Friday, 17 January 2014
In generalizing utility this way, I think I have overcome one of the emotional objections to utilitarianism, which is the charge of shallowness. "Surely ethics is more than mere pleasure or mere happiness" the objection goes, and with Generalized Utility Utilitarianism (GUU), indeed it is. Still, there are other problems of a general sort, and I will refer to them as the problem of finitude, embodiment and depersonalization.
The last of these I will not comment on much here because I think a proper application of GUU solves it, though I will mention what it is: in classical utilitarianism, people are not valuable in themselves, but they are valuable because of their function as sentient beings. This produces some problems, most of which can be dismissed by classical utilitarians as moral squeamishness, but others jar our moral intuitions to such an extent that due consideration must be given. John Rawls points out one such consequence, that of telishment, which takes its root from the word punishment. The idea is this: if punishment for some crime, say rape, is to be justified in utilitarian grounds, then it must be the case that it maximizes utility overall. However, if such a thing as punishment (the inflicting of some suffering to reduce suffering overall, in utilitarian terms) is to be justified, then in some cases scapegoating innocent people will also work. If punishment is to act as a deterrence, then it only matters if the person is not responsible in the case that others know, so if nobody knows that someone else is in fact responsible for the rape, then telishment can act as a deterrent in much the same way. In short, the utilitarian framework justifies punishment only insofar as it deters others from committing the crime, not as an act of justice or of retribution. There is no room for people "getting what they deserve" in this classical utilitarian framework, unless it happens to be the case that it maximizes happiness, which leads to punishment-as-deterrence being non-specific to who actually committed the crime.
As I said, GUU seems to solve this problem quite comfortably, even if it can be criticized that it does so too comfortably: other values other than happiness make up Generalized Utility, and so Rawls' criticism falls flat if one were to add some value like justice to the mix.
The other two issues are far more substantial: embodiment refers to the fact that humans are situated in one place, at one time, living in concrete circumstances, such as particular familial and societal bonds. On the classical utilitarian view, absolute impartiality is demanded, so the difference between one's child and a stranger, or a baby child and a pig, is simply their capacity for utility. Failure to recognize this reality may lead to ethically erroneous results from utilitarianism.
Finitude is the term I will use to refer to the epistemic problem inherent in utilitarianism: an action that might usually have good results leads ultimately to a bad result, and so the person is said to have done the wrong action. Whilst a smile is usually harmless or brightens another person's day, for instance, smiling at some particular person may, in an unusual case, make them consider that everyone else must be much happier than they, and so lead to a cycle of self-harm and eventual suicide. Clearly a negative result came about from what is generally considered a good action, but nonetheless, since negative results ensued from the particular action of smiling at that particular person, the action must be condemned as morally wrong. How was the smiling person to know that their action would lead to a negative result? The essence of the problem of finitude is that the consequences of one's actions are ultimately unknown, and so the utilitarian is left with rules of thumb for acting, at best, and incurs the risk of doing wrong all the time.
These are real problems, even if in some sense they are not absolute: one can easily say that indeed, our intuitions about what follows from the fact of our concrete circumstances as individuals (as opposed to utility-containers) are flawed, and it is the case that one's duties towards one's consideration of one's children, as well as consideration of strangers, should be the same, that there is no moral difference between feeding one's child and the child of a stranger. The infamous ethicist Peter Singer seems to take this view in his well-known paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and his discussion of the drowning child story (as well as talk of the so-called "expanding circle") show that he at least cares little for geographical closeness. Considering this line of reasoning, the problem of embodiment is a form of the demandingness objection.
The finitude problem is also not absolute, in the sense that it is practical and not theoretical - the arguments for GUU could succeed without the practical capacity of actually being able to determine right from wrong in any given case. If that is the case, then one remains with the crucial question of trying to understand how to act morally, and then if the finitude problem proves unresolvable, then we are left conclusively in the dark, having proven that we cannot know what to do, morally speaking.
And yet, I do need to answer these objections, because GUU must result in, to put if quiantly, some sort of set of "family values", where my child and someone else's is counted differently, as well as being at least semi-practical in answering questions of "what ought I do?" In fact, just as with Rawls' telishment objection, I think family values can be incorporated into GUU. The more values get added to the calculation, however, the more difficult it becomes to solve the epistemic finitude problem, and here I am currently left to flail my arms, suggesting tentatively that a sort of rule GUU be used at present. Except, I cannot see how one is meant to justify that step in theoretical terms: if I really should maximize the good, then surely following some rules all the time will lead to actions which must be condemned. I cannot foresee how to solve the finitude problem.
