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Utilitarianism

June 8, 2013

My Twitter-friend @garyface is currently studying philosophy at York. This evening he asked me about Utilitarianism and (being a bit drunk) I said I had a good argument to counter it. I emailed him an account of that argument which, basically, tries to expose the nonsense of claiming that “pleasure” and “pain” can always be evaluated to see which one ends up the winner. Below is a very slightly amended version of that email so you can judge for yourselves. What do you think?

Anti-Utilitarian Argument

According to (strict) Utilitarians, there’s a “calculus” of pleasure/pain – ie, we can (somehow) always work out whether a particular situation is (on the whole) more pleasurable than painful. I think that’s a complete fantasy, and I thought up the following example to help expose it.

Suppose for some reason either you or I have to die for the greater good of humanity. A third party is tasked with the business of choosing and will do so on the Utilitarian basis of whichever choice causes the least unhappiness (which equates to the most happiness). As part of this he looks into our lives and discovers the following:
  1. In terms of the good/bad deeds we’ve done we’re pretty equal. But
  2. you have a doting mother whose life would be totally destroyed by your death and I have no family at all – all I have is a number of acquaintances who’d be very slightly upset by my death. They’d say “Oh, that’s a pity” and then, a moment later, continue with their lives as before.
 So it’s obvious, isn’t it? You live and I die, But hang on!
Your mother’s destroyed life is only x-many units in the calculus of unhappiness. The passing grief of my acquaintances doesn’t amount to much by comparison, but it does amount to SOMETHING. So let’s assume I have a million such acquaintances. Would a million “oh that’s a shame-s” outweigh the destroyed life of a fond mother? How about two million? Or a billion?
The point is that according to the Utilitarian vision these faint reflections of grief must at some stage add up to more unhappiness than your mother’s destroyed life (just as adding pennies to a pile one by one must at some stage add up to more than £10,000,000). And at that point the only moral decision is: let your mother be destroyed; your death causes the least unhappiness.
Now ask yourself: is it really possible that x many “oh that’s a shame-s” could outweigh the destroyed life of a doting mother? Isn’t that a load of bollocks? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that NO number of “that’s a shame-s” could add up to the wrecked life of a single mother? And if that’s so then doesn’t it show that the whole idea of quantifying grief is also bollocks? And doesn’t that mean that the whole Utilitarian project crashes to the ground?
That was my email. Come on, Utilitarians, your response please.
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From → Ethics, Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. Paul Johnston permalink

    Philip – I am afraid that I am at least as convinced as you that utilitarianism is bollocks so I can’t really respond on their behalf. I do remember Wilfred Beckerman running what he thought was a serious argument about why we should all commit suicide rather than suffer a moment of pain. His “argument” was that when you apply the utilitarian calculus you should assess the impact of a decision/event on the people affected and dead people don’t count. So in choosing between a possible world in which for a millisecond my utility count is -0.000000001 and a possible world where I do not exist, am not a person affected and do not register on the utility-ometer, then clearly choosing the second possible world is the only rational decision. It is an absolutely terrible argument, but it does support your case that the whole thing is a load of bollocks 🙂

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