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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45 Comments.

  1. These are interesting issues. Two quick thoughts:

    (1) I think everyone should, on reflection (or reading Parfit), agree that we can have moral obligations that are not to any specific person. We are obliged not to despoil the planet in ways that will (i) cause different people to come into existence than otherwise would have; and (ii) will cause those new people to be worse off than the alternative people would have been. We can have obligations to humanity at large. See my ‘Badness Without Harm‘ for more detail.

    (2) The utilitarian needn’t claim that benefits to one person can ‘offset’ harms to another (whatever that means), but simply that a greater benefit is morally more important than a lesser harm, which should be uncontroversial. (I’ve always been unimpressed by the ‘separateness of persons‘ objection for this reason. It seems to rest on some kind of confusion. Though I think G.A. Cohen deserves kudos for coming up with a coherent objection in the vicinity.)

  2. Is having an obligation not to a person really that odd? Kantianism creates obligations not necessarily to persons, but to an ideal of reason, the categorical imperative. Heck all moral actions must be motivated by pure reason, not sympathy for persons.

    Virtue ethics creates ideals in a person’s character, and those are the ideals we have to live up to.

    I think outside of care, Utilitarianism is more closely connected with other beings than the other major ethical theories out there.

    Finally, I think if you think of Utilitarianism in just a theoretical sense it really does sound weird. But in the practical sense, its much less weird. We are to choose the option that maximizes happiness, and in the practical world there would be choices between not having the party and having a party that would disturb the neighbors. Only in the theoretical would we be confronted with the strange notion of only having the option of annoying your neighbors and having a good time, or not annoying your neighbors and watching friends reruns on TV.

  3. Re: the separateness of persons. In the example, it does make sense to think “Considering all the fun I’ll have all night, it’s worth it to suffer a hangover in the morning.” Utilitarianism (oddly) allows you to make the same sort of judgment when the fun belongs to one set of people, and the suffering to another. “Considering all the fun we’ll all have all night, it’s worth it for my neighbor to be miserable.” I don’t see why a Utilitarian would be entitled to outlaw that kind of “worth it” talk.

    Kantians seem to me to recognize duties to persons. It’s precisely because you have dignity and infinite value (and all that hooey) that I shouldn’t treat you merely as a means. So when I refrain from lying to you, I seem to be fulfilling a duty to you. They make a distinction between direct and indirect duties that only makes sense on the assumption that a duty can be to x, or instead only involve x, but really be to y.

    Confession: I haven’t followed up Richard’s links (too busy obsessing about Sarah Palin)…but thanks for them.

  4. I feel that the problem in the example isn’t so much “seperateness of persons” but rather the idea that actions matter in of themselves rather than just their consequences. (Which I guess you sort of allude to with your talk of “obligations to people.”) If you change the example to consider the choice being made by a disinterested third party (the landlord, let’s say) deciding whether it’s better for some tenants to party all night while others have trouble sleeping or for some tenants to be able to sleep soundly while others are bored due to a lack of partying, I think it’s less intuitive that the landlord is making the wrong decision by arguing that the party should go on (although there are certainly ethical schools that would find other problems with the decision).

    Therefore, it’s not a problem with “separateness of persons” being ignored (since shifting who is making the decision doesn’t seem like it should impact that) but it’s basically just the Trolley Problem in sheep’s clothing. It’s not a problem of whether we can reasonably say that the death of the fat man is compensated by the saving of the train’s passengers, but that we are uncomfortable about the particulars of how exactly we go about harming the fat man to save the train.

  5. The “duty to no one” problem can be resolved as long as you think people can have duties to themselves. Also, the person throwing the party could have a duty to their friends to let them have a fun time.

    The party example does make me less inclined to utilitarianism, but just because of the example itself, not because of any abstract reasoning about whom “duties” are “owed” to.

  6. Since I tend to deprecate being forced to listen to other people’s noise, it seems to me immoral for people to party at the expense of someone else’s sleep, and her ability to do her job the next day. We can make exceptions a few times a year, and say that it’s okay to party once in awhile. But why should X’s right to party routinely overcome Y’s right to have an undisturbed sleep? And even if we speak of XXXXXX and X, against Y, it still seems intuitive to me, that a crowd doesn’t automatically have the right to disturb one person just because they’re a crowd. I’m with Jean on this one. I don’t see how utilitarianism can rule out the argument that all those Xs’s pleasures defeats the misery of one Y.

    Unlike Jean, I have read a bit on the links provided by Richard, and it seems to me that Cohen’s objection to utilitarianism is decisive, as it would be for Rawls too, because in this case each person is in fact thought of as something of value in itself (in Rawls’ case, has a legitimate place in the original position), whose misery and suffering must be taken into account, and cannot be justified by counting up pleasures on the other side (and would not be justified by counting up pleasures in the original position, because, after all, it just might be you!).

