Sunday, May 01, 2022

Utilitarianism Debate with Michael Huemer

Matthew Adelstein kindly invited me & Michael Huemer to hash out our disagreements about utilitarianism over on his YouTube channel.  The resulting discussion was fun and wide-ranging.  In this post, I just want to highlight a couple of major themes that seemed fairly central to our dispute: (1) which intuitions we place the most weight on, and (2) the inferential role of wrongness.

(1) Which intuitions?

Huemer, like many philosophers, regards utilitarianism as extremely "counter-intuitive", because there are many hypothetical cases in which it recommends actions that intuitively seem wrong. Against this, I argue that (something close to) utilitarianism is actually the most intuitive moral theory, because (i) its conflicts with intuition are shallow, and can generally be accommodated at least reasonably well by appeal to related moral considerations such as character evaluations; whereas (ii) non-consequentialism conflicts with our intuitions about what matters in ways that are deep and irresolvable.

The dispute arises because our intuitions about cases, if taken at face value, are simply impossible to mesh with coherent and plausible principles about what's actually important.  They're an unprincipled mess.  So you can either accept those verdicts at face value (as Huemer does) and give up all hope of having "right" and "wrong" track anything that's independently understandable as worth caring about, or we can seek to "charitably reinterpret" those verdicts, occasionally rejecting their face-value claims while seeking to accommodate their underlying spirit as well as possible.

Which route is better?  Well, I guess it depends which intuitions you're more confident of.  I'm much more confident of the deeper intuitions about what matters.  I'm not particularly attached to my intuition that it's "wrong" to kill one to save five in the trolley bridge case, for example.  I think there are obvious psychological confounders here (e.g. involving disparities of salience between the one and the five) that could be expected to distort my immediate intuitive judgment. And I'm not even confident that the "don't push" intuition speaks to the strengths of my reasons for action at all; it seems at least as plausible to me that I'm instead reacting negatively to the decision procedure or dispositions of character that would lead someone to be cavalier about killing innocent people.  As R.M. Hare pointed out long ago, utilitarians can fully endorse the rejection of decision procedures that would lead one to engage in instrumental harm, for those seem unlikely to be the best decision procedures around.  As a result, it's hard to see how our intuitive rejection of those decision procedures is supposed to count against the view.  

(Huemer wants to claim that it's not just that the person is vicious or their decision procedure is intuitively bad, but further, the act is intuitively wrong.  But I dispute that it's at all clear that there is any such further intuition in this case.  And as we'll see in the second section, below, I think it's especially unclear what Huemer's intuitions of "wrongness" are really about.)

By contrast, I think it is much clearer that (e.g.) innocent people's lives are more important than deathbed promises.  That is, we should care more about the former, and prioritize them when they come into conflict with the latter.  I think it's also pretty clear that there shouldn't be a total disconnect between what we should care about and what we should do.  Insofar as there is such a disconnect on Huemer's view, I think it really undermines the normative authority of what he calls "wrongness".  Like archaic honor codes, when deontic constraints conflict with what's actually worth caring about, they lose their force.

And I don't just mean this as a general intuition for a free-floating, untested principle.  This also seems intuitively right (to me, at least) when reflecting more deeply about the specific cases.  When you start to think more about which possible outcome seems morally preferable, all things considered (even taking into account whatever moral significance killing may have), it seems intuitively clear that (i) you should prefer that any one person be killed so that five comparable others may be saved; and (ii) you should, if you can, choose to bring about this morally preferable outcome.  This verdict can be further reinforced by thinking about what all the affected parties would have preferred from behind a veil of ignorance, or about what a benevolent observer/God would wish for you to do, or about how deontic constraints enshrine status quo bias, etc.

So: Deontology may capture superficial verdicts, but it just falls apart completely when you dig a little deeper into the cases.  And I don't see any hope for the deontologist to "accommodate the underlying spirit" of these deeper intuitions.  They're simply lost. So I think that even our case-based intuitions, upon deeper reflection, favour utilitarianism on net -- and overwhelmingly so.

This is important, since Huemer's main response to the clash of intuitions was to appeal to the general epistemic principle that (he thinks) our intuitions about cases are on much firmer footing than our intuitions about general principles.  That doesn't seem universally correct to me, and indeed it seems self-defeating for Huemer to appeal to this general principle when faced with a specific dialectic in which the conflict of intuitions intuitively favours utilitarianism.  (By his own principles, he should instead assess this particular dialectic on its merits, or so I would imagine.)  But regardless, I would now suggest that even our intuitions about cases favour utilitarianism, so long as we're thinking about the cases deeply and not just superficially.  When thinking about these cases, we need to bring to bear the full range of our intuitions about what's worth caring about in the scenario, what it makes sense to do in light of the appropriate concerns, and how it all fits together. These are really important intuitions!

(2) What is wrongness?

I'm interested in the strengths of our reasons for action: which acts are really worth doing, and how important it is that we do them.  In my 'Deontic Pluralism' paper, I point out that there are multiple ways to reconstruct notions of "right" and "wrong" out of scalar reasons.  We might talk (with maximizers) about what we have most reason to do. Or we might talk (with satisficers) about what we'd be blameworthy for failing to do.  But I don't believe in any completely independent, indefinable sense of "wrongness" (or what Parfit called mustn't-be-done), and I don't know of any utilitarians who do.

