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Utilitarianism

 
 
djbt
 
Reply Fri 1 Apr, 2005 01:02 pm
In the course of a discussion of whether or not ethics should apply to non-human animals, joefromchicago and I went off on a tangent discussing a utilitarian position I was proposing.

I decided to set up a new thread to discuss utilitarianism in general, so not to thread-jack.

So, any thoughts? Any utilitarians or other consequentialists out there? Any damning criticisms of utilitarianism?

I should say I'm looking to learn from a good discussion, not practice debating skills, start a one-up-man-ship contest or dual in witticisms...

Otherwise, all thoughts welcome.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 2 • Views: 13,427 • Replies: 250
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Ray
 
  1  
Reply Fri 1 Apr, 2005 06:27 pm
define happiness.
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djbt
 
  1  
Reply Fri 1 Apr, 2005 08:26 pm
A feeling which is better than no feeling.
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thethinkfactory
 
  1  
Reply Fri 1 Apr, 2005 08:34 pm
Not if your a Utilitarian it is not - it is happiness / pleasure.

I put a slash between them because to the Utilitarian it is the same.

Bentham, however, thought there could be a calculus of 'maximal' happiness. Mill, however, agreed with Epicurus that happiness was pleasure and pleasure was a lifelong disposition. It was a lifestyle of life-long pleasure enducing feelings - that as much about the pleasure as they are about the decisions. For a good discussion on the comparison between Mill and Epicurus read 'Morality of Happiness' by Julia Annas.

TTF
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val
 
  1  
Reply Sat 2 Apr, 2005 05:20 am
Re: Utilitarianism
djbt

Bentham's utilitarianism, was centered in the "greatest happiness to the greatest number". He refused to consider any criteria to qualify the action in itself, because the validity of that action was depending on its results.
If the result of an action brings greater happiness for the large number, the action is good.
That leads us to serious problems. If slavery brings greater happiness for 90% of citizens of a country, does that mean that is good to enslave the other 10%?
Because of the Holocaust, jews received a state, a nation. That makes Holocaust good?
The problem with Bentham is that it is not easy to follow the consequences of an action. Some of those consequences are in a logical sequency of the action, but others are reactions to that action - as in the case of the creation of the state of Israel.
Today, we see Bentham's theories applied everywhere. A corporation fires 40% of their employees in order to assure jobs to the other 60%. A liberal government reduces taxes, to assure the "happiness" of the majority of the citizens - no matter the minority becomes reduced to extreme misery.
Bentham's philosophy is the "other side" of liberal economists, like Smith. In both cases, a justification for the most extreme forms of capitalism.

But there are things in Bentham I admire. He was perhaps the first to introduce the notion of "dissuasion". Criminal laws establish penalties in order to dissuade other potential criminals. It is an improvement, considering criterias like "retribution".
And, at least, Bentham had the courage and dignity to expose his system, without concessions. It would be good that, today, people like Rand had his frontality.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Sat 2 Apr, 2005 09:45 am
David: As I understand it, for the utilitarian pleasure should always be maximized and pain should always be minimized. If that is correct, then can we conclude that pleasure is always good and pain is always bad?
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Sat 2 Apr, 2005 09:55 am
thethinkfactory wrote:
Not if your a Utilitarian it is not - it is happiness / pleasure.

I put a slash between them because to the Utilitarian it is the same.

I agree that, for the utilitarian, pleasure and happiness are the same. I also agree that David's definition of "happiness" is deficient. If "happiness" equalled "a feeling which is better than no feeling," then "happiness" would be the equivalent of "experience," which, as I pointed out on the animal rights thread, confuses one type of experience for experience itself.

And thanks, TTF, for the Julia Annas reference. I've put her book on my Amazon wish list.
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thethinkfactory
 
  1  
Reply Sun 3 Apr, 2005 08:12 pm
Joe - It is an AWESOME book. Dense - holy crap it is dense. But it is good - and I think it should be mandatory reading for ethics classes who quickly brush virtue ethics under the rug as outdated and quaint.

Her book "Hellenistic Philosophy of the Mind" is also awesome.

Thanks for the kudos.

TTF

p.s. Joe - who is in your avatar. It remindes me of Curley from the Three Stooges. But I can't imagine that is right.
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Ray
 
  1  
Reply Sun 3 Apr, 2005 11:54 pm
Is it more appropriate to suggest that happiness is a feeling of peace and appreciation + satisfaction with one's life?
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Cyracuz
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Apr, 2005 06:24 am
Most people confuse satiation with happiness. "If there is no cell in the body craving anything, then I must be happy." No you're just numb.

