It’s Utilitarianism All the Way Down?

It’s Utilitarianism All the Way Down? January 3, 2012

In the recent thread on human-independent morality, Ash had a question for me and Adam Lee:

I’m curious if you both consider morality in the way that Harris and Carrier do, as a means to achieve maximum well-being and minimum suffering. Speaking for myself, this is the only way I can see morality being objective. I agree with Harris that there might not be any one single moral “code” that can achieve a given end in this framework, but that one can nevertheless describe all such codes as either promoting or preventing well-being, which is an objective question.

So, one of the biggest problems I had with Harris when I read The Moral Landscape is that defining moral codes as good or bad insofar as they promote well-being doesn’t actually help me categorize them.  Unless I’m a Dark Kantian, ‘well-being’ is exactly what I’m trying to define when I’m trying to pick moral actions, so saying I should pick moral systems that maximize it is tautological.  If there were ever a phrase that needed to be tabooed…

So if you want to start defining well-being, you need to start by talking about your metric.  Is it dopamine release and subsequent subjective feelings of pleasure?  Congratulations!  Aldous Huxley will meet you with your dose of soma behind Door Number One.

Are our subjective preferences untrustworthy since we can honestly want something we don’t really want?  Probably!  Is this a defeater for living by objective moral codes?   Not necessarily.  After all, our perceptions of the physical world are unreliable and our intuitions need revamping.  Our causal reasoning is arguably worse, but we still believe we can fumble our way to a less wrong map of the world around us.  We hope that we can identify and compensate for our moral blind spots just as we do for other built-in errors.

But, in moral matters, the difficult question is how we notice when we get caught in an error.  There’s no test you can fail as easily as the buying a lottery ticket/not clicking your seatbelt error for gauging risk.

Since I’m a virtue ethicist, I would say that one marker of a bad moral choice is if it makes you feel less attached to other moral opinions you previously thought of as very important, particularly if you feel less attached to your old principles because they would damn your recent actions.  I’d also tag as questionable any choice that puts your further away from recognizing the consequences of your actions as attributable to you.  (i.e. any decision that leads you to say “Well, this way my hands are clean” isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but it merits increased scrutiny).

When it comes to moral philosophy, there seems to be a strong preference for a Grand Unified Theory.  I am frequently told by atheist and Christian friends that my views on morality would be more logically consistent if I converted and were able to say something like “the telos of humans is to become Christlike” instead of “the telos is to develop and improve character in a lot of complex ways that are hard to synthesize into a general rule that remains a helpful guide in a lot of situations so I calls ’em as I sees them and try to backpropogate wherever I can.”

It’s one thing for Christians to prefer the simpler formulation, since they also believe the underlying metaphysics are true, but I find it infuriating when my nonbelieving friends think I should pick a simpler system that I don’t have confidence in over the hodge-podge of specific rules I do find compelling.  I shouldn’t get off the hook, but it seems unreasonable to praise people for adopting very unified systems that seem to give wrong results (like objectivism or nihilism) instead of admitting there’s still work to be done.

Physicists haven’t got to a Grand Unified Theory yet, and their profession has a good deal more consensus on what evidence looks like than philosophy does.


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  • Bill Dullemond

    Yes, thank you! Your second last paragraph made my day.

  • Obviously I think you should listen to the supremely insightful advice of your friends 🙂 . But for now maybe a few more immediate thoughts:

    – Suppose a drug is developed that temporarily blocks the formation of long term memories. This is not a totally abstract idea. There is probably a specific process that needs to be inhibited, which should be a lot easier than erasing already formed memories. Also alcohol does a crude job right now and some drugs are already known to inhibit though not block long-term memory-formation in animals. So, unlike most trans-humanist stuff, I think such a drug is very likely to arrive in our lifetimes. I think it will have legitimate applications in traumatic experiences. Question: If people have to do something against their moral instincts, should they take this drug so as to prevent it damaging their character? Your idea of the human telos seems to demand it. As for me both my instinct and my philosophy scream no, but then my philosophy is different from yours.

    – Standard counter-example to your heuristic: Huckleberry Finn, Ch. 31, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”

    – Broken record mode: Unless early 21th-century liberal coastal American sentiment is the pinnacle of all moral development, your moral intuition is almost certainly wrong in important ways. If, for example, PETA is right, you are in support of very grave evil indeed. Same if we pro-lifers turn out to be right. Since you can’t escape that problem without a coherent moral theory, it would seem morally imperative to look for one. The stakes are clearly much higher than with a grand unified theory of physics. I understand you not having found one but not being content with not having found one.

    – Are you sure figuring out morals and the definition of well-being are actually equivalent? Your former “light” Kantian version should disagree and you said somewhere your practical ethical judgments hadn’t much changed from hers. Pretty much regardless of how you define well-being it will be possible to imagine a situation where Yudkowskyans will be logically right in telling you to “shut up and multiply”. Even keeping out our Immanuel that should make Kantian baby Immanuel cry.

