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In Defense of Utilitarianism
Many on Ricochet think utilitarianism is bad. I understand. I’ve been there myself. But I’m not there anymore.
Now, don’t worry–I’m still Baptist. I still dig virtue ethics, Kant, Confucius, Augustine, and all that. I like Tolkien. I like C. S. Lewis. I like Batman. I’m nearly everything we think is not utilitarianism. But there’s at least one version of utilitarianism that doesn’t deserve most (or all) of the objections people have (or think they have) to utilitarianism.
Now say what you like about Peter Singer–his philosophy likely enough deserves it. Say what you like about Jeremy Bentham–his philosophy probably doesn’t deserve it, but anyway, it is flawed. Don’t say anything about Henry Sidgewick, unless you actually know something. I don’t. I haven’t got around to studying him yet, although I hear wonderful things about him–and what a great philosophy beard!
No, I’m talking about Mill. John Stuart Mill! Before you diss utilitarianism, you should know a few things about Mill. But let’s keep it simple. Nothing too systematic. Let’s just do a few pointers, and a quick question.
Pointer 1: The Golden Rule
Mill said that in the Golden Rule “we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.” He says, “To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
Pointer 2: Intellectual pleasure
Mill said that intellectual pleasure is more important than physical pleasure:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
Pointer 3: Honesty
Mill said that honesty matters in one enormous and wonderful sentence. (I analyze it in a YouTube video below.)
Pointer 4: Liberty
Mill said that, as a rule, liberty and taking care of yourself serve the greater good.
Enough pointers. Now for that question.
A quick question: Don’t you want the greatest happiness?
Utilitarianism says the right thing to do is the thing that leads to the greatest happiness. Now will you do something for me, please? Please think of some principle, some policy, or some course of action in some tricky situation where you think the utilitarian answer is wrong. And then think of what you think is the right answer.
And my question is: Do you think that that right answer is not the one that leads to the greatest happiness in the long run?
I talk about philosophy on YouTube and Rumble. Here’s where you can subscribe to me on Rumble, and here’s my YouTube playlist on Mill’s book Utilitarianism. Some sample videos are below. But the book is better than the movies!
.Published in Religion & Philosophy
Utilitarianism never works. Man’s greatest happiness is the unhappiness of his neighbor. Thus Marx.
In which case, utilitarianism itself teaches that whatever we’ve been calling “utilitarianism” is mistaken.
Real Utilitarianism has never been tried!!!
I don’t know. I think if we use Mill’s definition, Jesus might have tried it.
Gee, my face can look ridiculous when the thumbnail picture is big enough.
Speaking of Jeremy Bentham. At the end of his life he made arrangements to have a portion of his body (mainly head and skeleton) preserved and presented in public at University College London. It’s called an auto-icon. I dunno but it kinda creeps me out.
Jeremy Bentham auto-icon
The best I can come up with (in a few minutes anyway) is some kind of scenario where a person chooses honor or personal loyalty to another person- something we admire, something we admit, maybe grudgingly, would be the right thing for that particular person to do – at the expense of a great many people. A net negative for overall human happiness – because so many people are harmed, but we still can’t bring ourselves to criticize the person who made the choice.
So, for example, let’s a say a loyal son witnesses his mother commit a crime – say she stole valuables from 2 dozen neighbors and hid them in her home – something like that. Her son knows she did this, saw her bring the stuff into her house, and has seen the stash of valuables in the basement. The victims are extremely upset, worried it will happen again, casting suspicion on everyone, installing alarms, buying up guns, etc…. The son knows his mother stole for an understandable, if faulty, reason – to get money for a medical treatment or something (point is, he knows there’s no risk of further harm to anyone) He also knows his mother would endure punishment, maybe prison time; that it would definitely ruin what remains of her life if she were caught. So, remembering what a good mother she was to him, he refuses to come forward with what he knows, even though it would do a lot to ease the fears of his neighbors, and would result in them getting their stuff back.
Hasn’t he done the right thing? Wouldn’t we think much less of him if he betrayed his mother – even though he and his mother are the only people helped by his decision, and the greatest happiness would definitely result from the crime being solved?
