A. What is Act Utilitarianism?
1. Mill's Theory
Our formulation of utilitarianism is AUh (act-utilitarianism, of a hedonistic sort):
AUh: an act is morally right if and only if it maximizes hedonic utility.
a. hedonic utility
The hedonic utility of an action is the total number of hedons of pleasure the act would cause minus the total number of dolors of pain the act would cause.
Some remarks about pleasure and pain:
The hedon is the unit of measurement of pleasure.
The dolor is the unit of measurement of pain.
Pleasure and pain are sensations. They come in "episodes."
The greater the intensity or duration of an episode of pleasure (or pain), the greater the number of hedons (or dolors) contained in that episode.
An action maximizes hedonic utility =df. no alternative to the act has as great a hedonic utility as it has.
3. Defective Formulations of Utilitarianism
GHP: an act is morally right if and only if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number
AUx: an act is morally right if and only if it produces more pleasure and less pain than any alternative
B. Attractive Features of Utilitarianism
AUh is a form of "welfarism." That is, AUh says that the only thing that is of fundamental relevance to what we morally ought to do is the welfare of individuals.
(AUh construes welfare in terms of pleasure and pain. Notice that AUh does not restrict itself to the welfare of humans. It considers the welfare of all creatures capable of feeling pleasure and pain.)
This seems like a very plausible thing to base morality on -- much more plausible than to base morality on religion or on what society thinks. How well off people and other animals are is very important. It's clearly morally relevant. It is a virtue of AUh that is bases right and wrong on the welfare of all individuals.
2. Embodies "Do the Best You Can"
Something else that is attractive about AUh is that it embodies the idea that it is always right to do the best you can for the world -- that is, to make the world as good a place as you can make it. This seems extremely attractive. How could you go wrong by making the world the best you can make it?
AUh is impartial, and many people think that impartiality is at the heart of morality. A moral theory is impartial if it says that everyone ought to be given equal weight -- if it doesn't favor one class of people, or living things, in an arbitrary way. That is why we were dissatisfied with egoism -- it's too selfish, too partial towards oneself. This is also why we abhor racism and sexism. These practices are not impartial -- they favor one group over another for no good reason.
AUh is impartial. Everyone's pleasures matter, whether man, woman, black, white, rich, poor, American or not, human being or animal.
4. Resolves Moral Dilemmas
Finally, on AUh, there are no unresolvable moral dilemmas. That is, for every moral situation, AUh yields a clear verdict. Some alternative always maximizes hedonic utility. So there is always an answer to what one morally ought to do (though, of course, in many case it may be difficult, or impossible, to figure it out).
Many other moral theories just list some obligations that we have. For example, 10C says we're obligated not to lie, steal, kill, etc. But conflicts can arise between these obligations, and 10C provides no way of resolving them.
Rights-based ethics do this, too. They say people have moral "rights," such as the right to life, right to freedom, right to health care, right to an abortion. The list can go on and on. But cases can arise in which rights conflict. E.g., maybe a fetus's right to life conflicts with the mother's right to an abortion. A rights theory needs to be able to say when one right trumps another, and this can be very sticky business.
Utilitarianism avoids those problems. It
doesn't appeal to rights, or to rules such as "Don't Steal,"
"Don't Kill." It just says we have to maximize
C. Arguments Against Utilitarianism
1. The "Too High for Humanity" Objection
(see Feldman, pp. 36-38)
2. The "Lack of Time" Objection (Feldman, pp. 38-41)
Here's the argument:
1. If AUh is true, then we are always required to calculate utilities before acting.
2. Sometimes it is not right to calculate utilities before acting.
3. Therefore, AUh is not true.
Rationale for Premise 1: According to AUh, we should always maximize hedonic utility. It seems that the only way to ensure that we maximize utility is to (i) figure out what our alternatives are before acting, and (ii) calculate what the hedonic utility of each alternative is. So it would seem that if AUh really is true, then we would be always be required to perform these calculations.
Rationale for Premise 2: We could imagine a case in which there is simply not enough time to calculate utilities. That is, if we were to take the time to do the calculations, then something terrible would happen. In such a case, it seems that calculating utilities would be the wrong thing to do.
I think this argument is unsound. Premise 1 is false. AUh does not imply that we are always morally obligated to calculate utilities before acting. I can prove it with the following case:
There you are, standing on the side of the road. You see a baby in a carriage rolling into the path of an oncoming cement truck. Here are your alternatives:
- remove baby carriage from road + 50
- shout at truck driver -10
- cover eyes to avoid seeing crash -8
- call ambulance -9
- calculate utilities of alternative -10
Since AUh implies that any act that fails to maximize hedonic utilities is morally wrong, AUh implies that, in this case, calculating the utilities of all your alternatives is morally wrong. This case proves thus that premise 1 of the argument is false -- AUh does not always require us to calculate utilities before acting. So the Lack-of-Time Argument is unsound.
3. The Objection from Promises
a. Promise-to-the-Dead-Man Objection (Feldman, pp. 52-54)
Here's the case associated with the objection:
- Grandpa generously supports grandson through college.