    Regarding UserGoogol’s remark that:

    it’s less intuitive that the landlord is making the wrong decision by arguing that the party should go on,

    this seems to me just wrong. Why does a third party change the moral balance of the situation? In fact, many municipalities have rules about noise after a certain hour to deal with this kind of situation, and puts it out of the realm of individual moral decision making altogether. The woman could just phone the police. Is this intuitively wrong? It doesn’t seem to me that it is. We make rules of this kind because we tend to hold that an individual’s peace of mind is more important than the pleasure that might be derived from needlessly disturbing it.

    I hope this is the answer, because when I ask my neighbour to turn down his stereo, and he tells me that he has a right to enjoy his own music in his own home with his friends, I can answer that I have a right to the quiet enjoyment of my own. And he would probably agree with me when he, after a hard night’s work, tries to rest, and I turned up Gotterdamerung” at full blast.

  7. JK- Yeah, Kant has his humanity formula, but undercuts all of his philosophy with the dictum that if you’re not doing it for the proper intentions, that is doing it out of respect for the C.I. then its not a moral action. So if I’m not partying because I want to respect my neighbors, and not because I’m rationally compelled to follow the moral law, then I’m being immoral. Now this is a strict Kantian position, and I know most Neo-Kantians and even people who utilize Kantianism today strikes it out, thus giving us the ability to do things for other reasons besides the C.I. as long as it is consistent with the C.I. But that severely hurts the foundation of reason that justifies Kantianism in general and his focus on intentions and the character of the action, rather than the consequences which sets him apart from all others.

  8. Eric: Ah, I think I may have misunderstood the “intuition” that Jean was appealing to. (My own intuitions are that utilitarianism is obviously true and if there happen to be some weirdnesses that arise then oh well.)

    I was thrown off by the emphasis on the word you in “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?” And as such thought the problem was in people trying to offset someone else’s dissatisfaction with their own satisfaction, rather than there being a problem in general with one person’s satisfaction offsetting another’s dissatisfaction.

  9. We make rules of this kind because we tend to hold that an individual’s peace of mind is more important than the pleasure that might be derived from needlessly disturbing it.

    I can’t tell which of two claims is being made here:

    (1) There is more value/utility to peace of mind than to frivilous pleasure.
    or
    (2) We have a moral duty to respect others’ peace of mind, even at the cost of more valuable benefits to others.

    #1 seems plausible, but is perfectly compatible with (non-hedonistic versions of) utilitarianism. After all, the claim is precisely that the person who lacks peace of mind is *harmed more* than the partiers benefit. So the utilitarian will not approve such a negative-sum tradeoff.

    #2 would indeed be an objection to utilitarianism, but doesn’t strike me as nearly so plausible.

  10. I agree with Eric that the third party standpoint doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter who’s pondering the case–the partiers, the neighbor, or the landlord. It does not seem as if the partiers’ gain justifies the neighbor’s loss. Imagine there are just 10 partiers and the neighbor is complaining. The partiers think their case is a little shaky. Could they possibly solve the problem by inviting in another 10 partiers and making their collective gain even greater?

    It seems like this is a “separateness of persons” point because if gains and losses were all in one person, jacking up the gains might make later losses justifiable. If you double your fun at the party, you might then think the next day’s hangover is worth suffering.

    Wayne–Hmm, I don’t know that the two kinds of Kantian talk are really incompatible. We are to have respect for the moral law, but when we contemplate why the moral law is a law, we can see it’s because of the dignity and infinite value (etc) of persons, because they too respect the moral law. So the talk of “duties to persons” is fairly natural in Kant-land. Not so natural within Utilitarianism… But maybe that’s neither here nor there, and really Broome’s scenario is just a nice challenge to Utilitarianism, period, no diagnosis.

    It has an advantage over artificial trolley cases, etc., because it’s so familiar, but also because with the stakes so low (it’s not a life and death situation) our intuitions come very quickly. Trolley cases (and the like) make me feel very puzzled, but the party example doesn’t.

  11. Jean – I think there are also two possible objections being bundled together in your complaint.

    It seems like this is a “separateness of persons” point because if gains and losses were all in one person, jacking up the gains might make later losses justifiable. If you double your fun at the party, you might then think the next day’s hangover is worth suffering.

    Let’s clarify things by comparing an intermediate case where the benefit of all 20 people accrues just to me (suppose listening to loud music alone late at night gives me great benefits somehow). As before, the (stipulated lesser) harm falls on my neighbour. Do you find this case objectionable?

    This should help isolate whether your objection is to utilitarian sacrifice as such, i.e. one person suffering harms for a different person’s benefit. Otherwise, it may be that you’re fine with trade-offs in principle, but you’re not on board with crude aggregation — a multitude of little benefits do not necessary sum to a great benefit overall.

    Note that these are very different objections.

  12. Good question. Yes, I do find your “intermediate case” objectionable. Say my drumming in the middle of the night bothers my neighbor. It doesn’t seem to help my case that my enjoyment is huge (like the 20 partiers’ fun put together).

    It seems to me objections to aggregation are best made with scenarios where each person’s gain is very, very tiny, but there are lots people. A million people get a slight bit of pleasure from watching an animal get tortured.

