Utilitarianism wins outright part 1
Non utilitarianism delenda est
“All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”
- HP Lovecraft.
Many philosophical questions are difficult. One boxing vs two boxing in Newcomb’s problem, 1/3 vs 1/2 in the sleeping beauty problem, how we can be justified in believing in induction, and many others. However, many philosophical views that were once mainstream are now reduced to the dustbin of history, with logical positivism being the clearest example. Normative ethics is widely considered to be in the first category—people often say that there are no knockdown arguments in normative ethics. However, I think that normative ethics should be in the second category—it should be settled. Utilitarianism wins outright. Deontology and virtue ethics should join logical positivism in the dustbin of history.
Maybe you think such a bold proclamation is arrogant. How can a random blogger claim that an issue that’s bedeviled so many philosophers for such a long time should be clearly settled. Well, you probably have reasons based purely on smarter people than I being non-utilitarians to think that it’s reasonable to believe that utilitarianism is incorrect. The problem of peer disagreement should undermine our confidence in many of our views.
However, I shall hope to show in this series of articles that the problem of peer disagreement is the only good reason to doubt utilitarianism. The balance of considerations overwhelmingly favor utilitarianism. The objections to utilitarianism backfire and end up supporting utilitarianism. The considerations favoring and disfavoring utilitarianism are not best described as a balance, for they are quite lopsided.
“We may assume the superiority ceteris paribus of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”
Theories have virtues, elements that count for and against the theory. If given a choice between positing 30,000 laws to explain gravity and positing just a single one, we have decisive reason to posit just one law. Well, ethical theories have similar theoretical virtues. Utilitarianism does incredibly well in terms of the theoretical virtues.
One virtue is simplicity. Simpler theories are more likely to be true because they posit fewer components. The odds of A being true are strictly higher than the odds of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G being true. Utilitarianism does quite well in terms of simplicity, because it posits that only one thing matters and thus should be maximized. I’ll argue that the one thing that should be maximized is happiness. Deontological theories have to posit an idiosyncratic jumble of rights and virtue ethics based accounts have to posit a confusing jumble of virtues. Additionally, all plausible deontological or virtue ethics based accounts will agree that happiness is prima facie good and suffering is prima facie bad. Maybe other things matter, but certainly vast amounts of suffering are bad, all else equal. Likewise, the world is better when people are happier. That’s why depression, stubbing one’s toe, and reading continental philosophy are all bad, but reading this excellent blog, having sex, and eating tasty food are all good.
So utilitarianism posits that mental states can be good or bad. The bad ones should be avoided and the good ones should be pursued. And that’s it. No extra right, no extra virtue ethics based accounts, no confusing account of who deserves what, no weird act omission distinctions are needed. Other theories need to posit vast numbers of confusing things, which sacrifices lots of simplicity.
Physics is simple—our best models of physics seem like they’ll be reduceable to just equations. Mathematics is simple—it proceeds from just a few starting axioms. Economics, likewise proceeds from simple axioms. What are the odds that ethics would be different, with dozens of unconnected idiosyncratic things that allegedly matter.
How could we resist this H. Well, maybe you think that simplicity isn’t really a virtue. Huemer has argued for this.
In my view, the basis for simplicity being virtuous rest on basic probability theory. Probability of A and B are lower than just the probability of C. Huemer gives an alleged counterexample “Case 2: You go away on a sabbatical in Europe for a year. When you leave, for some reason, you leave your only two electrical devices on at home: a desktop computer and a lamp. You return a year later and, as you enter your house, see that both of them are now off. You consider two hypotheses:
S: There is a power failure occurring now.
C: The light bulb burned out, and the computer crashed.
Problem: Comparatively evaluate these, without collecting further evidence.
Answer: Again, S is simpler than C, for exactly the same reason as stated above: it cites a single cause for both data, whereas C cites two separate causes. Nevertheless, this time, C is more likely than S. (If you’re not sure of this, make the time period longer, e.g., ten years.)”
Well, simplicity is a virtue in this case. It’s just outweighed by other considerations.
