Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lifeless Interests

Derek made the interesting comment:
Because utilitarianism denies the (moral) separateness of persons, it doesn't actually give equal concern to all persons. Rather, it gives equal concerns to all interests, and it thereby ignores the way in which various interests (and the thwarting or satisfaction of such interests) are integrated into individual human lives.
It only makes sense to be concerned with interests, thus detached from their integral role in individual, separate lives, if we assume there is some aggregate super-life to which they ultimately belong. Otherwise the utilitarian has mistaken the importance of people's interests within their lives for the importance of people's interests tout court.

This may not be fair, and I'll be interested to see your reply.

I'm not sure that it's even possible to dis-integrate a welfare 'interest' from the life to which it belongs. (And if it's not possible, then utilitarians can't be doing it!) Rather, I think all the relevant facts about the role of the interest, as integrated in the life, are already built into the weight of the interest itself.

For example, consider my interest in dinner, in contrast to a starving man's interest in dinner. His interest in dinner will be much the greater, presumably because of the way it relates to the rest of his life. (Whether these interests are fulfilled or not will have a much more significant impact on his life than mine.) Utilitarianism takes all this into account, of course. If some interest plays an important role in one's life, then that makes it an important interest, and utilitarianism will recognize it as such. So I'm not sure how to understand the objection that's being suggested here.

9 comments:

  1. It looks, at least at first glance, to be a similar point to one of Rawl's objections. Specifically, the objection is that utilitarianism does not treat people impartially (as it appears to at first) but impersonally (not respecting their humanity as such but merely inasmuch as they are repositories of desires and pleasure and so on).

    Utilitarianism divorces, by so treating people, desires from the people who have them and takes them separately to be what is morally relevant - which I take it is the objection here. It doesn't explicitly make the point that I've always found telling against utilitarians, even though it just reveals that I fail to share certain critical intuitions (namely: "What's so morally great about getting what you want?") but I think it operates along the same lines. We want instinctively to say that, morally, people matter - but all we get here is that the desires that come along with people matter.

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  2. "What's so morally great about getting what you want?"

    Well, you could dispute that theory of welfare, I suppose, but utilitarianism isn't committed to it in any case. Welfarist utilitarians simply want to maximize human welfare, whatever it is that makes our lives go well (be it "getting what we want", or something else entirely). (And others might want to include "super-human values" in addition to welfare values.)

    But yeah, now that you mention it, Derek's objection does sound like the one about treating people as mere value-receptacles.

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  3. Greetings:

    Somebody is going to have to explain why this is an issue. In discussing, for example, the total weight of the members of a football team, you cannot disassociate a pound of flesh from any given member. Yet, we still have no trouble discussing total weight, average weight, and using similar concepts.

    If one person gains 2 Utils of utility, and another loses 1 Util, then that loss to that one person is a genuine loss. Utilitarians do not need to deny this. Any more than he would deny that if one person gains two pounds, and another loses 1 pound, then the person with the loss is, in fact, 1 pound lighter.

    Fortunately, as a desire-utilitarian, I have little need to be concerned with these issues. Desire-utilitarian aims at promoting good and bad desires, where a good desire tends to fulfill other desires.

    In other words, desire-utilitarian aims to cause people to desire -- find value -- gain utils -- however you want to put it in those things that increase the number of utils for others.

    The difference is between asking, "What should we do given a particular distribution of utility", and "In what should we find utility to begin with?"

    Alonzo Fyfe
    The Atheist Ethicist

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  4. This is true, but weight is not generally considered to be a moral concept either. The objection, which is from a specifically Kantian framework - or at least appeals most to people who really like a Kantian framework - is that human beings qua human beings are morally significant. Not that human beings are only morally significant qua reservoirs of utility (whatever that amounts to on whatever version of utilitarianism).

    The intuition that it's exploiting is essentially that it sounds deeply callous to (morally) value people only in as much as they are reservoirs of happiness, and not as the people that they are themselves. On the other hand, it's quite fine to judge people's weight based only on their, um, weight.

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  5. Richard,

    As I said, as it stands I'm still not sure whether the criticism I made is a fair one, but even if it is not, I think it points in a troubling directions for utilitarianism.

    Both the promise and peril of utilitarianism is its ability to take any objection and turn it into a strength by redefining the utility function to take account of it.

    But consider your example. Your interest in dinner versus that of the starving man. The utility calculus already takes into consideration the differential value of dinner to his well being and to yours. But we can't stop there.

    We have to ask more about why the starving man is starving. Perhaps he's destitute and cannot afford a meal; moreover, he's not sure when he can afford a meal. Or perhaps he is scrimping and saving pennies to start his own business - he could buy food if he wished, but he'll instead wait until breakfast. Perhaps he's trying to lose weight. Perhaps he's on a hunger strike.