    Of course, you couldn’t possibly think one person’s gains never outweigh another’s losses, but Utilitarianism seems to make it too easy to think in those terms.

  13. Isn’t there some kind of harm principle involved? Let’s imagine the pleasure of 20 thugs gang-raping a young lady. Would that pleasure outweigh the pain of the victim? I think not. Being, like Eric, extremely sensitive to my neighbors’ TV sets blasting a football game with cheers of joy when the home team scores a goal, electric drills, and love of loud salsa music, I will follow his advice one night and try Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at full volume. Or maybe the International.

  14. Don’t underestimate the negative utility of pissing off a neighbor. There are definite consequences to face with having a bad relationship with your neighbors, as well as benefits for having good relations. It seems that compromise would be of the most utility. End your party at a reasonable hour, have the neighbor over, or something like that. That way your neighbor will be more sympathetic toward *your* personal happiness when he (or she) makes decisions that involve you, in return, and your personal happiness increases.

    Taking actions that increase the sympathy of others toward you is often higher utility than you might think at first. Since nearly everyone uses basic utilitarian principles to guide their behavior, having one of their sources of pleasure be “keeping you happy” is in your best long-term interest.

  15. “It seems that compromise would be of the most utility.”

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Personal anecdote–I once lived next door to an extended family of Mexican bricklayers. At 6 in the morning, they started revving the engines of their pick-up trucks and throwing tools in the back of the trucks, all with loud yelling and laughing. This was apparently an exhilarating way for them to start the day. My bedroom was right next to their drive-way. When I finally complained in a very nice, respectful note, one of them came over and ripped it up in front of me. Apparently I had committed an outrage. They had nothing to gain by taking my feelings into account. Truth is, if they’d done so, I would have had nothing to offer them in return. They lived in one cultural world and I lived in another. They all seemed so happy whooping it up at 6 am, it would not surprise me if they really were maximizing the balance of happiness over misery. I just happened to be the one experiencing the misery.

  16. Richard: “The utilitarian needn’t claim that benefits to one person can ‘offset’ harms to another (whatever that means), but simply that a greater benefit is morally more important than a lesser harm, which should be uncontroversial.”

    The ‘offsetting’ refers to the idea that classic utilitarianism prescribes the individual utilitarian to take a course of action which will lead to the maximum obtainable good, and that the harm done by an action can be safely ignored if it does a greater good. I believe the reason the language of ‘offsetting’ came to be adopted was simply because of all the accountancy-eseque language used to describe utility calculus (itself a deeply suspect ‘dark art’).

    I’m not at all sure that it is uncontroversial though, which is why I jump off the utility boat at a very early stage. To grant that “a greater benefit is morally more important than a lesser harm” seems to prescribe e.g. that if I am the chap in the house being kept awake by the late night party, I should not complain to these people that they’re keeping me awake, at least so long as I realize that by their doing so they are generating a greater amount of pleasure for themselves than I would obtain as a result of a good nights sleep. Or at any rate, if I do I should not use the language of ‘oughts’ – ‘you ought to stop keeping people awake’, ‘you ought not to treat other people like that’. I think that’s utter nonsense and is a fair demonstration of the bankruptcy of utilitarianism, or classical utilitarianism at any rate. If I wish to say why I must ultimately point to something like ‘I don’t consider YOUR benefit and MY harm to be expressible units of the same sort, or to be exchangeable in some form of economic exchange such that your pleasure has any bearing on what I should or should not do. This basic idea is given a convenient label when it is rendered into the form: “Utilitarianism doesn’t respect the separateness of persons”.

    I can understand if what you want from a moral theory demands that this objection is nonsensical, but if – like me – you find any talk of utility calculus to be (obviously!) wrongheaded gibberish then I suspect you’d find ‘the separateness of persons objection’ to be a surprisingly good articulation of one of the major problems you have with utilitarian thinking. In short: I don’t think it’s time to dismiss separateness of persons just yet.

  17. “Personal anecdote–I once lived next door to an extended family of Mexican bricklayers . . . .”

    Jean, it sounds like not only were they an extended family of bricklayers but also an extended family of sociopaths, or at least a family dominated by people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder. People like that act recklessly without regard to the happiness of those around them, which clearly they did in your case. That is not normal, healthy behavior.

    It’s because of such types of unhealthy people that we have to sacrifice some of our liberty to put up with police.

  18. “. . . if I am the chap in the house being kept awake by the late night party, I should not complain to these people that they’re keeping me awake . . . .”

    Duncan, can you explain to me how you have arrived at the conclusion that complaining (respectfully, politely, etc) would cause more harm to your neighbors than the happiness that it would potentially give you?

    Perhaps you could try to reach a compromise with them so that they could have their party, but they could keep the noise down after a certain time so you could get your rest? Wouldn’t that maximize the happiness of all involved?

    And as I’ve stated in posts above, do not discount the feelings of sympathy that emotionally healthy people have for those around them. Making you unhappy should displease them, especially if you’re being respectful and offering a reasonable compromise.

