A Tricky Problem with Utilitarianism…(or, Maybe Jack Bauer’s Not So Great After All)

[utilitarianism is a view that generally holds that what is right is whatever brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, whereas deontological ethics holds that goodness, or what is right, consists in following certain preestablished rules, and virtue ethics holds that goodness is somehow rooted in the character of the person]

From the conversations that I’ve had with friends of mine, watching political debate on tv, and observing the situations that characters face in film, it seems like utilitarian ethics is pretty much the norm. Jack Bauer is a pretty hardcore utilitarian in his best moments (or what the show would have you believe to be his best moments), and often I hear the president being criticized from a utilitarian standpoint when a deontologist could have ample ground to be supprtive of whatever action he’s taking the heat for.

Since utilitarianism seems largely to form the moral undercurrent in the minds of many modern people, it seems especially important to give the system a good think-through. The foundational principle behind utilitarianism is its assertion that /whatever brings about the greatest happiness (most often defined as physical pleasure) most evenly distributed for the greatest number of people is what is right/. Now, even if one is the stictest rule-following Christian on the planet, utilitarian reasoning is going to play into your moral choices at one point or another – even if you disagree with the utilitarian about the nature of goodness. Certainly, where no specific rule seems to apply, but utilitarian reasoning would lend a hand, we adopt that line of thought. For instance if you were given a billion dollars to distribute however you want, I can think of no established rule of law or decree of God that would tell you how to handle the cash, but most of us wouln’t go that far to find an answer. Most of us would instantly engage in utilitarian reasoning, and would end up giving the money to the largest, neediest group we could find that would still be small enough for each individual to recieve a significant portion of the fund. We wouldn’t think it wise to grab the first homeless guy and hand him the whole billion, and we wouldn’t send a check for sixteen cents to every person on the planet. We would try to “maximize utility” as the ethicists say.

So utilitarian reasoning, on its own, isn’t all that bad it seems, but I’ve been thinking over utilitarianism as a complete normative system, and I’m thinking that it might have some serious flaws, and possibly one fatal one.

Utilitarianism first suffers from some semi-hairy complications because it has a funny tendency to force you to deny your (or at least my) moral intuitions in certain situations. For instance, utilitarianism would tell you that maxamizing utility is the right thing to do even if there were a situation where raping someone or framing someone for a crime would meet that end. Any system that tries to get me to deny my intuitions at least earns a more thorough investigation before I consider it further. But the utilitarian may be able to flesh his system out in such a way that he avoids those criticisms. My big question that I haven’t seen addressed in the literature, is the question of why one OUGHT to be a utilitarian. (the caps will make sense momentarily).

Any time you talk about oughtness you’ve moved into the realm of ethics, unless you’re using “ought” to mean “what I have reason to expect” such as when someone says “if you flip that switch, the light ought to come on”. We don’t mean that there is some transcendental normative principle that conferrs actual oughtness on the light switch in such a way that it is morally deficient if it fails to make the lights come on. We’re saying something less than that, something akin to the fact that we have every reason to believe the lights are wired correctly and, according to our best thinking on the situation, when the light switch is flipped, it will very likely produce light.

We’re saying something much different when we say that people OUGHT to be compassionate to the brokenhearted, or that one OUGHT not to molest children. We’re not talking about probablistic expectations as with the light switch. We’re talking about some moral fabric of our being that demands certain actions or qualities from us that without which we are deeply defective. This is why we are apalled at the child molester, but only mildly surprised (and at best annoyed) by the defective light switch.

So, we’ve delineated these two types of oughts. One deals in probablistic expectations, and the other with the fabric of our being. So to get on to my point, consider the proposition /that one ought to be a utilitarian/. Is this proposition true under utilitarian assumptions?

Well let’s interpret it in light of our two sorts of oughtness. The first interpretation yields the new proposition /that according to the current understanding of things, one can expect one to be a utilitarian/ . Maybe I can phrase that better, but it’s three am and you can certainly get the point here. Any way you phrase it, I don’t think that it even amounts to a very important statement. I’m not even sure it means anything. For starters, whose best knowledge/current understanding are we talking about? From whose mind are we harvesting the information for our probability calculation? Mine? God’s? The platonic bank of all true propositions? It’s not clear, and whichever source you use it’s certainly possible that you’re going to come up with different answers. Even if you go with the most objective one, you’ve chosen an inaccessable bank of information. Who knows what God knows? And, assuming you could come up with some verifiable, relevant information – even all of the relevant information – what would that matter for ethics? Utilitarianism would amount to a probability calculation, and who cares if they disappoint a probability theorist? Not me. Under this interpretation, we have no reason to react any differently to the child molester than to the defective light switch.

