Scott Sumner suggests utilitarian stories drive our moral intuitions: One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness. Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves … Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. … At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.
As a utilitarian, i get annoyed by the rather constant attacks on my morality of choice(tm). So being the type to over think things, i generally feels there's three major complaints against utilitarianism.
1) Almost every moral philosophy [b]will[/b] make an "Appeal to utilitarianism", namely the idea that there philosophy will be somehow better for everyone if followed and if you pull on that string you can very likely reduce the philosophy into a form of rules based utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can subsume practically any other system into itself, people don't want there pet ideology being an aspect of a bigger ideology.2) It reduces morality to a math problem, and people don't seem to want to accept the idea that all choice is really just a bunch of complex math problems. So morality is one of the places they more firmly sit on "This clearly isn't math."3) Utilitarianism, is, hard. It judges based on consequence which means there's no easy answer of "Will this be right or wrong." you literally can't know until after the fact(And since that action causes other actions.....), it also means everyone literally everyone fails to live up to it, and most people don't want to accept they aren't just and moral people.
Behold my bias, assuming not being a utilitarian is born of your bias.
"...reaching for the Holocaust as your example of evil every time strikes me as a kind of intellectual laziness."
Paul, I agree with those who criticize Godwin's Law. "Intellectual laziness" is useful shorthand when people want to discuss evil in some context without discussing endlessly what evil is:
1st guy: "Suppose you had this evil guy. An abortionist".2nd guy: "Wait, I don't find abortionists evil."
1st guy: "Suppose you had this evil guy. A politician".2nd guy: "Not all politicians are evil. Take for example my favorite..."
1st guy: "Suppose you had this evil guy. A murderer.".2nd guy: "What do you mean by murder? Killing is sometimes defensible..."
1st guy: "Suppose you had this evil guy. Like Hitler".2nd guy: "Ok. Go on."
I like Jess Riedel's example, although as others have suggested, utilitarianism seems to address more what one shouldn't do than what one should. For a more straightforward and realistic example, it wouldn't pain many of us to give a dollar (or ten) to every single charity we come across every time we come across it. Are we obligated to do so?
But suppose there was a network of voyerist photographers and fetishists who only photograph Amish women in the shower, and only from the neck down, so that these women will never see/recognize the photos of themselves being passed around on the Internet and thus will never experience any pain from it. Maybe they even do it with remote hidden cams so that getting caught is not a possibility. Utilitarianism seems to suggest this is OK, I suggest it is not.
Gus:You are accusing consequentialism of curve fitting. But this is really the problem of induction restated. Since we can never prove that induction isn't working what alternative do we have? Strict deontological maxims?
preference utilitarianism solves these sorts of thought experiments IMO. In the case of the beautiful woman, the classic utilitarian argument would be to say that her preference to not sleep with unattractive men is outweighed by the preferences of those men to sleep with her. But what if instead of trying to create "aggregate preferences" we only accounted for individual preference? Each individual preference of an unattractive man to sleep with her is perfectly counter balanced by her preference not to sleep with that particular man.
I do have grave misgivings about such a policy (one contradicts the received wisdom about ends and means at one's peril), but I also think it might very well be an effective policy for a country enduring repeated suicide attacks. The biggest downside that I can see is that it could easily be a public relations disaster for any government that tries it.
Interestingly, under the Geneva Conventions, the use of civilians as human shields is a war crime, and countries at war have every right to go ahead and kill them if they interfere with an attack on military targets.
(In other words, under international law, Hezbollah commits a war crime every time it builds a school and puts an arsenal in its basement, and the civilian casualties inflicted by Israel during its recent conflict in Lebanon were completely legal.)
While I also become frustrated at this way of doing philosophy, I think there is a really powerful objection lurking that is rarely given its proper treatment. The objection is that we don't ever really know the consequences of our actions. The objection is doubly powerful because not only do all theories of well-being have serious problems, but we also just cannot know or predict the future. As a result, we cannot know with any reasonable degree certainty the consequences of our actions. There is a decent paper by James Lenman about this called "Consequentialism and Cluelessness". Lenman also has a good response to Parfit's new book if anyone is interested.
Doug S., I have suggested the same policy regarding the families of terrorists. You're the only other person I can think of who agrees.
Utilitarian policy evaluation in the real world?
How about the use of scorched earth tactics and collective punishment in counterinsurgency warfare? This article describes simple and effective tactics by which a conventional army can defeat a guerrilla force. In the recent past, Russia used them very effectively to quell the insurrection in Chechnya. A few good massacres, such as the Hama massacre committed by the Syrian government, could easily save more lives in the long run by ending drawn-out conflicts before they start.
Additionally, I propose that we deter suicide bombers by executing the immediate family of people who commit such attacks. A suicide bomber is clearly willing to sacrifice his or her own life for the cause, but their relatives might not be willing to share that sacrifice.
