Tag Archives: Utilitarianism

Moral Methods

Thanks to the budget cuts in education, I won’t be teaching this summer. On the plus side, this has encouraged me to write yet another short philosophy book, Moral Methods. As per tradition, I am making it available as a free PDF on this site. It is also available in the Kindle format in the US and the UK for the usual 99 cents (or the UK equivalent in fish and chips).

This concise reference work is intended to provide the reader with the basics of moral argumentation and specific tools that should prove useful in this process. There is no assumption that any specific moral view is correct (or incorrect) and no specific moral agenda is pushed in this work.  Rather, the intention behind this work is to assist people in making better moral arguments.  If a reader disagrees with a specific example, then an interesting exercise would be to consider a counter-argument against the conclusion presented in the example.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a basic discussion of arguing about ethics in the context of moral issues. The second, which is the majority of the book, presents a variety of methods that should prove useful in moral argumentation.  The third part consists of short moral essays that provide additional examples of moral reasoning.

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Carpe Diem and the Longer Now

So here’s the thing: I like utilitarianism. No matter what I do, no matter what I read, I always find that I am stuck in a utility-shaped box. (Here’s one reason: it is hard for me to applaud moral convictions if they treat rights as inviolableeven when the future of the right itself is at stake.) But trapped in this box as I am, sometimes I put my ear to the wall and hear what people outside the box are doing. And the voices outside tell me that utilitarianism is alienating and overly demanding.

I’m going to argue that act-utilitarianism is only guilty of these things if fatalism is incorrect. If fatalism is right, then integrity is nothing more than the capacity to make sense of a world when we are possessed with limited information about the consequences of actions. If I am right, then integrity does not have any other role in moral deliberation.


Supposedly, one of the selling points of act-utilitarianism is that it requires us to treat people impartially, by forcing us to examine a situation from some third-person standpoint and apply the principle of utility in a disinterested way. But if it were possible to do a definitive ‘moral calculus’, then we would be left with no legitimate moral choices to make. Independent judgment would be supplanted with each click of the moral abacus. It is almost as if one would need to be a Machiavellian psychopath in order to remain so impartial.

One consequence of being robbed of legitimate moral alternatives is that you might be forced to do a lot of stuff you don’t want to do. For instance, it looks as though detachment from our integrity could force us to into the squalor of excessive altruism, where we must give away anything and everything we own and hold dear. Our mission would be to maximize utility by doing works in such a way that would keep our own happiness above some subsistence minimum, and improve the lot of people who are far away. Selfless asceticism would be the order of the day.

In short, it seems like act-utilitarianism is a sanctimonious schoolteacher, that not only overrides our capacity for independent moral judgment, but also obliges us to sacrifice almost all of our more immediate interests for interests that are more remote – the people of the future, and the people geographically distant.

The longer now is a harsh mistress.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams: here are some passionate critics who have argued against utility in the above-stated ways. And hey, they’re not wrong. The desire to protect oneself, one’s friends, and one’s family from harm cannot simply be laughed away. Nietzsche can always be called upon to provide a mendacious quote: “You utilitarians, you, too, love everything useful only as a vehicle for your inclinations; you, too, really find the noise of its wheels insufferable?”

Well, it’s pretty clear that at least one kind of act-utilitarianism has noisy wheels. One might argue that nearer goods must be considered to have equal value as farther goods; today is just as important as tomorrow. When stated as a piece of practical wisdom, this makes sense; grown-ups need to have what Bentham called a ‘firmness of mind’, meaning that they should be able to delay gratification in order to find the most happiness out of life. But a naive utilitarian might take this innocent piece of wisdom and twist it into a pure principle of moral conduct, and hence produce a major practical disaster.

Consider the sheer number of things you need to do in order to make far-away people happy. You need to clamp down on all possible unintended consequences of your actions, and spend the bulk of your time on altruistic projects. Now, consider the limited number of things you can do to make a small number of people happy who are closest to you. You can do your damnest to seize the day, but presumably, you can only do so much to make your friends and loved ones happy without making yourself miserable in the process. So, all things considered, it would seem as though the naive utilitarian has to insist that we all turn into slaves to worlds that are other than our own — the table is tilted in the favor of the greatest number. We would have to demand that we give up on today for the sake of the longer now.

But that’s not to say that the utilitarian has been reduced to such absurdities. Kurt Baier and Henry Sidgwick are two philosophers that have explicitly defended a form of short-term egoism, since individuals are better judges of their own desires. Maybe utilitarianism isn’t such an abusive schoolteacher after all.

Nietzscheans one and all.

