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How do people defend utilitarianism?


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I've noticed recently a lot of people describing themselves as utilitarians and I'm always puzzled by this, because there are old objections to utilitarianism and I'm not aware that anyone resolved them.

Utilitarianism being the maximum amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people would permit killing an innocent person for the purpose of harvesting their organs and saving 3 dying people. This would increase the amount of happiness in the world.

How do utilitarians defend from this?

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I do not think that I have seen many (or any) postulating utilitarianism as fundamental ethical principle. What folks have stated are (at least in my memory) utilitarian views on certain subjects. That being said, you are somewhat misstating (or perhaps overstating) the utilitarian position. First there are different varieties of utilitarianism (I am not really familiar with the literature) but IIRC what you describe could be classified as "act" utilitarianism. Another position (or variation) is that instead of each individual act requiring to maximize happiness, rules should be followed that allow a net increase in happiness. There is also the argument that the apparent conflict between customary morality and utilitarian ethics is, for the most part, artificial. Or that customary morality does not provide and answer either. If we switch the example to the tram example (switch the way the tram goes down and one person, or do nothing and kill fiver persons), you still end up with an ethical dilemma when following other principles of morality.

I also recall that Popper has argued that instead of maximizing  happiness,  the goals should be to minimize pain instead. And while I do not know how that discussion evolved, I am vaguely aware that there are several variations and modifications to that principle. 

Long story short, there is quite a bit more to the whole thing, and considering that there are many books on this topic, I think it is worthwhile reading some of them and make up your mind on the topic yourself.

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On 10/26/2018 at 6:55 PM, CharonY said:

I do not think that I have seen many (or any) postulating utilitarianism as fundamental ethical principle. What folks have stated are (at least in my memory) utilitarian views on certain subjects. That being said, you are somewhat misstating (or perhaps overstating) the utilitarian position. First there are different varieties of utilitarianism (I am not really familiar with the literature) but IIRC what you describe could be classified as "act" utilitarianism. Another position (or variation) is that instead of each individual act requiring to maximize happiness, rules should be followed that allow a net increase in happiness. There is also the argument that the apparent conflict between customary morality and utilitarian ethics is, for the most part, artificial. Or that customary morality does not provide and answer either. If we switch the example to the tram example (switch the way the tram goes down and one person, or do nothing and kill fiver persons), you still end up with an ethical dilemma when following other principles of morality.

I also recall that Popper has argued that instead of maximizing  happiness,  the goals should be to minimize pain instead. And while I do not know how that discussion evolved, I am vaguely aware that there are several variations and modifications to that principle. 

Long story short, there is quite a bit more to the whole thing, and considering that there are many books on this topic, I think it is worthwhile reading some of them and make up your mind on the topic yourself.

I'm not sure what the distinction here is. You seem to be saying that you require a net increase, but not a maximum increase, but that seems odd.

You say there are different varieties, but what variety resolves the problem I mentioned?

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Net increase in my sentence refers to the overall increase by implementing that rule vs individual decision. An individual decision at a point (save more people at the cost of one) could lead to a momentarily net increase. But enforcing it as a rule could lead to a net decrease.

The varieties that I mentioned address various bits. However, what some utilitarians argue as a whole is that regardless how you look at it, an utilitarian decision method does not have more issues than others. Consider the tram scenario, which is similar to the one you outlined. I.e. you are on a tram and have the choice of doing nothing and kill five people tied to the tracks or switch tracks and kill only one. If you do not want to apply utilitarian ethics, what form would you apply and how would it be inherently better?

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On 11/2/2018 at 10:16 PM, CharonY said:

Net increase in my sentence refers to the overall increase by implementing that rule vs individual decision. An individual decision at a point (save more people at the cost of one) could lead to a momentarily net increase. But enforcing it as a rule could lead to a net decrease.

