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Alfred001

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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I struggle with the Utilitarian approach to ethics, because it seems really easy to define things so that most anything could be justified by that approach.  

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