Tom Houlden / Sunday, November 3, 2019 / Categories: Intro To Ethics Intro to Utilitarianism: Overview A history of different forms of Utilitarianism. Overview Imagine that you are kidnapped by a particularly monstrous individual who informs you she has made a weapon which she plans to deploy into one of two locations, A or B, and you must choose which one. The only information that your captor gives you is that if this weapon is deployed in location A it will result in the deaths of 10 people, and if it is deployed in location B it will result in the deaths of 20 people. Given this is the only information you have, which will you choose, to kill 10 saving 20, or kill 20 saving 10? Given this is the only information it seems unlikely that anyone is going to choose to deploy the weapon at location B which will result in double the number of deaths and it clear why one might think this; it is a worse outcome if 20 people die as opposed to 10. This is the broad line of thought that utilitarianism embodies: you ought to act in a way which leads to the best outcome. Now perhaps if your captor gave you more information you might make a different decision. What if you were informed that the people at location B were all bad people, or perhaps the people at location A were children and at location B they were elderly, or perhaps at location B there were 20 chimpanzees or 20 cows or 20 mice, or perhaps at all locations were children but the children at location A would grow up to achieve unusually magnificent things if they survive? All of these considerations may complicate this situation and play on a host of different feelings we may have, for instance that good people have more of a right to life than the bad, or that humans have more of a right to life than non-human animals. However, the core of utilitarianism is that when making these decisions, even when they get very complicated, the only thing we should care about is what leads to the best outcome. But how do we understand what the best outcome is? Philosophers have debated this for centuries, but in utilitarianism, the broadest word for the best outcome is the one which increases ‘utility’. Generally, some person's utility is how good or valuable their life is. Classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) tend to identify this with how pleasurable one’s life is, if someone experiences great amounts of pleasure and very little pain or misery, then this is a life with high utility. Other, more modern interpretations of utilitarianism, recognise utility not as a mental state of pleasure, but as the ability for one to fulfil the desires they have in their life, under this view achieving some career ambition or having a child might be the sort of thing that increase utility. Before jumping into the plethora of modern takes on utilitarianism, let’s look at it’s founding father Jeremy Bentham and how it was reimagined by John Stuart Mill. Classical Utilitarianism The utilitarianism of the early 19th century as imagined by Bentham and Mill was very radical for the time. Bentham’s original suggestion was that the only thing that matters morally is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. For Bentham, pain and pleasure ‘govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think’. One concern for people at the time and to this day is that it pleasure seems to be largely animalistic; any dog, cow or elephant can experience pleasure or pain in an analogous way to us. This concern led Mill to suggest that while it is true that increasing pleasure and decreasing pain is what is important, we as humans can experience higher and lower versions of pleasure and pain. For example, enjoying art or scientific discovery are a more complex form of pleasure which outweigh the sensual, lower pleasures of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. In order to validate this claim, that there are higher and lower pleasures, Mill would simply ask us to introspect: would you rather have a life filled with intensely pleasurable drugs or one filled with the more complex pleasure of a meaningful career? For Mill the answer to this question was obvious – we prefer a life filled with complex pleasures, so for Mill, utilitarianism was about maximising these more complex pleasures, particularly the ones that humans possess. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” Act and Rule Utilitarianism One division within utilitarianism is how broadly we should apply decisions about how to do the most good: should we look at each individual action or follow certain governing rules? The first answer to this, that we should be looking at each action case-by-case, is called act utilitarianism. The second answer to this question is that instead of looking at decisions case-by-case we should instead have a set of rules which have the best consequences and live by those. One of these rules might be ‘don’t lie’, another one might be ‘don’t kill anyone’ which can be justified with the logic that ‘if I never kill anyone or lie then this will lead to the best consequences’. How does this look in practice? Let’s look at the following example. Organ Harvesting: Act vs Rule Let’s say you’re a doctor looking after 5 ill patients, desperately in need of different organs, but