    It is unfair that detractors of utilitarian ethical systems make the assumption that people are sociopathically unsympathetic to one another. Any ethical system would seem bad if that were the base assumption.

  19. “Duncan, can you explain to me how you have arrived at the conclusion that complaining (respectfully, politely, etc) would cause more harm to your neighbors than the happiness that it would potentially give you?”

    Well that seemed to be the assumption of the set-up, didn’t it? Albeit considered from the revelers point of view who nevertheless possessed some insight into the neighbour’s situation. Surely I could tell a story whereby it would, though, couldn’t I? If I, the neighbour, were to complain then the revelers would end up either a) partying on, in the knowledge that they were in the meantime disturbing me (which we can imagine might make them less happy than if they were blissfully unaware of this fact) or b) ending their party and presumably losing out on many joyful hours expressing their joie de vivre. While I can imagine people ending a party when a member complains, if I’m honest, I do find it rather hard to see that – IF you were inclined to reduce all actions to quasi-economic exchanges of utility units – the neighbour informing the revelers that they are disturbing him would increase the overall utility (whether (a) or (b) were the result. But surely this is besides the point: sure there /might/ be folks who when someone complains about a late-night party, get a real buzz out of doing him a mitzvah and rapping it up which would exceed the pleasure they might have by continuing it, it would seem that the alternative scenario is both the more likely and the more philosophically interesting. (“But what if the pig WANTS to be eaten?”)

    “It is unfair that detractors of utilitarian ethical systems make the assumption that people are sociopathically unsympathetic to one another.”

    But surely if people are not ‘sociopathically unsympathetic’ there’s no real need to be a utilitarian. If, as I believe (following Hume, I should add) that human nature, combined with appropriate nurture, is such as to be capable of deriving pleasure from altruistic acts then people don’t need philosophers telling them to maximise utility. In the best cases, it’s like telling a jam lover to eat jam. In the worst, it’s like telling someone who hates jam to eat jam. Either way, it seems a rather futile exercise. I can’t help but feel there is something fundamentally wrongheaded about Utilitarian and Kantian attempts to explain (and prescribe) moral behaviour by appeals to anything other than perfectly ordinary pleasure seeking.

  20. Duncan –

    people don’t need philosophers telling them to maximise utility

    That’s not what philosophers are doing. Nor are they trying to “explain behaviour” — that’s the job of psychology. Our business here is philosophical inquiry — we’re theorizing about the nature of rightness, or what makes actions right or wrong (as a matter of abstract fact). Most utilitarians do not recommend people attempt to actually follow the theory directly. (Note the distinction between a moral theory and a decision procedure.)

  21. “Nor are they trying to “explain behaviour” — that’s the job of psychology.”

    Would it avoid the accusation that I am confusing philosophy with empirical science if I substituted the word ‘justify’. Could you explain to me what ‘The Possibility of Altruism’ (to take an example) is doing, if it is not attempting to justify moral behaviour by appeals to (non-sentimental) rationality – a task which only seems to be required if you find appeals to natural moral sentiments unsatisfactory for whatever reason.

    “Most utilitarians do not recommend people attempt to actually follow the theory directly. (Note the distinction between a moral theory and a decision procedure.)”

    Well utilitarianism certainly started as a decision procedure; it’s hardly my fault it’s advocates have been back sliding since. I found a wonderful quote once from a leading utilitarian from yesteryear uttered in a debate (it was turn of the century, but the sentiment seems a little too crude for Sidgwick) saying something to the effect of: if you put to a man any two cases, he will inevitably choose the utilitarian option – therefore utilitarianism gives a correct account of what we all in actuality think about morality. Now if you compare this, say, to the attitude towards intuitive reactions to cases in Living High and Letting Die I think you see something interesting about the way in which utilitarianism has evolved. I take the point that it’s now more commonly found as ‘indirect utilitarianism’ or a ‘criterion theory’ or whatever you wish to call it, but I’m dealing with a beast which has almost completely changed its stripes in the past century, so it’s understandable if what I’m inclined to say about classic utilitarianism does not necessarily apply to every flesh and blood utilitarian walking the streets today. You would accept, I suppose, that Peter Singer (for example) is apparently unaware that people aren’t expected to follow the dictates of utilitarian moral theory directly?

    Let us suppose (and it’s not even all that false) that I’m actually not totally clear on the distinction between a moral theory and a decision procedure. Let’s suppose that I, quite reasonably, assume you mean to make a distinction between a theory which tells you how to understand the meaning of moral (or morally laden) terms within a language and a formal procedure telling you what to do in such-and-such circumstances. Now, supposing we return to the case at issue in the above blog post. Are you really telling me that you believe the case of the late night revelers, what they ought to do and the corresponding ‘seperateness of persons’ objection to the classic utilitarian way of responding to the problem pertains more to the former – that is, semantic inquiry – than it does to the latter? I really don’t see that it does. So, if you want to talk about utilitarianism as a semantic theory, that’s one thing – and I have, I believe, a few arguments I can offer against it – but it really does seem to me that the case in question is one in which we are dealing with a ‘decision procedure’, does it not?

