Philosophical Multicore

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Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 13, 2011

Sometimes, opponents of Utilitarianism make arguments that presuppose that Utilitarianism is the best school of morality, and then try to argue against it. Seems a bit silly, doesn’t it? Even so, such arguments are almost embarrassingly common. Here are some examples.

Argument 1: Utilitarianism is impractical.

One problem with utilitarianism is that it is impractical to stop to calculate the utility of the expected outcomes of our various options every time that we have to make a decision. [1]

The site that provides this argument also provides the refutation:

The utilitarian has an answer to this, though: if making careful calculations for every decision doesn’t maximise utility, then we ought not do so; as we’re better, in most cases, to make a rough estimate (which we generally do) and then just get on with it, that’s what utilitarianism says that we should do.

John Stuart Mill offers a different explanation in his definitive work, Utilitarianism:

Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this- that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand.

Argument 2: Utilitarianism is too demanding.

Utilitarianism holds that we ought always to do whatever it is that maximises utility. That places a great burden upon us. Every time I read a newspaper, or watch TV, there’s something else that I could do (e.g. help out at the homeless shelter, write a letter to my grandmother) that will bring more utility into the world. If utilitarianism is right, then reading a newspaper is therefore morally wrong. According to utilitarianism, those of us who aren’t facing great hardship ought always to be helping those that are, because that’s what maximises utility. That, though, is implausibly demanding; reading a newspaper isn’t a sin. [1, 2]

Utilitarianism doesn’t say you’re a bad person for reading a newspaper; it only says that it would be better if you did something that more effectively increased utility. The only case in which Utilitarianism could be considered too demanding is if, when people acted in morally suboptimal ways, they were treated as if they were evil. But treating people as evil for lapses in utility-maximizing would not maximize utility.

Argument 3: It is impossible to know what will make others happy.

Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.

This is James Rachels’ argument for ethical egoism. It is probably the silliest argument of all, because it essentially says “maximizing utility will not maximize utility.” In trying to argue for ethical egoism it presupposes that Utilitarianism is correct. Arguing that trying to help others will end up hurting them is a fundamentally utilitarian argument. The conclusion to draw from Rachels’ argument is not that ethical egoism is superior to Utilitarianism, but that the best way to increase utility is for each person to be primarily concerned with himself.

In fact, all of the supporting arguments for ethical egoism are actually arguments for Utilitarianism.

***

References

1. http://www.moralphilosophy.info/utilitarianismobjections.html
2. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/#AdvDeoThe

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5 Responses to “Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism”

  1. phynnboi said

    [quote]The utilitarian has an answer to this, though: if making careful calculations for every decision doesn’t maximise utility, then we ought not do so; as we’re better, in most cases, to make a rough estimate (which we generally do) and then just get on with it, that’s what utilitarianism says that we should do.[/quote]

    This is unclear. Are they saying that, therefore, no decision at all should be carefully calculated? That seems the only interpretation that makes sense, since the only way to know for sure if a careful calculation is admitted is by actually attempting it, but by then we’ve already violated the spirit of the rough estimate (to save time).

    With that in mind, do we know that always taking the rough estimate ultimately leads to the greatest utility? That’s hardly self-evident.

    (The alternative is something more like deontology, where you precompute the morality of actions so that you can react instantly. This is also something “which we generally do.”)

    [quote]Utilitarianism doesn’t say you’re a bad person for reading a newspaper; it only says that it would be better if you did something that more effectively increased utility. The only case in which Utilitarianism could be considered too demanding is if, when people acted in morally suboptimal ways, they were treated as if they were evil. But treating people as evil for lapses in utility-maximizing would not maximize utility.[/quote]

    This actually seems a comment about how Utilitarianism would recommend we manipulate behavior, rather than what it would have us label as good or bad. That is, it’s not saying that newspaper reading [i]isn’t[/i] bad–it’s still saying that it is–it’s just saying that calling people evil isn’t the most effective way to get them to stop. Perhaps it’s saying that it’s more effective to say such things as, “Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be reading the paper, Paul, but it’d be better if you did something more utility-maximizing with your time.” (I say “perhaps” because that’s basically your example. Personally, I find such things even more offensive than straight orders, since at least with a straight order the person isn’t trying to hide that they’re being manipulative–it’s one unsavory thing instead of two.)

    [quote]This is James Rachels’ argument for ethical egoism. It is probably the silliest argument of all, because it essentially says “maximizing utility will not maximize utility.”[/quote]

    To be fair, by the quote you posted he’s more saying, “[i]Attempting[/i] to maximize general utility [i]is unlikely[/i] to maximize general utility.” General utility is as opposed to the agent’s own utility, which he argues the agent is really good at maximizing and will usually get right (an assertion arguable in its own right considering the number of people on anti-depressants.)

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Regarding your point about estimating utility, there are certainly difficulties with trying to calculate which option will best maximize utility. I think it’s actually pretty easy most of the time: when choosing between buying your friend some ice cream or punching him in the face, it is clear that ice cream is the option that will lead to the greater utility. We are also good at determining how important different situations are: we know that the decision of what car to buy is more important than the decision of which shirt to wear this morning, so we spend more time considering the car than considering the shirt. I don’t think it is too much of a challenge to know how much time to spend thinking about how to best maximize utility.

      As for your comments on the other two arguments, I pretty much agree with you.

  2. phynnboi said

    Gee, guess my brace tags didn’t work. :/

  3. lam said

    I am currently in an ethics class, and this is what I was thinking! Utilitarianism is the only currency that makes any sense in ethics! My professor loves Kant, but when it comes to the categorical imperative how do we know what is best? Kant says we shouldn’t lie, but why not? “Pure reason” doesn’t tell us that it would be a bad thing if no one trusted each other any more than it would be a bad thing if an asteroid hit the Earth and wiped out all life. The best argument against both such outcomes is that it would suck (ie more pain than pleasure, aka utilitarianism)!

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