Jess, if I were to hold her to the same standards that I hold myself, and there's nothing else more useful that she can do with a given hour, then yes, she is a bad person for not alleviating the misery that she alone can alleviate more effectively than anyone else, with a comparative advantage greater than any other comparative advantage she holds. But in fact it would be inappropriate for others to hold her to such a standard, unless she endorsed that standard herself, or she asked them for strict advice.
Robin, When you asked if anyone else had a similar idea, I slightly misunderstood the example you were referring to. Now that I see the quotation above, I do think that Peter Singer had a similar observation about vegans (but I don't recall whether he drew from that example the sort of broad generalization that I did.) Regarding Jess's example of the beautiful woman, that is exactly what I was referring to---anti-utilitarians seem to want to use these far-fetched thought experiments, rather than consider real world cases. If utilitarianism is so bad as a policy guide, why not use real world policy examples. I'll use one that (very slightly) shocks my moral sensibilities. Mandatory seat-belt laws that do save many people from dying and being paralyzed, but treat the public like children. But if paternalistic legislation is the worst counterexample that I can find in the real world, and if most people wouldn't even be shocked the way I am, then maybe utilitarian policy evaluation isn't that bad.Regarding David's last point, maybe policy rules are sneaking deontological principles in by the back door (although I have some doubts.) But even if that is so, my response would be that in any case utilitarianism is only interesting for policy evaluation, not as a personal guide to life. I don't expect people to care more about the welfare of 3 children on the other side of the world, than their own two children. I'm a pragmatist.
Jess is right. It's hard to get the three classic modes of deontic logic to apply in any form of utilitarianism (these modes are permissibility, impermissibility, and obligation). On its face, utilitarianism seems to allow only two modes, depending on whether an action increases or decreases utility, and those two modes are impermissibility and obligation. So, Jess's woman is in fact obliged to sleep with as many unnattractive men as possible, unless there is some use of her time that more effectively maximizes utility -- murdering the congenitally unhappy, perhaps? -- in which case sleeping with as many men as possible becomes morally impermissible.This unfortunate consequence of utilitarianism was recognized even by Mill, whose proposed solution was formally similar to Nick Tarleton's, but you'll notice that it also resembles the Kantian universalizability tests. Once you start talking about which generally applicable rules are utility-maximizing to follow you've begun to smuggle deontology in by the back door. Which is natural, I suppose, since the normative prescriptions of deontological systems -- even if these systems themselves don't stand up to thorough scrutiny -- bear at least a passing resemblance to what we call "ethics" in normal life.All of this has been well hashed out. As Jess said, perhaps OB readers would do well by reading moral philosophy textbooks.
Robin - if there are truly as few stories where efficiency is not violated as you suggest, then it is not merely the first stories in which efficiency is violated, but in all likelihood the first, the middle, and the last. On what basis do you claim that it is the first stories which are critical?
Furthermore, if there are truly so few stories were efficiency is not violated, then might this not reflect an underlying reality that efficiency tends to be violated? In that case, then causality becomes a question: maybe the moral conclusion is not caused by exposure to such stories, but rather, both the moral conclusion and those stories are both caused by the fact about efficiency.
Furthermore, is efficiency really violated in the stories, or is the reader's reaction one in which the harm to the victim outweighs the benefit to the victimizer? This may be a result of a pre-existing moral commitment on the part of the reader, which is thus elicited from the reader by the story rather than impressed into the reader by the story.
In short, the hypothesis seems highly speculative and the slim evidence offered in support seems consistent with many other hypotheses which seem to me on their face to be more credible.
Finally, I would like to repeat Richard's objection to "non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle." This is a false dichotomy.
Richard, if the efficiency violation in the first influential stories where we learn to see behaviors as immoral were an incidental feature, we should see many such stories where efficiency was not violated. The hypothesis that the efficiency violation was crucial to embracing the learned moral predicts fewer such exceptions.
Daniel Franke: Genocide is a fine example to use, but use a different example of genocide. Unless you're drawing on specific unique features of Nazi Germany in your example, reaching for the Holocaust as your example of evil every time strikes me as a kind of intellectual laziness.
Nick, Eliezer: As I understand it, utilitarianism is a moral theory which makes normative claims about the actions of individuals, e.g. agents should perform whichever actions maximize utility. So, utilitarianism says either "the woman ought to act in this way" or "the woman ought not act in this way". This is what I mean by the woman being "morally obligated".
This is a completely separate from how other agents ought to act with respect to the woman (a different normative claim) or how society should structure its laws/customs with respect to these actions to best bring about certain states of affairs (an empirical claim).
In other words, Nick, I think I disagree with your statement (as I understand it) that the term "utilitarianism" is used to refer to a collection of judgments about how society should be structure to maximize utility. If so, then utilitarianism would merely be an empirical science and we would still be left with the moral question "ought we implement utilitarianism?"
Eliezer, would you say the woman is a Bad Person for not so acting? Would you say she is a worse person than someone who, for instance, breaks into a poor graduate student's office and steals his laptop?