degredation of existing objects or conditions. No matter how good/bad something might be, it can always be better/worse (even the best/worst of things can be improved upon/made worse). As a result of this line of thinking, I can’t even conceptualize a world like the one you describe…

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    You stun me. You’ve been so level-headed and forthrightly right, that I am surprised at this lapse. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and majoritarians are all utilitarians, promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. Antebellum Southern U.S. was utilitarian.

    Might nor majority makes right. If the majority favor racism, well then racism it is. If the majority favor slavery, well then slavery it is. If the majority favor padding their own pockets and leeching the poor, well then plutocracy it is. If the majority favor biblical myth over scientific fact, well then biblical myth it is. If Jews are the bane of human existence by majority favor, well then exterminate the Jews. If 49% of Russians can be compelled to serve 51%, then indentured labor it is.

    The utilitarian calculus, introduced by Jeremy Bentham and heralded by J. S. Mill, seemed like a fairly plausible way of benefitting the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, it does. The problem, and it is a significant problem, is that the majority can be wrong, deadly wrong. If utilitarian calculus was used to determine whether or not to teach creationism, the biblical myth would predominate, as over 80% of Americans believe in some verson of it.

    When it comes to ethics, I believer philosophers are better experts than scientists. Very few philosophers have any regard for utilitarianism for the precise examples I’ve cited, plus manifold others. The mathematical simplicity is apparently attractive to the scientific-minded, but the horrors it has unleashed should have given some pause. Most contemporary philosophers recognize that some combination of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, Kant’s categorical imperative, and Adam Smith’s benevolence is the only plausible ethic and morality.

    As for governmental practices by utilitarian calculus, both the excesses of the Great Society and the deficits of Compassionate Conservatism have been wrought by utiliarian calculus. The only reason democracy is the best (of the worst forms of) government is that it can change horses in the middle of the stream without resorting to violence. And in several countries, the U.S. included, a constitution is the governing document to insure minority rights on par with the majority. Our own republican government, divided into three branches, was a deliberate effort to subvert mobocracy, or tyranny of the majority.

    Ultimately, the majority must have the right to rule, but within constraints. Until we evolve into a deliberative democracy as envisioned by our Founders, until we adopt proportional representation as a truer form of democracy, until we rid ourselves of the undemocratic body of the Senate, and until our Courts cannot equivocate that “equal protection” means “separate, but equal,” which had majority approval, then the more roadblocks to the utilitarian calculus one can create the better.

    While we all concede that majority rule is superior to autocratic rule — usually, we must also concede that the majority can be dead wrong. It can impose itself on the minority with abandon, indeed exploit it. But that is precisely what the utilitarian calculus heralds. Those who have studied history are not eager to repeat it, and the utilitarian calculus is one lesson most of us learned is not desirable to repeat. The liberal ideals and utilitarianism are not cut from the same cloth, and history suggests we amputate this appendage permanently.

  • Padishah

    Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and majoritarians are all utilitarians, promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. Antebellum Southern U.S. was utilitarian.

    A strawman of epic proportions. Utilitarianism advocates the greatest good for the greatest number, which is not neccessarily simply what the majority want. Slavery for instance, may be desired by a majority of the population, but the extreme harm caused to the few slaves may outweigh the minor benefits to a far greater number – a concept emphasised by Bentham of all people, who you seem to despise.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    The utilitarian maxim is unflinching: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” If that is not majoritarian, then please define what you think majoritarian is? Casuistry will not redeem the attrocities it begets.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    I have no doubt that Bentham and Mill thought the utilitarian calculus was superbly simple, just as I have no doubt that almost every philosopher rejects it categorically, because of its majoritarian consequentialism. Shall I list them? Popper. Hayek. Williams. Scruton. Wollheim. Scheffler. Ryle. Moore. Taylor. Walzer. Rawls. Nussbaum. Polyani. Strawson. Quine. Nozick. Solomon. Wittgenstein. Whitehead. Davidson. Searle. Mele. Sandel. MacIntyre. Habermas. Bellah. Flew. Miller. Raz. Nietzsche. Sartre. Lomasky. Macedo. Maritain.

    Oh, I’ll cut to the chase. Peter Singer is a utilitarian. So is J. C. Smart. The illustrious duo. If you find others, no one cares about them any more than these two. Something may connect about the company one keeps.

