"The problem with this whole economics business is that it gets deeply unintuitive results. These economists talk endlessly about supply and demand curves. These graphs seem intuitive until you apply them to particular cases. Take the idea of a demand curve. It seems intuitive at first that at higher prices you purchase less of things. However, this general intuition gives deeply implausible conclusions, such as that the minimum wage causes unemployment, that rent control causes shortages, and that it's good when American's buy things from other countries, even though it costs American jobs. At this point this whole 'demand curve balderdash,' starts to seem absurd."
- A strawman
Michael Huemer is not a utilitarian for reasons explained in this article, illuminatingly titled "Why I Am Not a Utilitarian." As the name "Bentham's bulldog," might suggest, I am a utilitarian (I am not, however, a bulldog). Huemer has previously expressed some mild sympathy for utilitarianism, writing that it is "not a crazy view." However, as we learn in this article, our sanity does not justify trusting us with responsibilities as important as properly distributing cookies between serial killers and mother Theresa, or following death-bed promises.
Why is Huemer not a utilitarian? Well, Huemer is an ethical intuitionist, thinking that ethics must be based around making sense of a large number of particular cases. On Huemer's view, ethics should have acceptable intuitive implications. Thus, he rejects utilitarianism for the same reason one would be justified in rejecting a seemingly acceptable moral theory that they later learn holds that torturing infants for fun is justified. Huemer lays out a series of unintuitive results of utilitarianism and argues that these give us good reason to reject utilitarianism. Later posts will argue against those specific intuitions.
Huemer says that utilitarians biting the bullet is problematic (dentists tend to say similar things). He says
"The utilitarian faces a dilemma: a) If you don’t accept ethical intuition as a source of justified belief, then you have no reason for thinking that enjoyment is better than suffering, that satisfying desires is better than frustrating them, that we should produce more good rather than less, or that we should care about anyone other than ourselves. b) If you do accept ethical intuition, then at least prima facie, you should accept each of the above examples as counter-examples to utilitarianism. Since there are so many counter-examples, and the intuitions about these examples are strong and widespread, it’s hard to see how utilitarianism could be justified overall."
I accept the second horn of the dilemma, but weakly. I think that ethical intuitions do provide some support to beliefs, but it very much depends on the nature of the intuition. Much like it would be absurd to reject economics based on intuitively compelling counterexamples, the types of intuitions that justify general principles are often more reliable than the types of intuitions about particular cases. If we look throughout human history we see a whole host of terrible moral intuitions. Huemer (rightly) argues that our practice of eating meat is the worst thing in the world. A practice that most people regard as permissible but Huemer regards as akin to the holocaust shows the frequent unreliability of our intuitions. For much of human history people regarded torturing and killing innocent people as permissible. Slavery was tolerated. All of this shows that our intuitions about particular cases are very often wrong.
Huemer asks how we can justify privileging utilitarian intuitions, writing "So how might one justify this? a. Maybe general, abstract intuitions are better than concrete intuitions about particular cases. Problem: It’s not obvious that utilitarian intuitions are any more abstract or general than non-utilitarian intuitions. E.g., imagine a case of a very selfish person causing harm to others, and you’ll get the intuition that this is wrong. Talk about the Shallow Pond example, or the Trolley Problem. It’s about equally plausible to say that core utilitarian claims rest on intuitions about cases like those as it is to make a similar claim about deontology. You can also represent deontology as resting on abstract, general intuitions, e.g., that individuals have rights, that we have a duty to keep promises, etc. It’s about equally plausible to say deontology rests on general intuitions like these as to say the same of utilitarianism."
There are numerous justifications for privileging utilitarian intuitions.
1) There seem to be good reasons for thinking that greater reflection leads to more utilitarian conclusions. Being smarter, less influenced by emotions, and more reflective all correlate with being more utilitarian. This is what we would expect if utilitarian intuitions were correct.
2) Utilitarians tend to be on the right side of history. Bentham supported legalizing homosexuality in the late 1700s. Mill was the second member of parliament to support women's suffrage. Sidgwick supported rights to education for women. Utilitarians like Singer are at the vanguard of the battle against factory farms, which Huemer regards to be one of the most important moral causes. Bentham's Bulldog is writing awesome articles filled with correct opinions, especially on ethical issues. A long track record of utilitarians weird an unintuitive ideas turning out to be right shows that we should privilege those intuitions.
3) Utilitarian intuitions realize that we should shut up and multiply--non-utilitarian intuitions don't.
4) Many non-utilitarian intuitions just seem to be emotional reactions to particular words in the sentence. We spend lots of time talking as a society about how lots of things are very bad--eg murder. Thus, when utilitarianism asks if murder is sometimes good, based on implausible stipulations that we have trouble imaging, the part of our brain that says "ick murder, that's bad," overpowers reflection about the particular case.
Consider a parallel question to many of the objections to utilitarianism. "Suppose that abusing one's spouse was the right thing to do. Should you do it." In this case, even though it's stipulated that abusing one's spouse is morally good, instinctively, one still has the urge to answer "no," or more accurately "get the hell out of my house." The non-utilitarian intuitions invokes concepts that are constantly discussed as being terrible--and for good reason. However, if we stipulate that those terrible things become good for strange reasons, often invoking unnamed people with whom we have no emotional connection, it's very hard come to the right (utilitarian) conclusion.
5) Perhaps most fundamentally, non-utilitarian intuitions can't stop running into contradictions and absurdities. We'll see that more in the later parts of this series. Non-utilitarians have to hold that third-party observers should often hope for you to act wrongly, or hold that giving perfectly moral omniscient decision-makers extra options can make the world worse.
