Posts Tagged ‘utilitarianism’

New at e3ne.org, I take up Peter Singer’s argument that we in affluent societies have far-reaching duties to aid the global poor, possibly to the extent of bringing ourselves down almost to their level. Excerpt:

Instead of buying a Starbucks coffee once a week, you could save that money – about $200 over the course of a year – and give it to a charity that saves lives. It’s morally wrong to buy Starbucks coffee when there are people dying around the world. Letting someone die so that you can enjoy Starbucks is like letting a child drown rather than getting your suit muddy.

It doesn’t matter that most other people aren’t living up to their moral obligations. Bystanders’ failure to save a drowning child doesn’t relieve you of a duty to save that child. If you can save a life without sacrificing anything morally significant, you must.

More here.

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A moral dilemma from the popular TV show “Breaking Bad” illustrates a critique Amartya Sen made of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and the reason why the refutation fails. In On Ethics and Economics, Sen makes the following critique of Nozick’s libertarian philosophy (heavily paraphrased because the book has yet to be unpacked, and Google Books was no help):

Suppose A knew that C was about to murder D, but needed a car to try to stop the murder. B is nearby in a car. On Nozick’s theory, it would be permissible for A to try to stop the murder without violating anyone else’s rights, but impermissible for A to to try to stop the murder by commandeering B’s car.

Sen seems to think that Nozick’s view is incoherent or at least implausible. Nozick’s theory forbids minor rights violations to prevent major ones. Of course, the theory is incoherent only if one adopts the premise that whatever is morally good must be maximized, a premise that Sen leaves implicit. Sen’s critique suggests a “consequentialism of rights”: always act so as to minimize the number of rights violations.

But the central plot twist of the “Breaking 312px-JesseshootsgaleBad” series shows us why consequentialism of rights is less plausible than a strict deontological view. In this plot twist (writing vaguely to avoid spoilers), the two main characters of the show murder an innocent man because: 1) (more…)

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“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest (more…)

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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Query: If you are a utilitarian soccer player selected to the U.S. national team, do you have a duty to try to throw your World Cup match against England? Clearly, a U.S. victory would be a net psychic loss for the world. (Also, since English joy might be somewhat alloyed with pique should your actions become known, perhaps you also hide the fact that you are acting thus?)


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Rarely do you see a sports team so utterly demoralized and defeated as the Cleveland Cavaliers were last night.  By the last minute, the Cavs didn’t even foul on defense (an admittedly low success strategy) or run the ball up court on offense.  Reminded me of Roberto Duran against Sugar Ray Leonard when Duran just quit, saying “No mas.” 

Which leads me to this question: is boxing immoral?  Should it be banned (note: it is banned in several states)? 

Ralf Bader, a young philospher, has a book chapter on the subject here.  Bader’s bottom line is:

Boxing should not be banned, even thought it may well be a dangerous, imprudent and immoral thing to do.  There is no justification for using the coercive power of the state to interfere in people’s lives and prevent them from voluntarily deciding to fight for money.

I have a hard time seeing any sound reason to disagree with Ralf on the legality issue.  But is it immoral?  Bader argues that we may have a Kantian duty of virtue (not a duty of right) to avoid it since the aim of boxing is to intentionally inflict harm on others (even though participants consent).  However, I’m not so sure it is all that clear cut from other perspectives. 

An act utilitiarian would certainly have to favor boxing since it is hard to imagine, especially given its consensual nature, that it doesn’t increase general utility (especially since the duration and intensity of the pleasure of those who watch and love the sport is likely to far outpace the pain of those who disagree with the activity.  On the negative side, the duration of the pain of those who get injured fighting is likely to be long lasting [and participants may have an excessively high discount rate on the possibility of long-term harm] – but there are a lot of benefits accrued to participants as well). 

If one uses a virtue ethics approach, one could argue that boxing is inconsistent with human flourishing since it can lead to damage to the human body, especially the keystone faculty of reason.  However, the same could be said for a number of other sports as Bader discusses (which might lead us to the unfortunate conclusion that sports like rugby and football, as well as cheerleading, are immoral).  But much of the training that goes into boxing is good for participants’ health and the training lifestyle contributes to temperance.  And the “sweet science” can train us to have greater courage and discipline.  Indeed, its education in the “manly virtues” is a net plus – not to mention leading to a certain joy of living (and the satisfaction of independence gained from going toe to toe with another man with no help but one’s own head, heart, and fists).                

So, is boxing immoral?  I’ve only hit on a couple of possible approaches, so there are likely a lot of other interesting takes out there worth thinking through. 


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I thought I’d pen a brief response to Sven’s provocative opening salvo against moral philosophy, “I Want It All, Baby!” Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I like to play one on the Internet. (Actually, I almost went into a philosophy Ph.D. program, but in the end the infamously dire job market in that discipline deterred me.)

As I see it, moral philosophy is the derivation of valid principles for normative judgment, where normative judgment is the making of (true) statements about whether particular types of conduct are and are not justifiable. Now, I don’t see how making normative judgments without a unified, underlying principle or rule is possible.

After all, we can’t have it all – we can’t have a society that combines perfect liberty, perfect equality, and absolute security. We have to make tradeoffs, but on what basis do we make those tradeoffs? We have to have a principle! To be precise, we have to have one and only one principle. If there are multiple moral principles, they can always come into conflict, and we will have to rely on a more fundamental principle to adjudicate the conflict.

More fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s quite right to view moral judgment as a process of making tradeoffs among values. This point of view implicitly assumes that we’re trying to maximize some kind of function, in which our values (liberty, equality, security, etc.) are variables. That sounds a lot like stealth utilitarianism. Defending utilitarianism is fine, but it should be done forthrightly, not slipped in through the back door. Are liberty, equality, and security  valuable only insofar as they promote the aggregate happiness of Homo sapiens (or perhaps the entire animal kingdom?).

Rather, most defenders of liberty and equality see these terms as shorthand for principles of justice (any view that fails to equate “security” with a form of “liberty” is just confused). Thus, a Marxist sees the employment contract as inherently and necessarily wrong and exploitative, while a libertarian sees that same relationship as an inviolable exercise of liberty. I don’t see any way these different positions can be “weighed and balanced.” They can only be reasoned back to first principles.

On a final note, moral philosophy makes progress by tracing first-order arguments about justice back to their atomic particles, the basic principles on which they are based. It is deductive, not inductive, so we should not hold it to the same standard of progress as inductive science. By its proper standard, moral philosophy has actually made great strides over the centuries.

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