  • Padishah

    I am very impressed by your ability to write out lists of philosophers. Appeals to authority in a moral field sure are fun! Bonus points for the implicit appeal to popularity that you claim to reject.

    Majoritarian = we do whatever a majority of the population wants. Utilitarian calculus = we do whatever produces the greatest total happiness. As pleasure or suffering may not be evenly distributed between people, this is very different from a simple opinion poll, as more extreme experiences are given greater weight.

    no one cares about them any more than these two.

    I have always been a fan of Singer myself, it is telling that he is quite well regarded as modern philosophy goes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    For The Gay Species:

    Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and majoritarians are all utilitarians, promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. Antebellum Southern U.S. was utilitarian.

    Pardon me? This is an astonishing and, on its face, preposterous claim. Are you seriously asserting that Stalin and Hitler were utilitarians? That is to say that these infamous dictators, who presided over tyrannical autocracies where free speech was nonexistent, where ordinary citizens lived in terror of secret police, where bloody war was a way of life, and where programs of mass murder were instituted against their own citizens – were motivated to do these things by a sincere desire to increase the total happiness of humanity? Do you have any evidence for that?

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    Hitler was elected and reelected. Apparently, a majority thought him fulfilling their greatest good for the greatest number. If the minority of Jews, homosexuals, darker races, mentally retarded were impediments to that greater good, well, exterminate them. The extermination might seem a bit draconian, but utilitarianism does not give much weight to those outside the “greatest number.” In all events, they have to fend for themselves.

    According to Marxist theory, it is often necessary to use any means necessary to bring about the Utopian state. In Stalin’s view, his economy could not sustain all the masses, and his enemies were also the state’s enemies, so the slaughter, attrition, and deprivation of over 20 million (still a minority) helped the remaining majority achieve a higher good much faster, and removed any impediment to Stalin in achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. Again, utilitarianism has no consideration of any minority, even if the minority is 49.99%. According to the calculus, only the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Even that does not require majoritarian calculation. It’s conceivable that some good helps only 20%, and that is the highest good, so in the calculus, it would be defensible to maximize the highest good (albeit limited) to the greatest number (albeit less than 50%).

    No utilitarian calculus can increase the “total happiness of humanity,” and it has never suggested that it can. Thus, the maxim is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and not “total happiness of humanity!” Where did you pick up this proposterous gem about “total happiness of humanity?” Not even utopian Marxism lays claim to the total happiness of humanity. No ethic or economy or political system makes such an absurd claim, because it’s an obvious absurdity. Maybe religious believers when they get to heaven will achieve this great state of nirvana, but on this side of the veil, nothing comes close to it.

    Re-read Bentham and Mill: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” That is the utilitarian maxim, not your dreamy wishful thinking. And by that calculus, at least a majority should be able to achieve the greatest good, but not necessarily, and not for the minority. Thus, the near-universal rejection of utilitarianism by moral philosophers.

  • Padishah

    Hitler was elected and reelected.

    Hitler never actually got a popular majority – he got into the cabinet in a coalition government, then managed to get himself granted emergency powers and take over the reichstag by other means.

    Apparently, a majority thought him fulfilling their greatest good for the greatest number

    Factual inaccuracies aside, had they thought that they would have been incorrect.

    utilitarianism has no consideration of any minority, even if the minority is 49.99%

    Nonsense. You are wilfully blurring the distinction between utilitarianism and majoritarianism.

    Thus, the maxim is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and not “total happiness of humanity!”

    The two are one and the same. The whole point of the calculus is: (change in happiness) x (number affected) = (total gain in happiness), likewise for losses. Please explain how that is not focused on total happiness. People also tend to forget that the calculus would allow for a reduction in the happiness of a majority of the population, provided the gain by the minority was great enough to result in a net positive change.

  • Alex Weaver

    The Gay Species:

    So, what do you propose as an alternative?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A longer reply to The Gay Species:

    Hitler was elected and reelected. Apparently, a majority thought him fulfilling their greatest good for the greatest number.