without any hope of receiving said organs. Miraculously, you have another patient walk in, who is a perfect match for all 5 patients who need organs. If you are an Act Utilitarian, you would be compelled to kill the healthy patient, harvest his organs and transplant them into the sickly patients. Sure one innocent man would die, but 5 innocent people will live. If you are a Rule Utilitarian, you would be very hesitant to do what the Act Utilitarian does. Sure, the Act Utilitarian might immediately increase happiness in the short term, but what if news leaks out about the Doctor’s malpractice? Then public trust in the institution of medicine would plummet. This would no doubt bring about a huge amount of disutility for the public as trust declines. Thus you would be best to stick to the rules and perhaps even let the 5 die. Hedonistic and Preference Utilitarianism The early utilitarians had a strong focus on pleasurable mental states outweighing painful ones, however taking this as the only morally valuable thing can lead to some pretty unusual conclusions. For instance, what if a future neuroscientist were able to wire your brain up to a computer and simulate an existence which is intensely pleasurable, somewhat like in the film The Matrix. While this experience might be very pleasurable, to many people this outcome would be unappealing. Another example would be if you were a businessperson who believed your spouse loved you, your children loved you, your community adored you and your business was very successful. However, in reality your spouse was cheating on you, your children pretended to like you in order to use your car, your community pretended to adore you in order to motivate you to donate generously to their projects, and your business partner was stealing from the company without you knowing. As this person you might be very happy, but this happiness in reality is unjustified. In light of these concerns, some reject that pleasurable mental states can be all that matters, and instead think that things such as the ability to satisfy one’s preferences is instead what is really important. If we instead decided to focus on preferences there are a number of cases like with the businessperson or living in a Martix-esce world which can be avoided. For instance, if we agree that we have a preference or desire to not be deceived in our everyday lives the life of the deceived businessperson or a simulated existence are now unsatisfactory. Another case may be the wishes of someone on their deathbed. After all, if someone dies there is no one left to feel the pleasure of their dying wish being satisfied. However, some preference utilitarian views can consider the fulfilling of their dying wish to still be morally valuable. Positive vs negative utilitarianism Another debate within utilitarianism is whether encouraging positive consequences is as beneficial as trying to prevent negative consequences. Essentially this debate is whether the ‘goodness’ of good consequences is as good as the ‘badness’ of bad consequences is bad. How can we think about this? The case of torture and bliss One way to consider this distinction is to contemplate how you would respond to someone who offered you an opportunity, ‘if you accept one day of the most terrible torture I will give a pill which will give you two days of the most euphoric bliss’. Supporters of negative utilitarianism tend to offer this as a justification for their position as it seems like very few people would be willing to endure a full day of torture for any number of days in the same ballpark of bliss, let alone two days. Hence, perhaps we ought to place more weight on suffering than we do on pleasure. Conclusion Essentially, utilitarianism is the commitment that what matters is results. What exactly these results look like is a topic hotly debated, and I have mentioned just a few of the main debates in this article. While there is certainly something intuitively appealing about an explicit focus on results, this also tends to be the main criticism against utilitarianism; while results may matter many people think they are not all that matters. What about justice, or equality or duty? While utilitarians can justify these things instrumentally (justice, equality and duty may matter but only so much as they increase the utility of the world), they don’t assign them the intrinsic value that people tend to recognise in them. It was this lack of intrinsic worth that once led Bentham to suggest that rights are ‘nonsense upon stilts’. The question of whether or not the results of some action are all that is important, is a tough one resolve and is essentially the debate between utilitarians and people who subscribe to other moral theories. Like with most thinking about ethics, it is unlikely that any position with entirely satisfy all of your intuitions, hence, trying to find the position that leaves you the most satisfied is what doing ethics is. Does utilitarianism leave you more satisfied than other ethical theories? You and I will have different answers to this question, and this is what makes ethics a fun thing to do and discuss. Intro to Humanism: Desiderius Erasmus Intro To Normative Ethics Print 758 Rate this article: 3.0 Please login or register to post comments.