    – There’s nothing wrong with buying a lottery ticket. Lottery-players pay for a cheap thrill not for an expectation value. I say that as someone who has never played the lottery* because I prefer to get my cheap thrill from things like roller-coasters. But the same principle that condemns the lottery should also condemn me going round in a circle, returning exactly to the starting point and feeling a sensation of danger totally disconnected from reality.

    * OK full disclosure: I once bought a ticket as a present for someone else who, unlike me, does enjoy that particular thrill.

    • deiseach

      “Question: If people have to do something against their moral instincts, should they take this drug so as to prevent it damaging their character?”

      Ah, the Ticking Time Bomb scenario: suppose a terrorist knows the location of a bomb that will go off in 24 hours’ time. Are we justified in doing anything to him in order to get the location of that bomb in order to save lives?

      Your question (and I do realise that these are not your views, simply a proposal you are putting) would ask: should I be given a drug to make me forget that I threatened to harm the four year old daughter of the terrorist? Or indeed that I did hurt her to make her cry in front of her father so that he would break and tell me where the bomb is.

      After all, I’m not a bad person – if the definition of “not a bad person” is “not a person who would physically harm a four year old girl to make her scream and cry in front of her father to force him to do something”. So why shouldn’t I take the drug to make me forget and prevent my character from being damaged?

      Except the trouble is, you are the type of person who would hurt a little girl; you’ve done it. The harm to your character has already been done, regardless of whether or not you remember it. So the question of “take the drug or don’t take it” is really not meaningful; the moral harm is already done, or the moral rot if you prefer.

      I disagree that Leah’s idea would require a “take the drug” solution; I don’t think it goes that far. Indeed, I think her idea requires us to examine the idea of “taking the drug” – if we need such a drug, then the harm is already done.

      • First, “something against their moral instincts” doesn’t have to be what we call intrinsically evil in Catholic speak. It could also be, for example, a justifiable killing that would still reduce the natural aversion to further killing. In particular I surely didn’t mean to imply that Leah would hurt the little girl.

        As for the actual point, your interpretation of “character” sounds a lot like grace. As a fellow Catholic drone I would be delighted if Leah meant it that way, but I don’t think her assimilation is that complete. The way I understand it, her meaning of character is more like a state of the mind, so that different histories leading to now-indistinguishable states can’t be connected to different characters. So, at least if I assume the non-cognitive parts of the memory are also erased, my character can’t be damaged without me remembering it. You might say I still remember taking the drug because I will do X, but then I’ll just change the scenario to say I got offered the drug before I was told what X is. Perhaps some other people even took the drug at the same time and I believe I got it like all the other witnesses, to prevent traumatization, and not to actually do it.

        • deiseach

          No, I think I didn’t make my point quite clear enough, Gilbert.

          “So, at least if I assume the non-cognitive parts of the memory are also erased, my character can’t be damaged without me remembering it. ”

          You instance something like justifiable killing, which while correct in itself, may tend to reduce resistance to use lethal force in future. But my point was that the decision is made, not when the drug is taken, but when the action which necessitates taking the drug is performed. If I need to protect my character from damage as a result of the acts I have performed, by expunging the memory of those acts, then the damage has already occurred.

          Let us take the instance of shooting an attacker: fine, I do this, I take the memory-wipe to re-set me to my original/default state, I get into another situation where I may or may not shoot an attacker dead.

          If, in the first instance, I overcame my reluctance and revulsion to kill, then in the same circumstances, why would I not do the same again? Whereas, by keeping the memory of my first action, I might be reluctant to use lethal force. That seems as likely, at least, as the possibility that doing it again will be eased by memory of the first action.

          Besides, the re-set drug falsifies reality: I think I’m not a killer, while I am. Hey, didn’t “Bablyon 5” have an episode about this very thing – “Passing through Gethsemane”?


          • Hmm, this makes it a question of fact. My presumption is, that doing something in one situation lowers the inhibition against doing it in other situations. That would mean someone who had killed in self defense would also find it easier to murder. Actually we only know that killing in war makes it easier to kill in war again. If I understand you correctly, you believe the, umm, skill doesn’t transfer between situations. My intuition says it does but I can’t prove that. It could be testable in less dramatic examples (measuring, for example, assaults committed by boxers at different points of their career) but I don’t know of any such studies. If lowered inhibitions never transfer from legitimate to illegitimate actions that would actually remove the possibility of legitimate character-damaging actions and thus of my drug-taking situations. I don’t believe that, but if I grant you the premise you’re right.

