Thursday, January 21, 2010

17 A defense of consequentialism

J.J.C.Smart, an Australian philosopher born in 1920, works in ethics and philosophy of science. His defense of utilitarianism in Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973), co-authored with Bernard Williams.

After distinguishing various types of utilitarianism, (and there are a dozen or so at least) Smart opts for actutilitarianism. He hopes that our widely shared desires to promote everyone’s happiness may lead others to become actutilitarians too.

I wondered what makes utilitarianism and consequentialism so popular among empiricist philosophers. The answer is quite obvious. It makes the notions of good and bad in fact 100% empirical.We all can see the consequences, don't we?

"Act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e. on the effect on the welfare of all human beings (or perhaps all sentient beings).", is Smart's thesis.

He rejects the idea that act-utilitarian principles could be known to be true by intellectual intuition and holds the view that ultimate ethical principles depend on attitudes or feelings.

This is his first argument: ethical principles depend on attitudes or feelings and thus have no truth-value. This is what is called the non-cognitivist position in metaethics.

Smart: "In adopting such a metaethics, I renounce the attempt to prove the act-utilitarian system. I shall be concerned with stating it in a form which may appear persuasive to some people, and to show how it may be defended against objections."

And then he formulates his goal: "In setting up a system of normative ethics, the utilitarian must appeal to ultimate attitudes which he holds in common with those whom he is addressing.

The sentiment to which he appeals is generalized benevolence, the disposition to seek happiness or good consequences for all mankind, or perhaps for all sentient beings."

This is the quintessence of his position: he regards generalized benevolence, something like the attitude that eventually we would love to see everybody happy, as an empirical fact of being human.

And then he makes an remarkable statement about the defender of actutilitarism: "He will not be able to convince everybody, but that is not an objection. It may well be that there is no ethical system which appeals to all people."

Bentham evaluated the consequences just by their plain pleasantness, which is a hedonistic utilitarianism. Mill made a distinction in qualities of pleasantness: playing darts isn't just as pleasant as reading poetry for instance.

Moore believed that some states of mind, such as knowledge, had intrinsic value independent of their pleasantness. As if you could say that pleasantness combines with act of acquiring knowledge is a higher quality of pleasantness than winning a game of darts.

Smart: "I shall now state the act-utilitarian doctrine. (…) Let us say, then, that the only reason for performing an action A rather than an alternative action B is that doing A will make mankind (or, perhaps, all sentient beings) happier than will doing B.

This is so simple and natural a doctrine that we can expect that many readers will have some propensity to agree. For I am talking, as I said earlier, to sympathetic and benevolent men, that is, to men who desire the happiness of mankind.

The utilitarian’s ultimate moral principle, let it be remembered, expresses the sentiment not of altruism but of benevolence, the agent counting himself neither more nor less than any other person."

Smart: "The utilitarian position is here put forward as a criterion of rational choice. We may choose to habituate ourselves to behave in accordance with certain rules, such as to keep promises, in the belief that behaving in accordance with these rules is generally optimific (productive of the best outcome),

and in the knowledge that we often do not have time to work out pros and cons. The actutilitarian will regard these rules as mere rules of thumb and will use them only as rough guides. He acts in accordance with rules when there is no time to think.

When he has to think what to do, then there is a question of deliberation or choice, and it is for such situations that the utilitarian criterion is intended."

I almost hear David Hume say: "Custom is the great guide of life."

And here the final stand. Smart: "Among possible options, utilitarianism does have its appeal. With its empirical attitude to means and ends it is congenial to the scientific temper and it has flexibility to deal with a changing world.

This last consideration is, however, more self recommendation than justification. For if flexibility is a recommendation, this is because of the utility of flexibility."

Let me draw the picture: We live in an empirical world, in which is no such thing as an objective moral truth. What we have at the best is the empirical observation of the human attitude of generalized benevolence and the quality of rationality, since the utilitarian position is according to Smart a rational choice.

