Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Utilitarianism: For and Against

By J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams

This book consists of two essays - one in support of utilitarianism and one against. In supporting utilitarianism, J.J.C. Smart focuses on act-utilitarianism, in which good and bad are judged solely on the consequences of a person's action. He notes that there are disagreements in what constitutes happiness and whether some types of pleasure are more valuable than others, either intrinsically or extrinsically. He acknowledges that utilitarianism may sometimes come to morally questionable judgements (choosing the lesser of two evils), but that it is generally a useful method. Williams' article follows with a critique of utilitarianism. He notes that some people may have chosen utilitarianism (only consequences matter) because they reject the idea of deontological methods (only rules/duty matter). His argument is primarily based on two examples in which a person is faced with a 'lesser of two evils' type decision. He argues that in addition to normal utilitarian considerations, it is important to think about the integrity of the person making the decision and the effect on their psychological state. He argues that if a person causes an outcome through the medium of another person, then it may not be correct to hold the first person responsible for the final outcome.

An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics
By J.J.C. Smart

1. Introduction
The book begins with a definition and defense of utilitarianism by J.J.C. Smart. He explains that his belief is in “act-utilitarianism” which posits that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e. on the effect of the action on the welfare of all human beings. He compares this to deontological ethics, which don’t appeal to consequences, but rather stress conformity to particular rules of duty. He believes deontological systems can lead to ‘rule worship,’ in which people follow a rule even if it will cause harm. He believes Utilitarianism is based on generalized benevolence – seeking happiness and good consequences for mankind, and that this will resonate with many people.

2. Act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism
In section two, Smart compares his preferred theory, act-utilitarianism to rule-utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself. Rule-utilitarianism believes the rightness or wrongness of an action should be judged by the goodness or badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform the action in like circumstances. (Like Kant’s maxim that people should only do something themselves that they would choose to have made a general rule for all mankind.) He believes rule-utilitarianism either falls prey to ‘rule worship’ or it collapses into act-utilitarianism as exceptions are made to each rule to accommodate specific situations.

3. Hedonistic and non-hedonistic utilitarianism
Act-utilitarians judge the rightness of actions by the goodness of consequences, but they have to define what they mean by goodness. Some, like Jeremy Benthem, believe in hedonistic utilitarianism, which believes that all types of pleasure are equal – i.e. writing poetry is equal to playing checkers. Thomas Moore, an ideal utilitarian believes that some states of mind, like acquiring knowledge, have intrinsic value separate from their pleasantness – so even something that wasn’t pleasurable could have utility. John Stuart Mill is in the middle of these two views, believing that there are higher and lower pleasures – noting that it is better to be “Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

It’s possible that a hedonistic utilitarian would agree with Mill’s ‘Socrates dissatisfied vs. fool satisfied’ statement, but not because of the intrinsic value of philosophy. He would instead argue that there is an extrinsic value in philosophy – i.e. the philosopher is a useful agent in society. Someone like Socrates may be responsible for much improvement in the lot of humanity, therefore increasing overall happiness. This is often the case – where ‘lower’ pleasures, like eating, may lead to negative effects, such as obesity and bad health. However, if this were not the case, and people could have non-intellectual pleasures without ill effects, then Mill and Bentham would not value the activity similarly.

Smart explains the difference between Mill and Moore using the following scenario: Imagine a universe with one sentient being, who falsely believes that there are other sentient beings and that they are going exquisite torment. The being takes great delight in the these imagined sufferings. Is this better or worse than a universe with no sentient being at all? Would it be better if the one sentient being felt sorrow? He argues that Mill would prefer the universe with a deluded sadist, since the sadist is happy and no one else is harmed. Moore would believe the story showed that happiness is not always a good thing.

4. Average happiness versus total happiness
There is some disagreement among utilitarians over whether to maximize the average happiness of human beings (or the average goodness of their states of mind) or whether to try to maximize the total happiness of goodness. If you value total happiness, a universe with two million happy beings would be better than a universe with one million happy beings. This doesn’t have many practical applications, though it might affect the ethics of birth control.

5. Negative utilitarianism
Negative utilitarianism focuses on minimization of suffering, not maximization of happiness. However, taken to far, this maxim would suggest that eliminating the human race could be a good thing, since it would eliminate all suffering. However, not taken as an absolute rule, it is a good rule of thumb.

6. Rightness and wrongness of actions
Smart notes that the act-utilitarian chooses the action that is more likely to make mankind happy. These calculations should include the person making the decision – the idea is based on benevolence, not altruism. Smart discusses the trade-offs in happiness that may be made and the considerations of equality. Rawls argues that happiness should only be maximized in a way that doesn’t cause anyone to be less happy than they would otherwise be. Smart sees this as a good rule of thumb, but not inviolable. In general, he believes that people can understand the direct impacts of actions and assign rough probabilities, even if these things are difficult to quantify.

