Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Utility of Utilitarianism

This is a modified version of my first essay for Peter Singer's Practical Ethics course at Coursera.


There are a number of objections to utilitarian theory that one can raise: that it conflicts with individual rights(1), that it is difficult or impossible to convert disparate ideas such as rights, the sanctity of rules or the law, and peoples’ lives and preferences into a common currency(2), that it is too demanding(3), that it results in morality being partially dependent on luck(4), and that peoples’ preferences are inconsistent and malleable. Of these, I find the third objection (that utilitarianism is too demanding) and to a lesser degree the second (the common currency objection) to be the most compelling. Particularly when combined, these two objections lead to a broader problem with utilitarianism, which is that it just isn’t all that useful in one’s day-to-day life. In other words, utilitarianism lacks utility.

The “too demanding” objection arises from the highly counter-intuitive and essentially impossible to achieve requirements on personal behavior that a fully committed utilitarian would have to practice. Such a person would consider his or her own preferences no more important than anyone else’s, and thus be trapped in a life of endless sacrifice, as there would always be someone poorer than the utilitarian that the utilitarian could help. Indeed, such a “Utilitarian Martyr” would almost always answer the question of “What should I do right now in this situation?” with “Forsake my family and friends, work as hard as possible so that I can maximize my income, live like a penurious monk, and donate whatever is left over to high-quality charities”. This arises because the cost for such a charity to save a life is on the order of $1,000(5,6). Given the average per-capita income in the US was $42,693 in 2012(7), subtracting off $20,000 for a monk’s lifestyle and taxes leaves the typical American with enough resources to save over twenty lives per year, and the typical Princeton student far more. From a pure utilitarian perspective, which demands that we do whatever brings about the most good, becoming a Utilitarian Martyr is clearly the appropriate thing to do(8).

However, it is obvious that no one, even utilitarianism's proponents or anyone short of the mythical version of Jesus Christ himself, comes anywhere near abiding by such standards. Given that no one is going to reach such perfection, what we need in practice is not an abstract theory that tells us what is the absolute best thing to do (which is almost always to become a Utilitarian Martyr) but a practical theory that answers the two questions we regularly face: Which behaviors of my own are good enough, and which minimal standards of behavior am I willing to enforce unto others via the law? Unfortunately, utilitarianism fails this task. While it does provide a mechanism for ranking potential choices, doesn’t set useful criteria for placing either of these bars.

Worse yet, even this ranking mechanism can be highly suspect, due to the aforementioned “common currency” problem. The in-class example - McCloskey’s hypothetical about the sheriff accusing one man of rape in order to prevent five others from being lynched – is a perfect example of this issue. In this example, the sheriff can save five net lives, but only at the price of egregiously violating the law, the public trust, and justice,  thus potentially undermining the public good for years to come.

While a utilitarian can certainly point out and consider this trade-off, it is difficult to imagine any reliable mechanism for comparing such wildly differing concepts such as human lives on one side and the long-term public good on the other. If one were to lock ten professed utilitarians in separate rooms and individually ask them how many lives saved represent the break-even point in this hypothetical, you’d probably get ten different answers. Thus, when it comes to crunch time in situations that are close calls, utilitarianism generally fails to provide much clarity precisely because of its inability to accurately measure in a common currency items on either side of the scale.

Combining these objections, I find utilitarianism to not be all that useful and unable to answer either my day-to-day questions or many hypothetical ones. Should I buy carbon offsets to mitigate the pollution I caused on my recent vacation in Australia? Of course not. A Utilitarian Martyr would never waste money on such a trip, and only gives money to the poorest of the poor. How should I pay my friend back for the nice bottle of Zinfandel he gave me? I shouldn’t. In fact, I should have sold the wine and donated the proceeds. What should I buy my wife for her birthday? Nothing. In fact, I should divorce her immediately as I earn more than her and she has a claim on half of my income and assets that I could be giving to the poor. Should I push the fat man in front of the trolley in order to prevent it from careening off the tracks and thus saving a bunch of lives? Almost certainly not, as getting arrested would dramatically reduce my future income even if I were later found innocent. And then there are the legal fees…

Despite the intent of a "Practical Ethics" course, I find that utilitarianism alone just ain’t all that practical, give its inability to resolve real-life ethical questions.


1: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 37-41
2: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 41-48
3: Corbett, B., Moral Obligations to Distant Others
4: Nagel, Thomas.   Moral Luck   Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993. 57-71
6: Singer, Peter.   The Life You Can Save    New York: Random House 2009
8: Singer, Peter.   “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3) 229-243

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