Why I am not a Utilitarian

When seemingly intelligent people trip themselves up over easy ethical questions, it’s almost always because they are using a utilitarian calculus. For instance, if a doctor thinks it would benefit a patient, should he rape her? All reasonable people can agree that it’s a clear moral horror. But Robin Hanson thinks it’s OK. Or rather, he doesn’t think it’s OK. He knows, instinctively, that it’s wrong, but he still can’t bring himself to say so, because it would conflict with his utilitarian calculus.

I bring up this example again not to pick on Professor Hanson, but rather to point out the way that a faulty moral calculus can seduce the well-meaning into evil. I am not making a rhetorical point. Maybe you think it unlikely that a doctor could ever think rape could ever benefit his patient. Well, OK. But now consider the vast number of medical treatments available to a doctor, and the huge amount of power the law grants them – including the power to compel you to receive treatment. You can therefore see how important it is that your doctor not think like Robin Hanson.

The reason that utilitarian (or more commonly, pseudo-utilitarian) ideas are popular is that they provide a very simple prism with which to look at morality. All we have to do is maximise utility. Yes, we may wish to complicate things a little to avoid pitfalls such as utility monsters and so on, but at the core is a neat, plausible concept. But in the words of Mencken, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

What is Utility?

The first problem with trying to maximise “utility” is that no-one knows what utility is. Originally, utilitarianism was about maximising happiness or pleasure. Then, when people pointed out the obvious problems with this, it retreated to vaguer notions like satisfying preferences. Now they just use the word “utility” to gloss over these problems. You would think that a philosophy that urges us to maximise something would pay close attention to what that something is. You would be wrong.

In my view, utilitarianism can be expressed well in childish language – “make things as good as possible for everyone.” The problem is that when you start honing in on that idea, it falls apart. How do I make things “good” for someone? It’s something we’d all very much like to know, regardless of utilitarianism! Trying to reduce the concept to some fictional “utility” doesn’t make it any easier. Utility is not a real thing that we can parcel out, it’s a metaphor at best. There is no way to maximise utility for one person, let alone over the population. Consider the following hypothetical:

You are invited to a friend’s birthday party, and you have £10 to buy him a present. You could buy him a bottle of wine to make the evening more fun, a book to stimulate his mind, or a box of chocolates which will give him the most pleasure, but would also damage his health. While you are thinking about what to buy him, you ask my advice. I tell you “Buy him the present that would maximise his utility.” Do you consider my advice helpful?

Omniscience

The example I gave was the kind of problem we deal with in the real world. Notice that I did not specify that the friend would be equally grateful for each present, whether he would actually read the book, etc. In real life, when you’re making such a decision, you don’t know how it will play out. Perhaps your friend will strain his arm trying to open the bottle of wine, have to go to the hospital, contract MRSA and die. Not very likely, but possible. How possible? One in a million? One in a billion? You have absolutely no way of knowing. You cannot assign realistic probabilities to these kind of future events. I can’t maximise utility if I don’t know the results of my actions.

You may think the MRSA example is forced. OK, consider Gauguin. He abandoned his wife and children to pursue his art in Polynesia. For the sake of argument, let’s say that because his art gave value to so many people, that that outweighs the suffering of his own family. In other words, that the results of this decision had, in some sense, positive utility. So was Gauguin’s decision moral or immoral, in a utilitarian calculus? After all, he didn’t know at the time that he’d produce great art. He was taking an enormous risk.

There are two ways to view this problem. One is the Bernard Williams point of view, which is to say that yes, it was a moral decision, because the results were favourable. Sure, Gauguin was lucky, but it worked out, so all’s well that ends well. This is of course, an absurd position. It’s not a moral view of the decision at all, but a retrospective labelling. If later on Gauguin’s paintings inspire Barack Obama to start a nuclear war, does that then make Gauguin’s decision immoral after all? It is to strip the word morality of all meaning, and make it a synonym for “success.”

Unfortunately, the alternative position is just as absurd – that would imply that the utilitarian command is not “maximise utility” but “make a good faith effort to maximise utility, based on what you know.” But this is equally stupid, because now morality cannot serve as an adjudicator. If two people disagree in good faith, there would be no way of saying who is in the right. This too is not a morality, but an abnegation of it.

Autonomy

And so we see that utilitarianism is essentially a nonsense. It’s a command to maximise something fictional, in an unknowable future. But hang on, didn’t I claim it was evil? Yes I did, as I shall explain. You see real-world utilitarians just ignore these problems and muddle on through. Because what they really like about utilitarianism is it places no bounds on their actions. Anything can be justified, as long as it maximises utility. And this, not issues like utility monsters or the problem of aggregating, is what makes utilitarianism so immoral.

If we are to return to the rape example, we see that Hanson, being a utilitarian, thinks the doctor should rape the patient if it will benefit her. It’s not that he doesn’t care about her consent – he does – but he thinks it has only limited value, that if need be it can be overridden, for her own good. And this makes it an extremely attractive morality for all those people who think they know better than others, and want to meddle in their lives. It’s no coincidence that utilitarianism is embraced by progressives.

But personal autonomy is of course vital, and not only from a point of view of freedom, but also wellbeing. If others have the power to make you obey their orders for your own good, what is to stop them acting for their own good instead? The best way of encouraging good behaviour towards others is to require consent.

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