Why does act-utilitarianism seem so onerous? Well, if you’ve ever taken an introductory ethics class, you’re going to hear some variation on the same story. First you’ll be presented with a variety of exotic and implausible scenarios, involving threats to the wellbeing of conspecifics that are caught in a deadly Rube Goldberg machine (involving trolleys, organ harvesting, fat potholers, ill-fated hobos, etc.) When the issue is act-utilitarianism, the choice will always come down to two options: either you kill one person, or a greater number of others will die. In the thought-experiment, you are possessed with the power to avert disaster, and are by hypothesis acquainted with perfect knowledge of the outcomes of your choices. You’ll then be asked about your intuitions about what counts as the right thing to do. Despite all the delicious variety of these philosophical horror stories, there is always one constant: they tell you that you are absolutely sure that certain consequences will follow if you perform this-or-that action. So, e.g., you know for sure that the trolley will kill the one and save the five, you know for sure that the forced transplant of the Hobo’s organs will save the souls in the waiting room (and that the police will never charge you with murder), and so on.

This all sounds pretty ghoulish. And here’s the upshot: it is not intuitively obvious that the right answer in each case is to kill the one to save the five. It seems as though there is a genuine moral choice to be made.

Yet when confronted with such thought-experiments, squadrons of undergraduates have moaned: ‘Life is not like this. Choices are not so clear. We do not know the consequences.’ Sophomores are in a privileged position to see what has gone wrong with academic moralizing, since they are able to view the state of play with fresh eyes. For it is a morally important fact about the human condition that we don’t know much about the future. By imagining ourselves in a perfect state of information, we alienate ourselves from our own moral condition.

Once you see the essential disconnect between yourself and your hypothetical actor in the thought-experiment, blinders ought to fall from your eyes. It is true that I may dislike pulling the switch to change the trolley’s track, but my moral feelings should not necessarily bear on the question of what my more perfect alternate would need to do. Our so-called ‘moral intuitions’ only make a difference to the actual morality of the matter on the assumption that our judgments can reliably track the intuitions of your theoretical alternate — assuming your alternate knows the things they know, right on down to the bone. But then, this assumption is a thing that needs to be argued for, not assumed.

While we know a lot about what human beings need, our most specific knowledge about what people want is limited to our friends and intimates. That knowledge makes the moral path all the more clear. When dealing with strangers, the range of moral options is much wider than the range of options at home; after all, people are diverse in temperament and knowledge, scowl and shoe size. Moral principles arise out of uncertainty about the best means of achieving the act-utilitarian goal. Strike out uncertainty about the situation, and the range of your moral choices whittle down to a nub.

So if we had perfect information, then there is no doubt that integrity should go by the boards. But then, that’s not the fault of act-utilitarianism. After all, if we knew everything about the past and the future, then any sense of conscious volition would be impossible. This is just what fatalism tells us: free will and the angst of moral choice are byproducts of limited information, and without a sense of volition the very idea of integrity could not even arise.

Perhaps all this fatalism sounds depressing. But here’s the thing — our limited information has bizarrely romantic implications for us, understood as the creatures we are. For if we truly are modest in our ability to know and process information, and the rest of the above holds, then it is absurd to say, as Nietzsche does, that “whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil”. It is hard to conceive of a statement that could be more false. For whatever is done from love, from trust and familiarity, is the clearest expression of both good and evil.


Look. Trolley-style thought-experiments do not show us that act-utilitarianism is demanding. Rather, they show us that increased knowledge entails increased responsibility. Since we are the limited sorts of creatures that we are, we need integrity, personal judgment, and moral rules to help us navigate the wide world of moral choice. If the consequentialist is supposed to be worried about anything, the argument against them ought to be that we need the above-stated things for reasons other than as a salve to heal the gaps in what we know.

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Example Failure

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For years I have been making use of a plane crash example to illustrate the moral distinction between killing people and letting people die and the results have always been the same, at least until this past week. Before getting to that, I will briefly present the examples.

I usually open my discussion of utilitarianism by noting that people tend to have utilitarian intuitions in many cases, such as those involving emergency medial treatment. My stock example is as follows:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with six people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. Examining the people, you know that if you try to save the badly injured pilot, you will lose 3-4 of the others for sure. But, if you allow the pilot to die, you are certain you can save at least four of the passengers, maybe even five. What do you do?”

As you might suspect, everyone always says something like “save the five because five is more than one.”

