A Criticism of Act Utilitarianism

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Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 07:53 pm
I'm going to present two hypothetical scenarios in which I intend to show that the Utility Principle is not necessary or sufficient for an action to be a moral one.

This is the first: -

'A bank robber goes into the bank and shoots the bank clerk. The robber then leaves with a sum of money. However, what the robber didn't know is that the bank clerk was a terrorist who was planning to blow up some innocent people on the way home. The robber's actions lead to the greatest happiness even though he didn't intend to. Utilitarianism states that therefore this is a moral action.'
The greatest happiness is attained. Yet would we call the bank robber's action a moral one? He intended to rob a bank and accidentally reduced a lot of suffering in the process. So by Utilitarian standard, this is moral.


This is the second: -

'There's a child drowning in a body of water. A man spots the child and jumps in to save the child. Accidently, he lands on the child and contributes to the death of the child. Utilitarianism would say that this is an immoral action because the greatest happiness was not achieved. In fact, the opposite was achieved. Intuitively, jumping in to save a child from drowning is not an immoral action.'

So the man's action (jumping in to save the child) was immoral because it resulted in more pain than pleasure. This doesn't seem right.


How would we go about defending Utilitarianism here? Can we defend Utilitarianism?
 
Jebediah
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 08:17 pm
@Bill Maxwell,
I think you can defend utilitarianism, but not act utilitarianism when applied to specific scenarios rather than as a general guideline.
 
Bill Maxwell
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 08:20 pm
@Jebediah,
Jebediah;163190 wrote:
I think you can defend utilitarianism, but not act utilitarianism when applied to specific scenarios rather than as a general guideline.


Ok. But a true Utilitarian would state that an action that causes the greatest happiness is always the moral one. So if we're not agreeing with these scenarios which are consistent with Utilitarian thinking, then there's something wrong with the theory. So, I'm not sure where you're going with this response.
 
Jebediah
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 08:42 pm
@Bill Maxwell,
Bill Maxwell;163194 wrote:
Ok. But a true Utilitarian would state that an action that causes the greatest happiness is always the moral one. So if we're not agreeing with these scenarios which are consistent with Utilitarian thinking, then there's something wrong with the theory. So, I'm not sure where you're going with this response.


You specified "act utilitarianism" in the title. In "Rule utilitarianism" (if I understand it correctly) the bank robbers action would be immoral because having the rule "don't rob banks and shoot people" leads to greater happiness than the rule "it's ok to rob banks and shoot people".

I think there are other variations of utilitarianism which take into account the intention of the person involved. Actually, given that it's an ethical theory, I'm sure there are dozens of permutations which you can probably find at wikipedia or the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.
 
Bill Maxwell
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 08:44 pm
@Jebediah,
Jebediah;163202 wrote:
You specified "act utilitarianism" in the title. In "Rule utilitarianism" (if I understand it correctly) the bank robbers action would be immoral because having the rule "don't rob banks and shoot people" leads to greater happiness than the rule "it's ok to rob banks and shoot people".

I think there are other variations of utilitarianism which take into account the intention of the person involved. Actually, given that it's an ethical theory, I'm sure there are dozens of permutations which you can probably find at wikipedia or the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.


I'm fully aware of other types of Utilitarianism. I'm a Preference Utilitarian. However, I'm not interested in these. I want to know if Act Utilitarianism alone can defend itself against these intuitively false conclusions.
 
Pyrrho
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 08:01 am
@Bill Maxwell,
Bill Maxwell;163184 wrote:
I'm going to present two hypothetical scenarios in which I intend to show that the Utility Principle is not necessary or sufficient for an action to be a moral one.

This is the first: -

'A bank robber goes into the bank and shoots the bank clerk. The robber then leaves with a sum of money. However, what the robber didn't know is that the bank clerk was a terrorist who was planning to blow up some innocent people on the way home. The robber's actions lead to the greatest happiness even though he didn't intend to. Utilitarianism states that therefore this is a moral action.'
The greatest happiness is attained. Yet would we call the bank robber's action a moral one? He intended to rob a bank and accidentally reduced a lot of suffering in the process. So by Utilitarian standard, this is moral.


This is the second: -

'There's a child drowning in a body of water. A man spots the child and jumps in to save the child. Accidently, he lands on the child and contributes to the death of the child. Utilitarianism would say that this is an immoral action because the greatest happiness was not achieved. In fact, the opposite was achieved. Intuitively, jumping in to save a child from drowning is not an immoral action.'

So the man's action (jumping in to save the child) was immoral because it resulted in more pain than pleasure. This doesn't seem right.


How would we go about defending Utilitarianism here? Can we defend Utilitarianism?