The probability of a desktop computer crashing after a year away is pretty high—maybe .8. The probability of the lamp burning out is also pretty high—maybe .4. So the odds of both happening are .8 x .4 = .32. The odds of a power outage are less than 32%, therefore, that hypothesis is waaaaaaaaaaay less plausible. However, consider another case. Suppose we have two computers that are connected by a cable such that if the connection is hacked they’ll both shut down. However, if they’re both individually hacked, they’ll also shut down. If we see them both shut off, assuming that the odds of a hack on the connection are equal to the odds of a hack on either of them individually, it’s rational to assume the connection was probably hacked.
The explanation above was a bit of an oversimplification. The question is not the odds of A vs the odds of A and B, it’s the odds of A and not B vs the odds of A and B. Thus, the relevant question is whether prima facie B is unlikely. However, things that confer value seem to be rare. It’s hard to provide an explanation of why anything matters in an objective sense. So for any particular thing it seems unlikely that it matters. Thus happiness mattering but rights not mattering is prima facie more likely than happiness and rights both mattering. If you disagree, consider whether you think it’s more likely that happiness matters and that lettuce matters, or that happiness matters but lettuce doesn’t. Obviously the latter is more likely. In physics, it would be foolish to posit extra laws that we have no need for.
“Phlogiston was the eighteenth century’s answer to the Elemental Fire of the Greek alchemists. Ignite wood, and let it burn. What is the orangey-bright “fire” stuff? Why does the wood transform into ash? To both questions, the eighteenth-century chemists answered, “phlogiston.”
. . . and that was it, you see, that was their answer: “Phlogiston.”
Phlogiston escaped from burning substances as visible fire. As the phlogiston escaped, the burning substances lost phlogiston and so became ash, the “true material.” Flames in enclosed containers went out because the air became saturated with phlogiston, and so could not hold any more. Charcoal left little residue upon burning because it was nearly pure phlogiston.
Of course, one didn’t use phlogiston theory to predict the outcome of a chemical transformation. You looked at the result first, then you used phlogiston theory to explain it. It’s not that phlogiston theorists predicted a flame would extinguish in a closed container; rather they lit a flame in a container, watched it go out, and then said, “The air must have become saturated with phlogiston.” You couldn’t even use phlogiston theory to say what you ought not to see; it could explain everything.”
“With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.”
Ambiguity and unclarity lets nonsense fly under the radar. Absent a theory having precise results, it’s hard to conceive of it adequately. Unclear theories can be sufficiently amorphous to be consistent with any prediction—for after the result comes in, they can claim that their ill defined moral architecture lays the foundation for justifying the ethical result that was just discovered. Consider the following two principles.
A) “Rights are justified based on being well-being maximizing heuristics.”
B) “Throughout the domain of man’s often fraught conception, one principle reigns supreme within the domain of rights. This principle, oft ill conceived renders unambiguous the necessary maxims underlying any account of rights. That principle is, roughly, that one’s conception of themselves as a rational agent demands that they respect intrinsic extensions of rationality, inasmuch as they are present in others. For when a man kills or maims another, this barbaric act is clearly not a fulfillment of the rational will properly conceived, for the rational will properly conceived shies away from acts of barbaric violence, who necessarily inhibit its flourishing.”
—Me making fun of the way Kant writes
Both of these could be used to explain why all of the things we think of as rights are rights. Consider the following explanations of rights.
“We have the right to life because life is required for having good experience so respecting the right to life results in the best outcomes. That’s also why we have the right to not have other people take our stuff—that doesn’t produce good outcomes, and it’s also why we have the right to not let other people into our house but not the right to let other people look at our house because trespassing can cause violence, undermine people’s feelings of ownership, and overall reduce happiness. However, a society that banned looking at houses would not have the most happiness.”