    Given an accusation as serious as yours, I would hope you have a bit more to back it up than “apparently”. It does not follow from the fact that Hitler was elected that either he or his followers held, believed in or practiced a utilitarian moral system. On the contrary, the fact that Germany invaded and attempted to dominate its far more populous neighbors strongly suggests that they did not hold such a view, but rather some sort of quasi-religious belief system (don’t forget “Gott Mitt Uns”) which held that God had guaranteed them victory on account of their racial purity, and that all other races, though more numerous than Aryans, were nevertheless to be subordinated to them.

    More importantly, any claims that Hitler’s actions would have increased the total happiness of humanity are simply wrong. Any student of history can see that for themselves: his government produced one of the human race’s most devastating wars, an incalculable amount of death and suffering on every side, and the genocide of innocent millions. You seem to be under the misapprehension that if any action can possibly be defended using a utilitarian argument, that is the fault of utilitarianism, but that argument is hopelessly naive. Any action whatsoever can be defended using any moral system, so long as that system is sufficiently contorted. The issue is not what evil and deluded men will claim to justify their actions (and, again, let me note that you have presented no evidence at all that Hitler or any of the other infamous dictators you alluded to were professed utilitarians), but whether such moral systems naturally lead to such an inference.

    According to Marxist theory, it is often necessary to use any means necessary to bring about the Utopian state. In Stalin’s view, his economy could not sustain all the masses, and his enemies were also the state’s enemies, so the slaughter, attrition, and deprivation of over 20 million (still a minority) helped the remaining majority achieve a higher good much faster, and removed any impediment to Stalin in achieving the greatest good for the greatest number.

    Again, this argument is ludicrous on its face. You cannot calculate what will produce the greatest happiness for everyone by killing millions of people and thereby removing them from the equation! The wishes, desires and happiness of those people indisputably count as well. And, let me stress, it does not follow from universal utilitarianism that an action is right just because a majority desires to undertake it. The course of action UU endorses is the one that truly will produce the greatest happiness for every affected party in the long run, and even if a majority at any given time votes for a particular course, that does not make it the right one. In fact, the abuses you name strongly indicate that some sort of check is needed against raw majoritarian power to protect the happiness of minorities that would otherwise potentially be oppressed by them (and every group is a minority sooner or later). As I argued strongly in this post, UU absolutely does endorse the recognition and protection of basic human rights that should be held eternally inviolable. Perhaps other forms of utilitarianism are vulnerable to your argument, but UU is not.

    Thus, the maxim is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and not “total happiness of humanity!” Where did you pick up this proposterous gem about “total happiness of humanity?”

    Excuse me, but I did not “pick it up” anywhere. I thought of it myself. I am not slavishly following the philosophers of old; UU is not the same as previously proposed utilitarian moral theories.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    Nearly all philosophers accept Aristotle’s ethical theory, with Kant’s categorical imperative as a feature (but not an imperative), and Hume’s and Smith’s empathy (historically “sympathy”), but other than the radical Peter Singer, I don’t know of a single ethical or moral philosopher who would countenance utlitiarianism any more than Bolshevik communism in the 21st century. But hey, I extol pluralism, even if utilitarianism does not.

    Of course, liberalism is also a moral as well as political theory, one that is neutral toward personal ethics in society, but one that embraces tolerance for diversity and the pursuit of individual “modes of life” each in its own way. Utilitarianism has shown itself to be antiliberal, hostile to all liberal principles which liberals assumed were both foundational and functional. Indeed, it’s was the incompatibility of utilitarianism with liberal theory that caused John Rawls to return to Kant in his “Theory of Justice.” Rawls’ own preposterous consequences suggest that “calculus” and “hyper-rationality” are too strong, or too intolerant, for human diversity.

    But, while Kant’s categorical imperative may create duties, its “moral sense” is too strong for all humans. We have “investments,” “preferences,” “family” that his over-rational theory proscribes. Alas, Aristotle had it basically right, but his concepts need ammendation from Kant and the emotivists, to balance a true moral sense in all of us.

    The utilitarian calculus is inhumane and barbaric. That anyone would espouse it in this age is incomprehensible. At its core, it rejects human diversity and human pluralism. If a “one size fits all approach” suits your temperament, then buy into utilitarianism. Just be sure you are not on the “outside” of the construct.

  • Alex Weaver

    The Gay Species:

    Based on your attacks against a bizarre, extremist caricature of “utilitarianism”, I have to wonder whether you’ve even read the article, or whether you simply seized the word “utilitarianism” out of the title and responded to that in a reflexive fashion.