Based on that we have to keep a sharp eye on the consequences of our actions for them to stay in tune with our benevolence. If we do so we act morally right.

And here I rest my case………

The Discussion

[2010/01/19 13:26] Repose Lionheart: !
[2010/01/19 13:26] herman Bergson: And this leads to a room full of actutilitarians?????
[2010/01/19 13:26] Repose Lionheart: hehe
[2010/01/19 13:27] Repose Lionheart: not me
[2010/01/19 13:27] Alarice Beaumont: i find this quite difficult today... my head is bursting
[2010/01/19 13:27] Abraxas Nagy: same here
[2010/01/19 13:27] herman Bergson: why not you Repose, what is missing in this argument?
[2010/01/19 13:27] Gemma Cleanslate: to many big words lol'
[2010/01/19 13:27] herman Bergson: Yes Alarice, I understand
[2010/01/19 13:27] Repose Lionheart: i think the weakness is in making attitudes and feelings the basis of ultimate ethical principles --
[2010/01/19 13:27] Adriana Jinn: sorry i mist lots of it
[2010/01/19 13:27] Gemma Cleanslate: and ideas
[2010/01/19 13:28] Repose Lionheart: why is benevolence compelling
[2010/01/19 13:28] Repose Lionheart: ?
[2010/01/19 13:28] oola Neruda: is it really enough to "mean well"?
[2010/01/19 13:28] Repose Lionheart: why not disgust?
[2010/01/19 13:28] Gemma Cleanslate: i have to agree with that, Repose
[2010/01/19 13:28] Adriana Jinn: my english is not good enough today
[2010/01/19 13:28] Corona Anatine: what would you have as the basis instead
[2010/01/19 13:28] Gemma Cleanslate: before that is
[2010/01/19 13:28] herman Bergson: I agree Repose..
[2010/01/19 13:28] Repose Lionheart: recall someone tried "disgust" once
[2010/01/19 13:28] Abraxas Nagy: it looks good to me Adriana
[2010/01/19 13:28] Gemma Cleanslate: the whole thing sounds very convoluted as ethics
[2010/01/19 13:29] herman Bergson: Well..there is an empirical basis for that Repose
[2010/01/19 13:29] Repose Lionheart: oh
[2010/01/19 13:29] Adriana Jinn: nice for you abraxas
[2010/01/19 13:29] herman Bergson: Humans all have the same facial expressions for instance when disgusting something
[2010/01/19 13:29] Adriana Jinn: yes
[2010/01/19 13:29] herman Bergson: for instance ... offering them to eat dog shit..
[2010/01/19 13:29] Gemma Cleanslate: OMG!!!
[2010/01/19 13:29] Gemma Cleanslate: omg
[2010/01/19 13:29] Repose Lionheart: yes, but the things that disgust them are culturally variable
[2010/01/19 13:30] Corona Anatine: some things not all
[2010/01/19 13:30] herman Bergson: Or have them play with the idea that they have a mouth full of dogshit......
[2010/01/19 13:30] Corona Anatine: there are things that are of universal disgust
[2010/01/19 13:30] Gemma Cleanslate: yuck
[2010/01/19 13:30] herman Bergson: There seems to be a general feeling of disgust
[2010/01/19 13:30] Corona Anatine: related to biology mostly
[2010/01/19 13:30] Repose Lionheart: don't feel it sufficient to found an ethics upon though
[2010/01/19 13:30] herman Bergson: yes Corona...and we are biological beings
[2010/01/19 13:31] Repose Lionheart: or benevolence
[2010/01/19 13:31] Corona Anatine: in vedic lore they present the student with a human turd on a dinner plate
[2010/01/19 13:31] Adriana Jinn: what is benevolence ?
[2010/01/19 13:31] Corona Anatine: to help contemplate the human condition
[2010/01/19 13:31] herman Bergson: I think I have the same feeling, Repose..... the missing of that something special of being human
[2010/01/19 13:31] Repose Lionheart: brb -- just got a tornado warning in rl