“As has been demonstrated as the supreme maxim of morality, a necessary and sufficient condition for anything mattering is that which is conducive to the rational exercise of the will. Obviously the right to life is a necessary constraint on the rationality of the will—dead men can’t rationally exercise will. Yet clearly, the rational exercise of the will requires that we have rights to do with what we have as we wish, rights which include, as is conclusively an extension of the rational will, the right to avoid letting other persons enter your house but not the right not to let other persons look at yourself. For it is clear that the gaze is a non rational instrument that follows based on the necessary workings of eyes, and is not limited to rational beings, while entering a house must be an extension of rationality as it exerts it’s workings over ones limbs. The rational will exerts a penumbra over and above one’s property, one which can’t be violated by the exertion of another rational will on pain of contradiction—of two rational both with full primacy over those which they control.”
Both of these explanations do explain why one of them is a right and the other one is not. But only one of them is clear. Ambiguity allows a theory to appear to explain the data, but be sufficiently malleable to have no concrete predictions. So being clear and unambiguous is clearly a virtue. Compare utilitarianism to a theory like deontology. Well, deontology posits a vast unclear, unconnected stream of rights. Most plausible accounts of rights don’t hold that those rights should never be violated—most would agree you should steal a car to save the world. So the rights have no unifying factor and undefined moral significance that seems to vary depending on the situation. This renders the theory much less clear. Thus, utilitarianism does much better in terms of clarity. A theory with unclear verdicts has no clear predictions, so conclusions about particular cases can’t affect its plausibility.
“Me being omnipotent explains ALL ten plagues, you being omnipotent can only explain one of the plagues.”
—The god of the old testament, talking to an allegedly omnipotent frog.
Theories are better if they can explain more things. If phenomena A through F are more likely on a theory than they are on the negation of the theory, then the existence of A through F supports the theory. A friend has recently objected to explanatory power being a virtue, on the grounds that what matters is not explanatory power per se—a theory that posits an explanation for A through F is not intrinsically more likely than a theory that doesn’t. It’s only more likely if there’s a non ad hoc reason to suppose that A through F would occur on the theory than not on the theory.
To illustrate this with an example, two murders are not prima facie more likely to have been done by a serial killer than by two people, merely because the serial killer explains both. It merely depends on the odds of each murder on the hypothesis of a serial killer, vs on the hypothesis of a non serial killer.
However, this worry doesn’t plague utilitarianisms explanation of ethics. Utilitarianism is able to explain all of ethics from a very simple starting point in non ad hoc ways. The data of torture, not donating, and eating meat being wrong are all more strongly predicted on utilitarianism being true than on it not being true, because they follow straightforwardly from utilitarianism.
The other virtues don’t take as long to explain, so I’ll include them in this section. A good theory should make novel predictions about which things are good or bad. As I’ve argued previously , the correct ethical theory would diverge from our moral intuitions in many cases. Our moral intuitions throughout history have very often been wrong. The true ethical theory should be able to make predictions about what will turn out to be justified on reflection, that will differ from our starting intuitions, but turn out to be correct. Previous articles have, and future articles will argue that this is true.
Good theories should also be internally consistent. Utilitarianism is—something can’t both maximize and not maximize happiness.
Additionally, theories should not be ad hoc. If a theory has no plausible theoretical basis, that gives us decisive reason to reject it. Utilitarianism is not ad hoc. As we’ll see, it can be deduced from a variety of different plausible moral principles.
These considerations strongly favor utilitarianism. The fact that it blows other theories out of the water in terms of theoretical virtues strongly favors it. A theory that avoids dozens of ad hoc stipulations, unclarity, internal inconsistency, and also makes good predictions should be strongly favored.
We could make up lots of extra stipulations to save Newtonian mechanics. However, we shouldn’t do that. Even though quantum mechanics is super weird and unintuitive, we shouldn’t reject it to save a version of Newtonian mechanics with dozens of extra stipulations.
Ethics, unlike physics, is true across all possible worlds. We also can’t run very good experiments on ethics. So it’s not surprising that sometimes our moral intuitions—the best but deeply flawed way we come to ethical conclusions—would often yield results that contradict utilitarianism. However, careful reflection will bare out that utilitarianism gets the right answer every time. As we’ll see in due time, dear reader.