    In order to know the importance of dinner to his well being, we will have to know which of these (or other) circumstances it is. But we'll need to know more than just this. We'll also have to know how this starving episode fits into the rest of his life - is he often subject to starvation? Given his overall self conception and the projects in his life, is his welfare more or less vulnerable to the ails of starvation (For example, compare the welfare effect of occasional starvation on the up-and-coming 'starving artist' versus the same for a down-and-out corporate climber).

    But if we've managed to somehow include all of those considerations into the utlitlity function, how useful is that function for ethical decision making (even at the critical level)? To know the utility effect of one episode of starvation on someone's life, it looks like we have to know almost everything about their life, past, present, and future.

    But yeah, now that you mention it, Derek's objection does sound like the one about treating people as mere value-receptacles.

    Yeah, I think it is something like that. The idea is that though the utilitarian starts with a concern with people's individual interests, it ultimately fetishizes a function based on those interests in a way that changes the object of consideration. In the abstracting move you lose sight of the individual lives that made the interests you're maximizing important to begin with.

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  6. "To know the utility [welfare] effect of one episode of starvation on someone's life, it looks like we have to know almost everything about their life, past, present, and future."

    Don't you think that's true, though? It does make ethics hard, for sure. But utilitarianism aims to be the true moral theory, not the easy (or even "useful") one. (Usefulness is for the practical level. Perhaps there is a sense in which even our critical-level theorizing is 'practical', and so might warrant using some evaluative standards besides those of utilitarianism. Perhaps we should never think like utilitarians at all, even at the critical level! But that wouldn't make utilitarianism false. Besides, I don't think we need be so pessimistic about our epistemic situation: even if perfect moral knowledge - like perfect non-moral knowledge - is outside our grasp, still we might be able to come 'close enough'.)

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  7. Ah, so the choice is between being mere value recepticals, versus mere moral significance recepticals?

    As soon as you notice that moral significance is not some reified Platonic essence or some such, but a valued relationship between people, moral significance can be just one more item of grist for the mill of utilitarianism. (That pun must have been made previously, innumerable times.)

    I fail to see how you could say "moral significance" in a meaningful way without specifying "to somebody". As soon as you do that, how is moral significance more than just another value?

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  8. Richard,

    I think there is a difference between the kind of incomplete knowledge we are ordinarily able to deal with in common affairs and the kind of incomplete knowledge that seems to plague utilitarianism.
    If my car won't crank, and I'm trying to fix it, my general ignorance of auto mechanics is going to hinder my attempts at action. Nevertheless, I do know a little about cars, and what knowledge I do have has allowed me to diagnose and solve certain problems.

    Because I know what role the battery is supposed to play in the overall mechanism, I am often able to tell when it is not working and needs to be replaced. However, anytime I hypothesise that the battery is faulty, I have to assume that there are no other faults in parts of which I'm more ignorant that would produce similar results.

    Still, I can pursue my hypothesis, and I have an independent test of whether it is right - I can put in a new battery and I can see whether or not the car starts (and continues to start).

    On the other hand if I, as a utilitarian, make a hypothesis about the utility value of some event (e.g. an episode of starvation on some individual), there seems to be no independent test that will let me know if I was right or wrong.

    I'm comfortable with the idea that ethics might be hard, and even that there are (in at least some important sense) true and false theories about our ethical obligations, but I do think that even the true ethics (at least for beings like us) is a human ethics. Truths about what is of genuine value may well be beyond human knowledge, but knowledge of what we, as human beings, ought to do, cannot be similarly inaccessible.

    If the truth about what produces the greatest utility is so permanently out of reach, and if we have no way of independently confirming our best guesses even in particular cases, then I think it is irrational to take as a practical goal (much less as the central aim of morality) the promotion of utility.

    And this is for the same reason I take it to be irrational to take as one's goal securing a favorable place in the afterlife. The knowledge that would be necessary to rationally pursue such a goal is forever out of our reach.


    Mike,

    I'm not sure I understand your point. I've granted that, as a formal matter, the utilitarian can describe anything as an end and include it in the utility calculus. But you seem to imply that there is only one pro-attitude to take toward anything, namely to value it (that is, take it as an end to be promoted).

    I can see little reason to accept such an impovrished moral psychology. At least one other pro-attitude we can take is that of respect or deference. I need not value you to respect you; more obviously I need not value your choices in order to respect (some of) them as choices which you were entitled to make.

    Though I didn't give it much thought at the time, I suppose I meant 'concern' to be a broader term meant to avoid a commitment between which of these (or other) pro-attitudes was involved.

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  9. Derek - I think your test is a bit unfair.
    you are demanding a certain level of proof for utilitarianism that you dont demand from the car scenario.
    For example lets say putting oil into the car helps the car work - or feeding a starving person allows him to live but anything that neuters the latter argument also does so to the former.

    You could say it is different because you WANT the car to go but one could also argue that collectively humans want utilitarianism so therefore if we talk collectively we should talk of utiltiarianism even though we might individually have another philosophy.

    If there is any value in anything to anyone you can maximise it in terms of utilitarianism butof course you could be arguing there is no value at all in anything.

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