  22. “Well that seemed to be the assumption of the set-up, didn’t it?”

    That’s only because the premise of the “set-up” was questionable at best. Why, if the net happiness would be served by having the party anyway and letting your neighbor suffer, would it be wrong to continue on with your party? Or, in the specific case in question — when dealing with climate change — if the net benefit would be to take actions that precipitate climate change, why would it be wrong to continue those actions?

    I’m making a utilitarian argument that, in fact, it is wrong to continue with the party.

    The offered premises are that:

    1) You and your friends want to party until dawn.
    2) You and your friends are aware that your neighbor will suffer.
    3) Partying until dawn will bring you and your friends a great deal of pleasure, and that that pleasure notably outweighs any potential suffering that will be inflicted on your neighbor.
    4) Partying until dawn at the expense of your neighbor is intuitively unethical.

    Clearly, the readers, who can empathize with the poor bastard being kept up all night by obnoxious neighbors, feel that this isn’t the ethical thing to do. They are, therefore, tricked into believing that this is a failure of the utilitarian model of ethics. This is a false conclusion. I am claiming that premise 3 implies …

    3A) You and the party goers do not sympathize with your neighbor, thus avoiding significant negative utility due to your disregard for their feelings and the impact of your party on their welfare. In other words, you and the party goers suffer from the antisocial personality disorder.

    3B) Utilitarian ethical calculus should be based on the potential utility to emotionally unhealthy individuals.

    This is, of course, the author’s real argument against utilitarianism, and it is unfair. Considering that we are talking about theoretical “happiness” it is only right that we consider the happiness of emotionally healthy individuals, not those suffering from dire personality disorders.

    It is clear that if you drop your assumption that utilitarianism is based on the happiness of sociopathic individuals, then the writer’s premise 3 would appear false.

  23. “If, as I believe (following Hume, I should add) that human nature, combined with appropriate nurture, is such as to be capable of deriving pleasure from altruistic acts then people don’t need philosophers telling them to maximise utility.”

    You, being an obviously emotionally healthy individual, don’t need anyone to tell you that partying all night at the expense of your neighbors is unethical. But there are ethically complicated situations that you may find yourself needing to examine more closely — whether abortion, or euthanasia is ethical or not, for instance. There are many emotionally healthy individuals who have very different views on this subject, and whose ethical calculus may differ from one another.

    They may find it helpful to discuss their differences in terms of rational, secular utility, rather than focusing on the typical arbitrary morality arguments that are typically encountered. For example, “It’s wrong to interfere with a woman’s reproductive rights” versus “Life is sacred.” The utilitarian framework would frame the debate around maximizing the happiness of women who want the freedom to decide on their own reproduction and minimize the unhappiness of those who sympathize with the potential human life in question (in addition to several other ethical factors that I won’t get into here).

    My point is, just because it is not particularly useful to analyze utility in the very simple example of the “All Night Party”, does not mean that it does not serve a use as a framework for rational debate about more complicated and controversial ethical issues.

  24. Richard said:

    That’s not what philosophers are doing. Nor are they trying to “explain behaviour” — that’s the job of psychology. Our business here is philosophical inquiry — we’re theorizing about the nature of rightness, or what makes actions right or wrong.

    That, of course, is true, but if philosophers do find out what it is that makes actions right or wrong, then they are also making recommendations as to how to act. Why else should they want to know?

    It seems to me that what this discussion shows is that calculable utility or disutility is not what makes an action right or wrong. It ends up with too many unintuitive results. UserGoogol suggests that

    My own intuitions are that utilitarianism is obviously true and if there happen to be some weirdnesses that arise then oh well.

    It is the weird outcomes that, to my mind, makes utilitarianism quite unintuitive. If Richard can use it to justify listening to his music despite the disturbance it causes, just because he can rate his own experiences of higher utility than his disturbed neighbour’s disutility, then the theory is obviously morally corrupt. For one could, in theory, apply that to any outrageous action.

    The intuitive part of utilitarianism is that moral action has something to do with benefit and harm, but just how benefits and harms are related to justifying moral action is much more complex than utilitarianism seems to allow. Even A Liberal Atheist’s point is unclear. He says, regarding the question of abortion:

    The utilitarian framework would frame the debate around maximizing the happiness of women who want the freedom to decide on their own reproduction and minimize the unhappiness of those who sympathize with the potential human life in question (in addition to several other ethical factors that I won’t get into here).

    It’s the other ethical factors that are important, and have to be added before, not after, any calculation of utility. There may be no ethical reason whatever to minimise the unhappiness of those who sympathise with potential human life, and in such a case the calculation of utility is irrelevant. How does one sympathise with a potential? Utility itself cannot, I suggest, provide the framework for rational debate here. Otherwise, we may well end up calculating harm to people who have no right to be counted at all. As in the case of freedom of speech. Do we really need to calculate the offence that people may take at what I say, before I say it? The utilitarian frame is often the wrong one to use, if my view.