When transitioning to my discussion of rule-deontology, I make the point that sometimes our intuitions seem to steer us away from just the consequences to also considering the action itself. To illustrate this intuition, I change the story just a bit:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with five people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. To save them, you need a lot of blood and you need it fast. Coincidentally, Ted the hermit has come in for his yearly checkup. Ted has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him. By a truly amazing coincidence Ted’s blood type means that he can donate to all five people. Unfortunately, getting enough blood to save all five will kill Ted. What do you do?”

For years, my students have said that killing Ted even to save five people would be wrong and I fully expected my current students  to give the same answer. But, rather than the usual “that would be wrong”, I was met with silence. So, I asked again and two students said that they’d drain Ted. When I said that this was the first class that ever said that, the reply was “times have changed.”

I’m not quite sure what the significance of this might be, but it was certainly interesting.

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Utilitarians are not nice people

Such, at least, is the conclusion drawn by writers at the ‘Economist’ who have just reported on the publication, in ‘Cognition’, of a paper that claims (in its title) that ‘Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas’.

Reading the article in the Economist made me recall a report that apparently appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. In the same it was that reported that when “asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas — such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others — people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many”. Indeed, according to the report, “people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex” are “about three times as likely to sacrifice one person for the greater good compared with people without brain damage or those with damage in a different part of their brains” (or, rather, this is how they respond to rather unlikely thought experiments). This was based on findings published in Nature by Koeings et al in a paper titled “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements” (available as as pdf here)..

The new paper referred to in The Economist (‘The Mismeasure of Morals’) is by Daniel M. Bartels of Columbia University and David A. Pizarro at Cornell University. The two note in their abstract that “Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error.” But they then report on “a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of [trolley] dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.” The authors claim “these results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.”

Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism …  is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”. It is also pointed out by Bartels & Pizzaro that “a variety of researchers have shown that individuals with higher working memory capacity and those who are more deliberative thinkers are, indeed, more likely to approve of utilitarian solutions”.

Still, does it make anybody wonder? Is it wrong if it does?


Saving Mill’s Utilitarianism

Some ideas have the force of a runaway trolley. When they are first proposed, they are vigorously endorsed and maligned by diverse, forceful personalities. Then they enter the crucible of development, are battered with intense scrutiny. Even if the ideas are eventually abandoned, they will have left an imprint upon the centuries, like the corpse of an elder god washed up upon the beach. We gain more from poking and prodding at its corpse than we do from shaking hands with its successors.

Utilitarianism, for example. The principle of utility is just an ethical theory that conforms to the slogan: “Do whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism has been attacked from all sides, but it retains a close following. It is a beloved treasure among compassionate naturalists and bean-counting social engineers, and critiqued by both lazy romantics and sensitive sophisticates. It is used as an intuition-pump for the sympathies of secularists, just as much as it is used to sanction torture in ticking time-bomb scenarios.

The doctrine has roots in the welfarism of David Hume and Aristotle, and owes a healthy dose of accolades to Epicurus. Its modern advocates come easily to mind: Peter Singer, David Brink, Peter Railton, Sam Harris. But it was not until 18th century reformer Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill published their works that utilitarianism could find articulation in its contemporary form.

Bentham defined the principle of utility in this way: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.” For Bentham, the primary focus of moral inquiry was the rightness or wrongness of actions, measured in terms of their perceived consequences. Bentham’s utilitarianism is, hence, a form of consequentialism: rightness and wrongness of acts is a function of the good or bad consequences, and nothing else.

The history of philosophy has not been kind to the Benthamites. A regimend of critics (including 20th century notables like John Rawls, JJ Thomson, Philippa Foot, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams, to name just a few) have rejected utilitarianism as a moral doctrine on a variety of grounds. And, on the whole, I think these critics have successfully shown that Bentham’s utilitarianism is riddled with absurdity. To the extent that utilitarianism belongs to Bentham, we must abandon utility.

Unfortunately, despite all the headway they have made against the Benthamites, critics have not shown much sensitivity to John Stuart Mill’s formulation of utilitarianism. It turns out that the John Stuart Mill that we meet in freshman lectures may not, bear much kinship with the John Stuart Mill who lived and breathed. So it’s worth noticing, and advertising far and wide, just how the standard picture of Mill is undergoing a rapid change.

For one thing, there is some confusion in the literature whether or not Mill counts as an act- or rule-utilitarian. It is not uncommon to hear his name paired up with one or the other, but rarely both (textual evidence be damned) — if there are any internal contradictions, then it is easy to think that that is a product of Mill’s incoherence, and not a failure on our part to be charitable. And I think Fred Wilson put it nicely:

Mill is … not an “act utilitarian” who holds that the principle of utility is used to judge the rightness or wrongness of each and every act. But neither is he a “rule utilitarian” who holds that individual acts are judged by various moral rules which are themselves judged by the principle of utility acting as a second order principle to determine which set of rules secures the greatest amount of happiness. For the principle of utility judges not simply rules, according to Mill, but rules with sanctions attached.