[2010/01/19 13:31] Gemma Cleanslate: OMG!!!
[2010/01/19 13:31] Gemma Cleanslate: omg
[2010/01/19 13:32] Abraxas Nagy: wow
[2010/01/19 13:32] herman Bergson: benevolence is the feeling of the wish that everybody should be happy\
[2010/01/19 13:32] Paula Dix: lol
[2010/01/19 13:32] Gemma Cleanslate: it is a feeling of kindliness adraina
[2010/01/19 13:32] herman Bergson: a tornado warning????
[2010/01/19 13:32] Gemma Cleanslate: yes
[2010/01/19 13:32] Adriana Jinn: thanks you
[2010/01/19 13:32] Alarice Beaumont: omg
[2010/01/19 13:32] Adriana Jinn: ok
[2010/01/19 13:33] Corona Anatine: the problem then falls down to the fact that not everyone finds happiness in the same things
[2010/01/19 13:33] herman Bergson: yes....kindness...and isnt that a universaly recognized feeling?
[2010/01/19 13:33] Corona Anatine: gay sex for example
[2010/01/19 13:33] herman Bergson: No..Corona, but is that an objection to the general theory
[2010/01/19 13:33] Repose Lionheart: back, all ok
[2010/01/19 13:33] Paula Dix: i dont know... if parents are "benevolent" toward children, the children wont grow being egocentric without responsebility?
[2010/01/19 13:34] herman Bergson: Here we have the problem endless discussion about the meaniing of benevolent
[2010/01/19 13:34] Gemma Cleanslate: well that is an expression of helping the child grow to mature understanding
[2010/01/19 13:34] Gemma Cleanslate: of right and wrong
[2010/01/19 13:35] Paula Dix: then benevolent will also be a emotional moral idea?
[2010/01/19 13:35] Repose Lionheart: happiness is such a low goal, though
[2010/01/19 13:35] Repose Lionheart: why is that compelling?
[2010/01/19 13:35] herman Bergson: But Smart explicitely states that there are no absolute moral standards
[2010/01/19 13:35] Corona Anatine: what would a mature understand of right and wrong be ?
[2010/01/19 13:35] Repose Lionheart: what about joy
[2010/01/19 13:35] Corona Anatine: why do you consider happiness to be a low goal
[2010/01/19 13:35] herman Bergson: Here again Repose.....
[2010/01/19 13:35] Gemma Cleanslate: tht is the problem here lol
[2010/01/19 13:36] Gemma Cleanslate: ethics
[2010/01/19 13:36] herman Bergson: the problem with all such theories is the meaning of the concepts
[2010/01/19 13:36] Repose Lionheart: in my experience joy is so much better
[2010/01/19 13:36] Paula Dix: i cant accept the dismissal of emotions. Throw out half of you and use the rest to be happy? makes no sense
[2010/01/19 13:36] Repose Lionheart: yes, Prof
[2010/01/19 13:36] Corona Anatine: if you were happy all th e time would it have any meaning
[2010/01/19 13:36] herman Bergson: that is one of the reasons why this whole debate in literature on consequentialism is littered with casuitic
[2010/01/19 13:36] Repose Lionheart: oh
[2010/01/19 13:37] Corona Anatine: surely part of happiness lies in the contrast with when you are not
[2010/01/19 13:37] herman Bergson: when you take position A, there always is someone who comes up with a case in which position A leads to odd results
[2010/01/19 13:38] herman Bergson: same with pleasure and pain Corona
[2010/01/19 13:38] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 13:38] Paula Dix: exact, corona mentioned it, you cant never be sure of where will it end
[2010/01/19 13:38] Repose Lionheart: a, not a
[2010/01/19 13:38] Repose Lionheart: maybe duty and consequestialist ethics are two parts of a whole
[2010/01/19 13:38] herman Bergson: To be honest...that is what makes me so tired of all these debates between consequentialists
