Friday, September 29, 2017

Utilitarianism as a Basis for Morality

Can't morality be based on utilitarian beliefs (good/evil being based on trying to maximize happiness and minimize suffering for our society).  It seems like everything can be guided by that principle, because we know innately that suffering is bad and happiness is good -- and we don't need God for that.  So if we just make our decisions to maximize happiness for the most # of people and minimize suffering for the most # of people, why would we need to refer to some other source for morality?


Daniel Kim said...

I would say that all things being equal, I would espouse utilitarianism as the default way of making decisions. Whether you're Christian or not, if you are given 2 choices (save 10 people or save 20 people) - you should take the choice that maximizes happiness / reduces suffering for the most # of people (save 20 people).

As far as those kinds of simple examples go, utilitarianism works fine. However, there are 3 major problems with utilitarianism as the MAIN/SOLE source of morality.

1st problem: It is extremely difficult to base ANY large scale morality on utilitarianism, b/c it's extremely difficult to actually quantify suffering or joy. (but utilitarianism requires that you be able to quantify it). Also, even if you were to quantify it, it can result in clearly immoral conclusions. For example, utilitarianism requires that you take the TOTAL suffering or happiness in a society, right? so let's say Society A is a society of 10 people where there is an average happiness of 2 per person. So there's a total happiness of 20 in that society. But then let's say Society B is a society where 2 people are tyrants, they have a happiness of 20 each, and everyone has a happiness of 1. That means Society B has a total happiness of 48... which is MUCH better than society A..? So shouldn't we prefer that? You could obviously make a very strong case FOR slavery of a minority class based on utilitarianism. If you could show that majority of people would be happier by taking some of the happiness from a minority group or race, then you should choose that (according to utilitarianism) Yet we can see -- maximizing that kind of happiness would not mean that therefore it is good.

2nd problem: Utilitarianism claims that goodness of happiness and badness of suffering are innate. And I agree. But what we mean by the innate "goodness" and "badness" are quite different. What the utilitarian means by saying we innately know happiness is good and suffering is bad is that we innately "like" happiness and "dislike" suffering. This is where I think utilitarianism confuses moral goodness with the emotism, which is the feeling of "I like that." Perahps it's because in the English language, the same word is used for both moral good and qualititative good. (e.g., "good chair" vs. "good samaritan") - one is moral, and the other is a certain quality. You can see the difference really clearly when you flip the word to the other side. (e.g., it would be nonsensical to call a bad chair an "evil chair"). This is where the claim that the utilitarian makes - namely that goodness of happiness and badness of suffering are innate knowledge - fails. Yes, happiness is a good (pleasant) feeling. But that is not the same as saying that therefore whatever makes me happy is a good (morally excellent) thing. I don't think I need to belabor this point by giving more examples here. Suffice it to say that EVERY act of evil is done b/c it made someone (or some group) feel happier. No one decides to do evil because they want to feel sad. Here, utilitarian might argue that I'm not taking into account the suffering of others into the equation. But the point here is that there is a confusion regarding pleasant feelings and moral goodness - they are not the same things.

Daniel Kim said...

3rd problem: This is a more philosophical objection. Utilitarianism is BASED ON on the assumption that it is better to increase the overall happiness of a society. But why would that be better? Can utilitarianism justify that assumption? Why should I increase the overall happiness even at the cost of my own personal happiness? It just seems to assume that somehow that's better.. A utilitarian might answer by saying, "It's better b/c if you live in a happier society, then you are ultimately happier." However, that promise is extremely empty in light of actual moral choices, because more often than not, the REALLY important moral choices are made at the COST of your own happiness or pleasant experience. Why shouldn't I just be selfish? IOW, in order for utilitarianism to work, it has to simply assume that we JUST OUGHT to try to increase the happiness for others, even at the cost of sacrificing yours. Utilitarianism simply DEFINES good as the label that we give when maximizing pleasant happiness and evil as the label when there is an increase in suffering. However, that is begging the question (circular reasoning) where it has to assume itself in order to justify itself. It's like saying: my ethical system is that it is batron to maximize happiness and it's gatron to increase suffering. Question: And what is "gatron" and "batron"? Answer: Batron is what happens when you maximize happiness, and gatron is the opposite of that, silly!
It turns out -- it doesn't tell us much because it's self-referential. Without a pre-existing understanding of good/evil, utilitarianism cannot sustain itself as a moral grid, because good/evil might as well be flipped.

Those are some of the main problems of utilitarianism, although I still do think that utilitarianism is an earnest attempt (and kind of gets close) at trying to find moral objectivity without God.