Friday, 17 January 2014
Issues with Utilitarianism
In generalizing utility this way, I think I have overcome one of the emotional objections to utilitarianism, which is the charge of shallowness. "Surely ethics is more than mere pleasure or mere happiness" the objection goes, and with Generalized Utility Utilitarianism (GUU), indeed it is. Still, there are other problems of a general sort, and I will refer to them as the problem of finitude, embodiment and depersonalization.
The last of these I will not comment on much here because I think a proper application of GUU solves it, though I will mention what it is: in classical utilitarianism, people are not valuable in themselves, but they are valuable because of their function as sentient beings. This produces some problems, most of which can be dismissed by classical utilitarians as moral squeamishness, but others jar our moral intuitions to such an extent that due consideration must be given. John Rawls points out one such consequence, that of telishment, which takes its root from the word punishment. The idea is this: if punishment for some crime, say rape, is to be justified in utilitarian grounds, then it must be the case that it maximizes utility overall. However, if such a thing as punishment (the inflicting of some suffering to reduce suffering overall, in utilitarian terms) is to be justified, then in some cases scapegoating innocent people will also work. If punishment is to act as a deterrence, then it only matters if the person is not responsible in the case that others know, so if nobody knows that someone else is in fact responsible for the rape, then telishment can act as a deterrent in much the same way. In short, the utilitarian framework justifies punishment only insofar as it deters others from committing the crime, not as an act of justice or of retribution. There is no room for people "getting what they deserve" in this classical utilitarian framework, unless it happens to be the case that it maximizes happiness, which leads to punishment-as-deterrence being non-specific to who actually committed the crime.
As I said, GUU seems to solve this problem quite comfortably, even if it can be criticized that it does so too comfortably: other values other than happiness make up Generalized Utility, and so Rawls' criticism falls flat if one were to add some value like justice to the mix.
The other two issues are far more substantial: embodiment refers to the fact that humans are situated in one place, at one time, living in concrete circumstances, such as particular familial and societal bonds. On the classical utilitarian view, absolute impartiality is demanded, so the difference between one's child and a stranger, or a baby child and a pig, is simply their capacity for utility. Failure to recognize this reality may lead to ethically erroneous results from utilitarianism.
Finitude is the term I will use to refer to the epistemic problem inherent in utilitarianism: an action that might usually have good results leads ultimately to a bad result, and so the person is said to have done the wrong action. Whilst a smile is usually harmless or brightens another person's day, for instance, smiling at some particular person may, in an unusual case, make them consider that everyone else must be much happier than they, and so lead to a cycle of self-harm and eventual suicide. Clearly a negative result came about from what is generally considered a good action, but nonetheless, since negative results ensued from the particular action of smiling at that particular person, the action must be condemned as morally wrong. How was the smiling person to know that their action would lead to a negative result? The essence of the problem of finitude is that the consequences of one's actions are ultimately unknown, and so the utilitarian is left with rules of thumb for acting, at best, and incurs the risk of doing wrong all the time.
These are real problems, even if in some sense they are not absolute: one can easily say that indeed, our intuitions about what follows from the fact of our concrete circumstances as individuals (as opposed to utility-containers) are flawed, and it is the case that one's duties towards one's consideration of one's children, as well as consideration of strangers, should be the same, that there is no moral difference between feeding one's child and the child of a stranger. The infamous ethicist Peter Singer seems to take this view in his well-known paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and his discussion of the drowning child story (as well as talk of the so-called "expanding circle") show that he at least cares little for geographical closeness. Considering this line of reasoning, the problem of embodiment is a form of the demandingness objection.
The finitude problem is also not absolute, in the sense that it is practical and not theoretical - the arguments for GUU could succeed without the practical capacity of actually being able to determine right from wrong in any given case. If that is the case, then one remains with the crucial question of trying to understand how to act morally, and then if the finitude problem proves unresolvable, then we are left conclusively in the dark, having proven that we cannot know what to do, morally speaking.
And yet, I do need to answer these objections, because GUU must result in, to put if quiantly, some sort of set of "family values", where my child and someone else's is counted differently, as well as being at least semi-practical in answering questions of "what ought I do?" In fact, just as with Rawls' telishment objection, I think family values can be incorporated into GUU. The more values get added to the calculation, however, the more difficult it becomes to solve the epistemic finitude problem, and here I am currently left to flail my arms, suggesting tentatively that a sort of rule GUU be used at present. Except, I cannot see how one is meant to justify that step in theoretical terms: if I really should maximize the good, then surely following some rules all the time will lead to actions which must be condemned. I cannot foresee how to solve the finitude problem.