Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Utility and its critics

Hugh Breakey, editor of Australian Ethics and an outstanding contributor to matters ethical has put an article on his blog. Why I am not a utilitarian (anymore)  

Hugh has joined some outstanding philosophers. Amartya Sen is the latest in a long line. In a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Sen argues that “the utility calculus can be deeply unfair “(to those who are persistently deprived). Sen (and Hugh) join Bernard Williams, John Rawls, and Martha Nussbaum, who are among the better known critics. My tutor in Philosophy 101 (not all that long ago) is among the lesser known.

This article argues that they are all wrong. We must of course remember there are different versions of utility.  So we have to know which version Hugh no longer belongs to.. There are three main versions – Jeremy Bentham’s ,John Stuart Mill’s and Peter Singer’s , but also several other versions -  Act and rule utilitarianism being two of the better known. This paper argues for Mill’s version.

The principal criticisms are primarily against Bentham’s version- “the greatest good for the greatest number,”    an ethical guideline that is clearly unacceptable, for it rides roughshod over minority groups. John Stuart Mill arguing that utility theory encompasses moral thought (and disagreement) from the days of Epicurus, specifically rejects the minority argument. Iin On Liberty, he warns  us that tyranny of the majority is “among the evils… society requires to be on its guard”.

Amartya Sen has not read Mill’s arguments very closely. Sen argues for human rights as a personal freedom. Mill in fact equates happiness with individual freedom “We may refer (the question of happiness) to the love of liberty and personal independence… but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity”   Mill‘s alternate version of utility, in his Utilitarianism, puts lie to Williams, Rawls, and Nussbaum. Mill has two overriding criteria – promoting happiness and avoiding pain. He argues the optimum approach for fulfilling those guidelines is minimising harm to others.

 “The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another (…which include wrongful interference with each other’s‟ freedom) are more important to human wellbeing than any maxims“. One has only to read of the many causes for which Mill fought to know that these thoughts are deeply embedded within him. Sen, Williams, and Rawls, wrote as though Mill never made this statement. Mill has placed preventing harm at the highest level - overriding happiness. Again he states “a person may possibly not need the benefit of others but he always needs that they do him no harm”.

These statements are inarguable

Nussbaum is another issue.  Peter Singer asserts that her capabilities approach in fact draws on utility theory. Singer is correct. Nussbaum is attempting to maximise happiness, and minimise harm, through a maximising of freedom and well-being.
But there are stronger arguments why Nussbaum and Sen ,in particular , are simply wrong when they criticise utility, and in particular Mill’s philosophical thinking, when they claim the advantages of their capabilities theory .The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy writes
“Following Wilhelm von Humboldt (1993 [1854]), in On Liberty Mill argues that one basis for endorsing freedom (Mill believes that there are many), is the goodness of developing individuality and cultivating capacities:
Individuality is the same thing with development, and…it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings…what more can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? (Mill, 1963, vol. 18: 267)

This is not just a theory about politics: it is a substantive, perfectionist, moral theory about the good. And, on this view, the right thing to do is to promote development or perfection, and only a regime securing extensive liberty for each person can accomplish this”

In short, John Stuart Mill had developed the concept of a capability theory, a century before Sen and Nussbaum.

Hugh has adopted yet another anti-utility argument. He uses a thought experiment. Philosophers have a penchant for thought experiments that will never see reality. Waking to find yourself in a hospital serving as life support to a famous violinist is typical. In Hugh’s, we create a world in which there is more peace, trust, goodwill, happiness, etc. Maybe the current arguments for ‘multiverses’ or ‘quantum universes’, suggest that Hugh’s thought experiment is a possibility. But he has added the rider that to achieve this happier World Mark II, we “destroy the lives and hopes and dreams of all the world’s people”. He tells us that ‘the utilitarian answer is that of course you should ‘(make the change). But to destroy the lives of everybody on our current planet is clearly to harm them. John Stuart Mill has stated that to harm others is not maximising utility

Mill, in almost two centuries, has written the only book with the title and subject matter on utilitarianism. Many philosophers have claimed that Mill is not a Utilitarian. The claim is nonsense. We must accept Mill, and his thoughts, as that version of utility that provides the most dependable guideline. That some of the arguments put forward in this essay came from his On Liberty, Mill‟s companion work, written only two years earlier, is no counter to the claim that Mill presented the definitive version of classical utilitarianism,  It may be that Peter Singer modified  Mill in his preference utilitarianism  in his Practical Ethics (along with RM Hare)  but an examination of Singer’s version of utilitarianism  will extend the essay considerably . In the end , it will  only serve to reinforce the earlier observation that  JS Mill had already designated what peoples’ overriding preference was.
We turn finally to my tutor. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. It is unanswerable logic that the ethics of any action depend on the results of that action. But the tutor drew an example of a terrorist who threw his bomb, and missed.  He blew up a building destined for demolition, saving the city the cost.  The terrorist did no harm, so the tutor says he did no wrong. The tutor of course ignored the intended consequences of the terrorist – to kill. Numerous examples can be cited of as intended consequences being unethical - or even illegal – wrongs, using almost any ethical guideline.

One does wonder why these arguments arise. The recently introduced ethics classes in NSW schools have a session on argument:

This topic introduces students to the most fundamental tool of logical (and hence ethical) reasoning, viz. the philosophical one of argument.

The schools are endorsing long established practices, including those of well-known philosophers.

It does look as though we will be producing ethicists who will be arguing what is right and what is wrong for another 2500 years.


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