Thursday, November 07, 2013

Creepy Utilitarianism and Creeping Consequentialism

Two interestings posts on utilitarianism recently: Blame Utilitarianism! at "Crooked Timber" and Utilitarianism as "moral Esperanto"? at "A Thinking Reed". I don't have anything rigorously organized to say, but some crude first thoughts.

"Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much?" Holbo asks. I find that utilitarians in the academy tend (1) not to be hugely up on the history of utilitarianism in general; and (2) not especially aware of what people espousing utilitarianism outside academia advocate. They tend to think of utilitarianism in terms of J. S. Mill and their favorite twentieth-century utilitarians and the articles they most recently read. (I'm not at all sure why this is the case; there's nothing about utilitarianism itself that requires it.) To the outside world, Bentham comes across as a little on the crazy and inhuman side, and while Mill does much better, it's not as if Mill has ever been a typical utilitarian. He wasn't in his day (reading James Fitzjames Stephen is a good corrective to any such view) and he hasn't been since. And when do people outside of academic ethics hear opinions being explicitly attached to utilitarianism? Outside vegetarianism, they only hear it with regard to very highly controversial claims, not just the obvious ones like abortion but more extreme things like infanticid and pedophilia advocacy and things that get disability rights activists riled. It's not really surprising that utilitarianism has a reputation for being slightly creepy among large segments of the general public; it's not difficult to find it being appealed to for defending things that are already considered creepy by a significant portion of the population. What other possible consequence could one expect from such behavior? Eventually maybe the argument on a particular topic will move people to stop thinking of it as creepy, but that doesn't happen overnight. And over time this builds up, as people remember (no matter how nuanced the original discussion) very little more than the crude fact that the last time they heard about someone arguing for something uncomfortable like infanticide or consensual incest or aborting people with 21 trisomy for the greater good, they did so on utilitarian grounds. It won't matter in the long run what qualifications the arguments themselves actually bear on any given topic; people are in the long run just left with the sense that the utilitarians never stop.

I'm not really sure utilitarians have much right to complain. Utilitarianism has often been reforming in character, and consequentialism in general tends to inherit the trait; and it's not really surprising that it raises suspicions because of it. Nor have utilitarians managed to develop over the generations without doing a fair amount of demonizing of other moral views themselves. (Anyone who has ever read a significant amount of Bentham gets enough demonization of non-utilitarian views to last a while; nor is he the last to rev up the rhetoric when talking to the public.) This all really neither here and there, though; public relations are not rational foundations, and the fact that utilitarians get reputations as perverse troublemakers is not really a matter of extraordinary importance, beyond perhaps suggesting that they might sometimes be better served by focusing on the humdrum mainstream rather than the sensational leading edge.

More interesting, I think is that both the comments in "Crooked Timber" post and the Atlantic article noted by Lee exhibit a phenomenon that I think has become very common, common enough to have its own label. We could call it creeping consequentialism. And put crudely and without all the nuances that are found in particular cases, it's the tendency of consequentialists generally to treat any kind of reasoning that might be used in the course of consequentialist analysis as proprietary. If you appeal to consequences, even in highly restricted contexts where consequences are the only thing we have significant information about, this gets treated as 'consequentialist' reasoning. If you make use of some rule for maximizing anything, this gets treated as consequentialist. (One would think from the way some consequentialists talk that any use of resources for any reason to get any kind of result is in and of itself consequentialist.)

Of course, this is all nonsense; consequentialism is not a name for the formal structure of means-end reasoning generally, but the name of a position that concerns itself with what is determinative for practical reasoning, or sometimes more narrowly, moral reasoning, across the entire field. Hume is not made a utilitarian simply because he regards utilities as very important, because there is a significant area of his ethics in which they are not determinative (or even necessarily relevant). If I make it a rule for my business to maximize market share, or, for that matter, make it a rule for my craft project to maximize the paper snowflakes made from paper I have available, this in itself has nothing to do with consequentialism and it certainly has nothing to do with utilitarianism, even if under the circumstances the consequentialist would agree with the decision. Likewise, reasoning on the basis of consequences in the context of trolley problems tells us nothing about whether the reasoner actually takes consequences to be generally determinative, or (to take just one alternative) a poor but sometimes necessary proxy when information is scarce, which is definitely not consequentialism.

