Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

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Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby maryannp on November 14th, 2011, 7:10 pm 

One of the main objections to utilitarianism is that it devalues the individual. What are our counterarguments to this objection and arguments that favor Utilitariansim over Kantian Ethics
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Lomax on November 14th, 2011, 8:01 pm 

This strikes me as a homework question, but meh.

First, I should say that "the individual" is a casuistic bit of language. There isn't just one individual, there's loads of us, and to say you want what's best for "the individual" is meaningless unless you specify which individual. All people really mean when they say it is that no one should ever have to make a small sacrifice to massively benefit someone else. If implemented, a policy like this would just end up with everybody (or almost everybody) being worse off than if they had worked as a team. The philosopher Robert Nozick calls this the "paradox of deontology" - the more inalienable rights we bestow upon people, the less they can actually have in practice. If your homework needs to be detailed then I advise you to google Nozick. He has lots to say about utilitarianism.

Second, some philosophers - such as Jeremy Bentham - suggest that Kant's categorical imperative wasn't deontological, but was in fact rule-utilitarian. For example, consider the question of theft. Kant says nobody should do it because if everybody did it, there' be no property or security, and the strongest would prosper. That sounds to me like distinctly consequentialist reasoning. However, I don't think Kant's imperative was, strictly speaking deontological or utilitarian, because it doesn't even help us discriminate moral issues from non-moral issues (for instance, should everybody go to bed at 11pm G.M.T? No? Perhaps nobody then?). What's more, like all non-consequential ethics, it depends too heavily on semantics; consider

1. Everyone should shave Lomax's face
2. Everyone should shave their own face

These can't both be true. Which one rises from the Categorical Imperative? This is undecidable, I think. So, rather than a moral code, the Categorical Imperative is just an algorithm, at best.

Third, Christopher Hitchens makes the charge that Kantian deontology is too absolutist; it sets a standard which nobody can possibly live up to, and therefore, rather than guiding or modifying anyone's behaviour, it just makes everyone feel guilty. I think we can say the same for utilitarianism though, and have to accept that adherence to a moral principle can come in varying degrees.

Fourth, John Stuart Mill makes the argument that happiness is the only thing of any intrinsic value. Money would be no good alone on a desert island, and perhaps nor would love. G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell take issue with this, insisting that truth and beauty are both desirable on their own grounds.

Fifth, we can just posit the conclusion as a premise: utilitarianism makes for a happier world than does Kantianism. We're all ultimately just atoms floating around in a doomed universe, and the only thing that gives that any value is emotion and consciousness. This can be a reason, but it doesn't really qualify as an argument.

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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby maryannp on November 14th, 2011, 9:59 pm 

So how can you address the classic donor example of sacrificing one individual for the benefit of five recepients? Its definitely unethical and leaves questions of Utilitarianism
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Lomax on November 14th, 2011, 10:10 pm 

Well the donor example and the sacrificing-one-person-for-five-recipients aren't the same thing. I think you might be confusing the donor example for the trolley problem.

Before I offer any sort of justification I want to ask; what is your opinion of the donor example? What would you do and why? That will give me a starting point.
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby maryannp on November 14th, 2011, 10:13 pm 

I would not sacrafice one life to save 5 others but in all other aspects I support utilitarianism. This is the only example I keep getting caught up on and hence I wonder if I really do support utilitarianism.
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Lomax on November 14th, 2011, 10:30 pm 

Okay. That was the trolley problem by the way, not the donor problem. The only utilitarian argument against it, that I know of, is that the damage is already done once you're in a position where one or five have to die. By choosing the one over the five, you're simply exercising a form of damage control.

Bertrand Russell (I forget which book he wrote this in) and others have suggested that even a utilitarian has rights to let the one five die rather than the one. He suggests that, in formulating inalienable political rights, such as the right not to be murdered (or the "right to life" as people misleadingly call it) we are giving everyone a sense of security which outweighs the occasional problem, such as the donor/trolley problems. By saving the five and killing the one, we might be suddenly giving everyone the feeling that it's ok to kill one another, and therefore taking away their comfort and security.

If you find that argument convincing then possibly you can reconcile your view of the trolley problem with your view of utilitarianism.
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Magister Miguel on May 8th, 2012, 7:45 pm 

Lomax wrote:By saving the five and killing the one, we might be suddenly giving everyone the feeling that it's ok to kill one another, and therefore taking away their comfort and security.


Empirical evidence is with Bertie on this one.