The varieties that I mentioned address various bits. However, what some utilitarians argue as a whole is that regardless how you look at it, an utilitarian decision method does not have more issues than others. Consider the tram scenario, which is similar to the one you outlined. I.e. you are on a tram and have the choice of doing nothing and kill five people tied to the tracks or switch tracks and kill only one. If you do not want to apply utilitarian ethics, what form would you apply and how would it be inherently better?

I don't think that holds up at all, because, again, the logic of utilitarianism licences you to kill an innocent person to harvest their organs and save multiple people. A non-theoretical, intuitive folk morality prohibits that and is, therefore, better than utilitarianism. And also, this shows you that no utilitarian really acts or thinks as an utilitarian.

I don't know what to tell ya on the trolley problem. I don't know what I'd do and I don't know what I'd endorse. I maintain that folk morality is better than utilitarian morality, but I admit that folk morality fails to give an answer here.

But, rather than discuss alternatives, I'd prefer to confine the discussion to how utilitarians work out these problems, because if we open up another subject that often derails a thread and I'm very interested, given the popularity of utilitarianism, in how people resolve these issues.

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The issue here is that you do not compare utilitarianism as a concept with any else beside what you call "folk ethics", which is not defined as a concept at all. You only have one example that gives you the desired outcome (on what basis) and the call it superior. Yet at the same time you acknowledge that it fails in a different scenario. In other words, you define superiority exclusively on one specific though experiment. For a really comparative discussion, at minimum you need to state the main tenants of the alternatives, otherwise the argument is moot. 

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On 1/9/2019 at 9:08 PM, CharonY said:

The issue here is that you do not compare utilitarianism as a concept with any else beside what you call "folk ethics", which is not defined as a concept at all.

Well, I would have thought it's obvious what I mean by folk ethics. It's the ethical judgments that most regular folks will make when using only their innate moral sense, rather than some philosophical and rationally defined moral principle like utilitarianism. In brief - what regular folk think is moral.

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You only have one example that gives you the desired outcome (on what basis) and the call it superior.

Don't you agree that that outcome is superior to the utilitarian outcome of killing people to harvest their organs?

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Yet at the same time you acknowledge that it fails in a different scenario. In other words, you define superiority exclusively on one specific though experiment.

No, not on one specific thought experiment. We had the trolley problem and the issue of harvesting people's organs. One is a contrived thought experiment, the other is a situation that would happen every day.

You could spin out all sorts of scenarios that logically follow from utilitarianism that I'm sure we'd all acknowledge as problems (for example, one creditor with 10 debtors struggling to pay off the loan, so you just tell the creditor to go fly a kite - net happiness has increased), but we don't even need to go there. The organ harvesting one is sufficient.

You'd just have people getting put down so others can have their organs left and right. That's a bigger problem, as it would be an everyday occurance, whereas the trolley problem is a contrived philosophical thought experiment that never actually happens.

Edited by Alfred001
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On 1/13/2019 at 11:42 AM, Alfred001 said:

what regular folk think is moral

Regular folk are not a moral monolith. Folk ethics isn't a thing. Neither is cultural relativism. Shock horror, it turns out our moral stances have so much variance they don't even stick specifically to culture or within national borders. How dare they!

Something to understand is that all of our explicitly laid out moral theories come from our innate sense of morality, as you would put it. Utilitarianism is only a thing because ethicists and moral philosophers observed and described what was clearly already a part of our moral psychology. People were observed saying and doing very utilitarian things, long before the word "Utilitarianism" was ever in use.

I wouldn't use the word innate at all. Young children and babies have undergone what are called Helper/Hinderer Identification experiments and even the youngest children learn to tell the difference between these two character types at a young age. One of those researchers is actually a friend of mine. Their next experiment is to see how children react when the hinderer and helper are the exact same character. Might give us some insight into how our Moral Psychology develops when abused by our parents. It's important to understand that interpreting what these experiments mean is... Difficult. These children couldn't talk so we had to look for non-verbal cues to gauge how they were feeling and reacting to the narrative stimuli. Personally I think this has nothing to do with us being "born with a moral compass" because the youngest babies couldn't tell the difference between help and hinder. What I believe those experiments truly told us, was that Helping and Hindering are two concepts which we learn very quickly. It probably doesn't take babies that long to get an emotional impression of their own helplessness and their parents helpfulness in terms of reducing discomfort and pain in favour of comfort and satisfaction. 