[2010/01/19 13:39] Paula Dix: well in this sense of happiness, i guess the idea would be to raise the lower limit, like you will never remove completely poverty, but the lower limit can be raised
[2010/01/19 13:39] Corona Anatine: you find them inconsequential ?
[2010/01/19 13:39] herman Bergson: Worth a thought Repose..indeed
[2010/01/19 13:39] Paula Dix: lol corona
[2010/01/19 13:39] Corona Anatine: : )
[2010/01/19 13:40] Repose Lionheart: hehe Corona
[2010/01/19 13:40] herman Bergson: maybe you are right Corona
[2010/01/19 13:40] Corona Anatine: raising the flow limit would be one answer
[2010/01/19 13:40] herman Bergson: What I completely miss in the utilitarian approach is man himself
[2010/01/19 13:41] Corona Anatine: but first you would need to define how that could be done
[2010/01/19 13:41] Repose Lionheart: yes, a strength of duty ethics though right?
[2010/01/19 13:41] herman Bergson: Like you find since Aristotle....virtue, duty, conscious
[2010/01/19 13:41] herman Bergson: things like that
[2010/01/19 13:41] herman Bergson: Like Moore already stated... knowledge isnt just pleasure
[2010/01/19 13:42] herman Bergson: knowledge or love have an intrinsic value, other than pleasue
[2010/01/19 13:42] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 13:42] herman Bergson: Like the example I gave in a former lecture
[2010/01/19 13:43] Corona Anatine: they might have value but it would be a vector not a scalar
[2010/01/19 13:43] herman Bergson: When my wife falls ill seriously and I need to offer a lot of care, (which is not always pleasant) that doesnt change the value of my love for her
[2010/01/19 13:43] Repose Lionheart: :-)
[2010/01/19 13:43] Paula Dix: exact, emotions must be part of the equation
[2010/01/19 13:44] herman Bergson: I can still lov eher or even love her more because what she has to endure
[2010/01/19 13:44] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 13:44] Adriana Jinn: yes sure
[2010/01/19 13:44] herman Bergson: so I think, pleasure and pain are an unsufficient ground for moral choices
[2010/01/19 13:44] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 13:44] Paula Dix: true
[2010/01/19 13:44] Corona Anatine: indeed
[2010/01/19 13:44] Adriana Jinn: surely
[2010/01/19 13:44] Repose Lionheart: and you've used love to demonstrate that
[2010/01/19 13:45] Corona Anatine: in your example
[2010/01/19 13:45] Corona Anatine: you lower your happiness to increase her
[2010/01/19 13:45] Repose Lionheart: more than a coincidence i believe
[2010/01/19 13:45] Corona Anatine: there are some who might argue that would that be right if the sum total of happiness overall was less
[2010/01/19 13:45] herman Bergson: yes....I think that is the missing part in utilitarianism and consequentialism....these specific (human) attitudes/traits.
[2010/01/19 13:46] herman Bergson: I have no idea how to calculate with happiness
[2010/01/19 13:46] Corona Anatine: nor i
[2010/01/19 13:46] herman Bergson: Bentham did it in absurdum...
[2010/01/19 13:47] Corona Anatine: how then to be certian of raining it
[2010/01/19 13:47] Gemma Cleanslate: some would calculate it being alive at this point after being under concrete for 6 days
[2010/01/19 13:47] Corona Anatine: raising
[2010/01/19 13:47] Gemma Cleanslate: with not water or food or anything
[2010/01/19 13:47] Repose Lionheart: yes, Gemma
[2010/01/19 13:47] herman Bergson: yes happiness is just that then
[2010/01/19 13:48] Corona Anatine: but that misses the point slightly
