Steven Den Beste writes today about consequentialism. As he says, he is not himself a consequentialist; he finds all utilitarian criteria, and all other ethical rules, inadequate. This makes him an intuitionist, as I have written before. Nevertheless he has residual sympathy with some forms of utilitarianism and understates the problems with the theory.

Consequentialism of any variety founders on commensurability. You can’t compare degrees of satisfaction in different people because there are no happiness-units. In fact it’s even impossible to compare degrees of satisfaction in the same person. I prefer pears if I haven’t eaten any fruit, but if I’ve just eaten three pears then I prefer apples. So for me, what’s the relative value of an apple and a pear? Even I, with direct access to my own thoughts, can supply no better answer than “it depends.” And even if preferences were constant they would certainly not be quantifiable. This clips the wings of the consequentialist at the start. His ethics demand that he perform an impossible task.

Mill and Bentham addressed this differently. Bentham argued that happiness is internal and can be evaluated only from each person’s own point of view. Unfortunately this leaves the utilitarian actor with the problem of getting inside of everyone’s head. It also has a nasty subjectivist edge. Consider a sadist, who enjoys inflicting suffering. An act that inflicts suffering scores extra, in Bentham’s version of utilitarianism, because it gratifies the sadist.

Mill found this conclusion insupportable, and famously evaded it by arguing that there are “higher” and “lower” pleasures, and that higher ought to get more weight. Which is fine: it’s just not utilitarianism any more. The standards for higher and lower have been smuggled in from outside the theory.

Rule Utilitarianism, a further refinement, fuses Bentham with Kant:

Utilitarianism says that in any situation you should act in a way which maximizes happiness. Rule Utilitarianism says that you should follow a rule which, if always applied by everyone in a similar situation, would maximize happiness even if it does not do so in this particular instance.

Den Beste prefers this to strict utilitarianism because it’s friendlier to his ethical intuitions. Even in pure utilitarianism rules receive consideration: if you break a promise, and people find out, one of the consequences is that your reputation is damaged. (There are also secondary consequences: the taboo against promise-breaking is weakened.) But Rule Utilitarianism says you ought to keep your promises, even if nobody else could possibly find out. It says you ought not to overgraze your cattle on public lands, where pure utilitarians would have no such scruples.

Of course Rule Utilitarianism has its own problems, as Den Beste acknowledges:

My biggest problem with Rule Utilitarianism is that in practical application it’s much too susceptible to rationalization. Part of the problem is in deciding just how specific you’re going to be about “similar situations”. Different levels of scope regarding “similar” will lead to different calculations of the optimal rule, and so if you like one of them but not another it’s just too easy to decide that the scope should be such as to make that the rule you follow.

Actually, in the classical formulation of rule utilitarianism, if more than one rule applies, you’re supposed to revert to pure utilitarianism rather than choosing your own rule. Still, the scope problem is more complicated than Den Beste lets on. It’s extremely easy to devise rules that would maximize happiness if universally followed. Leftists play this game all the time. “Imagine if they gave a war and nobody showed up.” “Imagine everybody showed respect for all living things.” Of course the trouble with most such rules is that they only make sense in a world where they are universally followed, a world that does not exist. Pacifism, which I join Den Beste in abhorring, is a perfectly proper rule under rule utilitarianism.

Because it is so easy to devise these rules, many will be devised, so many that more than one will apply to any possible situation. Then we have the choice of reverting to pure utilitarianism, with the consequences outlined above, or “rationalizing,” as Den Beste describes it, by choosing the rule that’s closest to our moral intuition.

If you take rule utilitarianism seriously, you wind up with a bunch of unrelated edicts and no guidance for applying them in a particular situation. Something like, say, the Ten Commandments. Oddly, the “scientific” and religious ethics turn out to have a great deal in common.

Aaron Haspel | Posted December 23, 2002 @ 5:09 PM | Philosophy

4 Responses to “Utilitarianism”

  1. 1 1. Michael Krantz

    Doesn’t the "value" of an act also derive from everyone who’s involved, not just the actor? As in your sadist example, the best definition I’ve heard of a sadist is someone who won’t torture a masochist.


  2. 2 2. Aaron Haspel

    Sure it does. So the gratification of any sadist involved, whether the actor or a bystander, is a point in the action’s favor. I thought I made that clear, but maybe not.


  3. 3 3. Jim Valliant

    Obviously, so-called "calculation" problems are just one aspect of utilitarianism’s many profound problems. Using pleasure (or even happiness) as an ultimate standard is bad enough subjectivism, but the collectivism of having to account for the subjective states of everyone else in each of my
    decisions is as pernicious as it is impossible.

    Even the less stringent versions that provide "rules" (and "cut-offs" for our responsibilities in this regard) have premised the whole thing on as vicious a piece of altruism as can be imagined.


  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that utilitarianism fails on its own premises. Of course it is collectivist, but pointing that out will never convince a utilitarian.


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