On 10/26/2018 at 9:08 AM, Alfred001 said:

Utilitarianism being the maximum amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people would permit killing an innocent person for the purpose of harvesting their organs and saving 3 dying people. This would increase the amount of happiness in the world.

What you are describing here is what would be considered morally acceptable in Short term Utilitarianism. Long term Utilitarianism does not justify this.

A way to flip the switch a little, is to ask if it is moral to harvest a non-reforming, serial rapists organs to save three dying people? However, I think even if the rapist consented, you'd have a hard time convincing the three dying to accept the organs of someone whom they morally despise. So there is that.

On 10/26/2018 at 11:55 AM, CharonY said:

also recall that Popper has argued that instead of maximizing  happiness,  the goals should be to minimize pain instead. And while I do not know how that discussion evolved, I am vaguely aware that there are several variations and modifications to that principle. 

That discussion evolved into differentiating between these 3 things; Pain, Suffering and harm. Most ethicists and moral philosophers see the reduction of harm as a good we should strive for. Pain and suffering are difficult. Pain is a biological feedback mechanism our bodies need to tell us if something is breaking down or isn't working within our bodies (this means beneficial exercise as well). Suffering can be broken down into justified and unjustified suffering. If you still a beloved pet from me, most would agree my suffering in this instance would be justified. When I steal my own pet back from you, your suffering would be unjustified because most would argue that it's my property and that I haven't stolen anything from you, I've just taken possession of my own pet back. (Ethical arguments about pets are for another day and tangential to this.)

Utilitarianism offered a lot of insight into our moral lives and cultivated growth in our moral progress. It's shortcomings are that it takes the depth of our entire human existence and breaks it into a binary dichotomy between Pleasure and Pain. Pain can be constructive, pleasure can be destructive. It's not that Utilitarians don't make some good points, they've just not really caught on to the whole picture and are oversimplifying the complexity of our moral psychology. I think it comes out of a strange need by humans to try to simplify what is clearly a complex existence into binary choices and dichotomies. Pleasure and pain, happiness and harm, good and evil, entertained and bored. Moral theories can be made based on all of these binaries. Doesn't mean they are completely correct or getting into the real meat of the matter. 

To be extremely clear, our moral theories aren't something we pull out of thin air, more often than not they are just descriptions of thoughts, speech and actions that already exist within animal culture. Not even god was pulled out of thin air in all the supernatural theories of morality. They come from the observation that we as animals have creators. Parents. So some extend that logic onto the universe to say that it too has a parent. 

It's actually a lot easier than people realise to describe a meta-ethical stance. Do you know how many names I could come up with for the moral claim "most people seem to love kids, so the greatest good we can do is to safeguard the well-being and flourishing of our species by living our lives fulfilling the needs of children, born and umborn." Loads. I even did at one point. That's not the point of this thread though. You wanted some answers as to how utilitarians defend harvesting organs from people against their will to save one life. Most of them don't, short term Utilitarianism isn't worth their time because the defenses employed all seem to fall short of gaining any weight or credibility. Utilitarianism and the rest of Moral Philosophy has moved on. You'll still be taught about it in a class (Especially medical ethics) but you'll probably not get very far if you sincerely subscribe to short term variants of Utilitarianism. 

Now of course, sometimes decisions like who gets to live and who gets to die are made by medical ethics boards. However, consent plays a very key role and usually the person who is left to die in the worst circumstances is the original ill person, not the innocents whose organs could have been used if they had given consent.

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