Happiness was defined as a feeling that is better than no feeling. ALL feeling is better than no feeling. If not, who would hold hate in their hearts?

I admit, I do not know fully what the term utilitarianism encompasses. The way I understand it now is as some sort of attempt at reaching a formula for happiness. How to make everyone or as many as possible happy.
But I believe my take on it is dead wrong, because I cannot imagine that there is a human being in history stupid enough to embark on such a naive quest.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Apr, 2005 08:38 am
thethinkfactory wrote:
p.s. Joe - who is in your avatar. It remindes me of Curley from the Three Stooges. But I can't imagine that is right.

Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago:
http://www.roosevelt.edu/chicagohistory/images/1mayordaley.jpg

Not to be confused with:
http://www.nndb.com/people/973/000047832/3patetas_curly.jpg
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watchmakers guidedog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 12:58 am
Re: Utilitarianism
val wrote:
Because of the Holocaust, jews received a state, a nation. That makes Holocaust good?


Given the resultant suffering of the palestinians, the six-day war and decades of terrorism I think you might have forgotten to carry a 3 in that calculation somewhere.

Also intent must be given a place in this scheme. The intent of the holocaust was not to create a jewish state, thus making the holocaust a "bad" act by utilitarian calculation. It caused great displeasure amongst the jewish population and only minimal pleasure and benefit amongst nazi germany. Positive side-effects given to the jews as a compensation by other countries should hardly be considered as defining the moral virtues of a particular pogrom.
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val
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 01:56 am
Re: Utilitarianism
watchmakers guidedog

Don't forget that utilitarianism doesn't accept intentions as a moral criteria. Only the effects of action.

And the example I gave about Holocaust had the purpose to show how difficult is to establish what are, exactly, the consequences of an action.
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watchmakers guidedog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 02:39 am
Re: Utilitarianism
val wrote:
watchmakers guidedog

Don't forget that utilitarianism doesn't accept intentions as a moral criteria. Only the effects of action.


Shocked

How is that even possible? If I could untangle a chain of events back to their origin I'd... be pretty damn impressive. Surely the intended outcome of your action would be the moral guideline, not the actual outcome.
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val
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 04:56 am
Re: Utilitarianism
watchmakers


Quote:
How is that even possible? If I could untangle a chain of events back to their origin I'd... be pretty damn impressive. Surely the intended outcome of your action would be the moral guideline, not the actual outcome.
[/QUOTE]

I agree with you. But my moral perspective is very far from utilitarianism.
I think that Bentham had this idea: there is no criteria that allows us to consider an action as good or bad in itself. Killing, "per se" is not good or bad. Only the consequences will show us if "that particular killing" was good or bad: if someone killed Hitler in 1933 - even if he did it to steel his wallet - it would be, in Benthams opinion, a good action, according to the interest of the majority of european people.
As you pointed out, this can lead us to absurd conclusions.
No one knows if the killing of Hitler would be good. Goebbels or Eichmann could be still worst than Hitler, and more intelligent and dangerous.

If a mother kills her baby because he is crying all night and the family cannot sleep, is that a good action? Considering the interest of the majority - the family - we must say it was. The mother, the father, their other kids, the old uncle, all them sleep better know.
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val
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 03:01 pm
Re: Utilitarianism
val

You did it again, man!
It is not "to steel". It is "to steal"!!!
Try to be a more careful please.
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watchmakers guidedog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 08:07 pm
That's a really strange form of morality, whether your actions were good or bad would be completely unintentional because you couldn't predict their consequences. What's more they change between good and bad as time moves on and it has contingent consequences.
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djbt
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 11:38 pm
Thanks for all these interesting points of view. I'll join the fray now...

thethinkfactory wrote:
Not if your a Utilitarian it is not - it is happiness / pleasure.

I put a slash between them because to the Utilitarian it is the same.


I'm not sure this is quite correct, and nor was my attempt at a definition (I was in a rush, had to catch a flight... sorry)

Happiness and unhappiness are a bit like high and low. It's tricky to define 'happiness' for the same reason it is to define 'high'. My definition 'a feeling better than no feeling' is, I think, a reasonable definition for a 'pleasurable feeling'. A feeling worse than no feeling would be a 'painful feeling'. So;

An increase in happiness = an increase in pleasurable feelings and/or a decrease in painful feelings. How's that?
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djbt
 
  1  
Reply Wed 6 Apr, 2005 11:39 pm
thethinkfactory wrote:
For a good discussion on the comparison between Mill and Epicurus read 'Morality of Happiness' by Julia Annas.


