The Utilitarian End …

Steven Weinberg is quoted as saying this:

With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

I have long maintained that this is, in fact, false. What you need for good people to do evil things is the combination of the belief that the end justifies the means, and an appropriate end. After all, if you hold this then you will do anything you need to in order to bring about that clearly and intrinsically valuable end, and so if you have to imprison a few people, enslave a few people, or even kill a few people, hey, it’s still justified.

Utilitarianism — which includes the recently popular usage of “Reduce suffering” — are, in fact, all about the ends. Every action you take is justified by the end it will produce, which in its case means that it promotes the most happiness — or the least suffering — for the most people. In fact, all consequentialist moral philosophies share that principle; what you do is justified by what it produces.

So it’s no wonder, then, that it is so very, very easy to produce cases where using Utilitarian or consequentialist moral philosophies ends up with the moral agent taking absolutely horrific actions that happen to work out with the “best” consequences by their definition: not only is there nothing in those philosophies to prevent it, they follow a model that’s prone to evil means/actions aimed at producing good outcomes. Deontological and virtue theories aren’t vulnerable to this, because they attach the moral significance to the actions or the agents themselves instead of to the outcome. An action is dutiful, and an agent is generous or brave, even if the actions don’t have the intended consequence.

Now, one of the reasons — I think — for the popularity of consequentialist approaches is that it’s easy to determine when someone else is acting morally or immorally. With the others, ultimately the only judge of my morality is me, since I’m the only one who has access to my internal states and motivations; only I know if I was acting selflessly or selfishly when I give that money to charity. Which, I suspect, is one reason why the new “scientific” crowd likes consequentialist theories so much; they dislike it when you can’t observe something from the second or third person view but have to get down to first person brass tacks. But in my quick ruminations of the subject I can’t see how to eliminate the tendency for evil actions in Utilitarian and consequentialist morality in an attempt to produce good. And I’d like to see some Utilitarians try to answer that question.


4 Responses to “The Utilitarian End …”

  1. aleanation Says:

    I would agree that consequentialist theories tend to be lacking in some vital component of how we understand morality. It seems clear that we care not only about outcomes, but also about how they are produced, and why. The strength of such theories, however, is that they are relatively easy to interpret and apply to a broad range of common scenarios. This is because they hinge upon the most concrete and directly observable factor of a moral issue, i.e. what actually happens, rather than upon such elusive factors such as abstract principles and subtle psychological/character states. Utilitarian considerations may provide a general guideline for what is the better action in a given situation. With virtue theories, on the other hand, it is more complex. If you want to know the virtuous thing to do, you must ask a virtuous person, or you yourself must become a virtuous person.
    In any case, I would say that utilitarian considerations are often relevant to a moral dilemma, but they cannot be taken for absolute in any sense. Utilitarianism functions as a makeshift approximation of “right and wrong,” a rule of thumb, but ethics becomes truly challenging (and fascinating) once you move beyond it. If you are seeking some sort of deep truth about the “essence” or foundation of what good and evil are (best of luck), I believe that you will have to look elsewhere.

    Just my initial reaction to your excellent post.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    I’d actually argue that we generally ONLY care about how and why the actions are produced. Looking at the outcome is only useful insofar as it gives us a hint about what the intentions were.

    As for the internals, not all non-consequentialist theories rely on exemplars to determine what the right thing to do is. Aristotlean virtue theory did, to some extent, but Stoic virtue theory didn’t. And Kant’s morality didn’t either. They relied on reasoning from set principles to determine what was or wasn’t the right thing to do, but again all virtue theories are about being the right type of person while Kant’s view was about doing the right thing. Either work better than consequentialist theories.

    Note that Utilitarianism, for example, does posit what the essence of foundation of morality is: maximizing happiness. You could, therefore, build a non-consequentialist view that aimed at the same foundation. But what you’d see is that it would not support the same sorts of things Utilitarianism would, as it would not allow you to reduce happiness or increase suffering to gain more future happiness or decrease suffering, because it would judge what you were doing and why and not just what it results in. But then we can see that such a morality cannot work, since sometimes you do have to cause some suffering to do good.

  3. aleanation Says:

    “As for the internals, not all non-consequentialist theories rely on exemplars to determine what the right thing to do is.”

    I know this, the point about virtue theories was just an example of how non-consequentialist theories are often not so clear when it comes to figuring out “how to proceed.” With deontological theories, such as Kant’s, interpretation and application are no simple matter; you must figure out what principle(s) applies to the decision and in what manner. When you must choose between following one principle (i.e. never use a person as a mere means) and another (say, remaining loyal to friends/family), you must decide which principle is more important: do you take advantage of a coworker you don’t like for the benefit of your kids, or do you hold fast to Kant’s principle? When it comes to real life dilemmas, this can become very complex and difficult, and while it would be great to have an absolute law that has all-encompassing coverage, a rule that never fails, there is no such thing. Take any maxim as absolute and you will be forced to swallow some pretty nasty consequences in some thought-experiments.

    Anyways, I agree with you that the how and why of an act are both more interesting and more important than the simple what. The problem is, when you get into the how and why, you find yourself dealing with shadows and grey matter. Of course, you have already waved your hands in that direction, so I won’t go further with that point. Consequentialist theories are appealing because they reflect an intuitive fact about morality, which is that it is generally better to help people than to harm them, that we should try to avoid causing pain and suffering in others.

  4. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, this might come across as being a bit nitpicky, but I think it demonstrates how people misinterpret at least some non-consequentialist philosophies: Your interpretation of the clash in Kant’s view isn’t one. It’s been a while, but I believe that Kant has two basic principles: Treat people never only as means, but always also as ends in themselves and do not create any moral maxim that cannot be made universal without being self-defeating. This, if loyalty is a principle under Kant, then it must be because it fulfills the first principle and so treats people as ends and not just as means. But then if you ask if you should treat a coworker as only a means in the name of loyalty, the answer is obviously no; Kant’s theory says that you can NEVER do that, and so no moral notion of loyality could ever demand something immoral. So while it seems that that’s a clash, it isn’t; loyalty presumes the principle that’s supposedly clashing.

    Now, the difference with virtue theories is that they generally have virtues like “Loyalty”, “Honesty”, and so on, and sometimes those can clash. It’s not so much in those cases about swallowing consequences, but as you said originally about not being able to determine which principle you have to follow. That’s hard for virtue theories, but it’s hard for rights-based moralities, too, and for almost anything that doesn’t just do it based on a calculation of harm and happiness. But again, if those are driven by consequentialist considerations then you get the problem of evil means for a good end.

    As for the specific example, I think that a lot of those consequences in the case of views like Kant’s suffer from not being able to see enough options. Take, for example, the one about “Is it right to steal from a grocery store to feed your kids?”. I would say that Kant’s view would say that that is indeed always wrong, but then the answer is that you end up with starving kids and so that’s tough to swallow. But it ignores the other option, which is to go and explain the situation to the owner of the store and see if you can work something out, which treats them as an end in themself and not just as a means. And then we can ask what their moral obligation is (and it might be at that point that one might argue that the Kantian view is incomplete). The same thing would apply to your coworker: just ask them. If they don’t, they don’t, and you accept that.

    And the reaction to cases like that is what really makes Stoicism appealing to me, because the idea that you should never do what is morally wrong regardless of things like your own happiness or even life really appeals to me; I seem to intuitively think that morality does indeed involve that. What I’d really like to do is merge Kantian and Stoic moralities, but that’s a project for another time.

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