For another thing, it isn’t even clear whether or not Mill is a consequentialist. In the essay linked, Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s idea of utilitarianism was non-consequentialist — which is roughly to say that it is unclear whether or not Mill believed that we judge the good or bad consequences of acts by being indifferent towards the identity of persons who are affected. Instead, in the essay linked, Jacobsen argues that Mill is best understood as an advocate of a commonsense doctrine that he calls “sentimentalism” (where an act is wrong so long as an agent’s feelings of guilt are suitable).

And it’s certainly not the case that Mill was a consequentialist bean-counter, given his strong emphasis upon the importance of developing good character. As Mill remarks in On Liberty, while it is possible for a man to achieve a good life without ever exercising autonomy, this can only to his detriment as a human being. To take just one of Mill’s quotes, which Kwame Anthony Appiah mentioned favorably (in The Ethics of Identity): “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”

What can account for such a massive neglect for one of utilitarianism’s fiercest defenders? It could be that utilitarianism has been assessed — and rejected — because it has been associated with its weakest proponents. If charity in interpretation has been lacking in our study of Mill, then it may be that we are now seeing a sea shift in the study of utilitarianism. I doubt that all of Mill can be salvaged — parts of his doctrine are a bit dotty. But still it may be that the old god, Utility, still has some life in him.

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Debating Meat V: Utility

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One common approach to debating the ethics of meat is to argue within the context of utilitarianism.

Put is simple terms,  for the utilitarian, an action is right if it creates more utility for the morally relevant beings than disutility. A key part of the debate for the utilitarians is the moral status of animals: are they morally relevant or not?

If animals are not morally relevant, then their treatment would not be morally significant.  If animals are morally relevant, then their treatment would be relevant to the moral assessment of actions.

Of course,  it is possible to accept that animals are morally relevant, but to argue that humans count more than animals. For example, Mill argues that sentient beings count morally but he also argues that humans have higher faculties. This can be used to argue that humans count more than animals and this can, in turn, be used to justify treating animals worse that humans.

One way to argue that animals count is to argue (as Mill did) that pleasure is of positive value (utility) and pain is of negative value (disutility). Since animals feel pleasure and pain, they would play a role in the calculation of utility and hence would be relevant beings.

The template for arguing on utilitarian grounds has the following steps:

1)  The utility generated by the practice is assessed.

2)  The disutility generated by the practice is assessed.

3) If the disutility outweighs the utility, then the action is immoral.

4) If the utility outweighs the disutility, then the action is moral.

As an example, consider the following argument about veal: Humans enjoy eating veal and gain some pleasure from this. The creation of veal involves imprisoning a calf in a stall that is too small for movement, force feeding the calf which causes the calf to have various problems, and then killing the calf. The horrible treatment of the animals creates more pain than the eating of veal generates. Therefore the treatment of the animals is morally wrong.

Of course, the utilitarian approach can also be used to argue for treating animals not so well. For example, humans test important medicines on animals and develop treatments for serious health conditions. The animals involved in the testing suffer from these experiments.  However, the animals are treated as humanely as possible and the medicines significantly increase the patients’ quality of life and even permit them to keep on living. The benefits of such testing outweigh the suffering of animals, therefore the testing is morally acceptable.

Getting back to the matter of meat, utilitarian arguments can be given for eating meat.  One argument can be based on pleasure: while the suffering of animals creates pain, the enjoyment that people get from eating meat outweighs this suffering. Therefore the eating of meat is morally acceptable.

Of course, this sort of argument could be used to justify any sort of seemingly wicked activity. This would be done by merely  showing that those committing the apparent misdeeds enjoy their misdeeds more than their victims suffer. This problem is not specific to meat, but rather a general concern with utilitarianism.

A second sort of utilitarian argument can be based on need: humans need to consume meat in order to remain healthy. While animals suffer from being killed for food, the need of humans outweigh the needs of animals. Therefore eating meat is acceptable.

This argument can, of course, be challenged. There is considerable debate over whether humans actually need meat or not. The best evidence seems to be that humans can do fine without meat, provided that they have access to foods that can replace meat. Naturally, in some contexts, people do not have an alternative to meat. Of course, this line of reasoning can also justify cannibalism, at least in survival situations. However, just as cannibalism is unacceptable when there are alternatives, it would seem that eating animals is also unacceptable when there are alternatives.