[2010/01/19 13:48] Corona Anatine: that is adding context
[2010/01/19 13:48] Gemma Cleanslate: :-0
[2010/01/19 13:48] herman Bergson: Well, according to Smart, the moral debate is context related indeed
[2010/01/19 13:48] Corona Anatine: it can only really be said that for each person there are condiitons that will increase or decrease happiness
[2010/01/19 13:49] Corona Anatine: to state what condition they are is to value judge
[2010/01/19 13:49] herman Bergson: Yes and the moral debate is about the cosequences of my actions related to this increase or decrease
[2010/01/19 13:50] Corona Anatine: which make action difficult
[2010/01/19 13:50] Corona Anatine: because you can only be sure of the coseqquens to happiness if the other person was the same as you
[2010/01/19 13:51] herman Bergson: Here we go again...
[2010/01/19 13:51] herman Bergson: This is not necessarily so...
[2010/01/19 13:51] Gemma Cleanslate: lol
[2010/01/19 13:51] Corona Anatine: partly why we have religious wars
[2010/01/19 13:51] herman Bergson: stealing somene's food is independent of his bein glike me
[2010/01/19 13:52] Corona Anatine: yes
[2010/01/19 13:52] Corona Anatine: but
[2010/01/19 13:52] herman Bergson: there are things that transcend personal killinfg for instance
[2010/01/19 13:52] Corona Anatine: if you stole an anorexics food you would increrease their happines in the short term
[2010/01/19 13:52] Paula Dix: lol
[2010/01/19 13:53] herman Bergson: here you could say, and that is suggested with the idea of generalized benovolence, we are all the same
[2010/01/19 13:53] Paula Dix: like forcing children to school lower happiness at first
[2010/01/19 13:53] Gemma Cleanslate: oh dear
[2010/01/19 13:53] herman Bergson: yes but for real happiness you have to look at the longterm effects of course
[2010/01/19 13:53] Corona Anatine: the way forward might be to envisage happiness asa circle - the closer tot eh centre the more universal and important the things are
[2010/01/19 13:53] Paula Dix: consequences? :)
[2010/01/19 13:53] Alarice Beaumont: but there can be a common happiness..... look at the football world champion chip in germany
[2010/01/19 13:54] Corona Anatine: the ones at the outer edge ar e thoese less universal or fundamental
[2010/01/19 13:54] herman Bergson: But footbal (soccor) doesnt make me happy Alarice
[2010/01/19 13:54] Gemma Cleanslate: lol
[2010/01/19 13:54] Gemma Cleanslate: me either
[2010/01/19 13:54] Paula Dix: lol
[2010/01/19 13:55] Paula Dix: or me
[2010/01/19 13:55] Abraxas Nagy: me neither
[2010/01/19 13:55] Adriana Jinn: hihiih
[2010/01/19 13:55] Corona Anatine: nor does it a lot of the fans
[2010/01/19 13:55] Alarice Beaumont: lol.... but the whole spirit here did... even ppl who usually do not look football or are interested in it
[2010/01/19 13:55] Corona Anatine: as is it the football
[2010/01/19 13:55] herman Bergson: but maybe it does for the greatest number
[2010/01/19 13:55] Corona Anatine: or the sense of belonging
[2010/01/19 13:55] herman Bergson: so we are the succer minority
[2010/01/19 13:56] Paula Dix: wouldnt the first moral rule be survival?
[2010/01/19 13:56] herman Bergson: against the soccer majority
[2010/01/19 13:56] Gemma Cleanslate: i found out they have it in sl now and i have to do a story about it lolollo
[2010/01/19 13:56] Paula Dix: lol football in sl should be funny
[2010/01/19 13:56] Gemma Cleanslate: yes
[2010/01/19 13:56] Gemma Cleanslate: i saw a little this morning