I think there are at least two approaches one could take. One is to say, of course, since you are not an act utilitarian, you do not feel like the moral actions are really the moral actions. So what? You have proved nothing. And do you really think that it is bad to stop a terrorist from killing others, or that it is good to jump on top of a child and drown him or her? You see, how it is worded affects how one's "intuitions" are likely to direct one.


A second approach is to say that "moral rightness depends on foreseen, foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences, rather than actual ones." In the scenarios in your post, such an act utilitarian would look at the likely consequences of the actions. Any action might produce better or worse results than anticipated, but in order for a moral theory to be a guide to action, it must deal with what is known, and not take into consideration what cannot be known. Thus, for example, when deciding to rob a bank, if one has no way of knowing that the teller is a terrorist, then that cannot be taken into consideration when deciding what to do. If, after the fact, one finds out something that could not be known in advance, that is irrelevant to anything that could guide one's action. In this case, most likely all that could be known in advance is that the person could possibly be a terrorist, but probably is not, and could also be a person who, if he or she lives long enough, may go on to medical school and become a great doctor and find a cure for some cancer or other disease. With any given person, both are possibilities, as far as one knows (absent any specific information about the person), though both are also known to be remote possibilities. So they will have very little to do with one's decision on what to do.

As for the drowning, of course whenever helping someone, there is always the possibility for error, and that should be taken into account when deciding what to do. But one must also consider the possibility of actually helping, which should also be taken into account when deciding what to do.

The simple fact is, in the imperfect way in which human affairs are conducted, we do not always get the desired results. That, however, is no reason to not try for the desired results.


In the first approach, there is a separation between the judgment that an action is good and what will be a proper guide to action. See:

Consequentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Particularly see:

4. Which Consequences? Actual vs. Expected Consequentialisms
 
peterdactal
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 09:50 am
@Pyrrho,
Pyrrho;163394 wrote:
"moral rightness depends on foreseen, foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences, rather than actual ones." In the scenarios in your post, such an act utilitarian would look at the likely consequences of the actions. Any action might produce better or worse results than anticipated, but in order for a moral theory to be a guide to action, it must deal with what is known, and not take into consideration what cannot be known.


This is one of my biggest problems with utilitarianism; it doesn't really account for the limits of human reason. In the examples provided by the OP, the 'moral' decision is pretty clear cut and the outcomes tailored to easily accommodate assignments of utility. The real world I find is never so simple. Besides the fact that assigning utility is a personal and arbitrary process, there are always dozens of variables that are not only difficult to quantify and incorporate but sometimes even simply difficult to consider (or consider to consider.) This comes up even in the outcomes we've been provided; what if the child grows up to be a terrorist? what if his children's children become terrorists? what about the bank tellers family? does the robber go to jail? These are things that the actor couldn't have foreseen or predicted, but what about the things they could? What about the feelings of the people watching the teller get shot? Were there any other people to save the child?

Basically, I find that utilitarianism often ignores a lot of these things for the sake of simplicity; it reduces complex courses of action to a simple equation of utility (a model of the world.) But how much in a given situation is ignored? To me it seems that their is no objective value in basing moral decisions on an arbitrary and possibly skewed (due to the limits of reason) representation of the world around us.
 
Bill Maxwell
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 10:01 am
@Pyrrho,
Pyrrho;163394 wrote:
I think there are at least two approaches one could take. One is to say, of course, since you are not an act utilitarian, you do not feel like the moral actions are really the moral actions. So what? You have proved nothing. And do you really think that it is bad to stop a terrorist from killing others, or that it is good to jump on top of a child and drown him or her? You see, how it is worded affects how one's "intuitions" are likely to direct one.


You've miss understood. Review my post.
 
Jebediah
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 12:03 pm
@peterdactal,
peterdactal;163448 wrote:
This is one of my biggest problems with utilitarianism; it doesn't really account for the limits of human reason.


Hmm, what system does account for the limits of human reason? What do you think of rule utilitarianism?
 
BrianH phil
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 11:33 pm
@Bill Maxwell,
Bill Maxwell;163184 wrote:
I'm going to present two hypothetical scenarios in which I intend to show that the Utility Principle is not necessary or sufficient for an action to be a moral one.

This is the first: -

'A bank robber goes into the bank and shoots the bank clerk. The robber then leaves with a sum of money. However, what the robber didn't know is that the bank clerk was a terrorist who was planning to blow up some innocent people on the way home. The robber's actions lead to the greatest happiness even though he didn't intend to. Utilitarianism states that therefore this is a moral action.'
The greatest happiness is attained. Yet would we call the bank robber's action a moral one? He intended to rob a bank and accidentally reduced a lot of suffering in the process. So by Utilitarian standard, this is moral.


