This is a continuation from another thread.

George Kane wrote:

A lot of comments have been made on this board indicating questions that people have about utilitarianism. I’ll address them briefly here, but if anyone would like to pursue this discussion I propose that it be moved to a more appropriate folder. First objection is that the deciding the greatest good for the greatest number is subjective.

This would be true if the only thing that we had to work with were the biased decisions of a single person. But consequences are real, objectively occurring events that harm or benefit the quality of a person’s life. If you were to ask how well a government policy worked, let’s say health care, we certainly cannot ask a single person. His answer will be biased by his political preconceptions and his personal experiences. But if we ask each person how the policy affects him, we can collect real data to evaluate the balance of harm and benefit that resulted in peoples’ lives.

No one person can give a credible response for everyone affected. The proper process is a kind of survey, similar to political polls. Does a political poll measure something objective? Certainly it interrogates peoples’ individual judgments, but it is a predictive tool for elections, which are real-world events.

Admittedly it is often impractical to perform such a survey, so we might use other methods to get the data or may have to guess at it. Consequential analysis does not guarantee correct answers, but it restricts our discussion to real results in peoples’ lives. That is consequentialism’s unique claim to moral objectivity.

The second objection is related, that a person may select any goal that he wants. He may choose to kill all atheists, for example.

This is a total misunderstanding: we cannot select a goal, or a “good.” In utilitarian analysis the goal is always the same, the greatest good for the greatest number. For example, we may decide that it would be good to provide universal health insurance, and may for that reason legislate such a program. If it turns out that the program busts the budget, leading to a deep and widespread economic collapse, then the policy was a very bad one, even if it achieves its intended affect. Moral valuations are based upon actual consequences, not intended ones.

When deciding an action, we must consider not only what we want to happen, we also have to account for the risks of failure. Most of our actions throughout the day have simple and straightforward consequences, so that our likelihood of success is very high, But if results are distant, difficult and depend on the independent actions of a great many people, our success is relatively unlikely.

In the example provided, someone may think that the world would be better off if there were no atheists. But to kill someone is an extreme, existential harm that cannot be measured against the minor benefit provided to the majority. Even if the minority is not killed, a utilitarian cannot enact some great harm to them in the hope of achieving a minor but widely distributed benefit, because of the incalculability of the distant results. Utilitarianism enforces a principle of moral modesty, that we cannot balance a grievous intentional harm with future, uncertain benefits.

A third objection is that consequential analysis is only possible after the fact.

In every case, we must act according to the best analysis of the best facts available. But when we find out the actual consequences of our action, we may be forced to conclude that it was harmful. In such a case, we were wrong – we made a mistake. Fallibility is an inescapable fact of the human condition. We cannot escape uncertainty at the consequences of our actions, but uncertainty does not shield us from responsibility.

Enough for now. If you would like to pursue a discussion of utilitarianism, lets find an appropriate thread in the Ethics and Morality folder.

Tags: consequentialism, ethics, morality, utilitarianism

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First objection is that the deciding the greatest good for the greatest number is subjective. This would be true if the only thing that we had to work with were the biased decisions of a single person. But consequences are real, objectively occurring events that harm or benefit the quality of a person’s life.

The quality of a person's life is also subjective, though, isn't it? Doesn't quality of life rely on personal preference?
The consequences are objective. For example, in the case of a national health care program, it can mean getting medical procedures that can improve the quality of a person's life to enable him to be more active, live with reduced pain, and so on. Now of course you are right that these quality of life improvements are not quantifiable, but it is not beyond reason to balance it against its social costs. We have to rely upon some qualitative understanding of the magnitude of the benefit in terms such as existential, great, minor, and so on. The larger the sample, the less danger there would be of distortion due to subjective extremes.

Is there any other way to decide this question, other than a cost/benefit analysis in which we are comparing things that are not strictly commensurable?
I'm not certain that I understand your question. Allow me to explain.

I think most people agree that health is good for an individual. It is a "great" benefit, and also an "existential" benefit, IMO, for that individual.

Speaking of a national health care plan, however, I don't know how a utilitarian analysis would necessitate the conclusion that a social health program is for the greater good. The analysis, in my thinking, starts with an assignment of subjective value.

Were I to argue about health, I could cite facts and figures pertaining to productivity, the social costs of illness due to missed work. The benefits of affordable preventative medicine, compared with the high cost of treatment for an advanced disease., etc. I would be able to make a case for the benefits of health care objectively, certainly.

To some people, though, health is not more valuable on a social scale than economic freedom, or personal responsibility, etc. The utilitarian analysis, here, must define values which are for the greater good. We must then find a method of quantifying all of these conflicting social values. Is this correct?
Skylar wrote on September 21 To some people, though, health is not more valuable on a social scale than economic freedom, or personal responsibility, etc. The utilitarian analysis, here, must define values which are for the greater good. We must then find a method of quantifying all of these conflicting social values. Is this correct?

I just have a couple of points to make here. The first is that in deciding the correctness of a health care policy, one cannot limit his consideration to public health consequences only, but to all the effects produced by the policy, such as total effect on the economy, loss of choices and so on.