On top of this, they have to posit an increasingly strange and convoluted moral ontology with various good-making features, with no common tether.
Very often objections are given to utilitarianism, only for the utilitarian conclusion to be discovered to be rationally inescapable. People very often use the repugnant conclusion to reject utilitarianism. However, Huemer himself has argued that we should all accept the repugnant conclusion. They worry that utilitarianism justifies some number of dust-specks being worse than torture--even though that conclusion is rationally inescapable . As I argue here (in section 2) dozens of common counterexamples to utilitarianism are better described as cases where utilitarianism gets the correct but unintuitive results, and that we have independent reason to accept utilitarian judgements about each of these cases.
I, like god, am a bayesian. So we should consider the evidence for and against utilitarianism based on how likely it would be if utilitarianism were true, versus if it were false. If utilitarianism were correct we would expect it to often be counterintuitive, given how terrible human intuitions are about ethics. Thus, the fact that utilitarianism is unintuitive in many specific narrow cases is very weak evidence against utilitarianism. Given how much we'd expect the correct ethical view to diverge from intuition, it might on net favor utilitarianism. However, it would be very surprising for the incorrect moral view to have al of the following features.
1 Being more widely believed by smarter more reflective people.
2 Do much better in terms of theoretical virtues like simplicity.
3 Be derivable from a smorgasbord of plausible theoretical principles.
4 Have it's adherents be constantly on the right side of history hundreds of years ahead of their time.
5 Avoid strange contradictory results.
6 Generally only have counterintuitive implications in realms of sacred values.
7 Have alleged counterexamples to it almost always be independently debunkable on alternative grounds, such that smart people create theorem's demonstrating that believing the counterexamples produces absurdity.
Even Huemer said that he grows more sympathetic to utilitarianism as time passes, in his book Knowledge, Reality, and Value. The truth may appear false at first but when one considers enough ethical cases they realize that utilitarianism gets the right result every damn time, even in cases that were specifically designed to be counterexamples to utiltiarianism. So yes, utilitarianism has some counterintuitive results. But they're counterintuitive in the way that good economics is counter-intuitive. They're counter-intuitive in the way that Parfit's reductionism about personal identity is counterintuitive, or that quantum physics is counterintuitive.
David Friedman wrote
“The modern economist reading Ricardo’s Principles feels rather as a member of one of the Mount Everest expeditions would feel if, arriving at the top of the mountain, he encountered a hiker clad in T-shirt and tennis shoes.”
A similar experience is true of reading utilitarians, for utilitarianism solves the troublesome ethical questions of the modern age. Utilitarians are very concerned about animal suffering. Turns out there are good independent reasons to have that concern. Non-utilitarians have a very difficult time accounting for rights. However, all of the rights can be explained extremely easily on utilitarian accounts. The right to life is worth enshrining into law because it's conducive to utility. That's why we have the right not to let other people enter our house but not the right not to let other people look at our house. That's why it's a violation of our rights to shoot sharp projectiles at us, but not a violation of our rights to shoot sharp soundwaves at us by talking.
Political philosophers struggle with questions of whether or not taxation is theft. Utilitarianism provides a very easy answer: who cares. Call it what you want, but it's not bad if it's generally conducive to utility. Utilitarianism very easily solves problems in population ethics . The reason Huemer becomes more sympathetic to utilitarianism over time is because of the ease at which it solves (correctly) very difficult questions.
Prior to writing my post on the effective altruism forum I had not realized that utilitarianism could be verified to have correct results in all of the cases that I considered. For nearly all of them I had no idea what the independent arguments would be against the counterexample. But every single time it quickly became apparent on independent grounds that utilitarianism was right. Like Ricardo deducing modern price theory without working out the math, utilitarianism got the right answer every single time. For some of Huemer's examples, I have not already worked out independent justifications for "biting the bullet," on the alleged counterexamples. However, I have strong confidence that careful reflection will reveal a justification, for it always has in the past. Enough times of utilitarianism getting to the top of the mountain immediately, it's conclusion always intersected by a path forged by independent logical arguments, makes it very clear that the utilitarians are on to something.
In the bible, numbers 22-24 tells the story of Balaam and Balak. Balak was the king of Moab, and he wanted Balaam, a sorcerer, to curse the jews. However, every time he tried to curse the jews, he ended up accidentally blessing them (god has a tendency to make curses fail and become blessings). That somewhat reminds me of the tendency for objections to utilitarianism to backfire. Derek Parfit (a far greater individual than Balak, who also had the good fortune of existing, unlike Balak) tries to curse utilitarianism by devising a conclusion so repugnant that he names it the repugnant conclusion, arguing that it serves as a devastating counter-example to utilitarianism. Turns out that it's basically impossible to escape the repugnant conclusion without replacing one's diet entirely with bullets. Nozick and others curse utilitarianism with the charge of devaluing rights, only for independent arguments to reveal that non-utilitarian accounts of rights are superfluous, ungrounded, and absurd. Enough curses turned to blessings should reveal that utilitarianism is fundamentally right.
Utilitarianism is the modern price theory of ethics. It allows us to quickly reach the top of the mountain in just a T-shirt. People like Huemer are surprisingly diligent and resilient climbers, who manage to quickly reach places relatively near the top of the mountain. However, the mountain contains many treacherous turns--many of which result in ethical disaster, even relatively near the top of the mountain . I wish you well fellow travelers!
I liked this
you save someone from drowning, but do so merely out of the hope of being paid for it
is that a moral / morally good action?
I say no