    Aristotle’s ethics theory and Kant’s categorical imperative, and their failings, are both addressed in Adam’s essay, the Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick, on Ebonmusings, which may or may not be accessible at the moment.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    1) The problem with utilitarianism in general is that each individual almost disappears in comparison to the whole of utility. Yes, we can reason that the respect of individual rights is good, but we can’t ever be sure that a particular individual’s rights at a particular time really does make for the greatest happiness.

    2) Thus, we seem to be left with a purely deterent system of justice in which it is tolerable and even moral obligatory to punish innocent people from time to time. Of course one can appeal to rule utilitarianism, but that is not what you do in the post. You speak of how each ACT should be justified.

    3) I also worry that any account of utilitarianism, if it does not adequately establish and take into account the social nature of the lives we live, will inadvertedly give strength to any pragmatic justification for delusion, especially by way of religion. If religion makes the world, a community, a family or even an individual happier, and it is not clear that it doesn’t, then it would seem that it should be believed in.

    4) It remains unclear that happiness can be quantified in any meanigful manner. Can happiness and unhappiness really be judged on the same scale? Are they really opposites? Is suffering really just a form of unhappiness? By what standards are different qualities of happiness to be judged without begging the question? Are happiness and unhappiness really isolable experiences or do the activities upon which they supervene matter at all?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I also worry that any account of utilitarianism, if it does not adequately establish and take into account the social nature of the lives we live, will inadvertedly give strength to any pragmatic justification for delusion, especially by way of religion. If religion makes the world, a community, a family or even an individual happier, and it is not clear that it doesn’t, then it would seem that it should be believed in.

    That would be a concern for a moral system that valued happiness equally whether it was based on false beliefs or not, but universal utilitarianism is not such a system. As I pointed out to Alonzo in the other thread, it is an important tenet of UU (though I didn’t go into it in depth here) that happiness based on a falsehood should not be factored into the moral equation when we are seeking to make a decision. In any case, I would argue that atheism has the potential to produce at least as much happiness as religion without the negative moral aspects that usually accompany belief.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “That would be a concern for a moral system that valued happiness equally whether it was based on false beliefs or not, but universal utilitarianism is not such a system. As I pointed out to Alonzo in the other thread, it is an important tenet of UU (though I didn’t go into it in depth here) that happiness based on a falsehood should not be factored into the moral equation when we are seeking to make a decision. In any case, I would argue that atheism has the potential to produce at least as much happiness as religion without the negative moral aspects that usually accompany belief.”

    But humans are socially conditioned creatures: if society taught them lies and those lies make them happy, they will embrace them in spite of all reason. People who cling to false delusions can only be happy if they believe their delusions to be true.

    I’ve learnded that it’s better to allow certain people to embrace their delusions (without them, they’re helpless). While they embrace these delusions, I can move unresticted by them and, sometimes, use those delusions to my advantage. If one can’t stamp out delusion, one might as well use it…

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    I don’t think you describe the “perfect world.” I think a lot of the way humans are is dictated by evolution, which has been defined by natural selection. Natural selection places the individual at the center. Now comes the accusation of “social darwinism.” No. It’s just that competition has been bred into our genes, and setting up social systems which try to ignore this fact goes against human nature.

    I would prefer a world of non-coercion to a world of utilitarianism. I place the happiness and freedom of the individual at the top of the moral pedestal. We can compete. But unlike in wild nature, in society we stop ourselves before our actions involve coercion of someone else. I think this is the right balance.

    In my moral universe, everyone who is asked by society to do something for others should be compensated. Likewise, no one should demand from society and give nothing in return.

    No one should be forced to conform or consider others’ happiness at the expense of their own. I’m for limited help to those in need. But it does not follow that anyone’s problem is everyone’s problem. Unless you are talking about commonly shared resources, which if not managed properly, will fall prey to the tragedy of the commons. (such as the atmosphere or environment in general)

    I know this is an old thread, but I think utilitarianism is often used to justify the “tyranny of the majority,” high taxation, and all sorts of other coercive practices. It is therefore not a viable or forward-looking moral system.

  • Larklight

    Dear Sir,

    I recently read your page on atheistic morality, http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/carrot&stick.html While I may agree with your sentiment, there are a number of issues I felt you should address.