If Huemer believes in indefinable wrongness (not reducible to reasons, etc.), then we risk talking past each other.  I got the impression that his methodology was to first form an intuition about an act's (indefinable) wrongness, and then infer from this that we have decisive reason not to do it.

One simple revision that might reconcile our views would be if he gave up on making that subsequent inference.  (How confident is he in the general principle that this inference is warranted?  How does it compare to all the rational principles that conflict with deontic constraints?)  Perhaps there is some indefinable property described by Huemer's common-sense morality, but it simply lacks normative authority, and we don't have any good reason to act upon it when it conflicts with things -- like people's lives -- that we ought to care about more.  I'd be curious whether he's at all open to this possibility.

Given the divergence between the normative concepts central to consequentialism and the ordinary (vague and undefinable) sense of "wrongness", it's an interesting question whether consequentialism is best understood as offering an internal revision of how we should understand "wrong", etc., or as offering an external rival to morality.  I guess the difference is ultimately just terminological, so shouldn't matter too much as long as we're clear.  But either way, I think it helps to further defang the supposed "counterintuitiveness" of utilitarianism's verdicts if defenders of the view can respond, "No, I don't mean right/wrong in that sense.  I just mean that we have more reason to bring about the better outcome!"

Most of the intuitions evoked by critics of utilitarianism arguably don't directly address this question of what we have most reason to do (or what we really ought -- as opposed to merely "morally" ought, in some restricted or "inverted-commas" sense -- to do). When we formulate the normative question in terms of practical reasons, my intuitions about cases overwhelmingly favour utilitarianism over deontology.  Maybe I'm idiosyncratic.  But I think that at least many who are initially inclined to think that utilitarianism is "counterintuitive" only believe this because they've misconceptualized what normative ethics is really about.  So I'm optimistic that significant progress could be made on this front (which is not to say universal agreement, of course) by getting clearer on this.  That's one of my major goals for the next few years...


  1. Hi, Matthew here. I largely agree with your assessment of the debate. Huemer's intuitions strike me as similar to those who reject transitivity (Huemer accepts transitivity, for the record) because it requires they accept the repugnant conclusion, things about the utility monster, dust specks being worse than torture, Scanlon's counterexample about Jones being tortured, and lots of others. It feels like the intuitions appealed to are pretty shallow and stem from biases and heuristics.
    Given that our intuitions are often wrong about moral issues--shown by the immense disagreement and the history of moral errors, we'd expect the correct view to diverge from our intuitions sometimes. However, it seems more surprising that the correct views would relate to deeper more fundamental logical principles, like transitivity, the notion that if a perfect being would hope for you to do x you should do x, avoidance of status quo bias, etc.
    The rules of economics similarly are somewhat unintuitive. However, we should of course still accept them.

    Of course, from Huemer's perspective it no doubt seems like we're hedging too much in the opposite direction, much like average utilitarians who are willing to bite the bullet on crazy things relating to bringing miserable people into existence as long as most existing people are marginally more miserable. When such disputes arise, there are a ways to try to try to settle it.
    1) Look at the judgments of most people who have considered the issue. If 99% of people agreed with Huemer here after considering the issues in depth, that would give us some reason to defer to Huemer (and to the majority).
    2) Look at which can be better combined into a coherent web. To the extent that we're disputing whether or not we should privilege the intuition about organ harvesting or the intuition about it being good to bring about states of affairs if a perfect being would hope for them to be brought about, analyzing which one better forms a coherent moral system seems to be good test. If one off judgments don't cohere, we shouldn't trust them as much.
    3) We can analyze the issues more in depth. I think that after reflecting and seeing the strange things that have to be accepted by one who accepts the organ harvesting case, the balance of intuitions favor rejecting that intuition. Examples of such intuitions include
    A) Sometimes, making perfectly moral beings in charge of deciding whether or not events occur makes the world worse.
    B) Perfect beings should sometimes hope for us to act wrongly.
    C) Perhaps one should even hope that they themselves act wrongly.
    4) We can try to employ debunking accounts of the intuitions. On this front too, utilitarianism seems to do better. Utilitarianism has debunking accounts relating to evolution (the research of people like Greene), heuristics (generally it's bad to kill people), viciousness intuitions (generally organ harvesting killers are vicious so we have the intuitions that it's vicious even if we have the most reason to do it), and the fact that the world would be much worse if lots of people did it, so the act is good only if there's no risk of getting caught and it will affect a few people.
    The deontological account doesn't have such debunkings. The closest that they have is "utilitarians have weird idiosynchratic intuitions." Perhaps this is true, however, this would be double counting the evidence described under point 1. Additionally, while it seems like utilitarianism is crazy, when confronted with all the weird implications of rejecting it, the utilitarianism becomes harder to reject. Finally, we don't have good data about what most people who have considered the paradoxes of deontology have thought about the matter.
    We can also do more holistic comparisons based on theoretical virtues, plausiblility of axioms, and historical track record. These seem to overall favor utilitarianism.

  2. I wish there were more public discussions like this between experts. Not necessarily debate, but more discussion or critical interviewing of someone about their view with hard follow-up questions. I'd love to see Huemer talk to a Kantian about their similarities and differences.


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