We cannot rely on any one person’s view of the balance created of harm and benefit, as that would be unavoidably biased by personal interest and political ideology. Rather, each person is the best judge of the consequences of the policy to himself, but not to others.. Although the data are subjective, the sum has objective meaning in the same way as an electoral poll. And while the different attributes being balanced may not be quantifiable, we can reasonably make qualitative comparisons.

Of course a lot of the moral judgments that we have to make, whether discussing individual actions or government policies, requires guess work, and there may be plenty of opportunity for people to disagree in their analysis. The unique advantage of consequential systems is that they force us limit the discussion to actual consequences in peoples’ lives. I think that this is a better protection against subjective error than is provided by any deontological system.
Thanks George, for your reply. You've made a good point in that many decisions that we have to make require guess work. Decisions are also affected by risk adversity, cultural norms, philosophical ideals, political ideology, education, and a host of other factors.

You wrote:

Although the data are subjective, the sum has objective meaning in the same way as an electoral poll.

This statement made me chuckle a bit, I have to admit. It has also made me better understand Utilitarianism and for that I thank you kindly.

I think there is a fundamental difference in my thinking vs. that of a consequentialist. What is to you, a more democratic and less biased method of decision making is to me a compounded bias. I view decisions made by popular vote as being the middle ground of biases found en masse. Experience tells me that we're all biased, albeit some more than others. Certainly we carry differing types of biases based on our individual knowledge and experience.

If we were to place all of our biases in a bell curve, and aim to make decisions toward the middle then I think we would find something very much like the Utilitarian outcome.

That is *my* fundamental prejudice, I suppose. There is certainly a place for democracy, and there is also a place for selective judgement.

One of the difficulties I have with ethics in general is the question of consent. In LeaT's example, consent is an issue. Should the few aboriginal people's land be taken without consent? Is it ethical to do so? Looking back in history, as LeaT mentioned, we will find many examples of similar occurrences. We can tell from history that great harm was caused to these small groups of people. At the same time, it is very difficult to prove the benefits to the larger group.
Skylar wrote on September 24 I think there is a fundamental difference in my thinking vs. that of a consequentialist. What is to you, a more democratic and less biased method of decision making is to me a compounded bias. I view decisions made by popular vote as being the middle ground of biases found en masse. Experience tells me that we're all biased, albeit some more than others. Certainly we carry differing types of biases based on our individual knowledge and experience.

If we were to place all of our biases in a bell curve, and aim to make decisions toward the middle then I think we would find something very much like the Utilitarian outcome.


Skylar, I think that you are misconstruing the template I described for the ethical calculus on a critical point. We are not asking people a question like “what do you think would be the best health care program for the nation?” Rather, we are asking each person “what is the effect of such-and-such a health care policy on you?” This is based on the principle that each person is the best judge of the consequences of any action on himself. If we instead ask, as in an election, what each person thinks is the best health care program for the nation as a whole, we will only compound political biases, and asking people a question about which they may have no knowledge. It would embody the principle that my own judgment about the consequences of an action on me should be weighed no more heavily than anyone else’s judgment of the consequences of the action on me.

Skylar continued: One of the difficulties I have with ethics in general is the question of consent. In LeaT's example, consent is an issue. Should the few aboriginal people's land be taken without consent? Is it ethical to do so? Looking back in history, as LeaT mentioned, we will find many examples of similar occurrences. We can tell from history that great harm was caused to these small groups of people. At the same time, it is very difficult to prove the benefits to the larger group.

There are certainly times when we must do things to subjects who object, such as incarcerating criminals, or deploying soldiers into a dangerous battle. If consent were a requisite for ethical action, there could never be a tax policy.
For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, 'consequentialism' refers to ethical systems in which the value of an action is determined by its consequences. Utilitarianism is an altruistic variety of consequentialism, in which the interests of the moral agent are held as no more important than the interests of anyone else affected by the action.
Don't agree with utilitarism because it means it will always drive over minorities of the opposite opinion although they have in my eyes an equal right to do what they do and want what they want.

It is common in poor countries today trying to "modernize" it by building power plants etc, often at the expense of those say living near that river. They get no right to voice their opinion because "it's in the country's best interest" when I truly wonder if it is.
LeaT wrote on September 20 Don't agree with utilitarism because it means it will always drive over minorities of the opposite opinion although they have in my eyes an equal right to do what they do and want what they want.

Remember that the utilitarian principle does not weigh anyone’s interest as greater than anyone else’s, nor justify imposing a great harm on a few people to create a minor benefit to others no matter how widely distributed. It also would not justify imposing a harm on a group if it could be mitigated. The utilitarian principle does not at all authorize the capricious disregard of anyone’s interest.

LeaT wrote on September 20 It is common in poor countries today trying to "modernize" it by building power plants etc, often at the expense of those say living near that river. They get no right to voice their opinion because "it's in the country's best interest" when I truly wonder if it is.

I think that this is a perfectly reasonable case to apply cost-benefit analysis. A dam could lead to generating hydroelectric power that could dramatically increase jobs and production and improve the quality of life. The reservoir created might displace current residents from the land, however. A utilitarian analysis would not disregard the pliht of the residents, it would seek a way to mitigate the harm suffered by the residents. They might be paid market value for their land, or be given comparable land elsewhere, or a share of future revenue from the sale of electricity.

