Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Utilitarian Respect For Persons

A quick thought: Some object to utilitarianism on the Kantian grounds that it fails to "treat each person as an end in themselves, and never as a means only". For example, utilitarianism may instruct us to sacrifice some people as a means to benefit (more) others. But I'm not sure this objection really holds. Utilitarianism takes the interests of everybody into account, and thus never treats anyone only as a means. Even the sacrificed people were considered as "ends in themselves", their interests included in the utilitarian calculus. It just turned out that their needs were outweighed by other people's. So they were treated as a means, granted, but not as a means only.

Now, it's not so clear that this weaker result (i.e. treating people as a means in addition to an end in themselves) is something worth objecting to. People benefit from other people all the time. Ask a stranger for directions and you are using them as a means to your own ends. This seems morally innocuous. But perhaps that's because the other person (tacitly) consents to being 'used' in such a way. It seems more problematic when people are used against their will. But then, utilitarians would agree that it's unfortunate when anyone's interests (or autonomy) are sacrificed. It's a bad thing in itself -- but this harm might be outweighed by a greater good.

The real question seems to be whether it's an absolute, overriding evil to use someone as a means against their will. But the answer to this is obviously "no". If someone knew the code to deactivate a nuclear bomb which threatened to kill millions, but stubbornly refused to share the information, one would be well justified in tricking, drugging, or otherwise forcing him to share the code against his will.

So, what's the objection, exactly?

1 comment:

  1. The problem wiht utilitarianism is it is TOO strong a theory (haha I would say that). It is both simple and quite compelling. So what is the down side? well it is too easy (with limited moral dilema) to do somthing that intuitively is VERY EVIL in the name of utilitarianism. For example from star wars - aniken joining the dark side in order to create peace in the galixy. (excuse me I jsut saw the movie)
    As in the example it is very open to self deception because the utilitarian equasions when it comes to politics are usually quite complex.
    This means that the key aspect of utilitarianism is who decides and how do they decide? what time frames do they use? How is self interest removed?
    I think foundation also provides an interesting example of things that can come from this.

    In the final books of the series we find out that the robots (fairly utilitarian I think) have been blazing a path in front of the humans killing everything, why? because the humans are part of their equasion the aliens aren't and as potential long term threats they were eliminated. (I hope I got that logic right).

    Frankly I think the sort of "babying" (by robots and 2nd foundation) that occurs in the foundation series would be a good thing but I know a lot of people would object to it instinctively.


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