When the idea that killing innocent people for the greater good is ok takes hold - e.g. among the Soviets, Nazis, Khmer Rouge, the USA in their war in Iraq, etc. - typically people ended up dead but no greater good materialized.

In other words, the argument against killing innocent people for the greater good is that doing so leads to less good - the argument is a utilitarian one.
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Lomax on May 9th, 2012, 6:06 am 

Hello Magister Miguel,

Would you say that any of those manifestos compare to the trolley problem though? I can't see that Hitler, Pot et al were justifying their actions on such evidence. What's more, I think the Nazi example runs both ways; should the US and UK have ignored the greater good and stayed out of it?

In terms of death tolls and otherwise, Iraq is a more ambiguous issue - whether the modern anti-war movement likes it or not - so I'll prefer not to treat that as an analogy.

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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Magister Miguel on May 10th, 2012, 12:25 pm 

I was thinking along the lines of Elizabeth Anscombe's statement to the effect that if someone thinks that its OK, ahead of an actual case, to kill an innocent person, they have a corrupt mind. Liz might have overstated the case, but there is more than a little truth to her statement.

If killing the innocent for the greater good becomes part of your problem-solving toolkit, it can develop into a situation of "if your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail".

For all that, you can still ask, "Quoting Anscombe is all nice and good, but what do I do with the runaway trolley, or the terrorist who will not talk unless I torture his infant child?"

My tentative answer is that a purely subjective utilitarian approach - that is explicitly using utilitarianism as a decision-making tool - runs a very high risk of ultimately generating more harm than good. The Allies in WWII probably saved more lives than they took - but they could have saved just as many lives and taken less without bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki - but the utilitarian approach blinded them to the evil that is the taking of innocent life. It becomes just the cost of doing business.

Perhaps I can give an example from pop culture. In the original Star Trek, the logical Spock was the utilitarian, while the emotional McCoy was the deontologist. Would you want either of them, individually, making moral decisions that may affect your life? I certainly would not. Rather, the tension between their ethical approaches was necessary for Kirk to make a decision superior to what McCoy or Spock would have made left to their own devices.

The tension between deontology and utilitarianism cannot be resolved - hence my answers cannot be entirely satisfactory - and there is no need to resolve this tension. Without this tension, ethical decision making becomes dogmatic and unnatural.
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Re: Arguments favoring utilitarianism over Kantian ethics

Postby Lomax on May 13th, 2012, 9:34 am 

Hi Magister Miguel,

Magister Miguel wrote:I was thinking along the lines of Elizabeth Anscombe's statement to the effect that if someone thinks that its OK, ahead of an actual case, to kill an innocent person, they have a corrupt mind. Liz might have overstated the case, but there is more than a little truth to her statement.

If killing the innocent for the greater good becomes part of your problem-solving toolkit, it can develop into a situation of "if your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail".


Okay, I understand your concern but, I have two of my own: need we assume that, in the case of the trolley problem, the lever-switcher would go on to greater and more brutal things? And is there - as you hinted - evidence that this is usually the case?

Magister Miguel wrote:My tentative answer is that a purely subjective utilitarian approach - that is explicitly using utilitarianism as a decision-making tool - runs a very high risk of ultimately generating more harm than good. The Allies in WWII probably saved more lives than they took - but they could have saved just as many lives and taken less without bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki - but the utilitarian approach blinded them to the evil that is the taking of innocent life. It becomes just the cost of doing business.


In truth, I think there are too many problems with this analogy. The Allies weren't especially motivated by utilitarianism - Roosevelt certainly wasn't - WWII could have been fought without the bombing, whereas the trolley necessarily can't spare the five without taking the one; and I'm not aware that the bombing of Germany or Japan receives, or ever received, support from self-confessed utilitarians.

Magister Miguel wrote:Perhaps I can give an example from pop culture. In the original Star Trek, the logical Spock was the utilitarian, while the emotional McCoy was the deontologist. Would you want either of them, individually, making moral decisions that may affect your life? I certainly would not. Rather, the tension between their ethical approaches was necessary for Kirk to make a decision superior to what McCoy or Spock would have made left to their own devices.


I'm afraid I don't know my Star Trek well enough to assess whether Spock was really utilitarian. I expect that if I would find his decisions inferior it would be a matter of judgement, rather than principle. The difficulties of judgement are the necessary difficulties with utilitarianism, of course; but I wouldn't chuck the baby with the bathwater, and I think such difficulties are all the more reason why utilitarians need discussion and debate.

Incidentally, the old Star Trek is the best; these days it's all politics. The captain never beams down and punches a monster to death for the sheer hell of it anymore :/

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