Wednesday, 8 January 2014
For a blogpost titled for what I am, it might be odd to start with what I am not. I am not an ethicist. The only reason I know anything about ethics is that ethics deals with how one ought to act, and I, like everyone else, have to act in some way or another. I would like to think that I have as much ethical expertise as business professionals have mathematical expertise: not that much, but enough to do their jobs. Some sort of ethical knowledge is necessary for humans, which are generally moral agents, and therefore I must be acquainted with ethical precepts to do “my job.” But I am not an ethicist.
I have often said that utilitarianism is the only potential candidate for a secular theory of ethics, a position I have held for many years, even when I was an atheist, even when I was willing to act in
|Henry Sidgwick, often held |
to be the greatest utilitarian.
This reasoning solves what I will refer to as the “value problem” (how to jump from a set of empirical data to a value) by empiricist means: I know pleasure is valuable because I experience pleasure as good. It has a positive phenomenal quality. I should note that pleasure is being used in a pseudo-technical sense, because I do not necessarily mean simple pleasures (like eating a good piece of chocolate) but holistic pleasure (which might include reading a good book, or beating a personal best in the pool, or discovering some new fact about the universe). The reverse is true for justifying that pain is bad. This seems to be a solution to the value problem, and if one supposes that other beings are also capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then I think an objective moral duty follows: ceteris paribus, one must increase pleasure and decrease pain.1
When I became a Christian, and more importantly, when I became (of all stripes of Christian) a Catholic, I had to re-evaluate my position. Nonetheless, the argument that I have proposed for utilitarianism does not become unsound (supposing it was sound in the first place) simply because of the large set of other justified beliefs I now had.2 None of these other beliefs negate the truth of the empirical premise (that pleasure has positive phenomenal qualities, and pain has bad) or the assumption that other sentient creatures are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Still, the Church believes in moral rights and wrongs that do not make sense on a utilitarian framework – in most of those cases, the Church is closer to our natural moral intuitions than utilitarian theory is. How was I to make sense of this?
Since I am not an ethicist, and because utilitarian theory and Christian ethics accord on plenty of points, it took me a while to even bother to try and solve this problem. I told everyone that I was a virtue ethicist, although I half meant that I held to the virtue of maximising the good, which is a very utilitarian way of thinking about virtue ethics.
The solution I propose to harmonise both positions seems to me to be remarkably simple, and maybe somebody came up with it before me, even though I did not take it consciously from anywhere else. Because I study mathematics, and because utilitarianism lends itself naturally to discussions of moral calculus, this solution might sound overly mathematical and complicated, but the principle is very simple: experience shows that pleasure is an intrinsic good. What being a Catholic adds is consideration of other intrinsic goods. Being Catholic does not so much negate the previous solution to the value problem that utilitarianism offers, it expands it, and in many cases, it may well overshadow the value given to pleasure.
Take the almost canonical example to illustrate the non-intuitive aspects of utilitarianism, the fat man on the bridge who could be pushed over to stop a train and save the lives of a group of five people working on the train rail tracks: utilitarian theory says that pushing over this “innocent” bystander is the morally obligatory act – not only justifiable, but morally obligatory. It is a simple calculation, ignoring for a moment variables such as capacity of happiness of each person: killing one saves five. Easy as that. I would have nodded my head at this morally non-intuitive result, all the more happy to be accepting the logical conclusion of an argument without reference to how I feel about it.
The difference being a Catholic changes is not to devalue pleasure (or utility, or happiness, etc.) but to value human life. Perhaps it might be objected “but that was the problem, one life for the sake of five”, except that sort of calculation only works for finite values on human life. Suppose human life were to be valued infinitely. Then the moral calculus makes no sense, the set of allowable transfinite calculations does not include operations like subtraction to yield a useful quantity for moral calculus.3
Were this a proper article, I would be obliged to discuss and work out how theoretical calculations could be computed in light of these difficulties. However, my purpose is more conservative: to explain both my utilitarianism, duly modified to incorporate newly found truths, with an ethical system that seems opposed to it. Unless unassailable difficulties arise which I cannot foresee, I will remain comfortable in this position as an orthodox Catholic who accepts the basic utilitarian argument.
1 I am aware that pleasure and pain are related, but not mere opposites, and so the moral calculus may need some more thought and refinement, that is, decreasing pain and increasing pleasure may, in some rare cases, pull in different directions, and in such cases the principle is inconclusive. I am also aware that situations where some pain leads to greater pleasure are not entirely clear on this basic principle. Ask me, if you want to know about my solutions to these problems.
2 One thing that did change is that, as beings who will have an eternal future, the moral calculation would have to include the afterlife. But that is readily understood in terms of utilitarian theory, and it still leaves (indeed, probably exasperates) the question of why some things were wrong in an of themselves.
3 If I were talking about a ratio, then I might be able to do the calculation, using l'Hôpital's rule, which some high school students and all first year mathematicians learn about. But that would complicate the otherwise simple point.