Party ’til Dawn?

Periodically I find myself subscribing to utilitarianism–the idea that doing the right thing consists of choosing the option that maximizes total happiness (or some variation on that theme).  It’s certainly a perspective to be taken very seriously.  By all means there’s a certain amount of hooey involved in every other ethical perspective. But utilitarianism has some horridly counterintuitive implications.

Here’s a great example from a Scientific American article on the ethics of climate change by the philosopher John Broome–

Suppose you calculate that the benefit to you and your friends of partying until dawn exceeds the harm done to your neighbor by keeping her awake all night. It does not follow that you should hold your party.

Indeed. The problem with Utilitarianism, some have claimed, is that it doesn’t take seriously enough the separateness of persons.  It may be that you should think of your hangover as offset by the good time you have at the party (both benefits and harms in the same person), but how can the revelers’ pleasure offset the neighbor’s suffering?

Well, the utilitarian must say, jacking up total happiness is a worthy goal.  But is it?  An odd thing about utilitarianism is that it postulates obligations that aren’t obligations to anyone.  The revelers should maximize happiness, but that’s not to say they really have a duty to anyone in particular to do so.  They’re not specifically obligated to the neighbor, or to each other, or to themselves.  They’re not obligated to the total good, surely.  They simply must pursue greatest total happiness, period.  The neighbor example succeeds very well at making you wonder: is that really the moral thing to do?

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