I think that your concern is not with utilitarianism, but with an economic system in which power plants are put up for the profit of its owners. Government is usually a happy tool of the owning class. A utilitarian analysis would look after the interests of everyone affected.

Let me ask you a question, LeaT. Can you give me a counterutilitarian example? By this I mean, can you give me a situation where the action that you believe to be morally correct is more harmful in peoples’ lives than available alternatives?
Ouch George, that's a tough question and certainly desires some thinking. I am not entirely sure if I understand you (language barrier here) but what immediately springs to mind would be prohibition of abortion.

Also, I maybe should clarify myself with my example. First of all, it should be noted that the people might be indigenous and whatever the government might be able to give them in return can have no local worth. Let's say there is a native tribe living in a rain forest and have lived there for the past hundreds of years. Suddenly the government of which they are more or less unaware even existed decided to shovel down the forest in favor for maybe setting a lot of plantages.

These people then, don't maybe even know how to object, and whatever means the government will try to replace the expense for loss of land will have no true value in their eyes, because THAT rainforest was in which they lived. Obviously adaptation and moving into the city will be incredibly hard. Maybe the government can promise them to move to another rainforest, but what guarantees that the government will not cut that down? We can see a striking similarity here in the conflict with the native Americans and the American government. Same thing there, promised new land, they get killed or have to move again.
First of all, it should be noted that the people might be indigenous and whatever the government might be able to give them in return can have no local worth. Let's say there is a native tribe living in a rain forest and have lived there for the past hundreds of years. Suddenly the government of which they are more or less unaware even existed decided to shovel down the forest in favor for maybe setting a lot of plantations.

These people then, don't maybe even know how to object, and whatever means the government will try to replace the expense for loss of land will have no true value in their eyes, because THAT rainforest was in which they lived. Obviously adaptation and moving into the city will be incredibly hard. Maybe the government can promise them to move to another rainforest, but what guarantees that the government will not cut that down? We can see a striking similarity here in the conflict with the native Americans and the American government. Same thing there, promised new land, they get killed or have to move again.


It is important to point out that no single person can be the judge of the harm and benefit of the policy in the lives of everyone affected. Each person is the best judge of its effect in his own life. If the example you provide is one that actually transpired, we could ask the indigenous people who were moved. We can only guess at what their answer would be.

I know that in the case of Ishi, the last stone-age American, he managed to adapt to some degree, and eventually got a job as a security guard at a bank in the California Sierras. Whenever anthropologists asked him to show them the places he had lived in the forest, he was always reluctant, and was reportedly ashamed at how primitively his people had lived. Dislocation of indigenous people was actually pretty common during the colonial period of the 16th through 18th centuries, but history may not provide many useful examples, as on the whole the wellbeing of the indigenous people was ignored.

It sounds as if you have a sentimental or romantic notion of the irreplaceable value of their primitive society. But recognition of the need to protect primitive is pretty widespread, in places like New Guinea and the Amazon.

I doubt that in the actual cases you’ve read about that government officials actually conducted a utilitarian analysis, but let’s suppose that they had. Part of the analysis must have been to see to the interests of the indigenous people who are displaced. Your analysis indicated that you believe that there can be no adequate solution for them, but I am very skeptical that even those who knew nothing other than completely primitive conditions would not find their lives improved by some amenities of modern life.

So, let us suppose that you have some really utilitarian government in place. They conclude that the development of this particular section of virgin forest is absolutely indispensible for the country’s economic progress, and for lifting the lives of countless thousands of people out of poverty. They reach some decision about the best way to provide for the future life of the natives, perhaps drawing on the wealth generated by the economic development. Afterwards, the responsible follow-up would include going to the displaced aborigines, and asking if they considered their lives improved, if they were dissatisfied, or if they considered their lives to be ruined.

If their response is uniformly negative, then the resettlement/rehabitation plan was a failure. If the result is so unsatisfactory that the aborigines quickly die off, or consider their lives irreparably ruined, then their loss is so great that it cannot be offset by the wealth generated by the economic development. In that case, the whole plan was ethically wrong.

I think that utilitarianism is unique among ethical systems in that it recognizes that despite good intentions, and following all of the rules, that sometimes you are going to make mistakes and do the wrong thing. It recognizes that we cannot escape moral uncertainty. It would also be wrong if the government declined the economic development, and missed the opportunity to improve the nation’s economy and the lives of the aborigines. And, of course, observers may disagree. But utilitarianism will restrict their argument to actual consequences in peoples’ lives, which is another advantage over other ethical systems.
It's not so much about romanticism, but whether they actually get it better. Also, don't refer them to primitive, please :) They all live in the same time space like we do. Primitive gives a sort of connotation they live further back in time while that isn't true at all and we know that.

You see, my issue more with our mentality the West and the rest, that we think we make it better when in fact we cannot prove it will. Most of these societies function well enough like they do, why do we must change that?

I know your response is longer, but I don't have time to go through it all know so I just refer to this right now.

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