It’s far-fetched, I know, but isn’t that at least a little anti-utilitarian? (Disclaimer: everything I know about utilitarianism I learned in the last 5 minutes reading this post).
Does this sort of filial piety not result in greater happiness in the long run? Love/respect/care for parents is a pretty high priority because it makes the world a better place, isn’t it? Does prioritizing it here not support that norm of filial piety, and would there be no harm done by undermining it?
They open Jerry’s box for board meetings. He always votes “present.”
In this situation, I agree. The benefits of filial piety, the peace of mind that comes with knowing there are people on your side no matter what, may outweigh the benefits of order and Justice, the benefit of knowing that you will be protected from harm by outsiders.
Different story, of course, if rather than a harmless burglar, Mom was a murderer – because at that point the unhappiness of the neighbors is increased exponentially. At some point the harm Mom is doing would cause us to expect the son to rat her out.
That’s a utilitarian analysis, i guess. But is the reason we prefer the son’s loyalty in my original example purely because of some rapid utilitarian analysis going on in our minds, or is it more of a gut instinct? If an angel descended and said, “nope, we’ve done all the calculations, run simulations of all the possible future effects of the son’s decision, and measured the impact on human happiness for centuries to come, and we know with certainty that human happiness will be greater if he betrays his mom,” I would still sympathize more with him, even knowing that.
Is utilitarianism more useful as an after-the-fact analytical tool, than a guide when you’re in the heat of the decision making moment?
There’s an interesting bit of the Analects where Confucius apparently disapproves of turning in your father for stealing a sheep.
That doesn’t mean he approves of stealing a sheep. And it doesn’t mean he’d disapprove of turning in your father for murder.
I think Mill would say that it’s a decision-making tool. Somewhere in chapter 2.
But . . . it’s also a moral theory, and one that acknowledges the usefulness of the vast human experience that has given us these moral rules, and the training that has given us these moral dispositions. Mill says lovely things about the inherited moral rules in chapter 2. (You might have to work a little harder to get the dispositions out of the book, but I bet you could argue strongly for it based on some passages in chapters 2 and 4.)
I guess if I thought I could trust the angel I’d recommend betrayal. But there’s a good effect of not liking it, and a good case to be made that in many cases loyalty to parents is the greater good.
I’m disturbed by the fact that they still have to lock him in the box at night.
But that’s when he’s always trying to come out of the box to kill people and harvest their organs for the greater good.
(That was an actual joke in Existential Comics, and it was awesome.)
Well yeah. Can you imagine the utility of Bentham-based frat pranks?
You mean this one? You look like you just woke up.
Happiness for whom?
Welcome to the club. We have a newsletter…
The hair looks like it required a jump starter to get out of bed. Coffee is easier, friend.
I only drink tea.
Didn’t they used to have an annual tradition of playing soccer with his head? Or was that someone else?
Anyway, I’m a fan of John Stuart Mill, though not an uncritical one (the classic problem with Utilitarianism is measuring utility, and though Mill has better guidelines than his predecessors, its still ultimately subjective and vague-the first is standard and the second is not necessarily a bad thing in practice compared to many other moral or ethical theories).
Here he is without the sideburns:
But is it subjective? People with experience of two pleasures can say which is higher quality.
How else do we normally know things other than from experience–if not from our own experience, then from the testimony of those who’ve had the necessary experiences?
Yes, and is the measure of a man to be taken half way through his life, or three quarters, or at the End?
And how do you measure the intensity of the good one does, and how to you measure the happiness against the misery you’ve caused.
Ideally at the end.
If it’s happiness of the same quality, you do measure it, and that is enough.
If it’s happiness of different qualities, you don’t.
I suppose it is right to do the right thing for the wrong reason, but have we decided if it’s right to do the wrong thing for the right reason?
Intentions do matter in Mill. The right reason may matter more than we think.
Along those lines, some (supposedly) wrong actions might be good for the right reason. Like giving to a beggar out of sheer kindness and virtue, and the beggar then blowing the money on harmful drugs.
Here I thought it was all about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
I think what we are dancing around is Ethical Decision Making. That requires a process or system. Unfortunately, Godel demonstrated in his incompleteness theorem that no system can account for every instance.
Ethical decision making requires more than just the golden rule, it requires a process and multiple approaches.