This is the second: -

'There's a child drowning in a body of water. A man spots the child and jumps in to save the child. Accidently, he lands on the child and contributes to the death of the child. Utilitarianism would say that this is an immoral action because the greatest happiness was not achieved. In fact, the opposite was achieved. Intuitively, jumping in to save a child from drowning is not an immoral action.'

So the man's action (jumping in to save the child) was immoral because it resulted in more pain than pleasure. This doesn't seem right.


How would we go about defending Utilitarianism here? Can we defend Utilitarianism?


Utilitarianism is a flawed philosophy in any case. The actions that lead to happiness will lead to some suffering no matter what. Morals do not exist but for all intents and purposes, i will proceed as if they existed.

An example of ultimate and successful utilitarianism would be along the lines of lending a large sum of money to a poverished location anywhere on the globe. These people experience a charitable action leading them to happiness and some success for a time but this donation, in the long run, would lead to some suffering. They learn nothing from being given charity and only increase in dependency, making their need to take to survive greater and their ability to be self sufficient less. Therefore, when the complete situation is analyzed, the fallacies are notable and actually immoral and detrimental, according to utilitarianism. Suffering is eventually acheived both ways, if a true beleiver of utilitariansim persists on sending charity to aid these poverished locations. I am not so experienced in philosophy but these are just some of my certainties.

Utilitarianism can be defended by anyone who beleives in it but the validility of their arguments would not matter. I say that you managed to locate a prodigious fallacy in the philosophy that would allow you, if you desire, to disregard this philosophy. It's much like a counterexample in a proof. You only need to find one fallacy to discontinue the validility of it.
 
Pyrrho
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 06:02 am
@Bill Maxwell,
Bill Maxwell;163452 wrote:
You've miss understood. Review my post.


I have reread your post. My comments above are applicable to what you stated. What do you believe I have misunderstood?
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 06:59 am
@Bill Maxwell,
A constant assumption that runs though this thread is that when act utilitarianism conflicts with our moral intuitions, then we should concluded that act utilitarianism is wrong. But that assumes that our intuitions are sacrosanct. But that accords a kind of moral infallibility to our intuitions. Besides, utilitarians have always held that their theory is not merely descriptive of how we do think morally, but it is also a theory of how we ought to think morally. Utilitarianism is not only a teaching device, it a preaching device. It tells us how we ought to behave, not merely how we do behave.

In view of that, don't we need a different view of what to think when theory and intuition conflict? Is it rational simply to say that when theory and intuition conflict that we should simply assume that intuition is right. That seems no more rational than the opposite assumption that when there is conflict, theory is right.

This "dilemma" has, of course, its parallel in science. The conflict between theory and observation.

One suggestion is that what is done in science be emulated in morality (and of course, this issue is not confined only to utilitarianism). It is the theory of reflective equilibrium.

Reflective Equilibrium (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
 
Jebediah
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 07:05 am
@Bill Maxwell,
I think the burden of proof is on the unintuitive. In a practical sense because you are correct that we assume the intuitive is correct, but also because our intuitions are at least worth something, while there are as many bogus theories as you can think of.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 07:29 am
@Jebediah,
Jebediah;163841 wrote:
I think the burden of proof is on the unintuitive. In a practical sense because you are correct that we assume the intuitive is correct, but also because our intuitions are at least worth something, while there are as many bogus theories as you can think of.


Of course, our intuitions are "worth something". Otherwise there would not be any serious conflict, and no such dilemma as I have been asking you to note. And to say that the burden of proof is on what conflicts with intuition, even if that is true, does not help us to resolve the conflict. It says only that the presumption is that what is intuitive is correct. But, then, what if there is evidence that favors the theory? After all, intuition may be just another term for prejudice or unthinkingness. As I pointed out, this is not an issue confined to utilitarianism. When Kant, for instance, tells us it would be wrong to lie to the potential murderer, rather than to steer him away from his intended victim, he know that what he says conflicts with our intuition. Kant's view is that is exactly why we need theory. So that we can recognize mistaken intuitions like, we should lie to the potential murderer.
 
Pyrrho
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 07:45 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;163845 wrote:
... After all, intuition may be just another term for prejudice or unthinkingness. ...


I think that sentence is well worth repeating. Many times, "intuitions" are simply prejudices that people have imbibed from their upbringing. Many slave owners "intuitively knew" that having slaves was right and proper.

