Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Utilitarian Virtue

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 1, 2010

Many people have a whole list of virtues. This is fine with me. But according to Utilitarian morality, there is only one morality: maximizing utility. This is the one true virtue. I rather like the idea of having only one virtue, since it makes things a lot simpler. Other virtues can be seen as derivatives of this one. Compassion, empathy, and not harming others are all virtues that derive from the single supreme virtue of maximizing utility. Any list of virtues seems rather superfluous, as the only reason why they are virtuous is because they lead towards a single virtue.

In this light, the idea that there can be multiple virtues which are based on different principles — i.e. non-Utilitarian ones — seems rather absurd. If a virtue is defined as something that you must live your life by, then having multiple virtues would eventually lead to a self-contradiction. Unless, that is, these virtues have the same root, in which case they can hardly really be considered separate virtues.

If they either lead to self-contradiction or are simply redundant, why bother even having multiple virtues? Probably for the purpose of enlightenment. Having multiple virtues helps us keep straight which things are productive and which things aren’t. For example, not killing is a virtue, because we might forget that killing people does not maximize utility.

Deontology may also have different virtues. If we are talking Kantian Deontology, one of the three formulations is that you should act according to those maxims that you would universalize. By this formulation, a virtue is any maxim that can be universalized. So a list of virtues would be a list of universalized maxims. This may also explain why one might have a list of virtues.

Still, though, by Utilitarianism, a list of virtues in the conventional sense is rather superfluous. Utilitarianism has but a single virtue.


2 Responses to “The Utilitarian Virtue”

  1. phynnboi said

    Hmm…. Couple of comments.

    1. Do compassion and empathy really maximize utility? I mean, they’re just emotions. Just because I feel sorry for someone, that doesn’t make their life any better, and it could be argued that it makes my life worse, because I’m wasting energy feeling sorry for someone when I could be out doing something to increase utility. (Or, I’m simultaneously doing something to increase utility, but feeling sorry for someone is a distracting me from that, so am not increasing utility as efficiently as I could be.)

    It’s worth asking if feeling anything at all has any effect on utility. Utilitarianism seems, from this standpoint, to be similar to behaviorism in psychology, where we don’t care what the agents or organisms are actually thinking–we treat their brains as a black box–and concern ourselves instead with what they’re actually doing.

    2. The problem of “self-contradictory virtues” can be addressed with value systems. In a value system, we have a hierarchy of values, and basically choose as our guiding value whichever value is highest in the hierarchy that fits the situation. So, e.g., I may value all human life and view killing people as wrong. However, I place a higher value on my own life than anyone else’s life, so if someone is threatening my life, and I must kill them to save myself, I’ll do it. Now, if all you know about me is that I think killing people is wrong, my willingness to kill someone–even in self defense–might seem hypocritical, but, in fact, it is perfectly in line with my value system.

    Likewise, I may value the lives of my wife or daughter over my own life, and value my own life over everyone else’s. So, I may sacrifice myself to save my wife or daughter, or may kill to protect them, and I may kill to protect myself, but I won’t kill just because I think it’d be fun and, gosh, I sure am bored. 🙂

    • In reply to your first point, compassion and empathy definitely to increase utility. When you feel compassion for another person, it encourages you to take action to help her, increasing her happiness. This will even encourage her to reciprocate, which could increase your well-being in the long run.

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