- They go on a sailing trip for graduation.
- They get shipwrecked on an island.
- Grandpa is dying; asks grandson to promise him just one thing: bury his body and say a prayer over it
- Grandson promises him he will do this.
- Grandpa dies; grandson has several alternative:
a1: keep promise (bury body, etc.) -10
a2: use body for bait +25
a3: let body rot where it is -2
a4: throw body into sea -1
Here's the argument:
1. If AUh is true, the grandson is not morally obligated to bury the body.
2. The grandson is morally obligated to bury the body.
3. Therefore, AUh is not true.
Rationale for P1: AUh implies that it is always morally wrong not to maximize hedonic utility. In the case imagined, burying the body does not maximize hedonic utility. Therefore, AUh implies that it would be morally wrong for the grandson to do this. Thus, AUh implies that the kid it not morally obligated to do it.
Rationale for P2: It seems that the grandson is morally obligated to keep the promise and bury the body. In general, if you make a promise, then you ought to keep it.
I think this is a tough one. It is just not clear to me that the kid is obligated to keep the promise. That is, premise 2 might not be true. It really won't have any bad consequences. He's alone on the island. No one will be hurt by his breaking the promise. Maybe he's no obligated to keep it.
If we're going to refute a theory, we need to come up with a case that clearly refutes it. This case is far from a clear refutation, in my opinion.
b. Ross' Argument from Promises (from Ross, A Theory of the Good and the Right, (Pojman, p. 234b))
Here's the case:
You've made a promise to person A to give him something. The time comes to give it to him. If you were to give it to him, the hedonic utility of that act would be 1,000. But there is another person -- person B -- that you could give the thing to. You have made no promises to B. As it turns out, B would get slightly more satisfaction out the thing: the hedonic utility of giving the thing to B is 1,001. (Let us suppose that any pains felt by the person who doesn't get the thing are already figured into these hedonic utilities.) So here are your alternatives:
a1: keep promise and give the thing to A +1,000
a2: break promise and give the thing to B instead +1,001
This seems to be Ross' argument (if we construe it as an argument against AUh):
1. If AUh is true, then it is morally ok to break the promise and give the thing to B.
2. It is not morally ok to do this -- it is your duty to keep the promise and give the thing to A.
3. Therefore, AUh is not true.
Ross' Rationale for Premise 1: AUh implies that we must always produce the best consequences -- that is, to maximize HU. This case is designed so that breaking the promise just barely maximizes HU. Therefore, AUh implies that it is morally permissible to break this promise.
Ross' Rationale for Premise 2: Ross says that it is our duty to keep this promise: "After all, a promise is a promise and is not to be treated so lightly as the theory we are examining [AUh] would imply." Ross is not saying that it is never ok to break a promise. Sometimes it is ok to break a promise when there is a very large disparity between keeping it and breaking it (and, of course, the disparity is in favor of breaking it). But certainly, Ross says, promises count for something. We can't break them just for one little hedon.
I think this argument is sound. It seems clear to me that the person in this case should keep the promise he made. It's much more clear than that the grandson in the earlier case is obligated to keep his promise.
4. The Objection from Punishment
a. The Utilitarian Theory of Punishment
The Utilitarian Theory of Punishment: Punishment is justified only for its effects (such as rehabilitation, deterrence, and pleasures of vengeance).
b. The Retributive Theory of Punishment
The Retributive Theory of Punishment: Punishment is justified when, and only when, the punishment "fits the crime."
c. The Punish-the-Innocent Objection
Facts of the case:
- murder rampage in Smalltown, USA
- killer commits suicide; cops know it but have no proof
- copycat killers get into action; cops know this, too
- town starts to panic
- proposal by deputy: "frame-up and convict an innocent person; the copycat killers will stop; town won't panic; we'll all get promoted; we just have to keep it secret."
Police Chief's Alternatives HU
authorize frame-up +1000
try to catch copycats -500
try to calm public by explaining facts -600
call FBI for help -250
See, the frame-up would actually work.
No one would find out.
If they tried to catch the copycats, they'd fail, and panic would ensue.
If they tried to explain everything to the public, panic would still ensue.
Calling the FBI would be a better; the town would panic and riot a little, but they'd catch the copycats more quickly.
Retiring would be really bad; people would really panic.
Punish-the-Innocent Objection (Feldman,
1. If AUh is true, then the police chief is morally obligated to authorize the frame up.
2. The chief has no such obligation.
3. Therefore, AUh is not true.
P1: AUh implies that it is ok to do any act that maximizes HU. In this admittedly far-fetched case, framing the innocent man would maximize HU, since it would really calm the town. Sure it would cause the framed guy a lot of distress, but this would be more than outweighed by the relief it would bring to the entire town.
P2: But surely the chief isn't required
by morality to do this. Indeed, this it would be wrong for him
to do this. The guy they would frame is innocent! He didn't
do anything wrong. He doesn't deserve to be punished in this
way. Even though this situation would have better effects, punishing
this guy is off-limits in this case. Sometimes, it seems, it
is morally wrong to do what has the best effects.