Saturday, May 28, 2005

Past-Blind Justice

Utilitarianism claims that the right thing to do is whatever would maximize well-being. It is thus an extreme form of substantive justice, paying no (intrinsic) heed to procedural or historical concerns. It allows no independent notions of rights or desert. Justice is not something prior to utility calculations, but the result of them. This way, everyone is treated with equal concern.

But is it plausible to ignore history in such a way? Utilitarianism is committed to "past-blindness". So far as the future is concerned, the past is irrelevant. The universe could be created ex nihilo in its present form, and the future would unfold in the exact same way. But we tend to think there would be moral differences. There is a moral difference between really making a promise, and merely having everyone believe you so promised. Even if the consequences are identical, we think the past matters. You have a greater obligation in the case where you really made a promise.

Suppose you employ a boy to mow your lawn, and after doing the job well he asks for his pay. If you could do more good by giving the money to charity instead, then the utilitarian must conclude that the right thing to do is renege on your promise and give the money to charity. In response to the question, "But is this really absurd?", Kymlicka responds:
Yes, this is absurd. What is absurd here is not necessarily the conclusion, but the fact the boy's having actually performed the job, or that I had actually promised him the money, never enters into the decision as such... The everyday view says that I should repay loans regardless of whether it maximizes utility. The [utilitarian] says that I should repay the loan because it maximizes utility. The boy has no greater claim on me than others, he just is likely to benefit more than they are, and so repayment is the best way to fulfil my utilitarian obligation. (W. Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p.24)

This is also problematic for criminal justice, which we usually see as being heavily dependent upon historical facts. Utilitarianism implies that it is strictly speaking irrelevant whether the accused committed the crime. All that matters is whether finding him guilty would maximize well-being (whether by deterring others, preventing a future crime this so-far-innocent man would commit, or even satisfying the retributive urges of the local community).

More sophisticated 'indirect' accounts, like Rule Utilitarianism, might avoid these conclusions. But, as Kymlicka notes above, they get the right result for the wrong reason. We think that justice requires treating people as they deserve, and this is going to be influenced by facts about the past, regardless of whether they have any future consequences. But utilitarianism leaves no room for the notion of desert. It treats the past as irrelevant. As such, it seems to yield an inadequate conception of justice.


  1. Some thoughts about thought experiments.. I can see some potential problems where the experiments being used are themselves the root of the confusion.

    1) If the person must act in contradiction to the theory you are applying in order to get into that situation there is no surprise that the result is morally unsettling.
    For example a moral criteria might be "do unto others as they would do unto you"
    Now for the mental trick -
    If you have just beaten a man within an inch of his life and you have a gun in your hand you should execute him because he surely wants to do it to you.

    Of course that is irrelevant for someone who wants to follow that theory because they would never get into that situation! Similarly a utilitarian would be pretty unlikely to give the false promise to the lawnmower.

    Secondly this is also a problematic thought game

    "The universe could be created ex nihilo in its present form, and the future would unfold in the exact same way."

    But that scenario is infinitely unlikely (and thus most people believe in evolution etc and not spontaneous creation).

    There are two ways to look at it - one where you have all information and the other where you don’t. If you don’t then history is extremely relevant for calculating what will happen in the future.

    With all the information you can raise in your mind the concept of a person being arbitrarily thrown in prison because the public thinks they are guilty and would feel better if they were in jail (or any other thing you might have hinted at) but just as with the other examples you create an problem disguise it a scenario then use utilitarianism to uncover it again. When hte awkwardness peopel feel is created by the latent harm in the creation of the problem in the first place.

  2. By the way I think strict application of utilitarianism with full knowledge would generally involve very convoluted and subtle approaches to problems that often simultated other systems.


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