Thursday, February 26, 2015

Utilitarianism: Criticisms and Responses

The Is and Ought problem

The central notion in both Bentham and Mill’s principle of utility is that humans, by nature, are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. They both justify this conclusion on the basis of what they see people doing:

“Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” (Jeremy Bentham)
“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (John Stuart Mill)

In moral theory we might say that Bentham and Mill are attempting to derive an ‘Ought’ from an ‘Is’:

  • IS (the way things are): Humans are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain.
  • OUGHT (how we should act): Only do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Logically this ‘ought’ is also equated with ‘Good’.
However, writing 50 years earlier in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), philosopher David Hume argued that any attempt to derive an ‘Is’ from an ‘Ought’ is logically problematic:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning… when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained.” (David Hume)
If Hume had read either of Bentham and Mill’s argument for the principle of utility, he might have critiqued them along the lines of the following: To say we are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain is one thing, but this does not explain why we should do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

Hume’s point is that we are missing an explanation here:
  • "Humans only do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain", because… ?
Now one could respond to this by saying we should maximise pleasure and minimise pain because this is a good thing to do, and this is basically what Bentham and Mill are saying. However, if we say this then we are left with having to explain how and why ‘maximising pleasure and minimising pain’ is equated with ‘Goodness’. Why is maximising pleasure and minimising pain a good thing to do? The assumption seems to be that it just is, but why? On the other hand, if we say we should do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain because they maximise pleasure and minimise pain, well this is nothing more than a tautology (saying the same thing twice).

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Bentham and Mill are equating what makes us happy with what is good. We might express this in the following way:

  • Being happy = Good
However, in his book Principia Ethica (1903) philosopher G. E. Moore argued that doing something like this leads us to problematic conclusions. For if we suggest that being happy is something good, then we are essentially saying that a definition of ‘Goodness’ is being happy:
  • Good = Being happy
It should be quickly evident to us the nature of the problem this creates. For example, Hitler was happy that millions of Jews died during World War II, so does that mean the Holocaust was a good thing? Most would disagree in the strongest terms.

So Moore’s basic concern is that you cannot define Goodness by equating it with something like ‘pleasure’ or ‘being happy’. Instead ‘Goodness’ needs to be understood on it’s own terms, in the same way that say yellow is:

“My point is that good is a simple notion, just as yellow is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.” (G. E. Moore)
Moore is saying that we only intuitively know what Goodness is, just as we  intuitively know what Yellow is and recognise it’s presence in various things such as lemons or bananas. Ask someone to explain what yellow apart from these things, and they cannot do this. In the same way we know what a good act is, but we cannot ultimately define what ‘Good’ is.

Of course, if Goodness is incapable of being defined then this means moral questions are simply open-ended and unanswerable. This also means we can have no moral basis for condemning such things as The Holocaust. If we can’t say why something is good or bad then we’re simply left saying we’d prefer such things not to happen, and that is all (Intuitionism).

In response to Moore

In an introduction to selected writings on Utilitarianism, philosopher Mary Warnock argued that Mill was not interested in constructing a moral theory but only concerned with describing the behaviour of most people; this being that they appear to be driven by a desire to maximise pleasurable outcomes, and thus decrease painful ones, because they believe this is a good thing to do. Warnock does not believe Mill intended to say that pleasure was (or equal to) good (which is the assumption of Moore's critique). In fact, Mill appears reluctant to offer any fixed definition of what counts as 'good', in much the same way Moore did:

”No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.” (John Stuart Mill)
Of course the problem here is that in saying people do x because they do x, we have no real reason put forward for why they are choosing to do x, and as such this leaves their behaviour meaningless and irrational.

Warnock also believed Mill intended only to say it is types of behaviour and not specific actions that produce 'measurable' outcomes. If we look for the specific pleasure/pain value in

each particular case, then our pursuit of a final 'value' will never be found due to infinite 'exceptions to the rule'. On the other hand, if we say that in general x behaviour leads to y outcome then we appear to have some basis for evaluating whether what we are doing is right or not.

One final point...

Utilitarians believe people should seek to maximise happiness (or pleasure) in their respective communities, but what exactly is this? Defining pleasure seems rather subjective, which is actually a common criticism of Utilitarianism. What makes one person happy is not always going to make another person happy. For instance, dropping a bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki supposedly contributed to the rapid ending of World War II, thus reducing the amount of potential suffering to come for non-Japanese soldiers and as such can be deemed a good act by them and their families. But what about the horrendous suffering the Japanese people endured as a result? Was their suffering taken into account when the act of dropping a bomb was evaluated, and if so why was the bomb still dropped?

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” (Mohsin Hamid)


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