Honors Ethics

Course Home

Tuesday, 09-12-17: Utilitarianism II

Readings:

Synopsis:

Today I handed out the cases for the 2017 Texas Regional Ethics Bowl. Please get started reading and research on these. We will proceed with our discussions of theoretical ethics, because we must have those tools available to inform our deliberations on these cases. Nevertheless, it is crunch time. You should form up into three teams: Two of four and one of five. Read through the cases together and divy them up according to expertise and interest.

Today we revisited Classical Utilitarianism by considering discussing again some if its more distinctive features. In particular, we argued today that CU's assumption that happiness is the sole intrinsic good (eudaimonism) may be problematic, since it can be argued that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good. Indeed, it would seem that such things as honor and friendship are also intrinsic goods given our arguments. Responding to this objection often consists of changing the measure of utility. If happiness is not the sole intrinsic good, then we reject happiness as the measure of utility. Possible alternative measures are pleasure (hedonism), best interests (idealism), or preferences (preferentialism). By changing how they measure utility, the utilitarian is able to meet the criticism that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good by developing what amount to alternative utilitarian ethical theories to CU. Utilitarianism thus shows us that the idea of utility is rich indeed.

Having posed the question, is happiness all that matters?, we took up the deeper and, I think, more troubling (for the utilitarian at least!) problem of whether focusing purely on the consequences of an action might not lead us astray morally speaking. Perhaps the utiliarian's singular focus on the consequences of an action entails that at least sometimes, acting according to the theory's implications leads us to acting immorally.

That is, the very notion that consequences are all that matters for morality may, however, pose problems the utilitarian, who cannot give up consequentialism without abandoning utilitarianism altogether, cannot escape.

That is, CU assumes that consequences are all that can be used to determine the morality of an action. Yet this is problematic because it gives rise to the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments. The utilitarian response cannot be to jettison consequentialism, since that would be to give up on the very idea of UET.

Thus it is important to understand the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments so as to appreciate the utilitarian response, with which we shall begin next time before turning to our example of deontology: Kantian Ethical Theory (KET). KET was developed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant's bedrock conception of morality is that morality is a matter of absolute duty, which, as we shall see, stands in stark contrast to utilitarian analyses of morality.

Before closing this synopsis, it is useful to consider a bit more the arguments we have been presenting in class. I refer here to the Honor, Friendship, Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons Arguments. These are all called 'Reflective Equilibrium' arguments, and they play a unique role in the analysis of moral normative--aka, ethical--theory.

Contrast ethical theory with scientific theory. Famously, scientific theories can never be proven true, they can only be proven false. For in a scientific theory, if the entailed testable hypothesis is shown to be false, we know that at least one of the entailing laws must be false. But if the entailed testable hypothesis in fact predicts what will happen, then we can only say that we have some confirmation of the theory. In less formal terms, a valid deductive argument with a true conclusion might still have one or more false premises. In short, we cannot say the theory is proven true because one of the entailing 'laws' may still be false. At best our scientific theories will be well-confirmed, and scientists are always careful to speak in these terms. If one desires absolute certainty, science is certainly not the place to find it! I submit that that is a strength of science, however, and not a weakness.

Now, just as the scientist is correct to insist on clarity and coherence in her theories, ethicists, I argue, should insist on clarity and coherence in their theories. To wit,

With respect to Clarity,

  1. Scientists don't tolerate vague or ambiguous terms in their theories, and neither should ethicists;
  2. Scientists try to state their theories as precisely as possible, and so should ethicists.

With respect to Coherence,

  1. Scientists cannot tolerate internal contradictions (because if S entails the proposition "P and not P", S has entailed a necessarily false proposition and so must have at least one member that is false), and neither, for the same reason, can ethicists;
  2. Scientists are extremely cautious to avoid external contradictions, since theories which conflict with established, well-confirmed theories are very likely suspect. Ethicists are well-advised to be similarly cautious.

So far so good: Our problem now is that the experimental method of seeking to falsify a scientific theory is not available to the ethicist inasmuch as ethics is prescriptive or normative (it is about the way the world ought to be), whereas science enjoys the advantage of being purely descriptive (its lone ambition is to describe how the world is, not how it ought to be.)

That is, the analogy with science only goes so far. Science, you see, enjoys a significant advantage over ethics. If science seeks to understand or describe the way the world is, ethic seeks to prescribe the way the world ought to be. Scientists can always conduct experiments to determine whether what they think is the case is in fact the case. The world itself serves as a tribunal for scientific inquiry. Ethics has no such advantage since ethics seeks to understand how the world ought to be, not how it is.

To put it bluntly, scientists can conduct experiments, ethicists cannot. Enter the Standard of Reflective Equilibrium.

Recall that according to this standard, an acceptable (read: "possibly true") moral normative theory must cohere with the moral intuitions together with the arguments of experienced and intelligent moral agents.

Now, it is important to note that no theory could be true which fails to meet the standards of Clarity and Coherence.

But it is possible for a theory to fail the standard of Reflective Equilibrium and still be true. Remember that using common moral intuition to test a moral normative theory is touchy at best. At one time, common moral intuition held that it was morally permissible to own another person--i.e., slavery was held to be morally permissible.

Reasoned moral intuition can be dramatically, sometimes tragically, faulty. This is why the standard of Reflective Equilibrium is so-named: Our best moral intuitions can be used to test the implications of a theory, with the caveat that our best theories should likewise inform our reasoned moral intuitions.

For example, for many experienced, intelligent people in the U.S., common moral intuition implies the homosexuality is morally wrong. But our best theories--the moral normative theories not rejected by the Standards of Evaluation, thus giving us good reason for thinking that one of them will turn out to be true--imply, contrariwise, that homosexuality is morally permissible. Since one of these theories, or some refined version of one of these theories, will likely turn out to be true, we have good reason for rejecting what moral intuition implies about homosexuality.

To help clarify our discussion of the Standards of Evaluation, let us adopt the following terminology. We shall say that an ethical theory

  1. Fails to meet a standard of evaluation if an apparently sound argument can be given to show that the theory does not meet the standard and there do not appear to be any counter-arguments available to show that the argument is unsound.
  2. Arguably Fails to meet a standard of evaluation if an argument can be given to show that the theory does not meet the standard and there appear to be counter-arguments available to show that the argument is unsound.
  3. Arguably Passes a standard of evaluation if arguments to show that the theory fails appear to be unsound on the basis of suitable counter-arguments.
  4. Passes a standard of evaluation if there do not appear to be any arguments available to show that the theory fails.

So it is possible, resuming our discussion of Reflective Equilibrium, for the true moral normative theory to arguably fail to meet the standard of Reflective Equilibrium since our moral intuition (backed however it might be by further reasons) could be, quite simply, mistaken. In the case of Utilitarianism, it is always possible for the utilitarian to respond to the various arguments we've given by 'biting the bullet', as it were, and simply reject intuitions--even those backed by further argument. Certainly those with strong consequentialist intuitions will find this an attractive approach. Alternatively, we can try to finesse utilitarian theory by finding variants which are immune to these kinds of Reflective Equilibrium objections. To be sure, in doing so the utilitarian may end up having to so mutilate the idea of utilitarianism that the version they offer cannot be considered a utilitarian approach at all. We'll consider this problem and others next time.