  25. A Liberal Atheist: “3A) You and the party goers do not sympathize with your neighbor, thus avoiding significant negative utility due to your disregard for their feelings and the impact of your party on their welfare. In other words, you and the party goers suffer from the antisocial personality disorder.”

    I don’t know, would you say it’s sociopathic to hold that for at least one plausible way of understanding the term pleasure the following is true: “I would feel more pleasure from three hours of partying with my friends than three hours not partying in the knowledge that by doing so I avoided keeping my neighbour up.” In fact, this claim seems to me so obviously true that it constitutes a (note: not insoluble) problem for utilitarianism in its most primitive form; namely that it has to discriminate between the ‘utility’ or pleasure or whatever I get from partying and the utility of pleasure I get from refraining from partying knowing that it will benefit my neighbour. Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures comes to mind here, and you could say that the latter is a higher pleasure and so should be favoured, but Mill’s distinction always seemed (to me at least, though I gather it’s a popular enough opinion) arbitrary and ill-defined.

    (Incidentally it would be wrong to imply this was just a problem from utilitarianism. Even the ‘sentimental pleasure seeking’ theory would have to cope with an analogue: why it is that I sometimes act to seek the pleasure I get from helping out a neighbour, or act upon delayed but anticipated pleasures as opposed to the pleasures of partying or the pleasures of the moment. Explaining this kind of behaviour is a task I’d certainly be loathe to give over to psychologists alone to solve).

    “(in addition to several other ethical factors that I won’t get into here).”

    Yes, I’m well aware that a lot of people are attracted to (classical: les Richard complain) utilitarianism because of it’s ability to produce answers in applied ethics. I just worry that if utilitarianism (a) cannot be justified rationally and (b) does not accurately describe the sentiments we find human beings in the main to have, which is to say I cannot be shown either that I am a utilitarianism or that I must be, then that’s a bit of a trivial point to say ‘oh well, if you were, you’d get a lot of clear answers’. I would, but if those clear answers conflict with my moral intuitions, why should I care about for them? This seems to have led to a dialectical move – I mentioned Peter Unger’s very interesting book earlier – to then criticise moral intuitions as incoherent and poorly put together. This creates a kind of pragmatic argument for utilitarianism as, if the ‘decision procedure’ you were born (or rather, bred) with apparently isn’t any good, you might want to adopt another which is available (whether that would be possible is another question).

    There’s an additional complication (though perhaps not insoluble – there hasn’t been a utility calculus problem built which Parfit cannot solve) that it isn’t clear whose utility I should be concerned about. You are caching out the morality of abortion in terms of the utility to the mother. But suppose we consider the utility of society. Perhaps (and this is what a lot of people who are concerned about the falling birthrate in western countries seem to be worried about) society needs a certain number of births in order to support the elderly and that always places a demand upon the mother /not/ to have an abortion. But someone might well point out that if we maintain a birth rate required to support the elderly, the population of the world will grow rapidly and soon reach the point at which we are unable to feed ourselves, so forseeable future generations may claim that utility demands that we should have as many abortions as possible in order to delay the time we reach the point of overpopulation. So whose utility ought we to be concerned about here?

    Eric said: “It is the weird outcomes that, to my mind, makes utilitarianism quite unintuitive.”

    Quite so; if utilitarianism were /wildly/ counter intuitive it would never have been advocated in the first place. But – and this is a point I was trying to make by my historical rambling to Richard – when Utilitarianism was originally presented as a moral (as opposed to Political) theory it was advocated as capturing, and perhaps clarifying, the moral sentiments we all share. There wasn’t any need for an a priori justification of it. But as time as shown that this kind of stance is implausible (the cases are legion in which people’s intuitions stray from the utilitarian) the theory has evolved to on the one hand Singer and Unger: ‘your intuitions aren’t any good, adopt our alternative and the world will be better for it’ and the indirect utilitarianism on the other which drops the prescriptive element but maintains the equally implausible claim that it is a satisfactory analysis of moral terms. To say utilitarianism is counter intuitive would not faze the former and to say you are unwilling to follow its prescriptions would be a matter of indifference to the latter.

  26. Sorry to hijack the post but what would be a philosophers response to the idea of a pill to make us all ‘more moral’? Check out the link below for an article in this months British Journal of Psychiatry on the psychopharmacology of morality…

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/5638725/Can-pharmacology-help-enhance-human-morality

  27. Paul, I think that’s a really interesting question. It depends whether the drugs will enhance or interfere with morality. If they make people automatically do the right thing, then they stop being genuinely moral. So the drugs would interfere. For Kant, that would be not-good because being moral has infinite value (that’s a lot!). Even if the drugs stopped people from murdering people, I think he would be opposed.