    Actually, as you define ‘morality’ a’ ‘the way a person behaves in those situations that take the form of an N-person Prisoner’s Dilemma’, it would seem that morality is simply a choice between short-termism and long-termism. In the long term, tit-for-tat with forgiveness is the best strategy, and is also what most people to perceive to be more moral than simple greedy short-termism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tit_for_tat

    You state that Objectivists would be incapable of getting out of the prisoners dilemma, because this would involve them not acting selfishly. I think you are misrepresenting their viewpoint by using the conventional definition of ‘selfish’ rather than an Objectivist one: certainly, I cannot think of any Objectivists who would advocate short-termism in a non zero-sum game of the sort you describe. Objectivists were always very in favour of mutually voluntary relationships. Indeed, with primary values of ‘”rationality”, “productiveness,” and “pride” (Wikipedia) it seems to be hard to derive that they could advocate such an unproductive and irrational course of action.

    When discussing Virtue ethics, you say they have as an advantage ‘correct identification of happiness as the ultimate good’- but you never say why (or at least, not then.)

    Afterwards, you say that they seem like intuitively good ideas, so it should be possibly to derive them. It seems like you have already decided what you are aiming for- surely this would somewhat impair your judgement? And is there any reason that our intuition should lead us to similar values as our reason? If you already have your conclusion, why bother with the method?

    On Kant, you dismiss him by saying that the application of the categorical imperative would forbid any specialised job.

    Firstly, you are mistaking the Categorical Imperative. That the result of a maxim’s universalisation would result in the collapse of society does not ban that maxim. Rather, it would only act as a weak duty not to act in such a way.

    Correctly, the categorical imperative (in it’s first formulation, which is how you describe it) forbids us from any maxim that cannot be universalised without contradiction. We cannot universalise stealing, because at the same time it requires the institution of property to exist (so you can gain it) and destroys it (as everyone is stealing). It is impossible. There are also contradictions of the will, which are similar, but a lot more complex, and not relevant.

    However, just because the state of affairs that would be brought about by the universalisation is undesirable does not mean we have a true duty to avoid it- Kant ignored all consequences.

    The other, possibly more serious problem is that when someone decides to become a doctor, Kant would simply say that they were acting on the maxim that people should perfect their talents- something he espoused. ‘To become a doctor’ is not a maxim, and in no other area of moral philosophy do you treat propositions of this kind as a potential moral rule. You end moral system includes universalisation, but you do not include the universalaisation of employment choices: the universalisation of any employment would lead to unhappiness, which would be banned by the second part of your formal.

    With the beggar, Kant does have an answer, although I disagree with him. Due to contradictions of the will, he thought that we should help others. we could end up in a situation where you want something, but need others to help you. If you want something, he argued you also will the means to it. If the means has to be via others help (like if you are disabled), you have to will that others help you; but you have already willed that people do not help each other! This is a contradiction of the will, so the maxim that we should not help others must be discarded.

    With the third problem, the fact that Kant thinks that the Categorical imperative bans lying, in my opinion, simply means that he incorrectly applies the method. Lying can be universalised without the destruction of language.

    Even were this not true, you could simply refrain from telling the Gestapo anything.

    Finally, at this stage, you have no come up with any moral reasoning, method, system with which to say that turning people into the Gestapo is wrong. You are presuming your conclusion. It is not manifestly in error, and saying that it is unsing your conclusions is false.

    It is strange that you even mention Rawls- what you describe is political philosophy, not moral philosophy!

    When presenting your own moral system, you say the goal of morality is to promote happiness. If this is the goal of happiness, of course we will end up with utilitarianism! This is little more than a tautology, and a very different definition of morality than that possessed by most people.

    Additionally, you say morality is how we behave in an N-person prisoner’s dilemma. However, the ends of this are correctly measured in utility, not happiness. I may chose a course of action that will make me unhappy, in an N-space prisoner’s dilemma or elsewhere, by acting on some principle, or for some other end. Becoming addicted to Soma would make me happy, but if we measure by utility I should avoid it. Peter Singer’s Preference Utilitarianism is more in keeping with both sense and your definition of morality.

    You say that your formula should be applied in the same order it is read – suffering should be minimised first. Is this always true? Is minimising a minute amount of suffering more important than causing massive amounts of happiness? It seems that any sensible system must have some sort of exchange rate: otherwise the best thing to do would be to immediately nuke all major population centres- their suffering would be brief, and after that minimised.