[2010/01/19 13:56] Repose Lionheart: hehe
[2010/01/19 13:56] Abraxas Nagy: HUH ??
[2010/01/19 13:57] herman Bergson: Yes....there was a soccerfiled in the next sim in 2005
[2010/01/19 13:57] Gemma Cleanslate: just practice
[2010/01/19 13:57] Abraxas Nagy: football in sl?
[2010/01/19 13:57] Gemma Cleanslate: yes
[2010/01/19 13:57] Corona Anatine: easily done
[2010/01/19 13:57] Abraxas Nagy: o no
[2010/01/19 13:57] Gemma Cleanslate: yep
[2010/01/19 13:57] Corona Anatine: you just need aprim sphere
[2010/01/19 13:57] herman Bergson: Pulsia sim ... now it is gone
[2010/01/19 13:57] Paula Dix: physical ball...
[2010/01/19 13:57] Adriana Jinn: i have a friend that plays football on sl
[2010/01/19 13:57] Alarice Beaumont: well.. wasn't actually talking about soccer... lol more about the happiness all the ppl felt during that time^^
[2010/01/19 13:57] Gemma Cleanslate: yes
[2010/01/19 13:57] Abraxas Nagy: ah yes and some script
[2010/01/19 13:57] herman Bergson: yes a physical prim sphere...
[2010/01/19 13:57] herman Bergson: not even script Abraxas...
[2010/01/19 13:58] Abraxas Nagy: oh?
[2010/01/19 13:58] Paula Dix: maybe gestures to kick
[2010/01/19 13:58] herman Bergson: just a goal and a ball
[2010/01/19 13:58] herman Bergson: could help...a gesture...
[2010/01/19 13:58] Gemma Cleanslate: wel i think they are scripted
[2010/01/19 13:58] Gemma Cleanslate: somehow
[2010/01/19 13:58] Corona Anatine: or instead we coild dicuss paint drying
[2010/01/19 13:58] Repose Lionheart: hehe
[2010/01/19 13:58] herman Bergson: I guess so too
[2010/01/19 13:58] Gemma Cleanslate: lol
[2010/01/19 13:59] Abraxas Nagy: a sphere wont act like a (foot)ball
[2010/01/19 13:59] herman Bergson: Well I think it is time to look at the consequences of our debate and dismiss class
[2010/01/19 13:59] Repose Lionheart: Thank you, Professor
[2010/01/19 13:59] Alarice Beaumont: lol sorry Herman about the distraction i caused lol
[2010/01/19 13:59] Paula Dix: lol paint drying is a cool theme :)
[2010/01/19 13:59] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 13:59] herman Bergson: paint frying?
[2010/01/19 13:59] Paula Dix: :)))
[2010/01/19 13:59] herman Bergson: drying I mean
[2010/01/19 13:59] Adriana Jinn: thank you herman sorry not to participate more
[2010/01/19 14:00] herman Bergson: Dont worry Adriana
[2010/01/19 14:00] herman Bergson: I thank you all for your participation
[2010/01/19 14:00] Gemma Cleanslate: :-)
[2010/01/19 14:00] Corona Anatine: well many people spend hours dicussing art
[2010/01/19 14:00] Abraxas Nagy: thank you herman
[2010/01/19 14:00] Repose Lionheart: yes, thank you
[2010/01/19 14:00] Alarice Beaumont: have a good evening all.... thanks Herman.. and bye for tonight :-)
[2010/01/19 14:00] Gemma Cleanslate: btw feathers boa has a wonderful exhibit
[2010/01/19 14:00] Paula Dix: yes, im not joking when i say paint drying is a cool theme
[2010/01/19 14:01] Abraxas Nagy: c ya Alarice
[2010/01/19 14:01] Gemma Cleanslate: i can give you a lm i f you like
[2010/01/19 14:01] Repose Lionheart: when will the next project start?
[2010/01/19 14:01] Gemma Cleanslate: it is worth the trip
[2010/01/19 14:01] Paula Dix: i want Gemma!
[2010/01/19 14:01] Abraxas Nagy: see u all next time (i hope) :D
[2010/01/19 14:01] Adriana Jinn: next course ?
[2010/01/19 14:01] Repose Lionheart: yes
[2010/01/19 14:01] herman Bergson: In one or two weeks max.
[2010/01/19 14:01] Repose Lionheart: ok ^_^
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