    I can imagine, though, a drug that actually enhances morality. Maybe on your mental blackboard the moral law is getting faded and smudged and the drug improves matters. Maybe you’re too hyperactive to read the mental blackboard and it calms you down. I can see how there could be Kant-approved drugs that improve morality. I’m sure that should be included in the drug label…

    Sorry for the “X would say Y” type of answer. I think there’s a kernel of truth to the above–that morality itself is to be preserved, if at all possible. We let kids make their own moral decisions, even as we watch them make the wrong ones. But not if the decision is to do something really abysmal. I think of morality itself as an ingredient of “the good life”–as I discuss in my book on that subject.

  28. It seems to me that a good normative ethical theory must take human nature into account: for example, a theory which affirms that the needs of others necessarily have priority over one’s own needs may sound beautiful (you can derive it from the Gospels), but it runs counter to human nature and thus, leads to hypocrisy or to an excessive sense of guilt, since no one can follow it. In my opinion, people make ethical decisions for different reasons in different situations: some decisions may be utilitarian, while in other situations utilitarian modes of reasoning just don’t fit or are completely counter-intuitive. It is impossible to fit all ethical decisions into one theoretical framework or rather one can posit that all ethical decisions should fit within one theoretical framework, only by affirming a theory that at times is so distant from human nature that it is utopian or absurdly counter-intuitive.

  29. Very interesting! I respond to Jean in a new post: Virtue Pills

  30. Spence in his article discusses ‘meta-responsibility’. E.g., the person who knows they become violent when they drink is judged responsible for their violent actions if they choose to drink (even if they have reduced capacity at the time of the violence).

    By the same token, the person who takes Ethicazol or Procare to make themselves more compassionate is surely still responsible for their compassionate actions (even if they have reduced capacity at the time of their kindness)?

    Spence also makes the fair point that much of our pill-popping is already motivated by moral concerns.

    Still though, think of the implications. First of all, there’s the role of drug companies having a business interest in promoting their particular brand of morality (can you imagine the adverts?). Secondly, how does everyone feel about offenders potentially being compelled to take ‘virtue pills’, perhaps as a condition of their release? Again it’s not necessarily new. Violent or predatory offenders are already compelled to attend treatment, although the yuck factor is reduced because often this treatment is psychological (although sometimes it is pharmacological, as Spence rightly points out)

    More generally, how does everyone feel about doctors and psychologists (scientists essentially) making these ‘treatment decisions’. Is this not a role for applied moral philosophers!?

  31. Can an economic solution to the party problem (sometimes) help?

    I realise that going ahead with the party is not a Pareto solution – my neighbour loses. Consider two cases:
    1) If it is solely my enjoyment of loud music (one-person party) versus her/his sleeplessness that is at stake then i assume our utility valuations are equal and opposite – so it would be immoral (and of net utility zero) to go ahead. I could even argue that ensuing bad relations make it a negative net utility.
    2) If it is the enjoyment of a loud party of 20 people that disturbs a family of 3, say, that is at stake, then we (the partyers) can pay something out of our utility gained to compensate the family. We could offer each to pay €10 so thát the family could (if it chooses) pay for a night in a hotel. [here i assume place and time constraints allow e.g. availabilty of hotel nearby / Saturday night]. If no compensation is possible, (or offered) then the default position is not to party.

  32. “If no compensation is possible, (or offered) then the default position is not to party.”

    That doesn’t seem like something a utilitarian is entitled to say. For utilitarians, the hotel option may be best, but if that’s not available, the remaining options have to be compared as well. It’s better for the 20 partiers to enjoy themselves ’til dawn, despite the neighbor’s misery, and worse to stop at some decent hour, leaving the 20 unhappy and the neighbor asleep. Which is counterintuitive.

  33. “It’s better for the 20 partiers to enjoy themselves ’til dawn, despite the neighbor’s misery, and worse to stop at some decent hour, leaving the 20 unhappy and the neighbor asleep. Which is counterintuitive.”

    Your conclusion is not only counterintuitive, it is wrong. You’ve stubbornly oversimplified the ethical calculus.

  34. “You’ve stubbornly oversimplified the ethical calculus.”

    I haven’t done any such thing. Sure, there’s the occasional case where total happiness will be greater if the party ends early. Maybe the neighbor is rich and will take them all out on his yacht the next day, if they just show him some consideration. But you don’t get to assume that, just to save utiltiarianism.

    In perfectly conceivable (indeed, common) cases, a party enjoyed by 20 people maximizes happiness if it goes on all night, even if it causes one neighbor misery. The partiers are doing the right thing, if utilitarianism is true. The fact that you can dream up examples where things are different doesn’t solve the problem.

  35. It’s better for the 20 partiers to enjoy themselves ’til dawn, despite the neighbor’s misery, and worse to stop at some decent hour, leaving the 20 unhappy and the neighbor asleep. Which is counterintuitive.

    Did you mean to say ‘right’, rather than ‘better’? I thought you meant to stipulate that it’s part of the scenario that the partying outcome is in fact better. (Otherwise no consequentialist would endorse it.) The question is whether it’s right to bring about the better outcome here. If you don’t even think the outcome is better, then the utilitarian has no problem here — your objection is to hedonism as a theory of welfare, not welfarism (utilitarianism) as a theory of rightness.