Thanks, I will.
0 Replies
 
djbt
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Apr, 2005 12:23 am
Re: Utilitarianism
val wrote:
Bentham's utilitarianism, was centered in the "greatest happiness to the greatest number". He refused to consider any criteria to qualify the action in itself, because the validity of that action was depending on its results.
If the result of an action brings greater happiness for the large number, the action is good.


I am far from an expert on Bentham, but I feel you have taken "the greatest happiness to the greatest number" out of context, and misunderstood it a little.

The greatest happiness, surely, is complete happiness, and the greatest number is all. So saying we should strive for "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" means we should strive for "complete happiness for all". Not especially controversial these days, but don't forget that when Bentham was writing in Britain it would have been more popular to say "happiness, to the point where it remains decent, for myself, my family, and perhaps others of my class".

So, "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" is an fairly uncontroversial aspiration. Where it starts to get interesting, difficult, and controversial, where you have to decide how to balance priorities. Which is more important? The greatest happiness or the greatest number?

As you say, utilitarianism refuses to consider any criteria to qualify the action in itself, because the validity of that action depends on its results. Do you disagree with this? Herein, I think lies the first discussion point.

val wrote:
That leads us to serious problems. If slavery brings greater happiness for 90% of citizens of a country, does that mean that is good to enslave the other 10%?
Because of the Holocaust, Jews received a state, a nation. That makes Holocaust good?


These criticisms do not seem to me to follow from "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Clearly, 90% is not the greatest number, it's a huge 10% short! It assumes a method of balancing interests which we haven't yet discussed. Although I don't think Mill ever explicitly states it, it seems heavily implied in his writings that the first aim of utilitarianism is to minimise pain. Pleasure and pain cannot be weighed against one another, any pain is only acceptable if all other options would result in more pain.

In you slavery example, 10% of the population being enslaved would only be an OK result for many (perhaps most) utilitarians if all other possible options would result in more than 10% of the population being enslaved, or 10% enslaved for longer.

Your second example seems to me a critic of another soundbite version of utilitarianism; "the ends justifies the means". I find this statement misleading, because it implies that some events are 'means' and others are 'ends', whereas in fact all are both. So the Jews receiving a state is an ends, and a means, as it the holocaust. Many millions of Jews suffering and dying is, surely, a very very bad ends. It doesn't stop being a bad ends (or, rather, consequence) just because there are other, later, ends that might be good. So:

Q: Because of the Holocaust, Jews received a state, a nation. That makes Holocaust good?
A: No. The holocaust is still the terrible consequence. The Jews receiving a state is (perhaps) a good consequence, but does not weigh against the terribleness of the holocaust.
The holocaust could only ever possible be called 'good' (or, rather, 'more good' since only complete happiness for all would be 'good') if all other possible outcomes were worse (more millions being killed, for example).

val wrote:
The problem with Bentham is that it is not easy to follow the consequences of an action. Some of those consequences are in a logical sequency of the action, but others are reactions to that action - as in the case of the creation of the state of Israel.


It certainly isn't easy to follow the consequences. But this is true of many, many areas of science. For a doctor, for example, the aim of a particular medicine might be to improve the health of a patient. However, it may well be extremely difficult to predict all the consequences of the medicine. It may have terrible side-effects. It might not help at all. So what's the doctor to do? Nothing? Roll a dice? Go by a rule of thumb for treating a different illness (leeches, maybe)? Or use all available information to make a decision based on a balance of risks?

The fact the it is not easy to follow the consequences of an action is a problem for anyone trying to act in a utilitarian way. It is not a problem for utilitarianism as a system of morality. After all, we don't say the general theory of relativity is wrong just because it is less easy than Newton's laws of motion...

val wrote:
Today, we see Bentham's theories applied everywhere. A corporation fires 40% of their employees in order to assure jobs to the other 60%.


Again, 60% is very far from 'all', the greatest number. The only instance in which a utilitarian would agree with 40% of a workforce being fired (presuming being fired is a bad thing...) is if the all other options were worse (for example, if other options required at least 50% of the workforce to be fired).

val wrote:
A liberal government reduces taxes, to assure the "happiness" of the majority of the citizens - no matter the minority becomes reduced to extreme misery.


The way many utilitarians weigh pain against pleasure, "happiness" would weigh very little, if at all, against "extreme misery". Depending on the type of utilitarianism, it is very unlikely that a utilitarian government would act in this way.

However, before we discuss ways of weighing pleasure against pain, I think we need to discuss consequentialism is general.
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