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Introduction to Ethics Lecture 11 Utilitarianism By David Kelsey
Mill John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) He was the greatest 19th century defender of Utilitarianism. He was a child prodigy. Defended women’s suffrage. His text Utilitarianism was published in 1861.
Utilitarianism The greatest happiness principle: –Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, –wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Or: –Always do whatever will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Utilitarianism: it’s two parts Any version of Utilitarianism (including Mill’s version) is composed of two other views: –Consequentialism: We determine whether an act is right or wrong by looking at it’s consequences. –Hedonism: This tells us what makes for a better or worse consequence. Good: what promotes pleasure Bad: what promotes pain.
Consequentialism Consequentialism: To determine whether or not an action is right: –weigh the good consequences of doing the action against the bad consequences of doing it. –And weigh the good consequences of not doing the action against the bad consequences of not doing it. –Do whatever will have the best overall consequences. Sorting good from bad: Thus, to determine whether or not an action is right: –One must be able to sort the good consequences from the bad consequences. –The meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’… Defining the good then the Right: Thus, Consequentialist moral theories, like Utilitarianism, –define the good, I.e. what they want to promote, then define what is right by simply calculating what will best promote that good.
Consequentialism Other ways to define Consequentialism: –Between two actions, perform the one that has better consequences. –One determines whether an act is right or wrong by looking solely at it’s consequences. –The end justifies the means. The consequences of an action can justify the action itself. Thus, if harming someone will somehow cause more good overall than bad, one ought to harm that person.
Hedonism Hedonism says that a good thing is one that adds to the sum total of human happiness. –Happiness: pleasure and the absence of pain. –Unhappiness: pain and the absence of pleasure. Hedonism & Happiness: –What makes something, anything and not just life, good is the amount of happiness it produces. Happiness is the only non-derivative good: –It is the only thing that is good as an end in itself. Derivative goods: money, knowledge, fulfilling personal relationships, etc.
Calculating Pleasures Jeremy Bentham, who with Mill created the Utilitarian theory, took it upon himself to provide a way to calculate pleasures and pains –A calculus of pleasures and pains… –He first lists the various pleasures and pains: Those of sense, of wealth, of skill, of a good name, of piety, power, happy memories, etc. –He then highlights the ways in which pleasures and pains can differ: Intensity: Duration: Certainty or uncertainty: Propinquity or remoteness: Fecundity: Purity: Extent: –So Pleasures and Pains can be quantified. We have a mathematical formula for determining what actions we ought to perform. This is a science of pleasures and pains.
A Side note: The two forms of Utilitarianism Utilitarianism comes in two forms: –The first is called ‘Act Utilitarianism’: Mill’s theory is a version of Act Utilitarianism. The view that you should determine whether any act is morally right by looking at the consequences of that act itself. –The second is called ‘Rule Utilitarianism’. The view that you should determine whether any act is morally right by looking at the consequences of a rule which says that everyone should perform that act in like circumstances. You want a rule that would overall best serve to maximize happiness.
Objections to Rule Utilitarianism Objection to Rule Utilitarianism: it collapses into act utilitarianism. –This is because no matter what the rule, there will be some circumstances in which it is beneficial to break the rule, which means the rule would have to be modified to make an exception for those circumstances. –But deciding whether a rule should be modified is tantamount to just being an act utilitarian… In response: –Rule utilitarianism does not collapse into act utilitarianism except when it should:
Mill’s argument for Hedonism The non-derivative good is what people want non-derivatively: –Mill thinks that a non-derivatively good thing must be what all people want non- derivatively: what people want for itself, as an end, not as a means to something else. –So Mill thinks we should define ‘good’ as whatever ‘people’ desire in itself. But, Mill says, the production of pleasure and the absence of pain is what everyone desires. –And not only this, pleasure is the only thing people desire in itself. His evidence for this: look around!!! –What people do desire is just the production of pleasure and the absence of pain. –Mill says: just look around; think about yourself…
The form of Mill’s argument The form of Mill’s argument: –1. A non-derivatively good thing is one that people want for itself. –2. Happiness is the only thing that people want for itself. –3. Thus, happiness is the only non-derivative good. Is this argument sound? –Premise 1: –Premise 2? –What about the move to the conclusion?
Objection to Hedonism: the life of the beasts Some people object that hedonism is degrading. –It makes the best life the ‘life of the beasts’. –If a pig can live a life completely satisfied, while a morally concerned and thoughtful man like Socrates cannot ever be so satisfied, isn’t the life of the pig preferable? Mills reply: –It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied –Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.