7. The place of rules in act-utilitarianism
Smart concedes that rules still have a place in act-utilitarianism, since people often act based on habit and make quick decisions. However, when people do moral reasoning, then utilitarianism is useful. He also separates the ideas of ‘right action’ – the one that had the outcome creating the most happiness – and ‘rational action’ – the one the agent believed would have create the most happiness. This means it is possible for a person to act rationally, but choose the ‘wrong’ action, or vice versa. He also notes that there is a distinction between the utility of an action and the utility of the praise of an action.

10. Utilitarianism and justice
Finally, Smart acknowledges that some see conflict between utilitarian principles and other moral codes, with utilitarian being a hard-hearted method. This is shown with a scenario: “Suppose the sheriff of a small town can prevent serious riots (in which hundreds of people will be killed) only by ‘framing’ and executing (as a scapegoat) an innocent man.

A Utilitarian might not choose to frame the man, if they couldn’t be sure it would prevent riots, but if they were sure, they would choose to frame the person. Smart notes that this is not a happy consequence, but only the lesser of two evils. Further, the Anti-utilitarian conclusion not happy either – it produces much more misery and hundreds of deaths

A Critique of Utilitarianism
By Bernard Williams

1. Introductory
Bernard Williams follows Smart’s essay with a critique of utilitarianism. He argues that utilitarianism is a distinctive way of looking at human action in morality. Smart finds the distinctive characteristics agreeable, while to Williams some of them see horrible. Williams argues you need to ask not only, “do you agree with utilitarianism’s answer?” but also “do you accept utilitarianism’s way of looking at the question?”

2. The structure of consequentialism
Williams begins by arguing that utilitarianism must take into account the idea that some actions, and not just ‘states of affairs’ can be consequences. If an action, such as traveling, has intrinsic value, then it must be included in utilitarians’ consequentialist calculations.

He notes that non-consequentialists believes some things are right or wrong regardless of the consequences, and that denial of this idea may lead some to utilitarianism – the idea that only consequences matter. However, he argues that there may be some situations that are ‘unthinkable.’ Some scenarios could be considered outside the moral world, not a special problem in them. Non- consequentialists would argue there is no right answer, while utilitarianism has no such limitations – it is well suited to choose the lesser of two evils.

3. Negative responsibility: and two examples
Scenario 1 – “George, who has just taken his PhD in chemistry, finds it extremely difficult to get a job. He is not very robust in health, which cuts down the number of jobs he might be able to do satisfactorily. His wife has to go out to work to keep them, which itself causes a great deal of strain, since they have small children and there are severe problems about looking after them. The result of all this, especially on the children, are damaging. An older chemist, who knows about this situation, says that he can get George a decently paid job at a certain laboratory, which pursues research into chemical and biological warfare. George says that he cannot accept this, since he is opposed to chemical and biological warfare. The older man replies that he is not too keen on it himself, come to that, but after all George’s refusal is not going to make the job or the laboratory go away; what is more, he happens to know that if George refuses the job, it will certainly go to a contemporary of George’s who is not inhibited by any such scruples and is likely if appointed to push along the research with greater zeal than George would. Indeed, it is no merely concern for George and his family, but (to speak frankly and in confidence) some alarm about this other man’s excess of zeal, which has led the older man to use his influence to get George the job… George’s wife, to whom he is deeply attached, has views (the details of which need not concern us) from which is follows that at least there is nothing particularly wrong with research into CBW. What should he do?”

Scenario 2 – “Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, mostly terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honored visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”

In these scenarios, utilitarianism would suggest that George should take the job and Jim should kill the Indian. However, a non-utilitarian may not agree, or at least may not feel the answer is obviousl

4. Two kinds of remoter effect
Williams offers to possibilities that may change the utilitarian calculation. One consideration is the psychological effect on the agent (George or Jim). The agent might feel bad because they did the wrong or bad thing. However, if the agent is a utilitarian, he will know that he is making the right decision by weighing the pros and cons, so these feelings would be irrational, and thus wouldn’t have any weight in his decision. Williams argues that this alienates a person from their own moral identity, or integrity.

Utilitarians might also take into account the precedent effect – that others may follow the lead of one of these agents, even if the situation were not exactly the same. However, he acknowledges that is unlikely to play a major role in this case.

5. Integrity
Williams notes that in both cases, if the agent doesn’t do a disagreeable thing, someone else will, and the state of affairs after the other man has acted will be worse than if the agent had acted. However, if Jim refrains from action, it’s not just twenty Indians dead, but Pedro’s killing twenty Indians. Williams asks “what is Jim’s responsibility for that outcome if it occurs? Can we say that Jim ‘made’ those things happen?” He believes leaving Pedro out of the picture is misleading. Williams believes that forcing people to act on other’s people’s ‘projects’ rather than their own forces them to alienate their own actions and convictions.

Though one may come to the same conclusions as the utilitarian, even taking into account these other ideas, it is important to recognize the many other issues affecting the situation.


SK said...

great post! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this clear and concise summary of the book. This was very useful to me in studying for an undergraduate ethical theory exam :)

Xavier De Decker said...

"Thomas Moore, an ideal utilitarian believes that some states of mind, like acquiring knowledge, have intrinsic value separate from their pleasantness – so even something that wasn’t pleasurable could have utility."
I haven't read Smart, but are you sure it's not George Edward Moore?