So, discarding that interpretation, lets move on to the second, stronger understanding of oughtness. This interpretation yields the proposition /that there is an actual, moral requirement upon one to be a utilitarian/. Phrase it however strongly or weakly you like, but I think there’s a pretty sticky problem here for the utilitarian. Utilitarianism, if it is claiming to be a complete, exhaustive ethical system must account for every normative claim that fits under this form of oughtness. That is, every genuine moral ought that is not a probability expectation must be explained by an ethical system if it wants to be taken seriously. No system can seriously claim to be the foundation for goodness if it acknowledges a normative principle but can’t explain it.

So what in utilitarianism justifies the claim that one ought to be utilitarian? Since the only major claim that utilitarianism clearly makes is that one ought to maxamize utility, it seems left floating in the air without justification. Utilitarianism isn’t devoted to any metaphysics per se, so it can’t easily appeal to claims about God or the essential nature of moral agents to justify its claim about the nature of the good. And any attempt to justify itself by appealing to its utility principle is hopelessly circular. No thinking person will be satisfied with the claim that one ought to adopt the maximization of utility as the basis of goodness on the grounds that doing so will maximize utility! That amounts to utilitarianism asking you to make an intial, fideistic commitment to pleasure/happiness as the greatest and most valuable end of our actions without justification (or at least without justification provided by the system).

While utilitarian reasoning is certainly valuable, the system itself is seriously lacking since it can’t even make the claim that you should be a utilitarian. It seems to me that, in light of this, the other ethical schools of deontological ethics and virtue ethics are much more viable candidates, especially for the christian. Whereas utilitarianism has trouble grounding itself, the disciple of Christ has the law of God to appeal to in support of deontology, and the character of Christ which is virtue in essence.

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  1. #1 by Josh on 4.1.07 - 3.39 pm

    Utilitarianism the most wise choice… according to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Since I know you like ST, Michael, below I’ve posted a transcript of a scene:

    KIRK
    (continuing)
    Something may be wrong at Regula
    I. We’ve been ordered to investigate.

    SPOCK
    Regula I is a scientific research
    laboratory, if memory serves…

    KIRK
    I told Starfleet all we had was a
    boatload of children but we’re the
    only ship in the quadrant. Spock:
    those cadets of yours — how good
    are they? How will they respond
    under real pressure?

    SPOCK
    Like all living beings, Admiral
    each according to his gifts. The
    ship is yours.

    KIRK
    That won’t be necessary: just take
    me to Regula I.

    SPOCK
    Excuse my presumption, but I do not
    agree. As a teacher on a training
    mission, I am content to command a
    Starship. If we are to go on actual
    duty, it is clear that the senior
    officer aboard must assume command.

    KIRK
    But it may be nothing; garbled
    communications. Why don’t you…

    SPOCK
    You proceed from a false assumption.
    I am a Vulcan. I have no ego to bruise.

    Kirk smiles in bemused wonderment.

    KIRK
    You are going to remind me that
    logic alone dictates your actions.

    SPOCK
    I was going to remind you of nothing,
    least of all that which you know well.
    (pause)
    Your mistake, if I may be so bold,
    was promotion. Commanding a Starship
    is your first best destiny. Anything
    else is a waste of material.

    KIRK
    I would not presume to debate you.

    SPOCK
    That is wise. In any case, were I
    to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates
    that the needs of the many outweigh
    the needs of the few.

    KIRK
    Or the one.

    Spock inclines his head.

    SPOCK
    You are my superior officer. You
    are also my friend. I have been
    and always shall be yours.

    Kirk is moved. He starts to speak, can’t — finally:

    KIRK
    Will you accompany me to the bridge?

    SPOCK
    I’d best talk with Mr. Scott, first
    so that he may, in his own words,
    explain the situation to his cadets.

    Kirk’s face tells us the wisdom of Spock’s choice.

    [Josh speaking] Of course, you may remember this dialogue recreated at the very end during the dramatic climax. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, so I won’t spoil it for you. But if you have, then you should remember.

  2. #2 by Daniel Gitlesen on 9.11.16 - 6.20 am

    Spock is irrational.

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