Why I am not a utilitarian

Jeremy Bentham, under surveillance at University College London

Yesterday I visited Oxford’s “Practical Ethics” blog and read a post titled “Why I Am Not a Utilitarian,” by Julian Savulescu.  Professor Savulescu says that he is not a utilitarian because utilitarianism advises us to act in a way that he would find impossible:

As we argue, Utilitarianism is a comprehensive moral doctrine with wide ranging impact. In fact it is very demanding. Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by Utilitarianism.

For these reasons, one criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too demanding.

Bernard Williams, a famous critic of Utilitarianism, once infuriated Dick Hare, a modern father of Utilitarianism, in a TV interview by asking him,

“If a plane had crashed and you could only rescue your own child or two other people’s children, which would you rescue?”

Utilitarians should rescue the two strangers rather than their own child.

People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding.

I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save 7 or 8 lives.

Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.

I would go further than Professor Savulescu, and argue that it is not only unreasonably difficult to act as utilitarianism would advise in these extreme situations, but that the emotional attachments and personal drives that utilitarianism urges us to discard are the very things that make it possible for us to behave morally in the first place.  Professor Savulescu quotes research showing that the people who would in fact be willing to behave in ways that utilitarians urge upon us in their thought experiments are extreme egoists and psychopaths.  While such people might be willing to let their own children die in order to save the lives of a larger number of strangers, I would not envy those strangers were they subsequently to find themselves in any way dependent on their rescuers.

Other commenters on Professor Savulescu’s post had made this point by the time I got to it, so I did not say anything about it in my own comment.  Instead, I picked up on a remark that an earlier commenter had made about the various thought experiments in which utilitarians deal.  One of the more famous of these thought experiments is the “Trolley Problem,” in which one is asked to consider two hypothetical alternatives in response to a runaway trolley.  Left unchecked, the trolley will run over several people and kill many of them. The only way one has to check it is to push a fat man in front of the trolley, killing him but saving the others.

This and similar thought experiments raise the question of knowledge- how does one know that one will be able to push the fat man over, how does one know that his body will suffice to stop the trolley, how does one know that the others will be slower to get themselves out of the way of the trolley than one will be to push the fat man over, etc etc.  In posing the hypothetical, a philosopher can always dismiss these questions by saying that, ex hypothesi, the premises are all true.  But the closer you get to real life, the more pressing and more numerous the knowledge problems become.

When philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism 200 years ago, he built it around a notion often called “the hedonistic calculus.”  This calculus subtracts pain from pleasure, yielding a quantity of net pleasure.  The right action is that which provides the greatest amount of net pleasure for the greatest number of people.  Faced with the question of how any person could possibly know what action would provide this, considering that to do so one would have to know every consequence one’s action is likely to have on every person for all of future time, what precisely the feelings of each of those people would be about each of those consequences, and how intense each of these feelings would be, Bentham resorted to a utopian solution.  He coined the word “Panopticon,” naming a social system in which every person was under total surveillance at all times.  In such a system, the authorities might be able to form an educated guess as to what the consequences of their policies would be for their subjects.

The idea of the Panopticon in turn raises several questions.  How would such surveillance originate?  If it were instituted by people who were not themselves under surveillance, and who did yet not have access to the information surveillance would produce, how could they know that the surveillance they were crafting would itself serve to produce the greatest net pleasure among the greatest number of people?  Moreover, since the subjects of the Panopticon would know that they were under surveillance, the institution of surveillance itself would change their psychology quite dramatically, making it impossible for people living before the creation of the Panopticon to have an empirical basis for their expectations as to how such people would react to life within it.  Would those conducting the surveillance themselves be subject to surveillance, and if so, who would maintain surveillance on those conducting surveillance of those conducting surveillance?  Would there be other societies outside the realm of the Panopticon, and if so how would one know what policies would bring the greatest net pleasure to the members of those other, unsurveilled societies?  What about future generations, whom it is impossible to keep under surveillance as they do not yet exist?  How could the rulers of the Panopticon assess the feelings the consequences of their policies would produce in people of future times when they cannot monitor such people?  And, considering that the hedonistic calculus is essentially about subjective feelings of pleasure and pain, how do we respond to suggestions that our understanding of each other’s subjective feelings is always incomplete?  Finally, how does the existence of the Panopticon condition individual behavior?  Does every individual of every station have access to the complete records of the Panopticon?  Are all to use this information in making every decision in their lives?

Even in a society constructed as a Panopticon, then, it is far from clear how one could know enough to live as the utilitarians say we should.  Indeed, many forms of knowledge that are required, for example knowledge about future events or about other people’s subjective responses, may not be obtainable even in principle.  A commenter named Sean OhEigeartaigh pointed out that utilitarian thought experiments require unrealistic assumptions about the amount of knowledge a moral agent might have.  This was the point I was picking up on in the comment below:

I think Sean O hEigeartaigh makes the vital point, which is that these scenarios require more information than a person could reasonably be expected to have. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the whole concept of the hedonistic calculus requires that an agent have more information than a human being could possibly have. As such, utilitarianism is not an ethical theory at all, inasmuch as it cannot develop a set of criteria for judging human behavior. Its only possible use would be as a theodicy, a means of justifying the behavior of a supernatural being who is either omniscient or at a minimum radically better informed than humans can be.

Perhaps it is too much to say that utilitarianism is possible even as a theodicy. To make a theodicy go, one must grant, first, that a supernatural being exists, second, that that being is in some profound sense better than we are, and third, that the actions of that being require moral justification. None of these premises would appear to be particularly secure. Moreover, an attempt to use utilitarianism to justify the acts of whatever supernatural being we have posited would immediately run into a variety of other problems, some of them quite severe. Most obvious, perhaps, is the stubbornly ambiguous concept of “pleasure” at the stem of all theories of utility. I for one can think of no reason why a utilitarian theodicy would have an easier time meaning one thing at a time by this word than the attempted utiltarian philosophies of the last two centuries have had. Furthermore, the implications of conceding the existence of a supernatural being whose knowledge is radically superior to ours would seem to be rather wide-ranging and to call for a rethinking of the concept of rationality on which Bentham et al were trying to elaborate. So perhaps the time has come to discard utilitarianism altogether.

The bit about pleasure refers to another problem that Bentham tried to solve by accepting something horrid.  Asked what he would say if it could be shown that playing push-pin had given more net pleasure than high art, he would unhesitatingly say that in that case push-pin was better than high art.  Bentham’s most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, tried to escape from this by distinguishing among various forms of pleasure, high and low.

What Mill ended up doing was raising a question that has widely been considered fatal to the claims of utilitarianism to be taken seriously: what exactly is “pleasure”?  I think we know, when we say that listening to music gives us pleasure, and eating a fine meal gives us pleasure, and being reunited with a loved one gives us pleasure, and completing an important job of work gives us pleasure, that we are not saying that these experiences are interchangeable.  Saying that we have received pleasure isn’t at all like saying that we have received money.  If we set out to describe with technical precision what it is that each of those experiences has given us, we will not be surprised to find that the answer is a set of distinct and complementary feelings, not differing quantities of any particular substance.  Discard the idea that “pleasure” and “pain” are the names of substances, in the Aristotelian sense of the word “substance,” and it is difficult to see what, if anything, is left of the hedonistic calculus.

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4 Comments

  1. I can’t like this twice, so I’ll comment. As one who operates within a utilitarian ethical system (medicine), it is reassuring to see that someone shares my apprehensions.

  2. Thanks!

  3. Randall Munroe isn’t a utilitarian either: Click Here!

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