    (Cf. my response to Eric upthread.)

  36. I was responding to richardkopf, who threw out the idea that the best option must be that the party goes on, but the neighbor is paid to go to a hotel. Of course, I can just stipulate that option’s not available. The neighbor truly hates hotels, or whatever, but I decided to accomodate him. Then that’s the right thing to do and utilitarianism doesn’t, after all, tell the partier to ignore the problems of the neighbor. That’s what he was driving at.

    But there’s still a problem. I should think a utilitarian does not want to lump together all the alternatives as equivalent. If I don’t do the right thing, I ought to choose the better of the alternatives, not the worse. A utilitarian says it’s better to party ’til dawn, worse to defer to the neighbor. Again, not intuitive.

    I should think it’s important for a moral theory to say plausible things about the moral decisions of imperfect people who don’t do the very best thing all the time. It ought to rank the alternatives plausibly and dole out partial credit in a reasonable way. OK, so I’m not a vegan. But I’m a vegetarian, and that’s better than being an omnivore. That kind of thing.

  37. I don’t think that addresses my concern about bearing clear on the different senses of ‘better’. It sounds like you mean ‘morally superior choice’, rather than ‘more valuable outcome’. But I want to be clear on this. Are you denying that partying till dawn yields a better outcome than deferring to the neighbour? Is this what you think is ‘counterintuitive’? Or do you agree it’s a better outcome, but claim it would nonetheless be a morally worse decision?

  38. Argh, my comment got eaten by bears. That should read “being clear”. 🙂

  39. What I find counterintuitive is that all the fun at the party should give the partiers a reason to ignore the neighbor. There are costs to having a party, but why should the neighbor pay any of them. Should they maybe ask him to buy the beer as well?

    Will choosing to defer lead to a better outcome? Assuming this is a lovely party with people playing great music and chatting about possible worlds semantics, a lot of good will be sacrificed by turning in at midnight. So, oddly, the morally better choice will have a worse outcome. Everyone will be asleep, which is dull. But maybe there’s more good in the total situation, including the choice. If it really is morally better to be considerate, it may be better overall if the partiers go to sleep, even if it doesn’t have the best consequences.

    I have some attraction to utiltiarianism, because it stops you from having to say twisted things like this. (To be honest.)

  40. While I don’t think that any ethical variable always has priority, not harming seems to trump all other goods (for example, the pleasure of partying all night) in almost all, but not all, situations. Depriving someone of sleep is harm: one of the most common forms of torture is sleep deprivation. Besides, the person deprived of sleep might be a brain surgeon who has an especially delicate operation to perform in the morning or a student who will be grilled on his thesis or a patient recuperating from a serious illness.

  41. The reason it is counter-intuitive is because you yourself don’t believe the premise that the greater utility is served by holding the party. Balancing only hedonistic pleasures and suffering among your cast of theoretical sociopaths is the flaw in your ethical calculus.

    Can you think of any situations where it is intuitively moral for one person to pay the price for another person’s pleasure?

    Is it moral for a society to have an army, for instance? Is it moral for a citizen to call the police to stop a violent crime, even though the police officer is put in danger of physical harm in doing so? Is it moral to place dangerous criminals in jail?

    Of course it is, and hopefully you are able to intuit that.

  42. “The reason it is counter-intuitive is because you yourself don’t believe the premise that the greater utility is served by holding the party”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If you present this case to a variety of people, I think most of them will say the party should stop at a decent hour. The partiers may not make the calculation that their greater good is worth the neighbor’s misery. Now, what’s the thinking behind that intuition? There are many possibilities. Maybe a person believes the neighbor has rights. Maybe it’s a question of “do unto others”. Maybe it’s Kantian “universalizability.” Maybe there’s some virtue-ethical basis. It is not inevitable that people judge what is right in any sort of a consequentialist way.

    I don’t think you can defuse this example by pointing to others in which it is plausible that one person ought to pay the price for another’s pleasure. Each case has its own set of relevant considerations. The cases you mention involve factors that are completely absent in the party example. Still, your cases show it cannot never be right for one person to pay the price for another’s pleasure. The worry is that utilitarians think it’s right much too often.

    I think utilitarian self-defense, relative to this case, ought to go more or less like this. (1) Bite the bullet, admit that utilitarianism doesn’t mesh with all existing intuitions. Why should it? (2) Appeal to the idea that considerateness is desirable because on the whole it does tend to make us do the right thing, by utilltiarian standards. So insist that it’s right to party all night, but grant that the partiers have a desirable trait if they considerately stop at midnight.

    I don’t particularly find those ploys convincing, but lots of people do.

  43. I don’t think its fair to call it a “ploy”. But otherwise, I’m satisfied that the point has been made.

  44. Is Morality Just Social Convention « December1975 - pingback on September 24, 2008 at 9:06 am
  45. Every action has a consequence, whether good or bad. What about harm done to oneself for partying til dawn eight days a week?

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