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.