Incidentally, I find some of the reasoning in the Atlantic article to be a bit curious. For instance, this:

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

This argument makes very little sense. Yes, pretty much everybody thinks happiness valuable in some way; but it's also quite obvious that most people guesstimate what will really and truly give greater happiness, and likewise they often make judgments on the basis of rules of thumb they can't explain, but just have picked up somewhere. Further, utilitarians are about the last ethical position that can dismiss claims of ickiness; that people find certain things to be icky is directly relevant both to pleasure and to satisfaction of preferences, and its relevance does not depend at all on people being able to explain the reason they find things icky, any more than the relevance of something being unpleasant or less preferred depends on people being able to explain why. Utilitarianism gets around moral dumbfounding not by eliminating it but by simply not caring on first analysis why people have the reactions they do -- the reactions get considered regardless of what people can or can't explain about them. You can't be a utilitarian while picking and choosing when you'll consider things that affect people's happiness and when you won't. A utilitarian may think that someone's disgust is irrational; but the utilitarian can't claim that it's irrelevant to their happiness, no matter how irrational it is, and if the utilitarian simply dismissed the reaction as irrelevant -- rather than, say, overbalanced by other happiness-relevant factors -- it is the utilitarian who is being irrational. Perhaps there is some deeper argument here that is not coming across, but as stated this is just a silly argument. If everyone were a utilitarian, it wouldn't affect in the slightest whether people would say things like, "It just seems icky/unpleasant/ugly/distasteful/disgusting/creepy" or add whatever else you want to the list. Utilitarianism doesn't magically eliminate these things, it can't simply pretend they don't exist, and any worries about people not being able to give reasons for their reactions are going to be even of interest to the utilitarian only for very abstract and indirect reasons about what's better for society as a whole.

This is quite general, of course. If, for instance, human beings have a natural tendency to enjoy punching people in the face, a utilitarian will have to take this into account, even if the ultimate conclusion is that the greatest happiness of the greatest number requires that people not make use of this pugilistic means to happiness. If he tried instead to dismiss it out of hand, you would be able to catch him out: he's not a utilitarian at all, but is letting his analysis be governed by non-utilitarian considerations. (I leave to the side whether one of the oldest criticisms of utilitarianism, that it is in fact always rigged in this way, is true.)


  1. alqpr3:23 PM

    Might the utilitarian not respond that she does not deny the suffering of those faced with the existence of something which "just seems icky" but just considers it less painful than that of those who would be denied the right to do whatever it was that seemed icky to the other?

    And with regard to definitions, is it universally accepted in your discipline that "consequentialism" only refers to a belief that consideration of consequences is always uniquely determinative, or is it possible that there are those who use the word to refer just to a technique (which may in some situations be neither exclusive nor determinative)? Surely there's a wide range of things that could be considered "consequences" - including such as "pleasing God" or being judged "good" after the most complete possible moral analysis. So for the term to mean anything a line must be drawn, and if different people put it in different places then doesn't that just mean that the term is really only meaningful when put in the context of a particular author's intent?

  2. branemrys4:47 PM

    I imagine pretty much any major utiliterian today would; the point isjust that utiltiarianism does require that this be a conclusion of the analysis and not an assumption of it (which means that 'moral dumbfounding' is not really eliminated by utiltiarianism, despite not being a problem for it).
    Used as a technical term, consequentialism does require that consequences, in themselves, somehow be the determinative factor or ultimate basis, or foundation. Even an appeal to consequences is not consequentialist unless some fact about the consequences themselves is governing the appeal. If, for instance, I say "The fact that X has good consequences is a sign that it should be done, where 'good consequences' means nothing other than 'the kind of things that usually follows only on people acting consistently with moral rules'", this wouldn't be consequentialist -- what's actually determinative here are the moral rules, and the consequences are just being used as an indirect way to talk about moral rules. The reason for this is that the whole point of the label, going back to when Anscombe invented it and utilitarians and others defended the position so labeled, is to distinguish it from opposing positions (most importantly deontology, which are approaches based on obligations of some kind that don't in themselves depend on consequences; but also more recently approaches like virtue ethics). If it can't do that, there's not really any point to the label.
    People do occasionally use it in looser senses; 'consequentialist' will sometimes be used as 'consequentialism-ish'. I think this happens more with utilitarianism than with consequentialism, though. In this sense you might say, for instance, that Hume's ethics has a strong consequentialist or utiltiarian component; this, despite the fact that Hume is definitely not a consequentialist or utilitarian in the technical sense. In a sense, it's just saying that Hume's approach has elements or techniques a consequentialist would be able to adapt very easily.
    But even then, I think the meaning is pretty standard, because it still is taking the technical sense as the reference point. If I understand where you're going, though, you are right to the extent that "consequentialist" is a generic classification. All consequentialisms have to share certain very abstract features, but there are lots of different consequentialisms. In practice we tend to be talking about utilitarianisms in particular, based on happy-making consequences, whether understood pleasures or preference-satisfactions. But these are far from being exhaustive, and both the kinds of consequence you mention could be the basis for some specific kind of consequentialism. No one is merely consequentialist. There are definitely positions that are not consequentialist at all, though. (Kantianism, for instance, which is vehemently anti-consequentialist.)


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