Mill’s reply The form of Mill’s reply: –1-There are higher and lower pleasures. –2-Any amount of higher pleasure is preferable to any amount of lower pleasure. His evidence: anyone who has experienced higher pleasures would prefer them, on reflection, to lower pleasures. Higher pleasures: –any use of the mind including reflection or thought, Lower pleasures: –All pleasures not as a result of using the mind. –3-Since the life of the beast produces only lower pleasures, the life of the beast isn’t the best life at all.
The life of virtue Objection: wouldn’t you rather be virtuous than happy. –Selling out: Often we have the opportunity to ‘sell out’, to get something that will make us happy at the cost of doing bad. Many people would rather not do that. Mill’s reply: –The life of virtue is an important part of being happy. You wouldn’t really be happy if you sold out. ‘Selling out’ is usually a matter of trading virtue for something that is only derivatively good, like money.
Who counts? Objection: it is difficult to determine just who we include in our calculation of utility? –Do we include all person’s whose interest may be affected? –Only those in our own state? Our own community? Our own family? What about non-human sentient beings? Should their pleasure or pain count? –Singer: argues that since animals can feel pleasure and pain just like humans, their interests must be taken into account when calculating the overall good an action produces. So it is morally wrong to eat animals, to experiment on them, or to imprison them in zoos. Can you think of Mill’s reply to Singer’s argument? What about future generations? –Should we consider the interests of future persons? –Should we consider the environment?
Quantifying happiness? To determine how much pleasure vs. pain an act produces: –one must consider whether an act will lead to greater pleasure than pain –one must also consider the intensity of that pleasure (and the intensity of that pain). –Is an action Morally right if it: Brings a good number of people a small amount of pain But also brings a small number of people a great amount of pleasure. But it is extremely difficult to calculate the intensity of pleasure and pain. –Could you assign numeric values to your pleasures and pains? –And how do we assign numeric values to your pleasures and pains in comparison to my pleasures and pains or between higher and lower pleasures? Mill’s reply: –Estimation is sufficient…
Calculation is based on mere prediction Isn’t it just impossible to weigh out the pleasure and pain that result from an action. –Consider: How can we even predict all of the consequences of our actions? And how do we predict the pleasure and pain that will result from the consequences of our actions? A plausible response: –We are only trying to maximize probable utility.
Demanding-ness Utilitarianism really asks us to leave our lives to go cure world hunger: –If everyone’s happiness is of equal value to our own, then it will be hard to justify doing anything other than working to alleviate world hunger. Justifying School or a steak dinner? The response: –We know what will produce our own happiness better than what will produce happiness in other people. Counter-response: –Basic necessities…
Utilitarianism ignores the distinctness of person’s Utilitarianism could justify inflicting pain in some if others are afforded pleasure: –Slavery example: a utilitarian would have to weigh the suffering of those who would be slaves against the benefits accruing to those who would be slave owners. Making the trade off: –It may be possible for a single individual to make this trade-off One could weigh the pain of having a tooth pulled against the benefit of getting rid of the toothache, –But is it really possible to make this trade-off between people? Can you really justify inflicting pain on one person by pointing to the increased pleasure this will bring to others?
What about promises? Utilitarianism does not give sufficient weight to past acts: –Utilitarianism is forward looking it gives no weight to past acts. Past events have relevance only to the extent that they affect future consequences. –For the Utilitarian, the fact that I have promised to do something is not in itself a reason for doing it. As a Utilitarian, I will keep my promise only if keeping it will have the best consequences…
Promises once again The Utilitarian will often talk of justifying keeping a promise because of the negative consequences brought if it is broken: –I make it less likely that people will rely on my promises in the future –Undermining the institution of promise keeping But don’t we keep our promises for reasons other than that doing so produces pleasure? –Don’t we have a hard time breaking promises just because of what a promise is? Isn’t there something valuable about keeping a promise in and of itself?
What about Rights? For a Utilitarian there aren’t any absolute prohibitions –For anything can be justified if it produces the best consequences. –Thus, there are no absolute rights either. But aren’t there absolute rights? –These are rights that cannot be violated under any circumstances. –Consider the rights not to be tortured or murdered or… The reply: –while murder or torture, etc. might maximize happiness in extreme circumstances, –such circumstances are very unlikely & –it would almost always maximize happiness to respect rights against such conduct. The counter: –But this still allows for individual violations of such rights…
The fatal flaw of Utilitarianism The problem with Utilitarianism: –a Utilitarian would tell you to kill an innocent if it meant the production of more pleasure than pain. The real problem: the Utilitarian puts the good before the right –Utilitarians first decide what is good and then decide what is right by looking at what will produce the greatest amount of good. –As long as you do this, critics argue, no act is always morally wrong… Put the right before the good: –Some critics argue this is the only way to solve this problem…