            Sorry, I saw only a single digit number of Babylon 5 episodes, this one not among them. As for the drug falsifying reality that would provide an out if self-knowledge (as opposed to the tendency to seek it) counts as an important virtue. But I think that stretches the definition of virtue a bit far.

  • Quid est veritas

    Very confusing. So, are you saying that moral law can only be defined by a particular person for himself alone and that his moral law won’t be the same as somebody else’s?
    Also, are you mixing Science and Philosophy, and if so, why?

  • Anonymous

    Is it possible to be a closeted self-denying Christian the way it is to be a closeted self-denying homosexual? At what point does one break down and admit their moral and spiritual orientation?

    • The question isn’t equal. To be a “self-denying” homosexual implies that you mean he does not allow himself to do “the dirty deed”, which is what he really wants to do. To be a “self-denying” Christian is to fulfill what one is supposed to do as a Christian by deferring to God (be obedient, even if you don’t want to). So you have one person stopping themselves from doing what they want to do because he thinks it’s wrong and another person doing the right thing because he thinks it’s right. Or do you mean that the Christian stops himself from doing what he wants to do, which is to proclaim his faith, or some other right thing, because he doesn’t want people to know he’s a Christian? If a Christian wants to do it, then he’ll do it, because he has himself on his side and God on his side. Why wouldn’t he? If there’s a little fear factor, because of possible ridicule or whatnot, that’s the excitement of life, right? Jump, with an element of danger, and see that you come out ok. It’s the exciting life. See also, see Richard Wurmbrand
      signed, Shannon Johnson

      • Anonymous

        What I meant by self-denying is the person that refuses to admit to themselves or anyone else that they are in fact homosexual, even though friends and relatives can plainly see that he or she is and to contrast that with someone that is a Christian at heart but refuses to admit it to themselves even though friends and relatives plainly can see that as well.

        • But you were at least three quarters joking, right? And now you murdered the joke with an explanation, right? ‘Coz otherwise I’ll be choking on my original laughter.

          • Anonymous

            Yes Gilbert I did spoil the joke a bit didn’t I. Mea Culpa

    • deiseach

      I can see why Leah’s Christian friends would like her to be Christian.

      The interesting question is, why do her atheist friends think her opinions require her to become Christian? Why can’t she hold them and be a freethinker?


  • Unless I’m a Dark Kantian, ‘well-being’ is exactly what I’m trying to define when I’m trying to pick moral actions, so saying I should pick moral systems that maximize it is tautological.

    Actually, I don’t think it is. I can suggest one group (besides Dark Kantians, that is) whose goal isn’t to maximize well-being: theists who believe that our highest moral imperative is obeying God’s decrees, regardless of the harm and suffering it causes to others or even to themselves.

    There really are people like this: for instance, the Islamic jihadists who, by their own account, are eager to kill nonbelievers in order to speed them to their deserved punishment in hellfire. I might also nominate the Roman Catholics who believe that, if a pregnant woman’s life is threatened by lethal complications, it’s her duty to refuse abortion and choose to die – even if she already has children who would be left motherless.

    I agree that “well-being” can be a nebulous term, hard to define precisely. But even overlooking that complication, we can definitely say that there are things it doesn’t consist of – and choosing human well-being as your moral criterion really does sweep the board clear of at least some alternatives.

    • But we easily could define “well-being” as “God’s pleasure in us”; since our obedience to God would promote that pleasure (and, indeed, is the only thing that could), then obeying God does lead directly to “well-being.” One would still need to decide what obedience to God entails, however, and many people would think that some other configuration of maximizing well-being is what God wants of us. But the point is that your broadly “theistic” moral system can be made to fit the framework that Ash offers. Even the examples you cite could define “well-being” as “union with God”; removing those who prevent others from having union with God would therefore work towards maximizing that union. (There’d likely be other ways of defining “well-being” to a similar end. “Holiness” and “Christlikeness” come to mind.) And we’re back at the tautology.

  • keddaw

    [D]o you consider morality … as a means to achieve maximum well-being and minimum suffering.

    Even with a perfect way to measure well-being and suffering we are left with multiple questions that are impossible to answer:
    What is the correct ratio between suffering and well-being?
    How do we compare suffering, or well-being, today to tomorrow.
    How do we compare suffering between generations or at different stages of life?
    Should we focus on maximising total well-being, average well-being, or minimum well-being?

    Even with all information to hand these questions are unanswerable in an objective way. Therefore utilitarianism is not a comprehensive (or even coherent) moral theory. But then again, none of them are. Moral Error Theory is the way to go, or some slight variation of it.

  • anon atheist

    I don’t really see how Christianity is such a streamlined system of morality rather than a hodge-podge of specific rules itself apart from the notion that the protection of human life is the most important thing which in and of itself is contradictory.

    Jesus said so many contradictory things so how can the rule to live your life Christlike be a simple guideline?