We also find that many times intuitions seem to contradict other intuitions, as in the Trolley Problem. In which case, intuition cannot be presumed to be correct, for then we are left with the issue of which intuition is presumed correct and which is presumed incorrect?
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 07:56 am
@Pyrrho,
Pyrrho;163849 wrote:
I think that sentence is well worth repeating. Many times, "intuitions" are simply prejudices that people have imbibed from their upbringing. Many slave owners "intuitively knew" that having slaves was right and proper.

We also find that many times intuitions seem to contradict other intuitions, as in the Trolley Problem. In which case, intuition cannot be presumed to be correct, for then we are left with the issue of which intuition is presumed correct and which is presumed incorrect?


Yes indeed.

There is the important Church doctrine that, miracula sine doctrina nihil valent. That without a theory of how to understand and detect miracles, the mere assertion that some event is a miracle is worth nothing.
 
Khethil
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 08:27 am
@BrianH phil,
These are classic scenarios that only do one thing: They illustrate why the absolute adherence to any single ethical standard can be faulty. But we knew this, didn't we?

There's no single ethos method wherein the most outlandish won't reveal as flawed. This isn't to say that utilitarianism itself is flawed, only the silly notion that anyone would act in accordance with that, and that itself. But all things are like this; choose any political, ideological, metaphysical or theological philosophy that negates the mix of any other, and you can come up with an illustration of why that is flawed. I think the best judgment of actions is one that takes into account our priorities and the reality of life's complexity.

So no, while utility is a useful measure in judging the morality of actions or decisions, it can't, doesn't and shouldn't operate in a vacuum bereft of other considerations. Besides, as I've learned many a time; the devil's in the details. While they're not paramount, intent must figure in as well as the extremeness of the situation. Utility is important, but it isn't "all" nor should it be posited that way - or so I think

Thanks
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 08:35 am
@Khethil,
Khethil;163863 wrote:
These are classic scenarios that only do one thing: They illustrate why the absolute adherence to any single ethical standard can be faulty. But we knew this, didn't we?

There's no single ethos method wherein the most outlandish won't reveal as flawed. This isn't to say that utilitarianism itself is flawed, only the silly notion that anyone would act in accordance with that, and that itself. But all things are like this; choose any political, ideological, metaphysical or theological philosophy that negates the mix of any other, and you can come up with an illustration of why that is flawed. I think the best judgment of actions is one that takes into account our priorities and the reality of life's complexity.

So no, while utility is a useful measure in judging the morality of actions or decisions, it can't, doesn't and shouldn't operate in a vacuum bereft of other considerations. Besides, as I've learned many a time; the devil's in the details. While they're not paramount, intent must figure in as well as the extremeness of the situation. Utility is important, but it isn't "all" nor should it be posited that way - or so I think

Thanks


It is not that adherence to a single standard is flawed. (How should we decide which standards to adhere to, and which not?). The question I posed is how, given a standard, we should use it. It seems wrong to use it dogmatically, and yet, of course, unless we do use it , what is the point of it? That is the dilemma. And that is why I proposed the method of reflective equilibrium which is, after all, the method we use in science when confronted with a similar dilemma.

Here goes again:

Reflective Equilibrium (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
 
Khethil
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 08:58 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;163865 wrote:
It is not that adherence to a single standard is flawed.


I'd take great exception to this. Reality demands and constrains us to a variety of considerations - none of which is done justice through adherence to any single standard.

kennethamy;163865 wrote:
The question I posed is how, given a standard, we should use it.


We use it anyway - making our decisions and judgments as is. Given this, I'd say there are a variety of 'just' proportions of utility and other values.

Thanks
 
Pyrrho
 
Reply Thu 13 May, 2010 09:07 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;163853 wrote:
Pyrrho;163849 wrote:
I think that sentence is well worth repeating. Many times, "intuitions" are simply prejudices that people have imbibed from their upbringing. Many slave owners "intuitively knew" that having slaves was right and proper.

We also find that many times intuitions seem to contradict other intuitions, as in the Trolley Problem. In which case, intuition cannot be presumed to be correct, for then we are left with the issue of which intuition is presumed correct and which is presumed incorrect?


Yes indeed.

There is the important Church doctrine that, miracula sine doctrina nihil valent. That without a theory of how to understand and detect miracles, the mere assertion that some event is a miracle is worth nothing.


All of this is reminding me of something Hume had to say about "monkish virtues", which he classified as vices:

Quote:
And as every quality which is useful or agreeable to ourselves or others is, in common life, allowed to be a part of personal merit; so no other will ever be received, where men judge of things by their natural, unprejudiced reason, without the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion. Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices; nor has any superstition force sufficient among men of the world, to pervert entirely these natural sentiments. A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the calendar; but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.


Online Library of Liberty - SECTION IX.: conclusion. - Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals
 
 

 
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