    You say that your principle is in accordance with justice, and that their ends will always co-inside. What if there is one very unpopular individual, whom is generally but incorrectly thought to be a mass murderer and rapist. Society would be much happier with his death. Furthermore, if we universalised this rule, that those who are generally thought to deserve death should be killed, we would still lead to a net increase in happiness.

    Your principle requires us to ‘weigh the competing factors and relevant principles, determine what course of action is likely to produce the least suffering and the greatest happiness both now and in the long run’, and yet denies that there is any algorithm to do this. If there is a method, why do you not attempt to achieve it? If not, it would seem that you cannot complain if people reach radically different conclusions.

    If we are to maximise happiness by thinking of how a reasonable person would react, how are we to judge who is reasonable? Would this not result in the tyranny of the majority: or even of the minority? I may think that any reasonable person would have similar music tastes to me: does this mean I should subject everyone else to my music, on the basis that anyone who disagrees is unreasonable?

    It seems you are only able to reach your conclusion by misrepresenting opposing points of view and rejected them based on unproven premises, and then presuming your conclusion.

  • lpetrich

    Metacrock has recently blogged about The Wages of Utilitarian Thinking, though he made arguments much like those made by The Gay Species.

    Arguments that utilitarianism can justify the sacrifice of some minority for the sake of some majority, that it denies moral duty, etc. And an especially curious argument that it is contrary to certain theodicies; he whines that

    The worse things that Util has done is blind us to an understanding of theodicy which would make God’s allowence of evil accessable to the modern mind.

    If we assume that pleasure over pain is the only moral good, and that outcome is all that matters, than of course we are going to complie the simplistic equastion, “evil happens, so there is no God.” But that is an absurd equasion which overlooks our own complicity in evil doing.

    But what does he think that Heaven and Hell are?

  • http://www.facebook.com/groups.php?ref=sb#/group.php?gid=2209150425 primevalsoup

    To Ebonmuse – I really enjoyed reading your views on universal utilitarianism. I found this in a search to learn about UUism and whether there were any sects that were in agreement with my own (?unique ?insane) belief system.

    ‘Gay Species’ is most importantly confusing what I would describe as ‘increasing the total net happiness of all future people’ with ‘doing what most people vote for’ – what ‘padisha’ describes as ‘majoritarian’. If Gay Species is not confusing these things the Gay Species is electing not to answer questions about this.

    I read the postings by Ebonmuse at least a week ago but I recollect statements explaining how what might seem like ‘in the interest of the greater good’ crimes against individuals would actually produce great unhappiness in the general population. How NOT having ineliable human rights would be very bad for the total happiness.

    Arguments against his position seem to be along the lines that governments operating on these principles will use them to justify atrocities etc. Did I miss out on learning about the moral system that prevented governments from committing atrocities? Evil/mistaken powerful people have, can and will commit crimes/’horrific’ acts. The nature of their ‘power’ or the official ‘framework’ is irrelevant when they have enough power to confuse the people they govern. Could a leader trick the masses into thinking he was doing something horrific for the happiness of the others? Absolutely. FOr the greatness of God? For the progress of Science? For the good of animals? For the sake of art? For Aristotle’s glory? In honour of Kant? Is someone going to name the perfect moral system that cannot be so abused? You would need to find a population that is made of very intelligent people who pay great attention to the practices of its government and are willing to die to protect what it’s decided morality says is right.

    Compared to any other moral system at least UUism (and there may be some ironing out required of what has been described here – I haven’t read all the things Larklight wrote about – and I’m not an atheist [!!]) theoretically makes sense!

  • http://steohawk.pbworks.com/ Stephen Hawkins

    Utilitarianism can indeed lead to tyranny of the majority if the total or average happiness (utility) is increased through oppression of some minority. For example, some form of oppression could increase the utility of the majority by 20%, while only decreasing the utility of the minority by 10%.

  • Domyan

    @Stephen Hawkins
    Percentages like that are extremely hard to calculate. For example, when you consider the fact that most people are in a minority with the respect of something (idea, belief, a set of physical characteristics…) it’s questionable how would people feel living in a society where they can potentially be discriminated against for no better reason other then being a minority. People would be much happier living in a society where they feel completely safe.


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