Episode 9: Utilitarian Ethics: What Should We Do?

Discussing Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation chapters 1-5, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, and modern utilitarian Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality.")

Going full tilt on the Greatest Happiness principle, with talk of gladiators, consensual cannibalism, and illegal downloads. How many Pleetons were in your last orgasm? Should animals count in the utilitarian calculus? What is Bentham's skull up to nowadays? This extra long episode (patched together from two recording sessions, as Seth's audio track got toasted for most of the first one) is disgustingly thorough and only occasionally internally redundant.

Read the Bentham online. Here's the Mill online, or you could buy it.Here's the Singer essay (Also, for some more information on Singer's view of animal liberation, look here.)

End song: "So Whaddaya Think?" by Mark Lint and the Fake (2000). Listen to the whole album online.


  1. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Behind the scenes: So, we had a nice conversation on Sunday, Aug. 30th, and after about 2 hrs. of talking, my audio started to screw up, so we took a break and all started new files. Seth, using a bad bad program to record his audio, inadvertantly closed his file containing his voice for this first two hours; the program did not prompt him to save or otherwise store it in some back-end-accessible location, and had been overwritten when he used “undelete” software to try to recover it. We toyed with the idea of having him mock up his lines based on residual noise coming from our headphones (we hear each other through Skype when we talk, but each record our audio separately to try to make it more hi-fi), but after I tried to make the traces of his part audible through a laughable attempt at CSI kind of magic, we determined just to re-schedule. After Wes rescheduled at the last minute TWICE, eventually on 9/10 we were able to talk again, with the intention of giving a more organized account to replace what originally happened, yet use the 8/30 take for the end of the conversation, which we had all the files for. Of course, we ended up talking longer than was really necessary.

    So I had something over 4 hrs. of audio to sift through, nearly half of which was Sethless, and for the very end of that, my audio was degraded. What’s more, on the 9/10 session, Wes’s mic was flaking out on us toward the end, so there’s a portion where he just didn’t try to contribute.

    I liked too much of the Sethless material to just let it drop, and we ended up talking about some different things anyway, and Seth voiced some opinions in the last part of the 9/10 session that slotted in OK with the previous material, so what you hear on this track is a two-hour interpolation of the two sessions, where I mostly used the 9/10 material, but put in the Sethless 8/30 stuff where it seemed appropriate (much of that did get tossed, though), and then the whole thing (sort of jarringly) shifts to the more-or-less intact end of the 8/30 session (beginning with the “talk about theft… or Seth…”)… and stick around after the song for an outtake from our post-session 8/30 banter where we were trading file-sharing stories.

    If you’re wondering why the fidelity is a little crummy, I’ve created a “Technical Corner” topic on our facebook discussion page for discussing goofy things like this going forward.

  2. says

    Hi guys,

    Full disclosure: I’m a hedonistic act utilitarian through and through, so in this reply I’ll speak for that position unless I’m specifically describing another. Mark Lint posted a link on Felicifia, the consequentialism forum I co-admin, to this discussion. Ryan Carey has already posted a few comments in this thread:
    I’ll try to avoid duplicating his thoughts, and post a few of mine, and invite you back to the forum if you want to continue the discussion :)

    Three factual(ish) quibbles to start with:

    i) Bentham was very much against the concept of rights (he famously described natural rights as ‘nonsense on stilts’, and though he’d no doubt distinguish them from legal rights, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t see the same conflict between them and the principle of utility in law as in ethics – so would have supported women’s emancipation, not women’s rights, etc).

    ii) From what I’ve read of Bentham (admittedly not a great deal more than you), I’ve got the impression he was very much in favour of utilitarianism as an ethical doctrine. As you say, the book is introducing ‘morals and legislation’. See also the quote at the top of this page .

    He was also closely involved in JS Mill’s upbringing, being a close friend of Mill’s father, who was inspired by Bentham to give JS Mill such a rigorous training in the (supposedly) socially beneficial disciplines that the latter had a nervous breakdown before his 20th birthday. (note that being a utilitarian and even a fan of Bentham doesn’t mean I agree with all his actions!)

    iii) Few 20th Century utilitarians would refer to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, simply because you can’t maximise two variables. For most of us, it would be simply ‘the greatest happiness’ (or greatest preference satisfaction if that’s your preferred flavour). That distinction should make some of your criticisms less barbed and others more acute.

    The main point of controversy is whether to opt for maximising the aggregate of utility or maximising the average. (see this Wikipedia piece ). I would guess that Total Util (TU) is the more popular version (and it’s the version I’m more sympathetic to, for whatever that’s worth).

    iv) I might have misunderstood, but I think you implied Singer was the first person to use a utilitarian argument against our treatment of animals. Bentham actually makes the point somewhere in a footnote of chapter 17 of Intro to Etc. ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’

    So, to clear up a few other questions – and I apologise in advance for using quote marks very loosely, to paraphrase comments you made which I thought should be addressed:

    ‘how does it account for death?’ – the slightly simplified version is that if it’s TU, death is good, all else being equal, when the entity is experiencing negative utility and bad when it isn’t. If it’s Average Util (AU), death is good, all else being equal, when the entity is experiencing less utility than the universal average. In both cases, it’s pretty obvious that all else is almost never equal. Killing people against their consent causes them and their families/friends immense grief, not to mention the threat of death in societies that sanction killing causing huge amounts of grief in itself.

    ‘what if people have different conceptions of the good?’ – this is quite a large question, that I think equivocates on ‘the good’. I think Mark already pointed out that if different things make different people happy then those people experiencing those things generates utility. This doesn’t mean, as someone implied in the broadcast, that a masochistic utilitarian world leader would advocate torture for all because he happened to enjoy it.

    ‘”pletons” are self-evidently silly’ – the concept is obviously difficult to apply, but they’re not self-evidently silly enough to have stopped people from using them as a concept in ethics/economics. The usual terms people actually use are and hedons (which, for a hedonistic utilitarian are equivalent)

    ‘if you accept the values of traditional society you can get any conclusion you want’ – this is true of any operation. If you allow false data, you can prove anything. That’s a basic part of logic. So this would only be a problem for utilitarianism if utilitarianism had to assume that any value assertion made were true. I don’t know of any utilitarians (or any people, come to that) who would accept moral relativism of this sort.

    ‘Singer equivocates on “suffering is bad”/”suffering is bad for me”’ – I don’t think this is fair. For one thing, he’s always clear that this is an essay for people who accept his premises – that if we can prevent very great suffering at very little cost, we should. I think he’s overoptimistic about the number of people who’ll accept that as a premise. That said…

    ‘It’s madness to think singer can inspire anyone.’ – if so, it’s empirically supported madness. Look up a Facebook group called Giving What We Can (in particular, read the discussion board posts) http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=4832159350&ref=ts – 114 people have signed up to give away 10% of their income and the organisation’s founder hasn’t even started publicising it yet. I know that at least member of the group is a non-utilitarian philosopher. Peter Unger also wrote a pretty successful book developing the theme of Singer’s essay, called Living High and Letting Die (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_High_and_Letting_Die). Unger is, again, not a utilitarian – as far as I understand his ethics, he’s not even a consequentialist.

    ‘I’d be reluctant to steal stuff even though util calculation is the same as downloading music’ – the expected harm from betraying a close friend’s trust to pawn his trust is the same as duplicating a few electronic 1s and 0s? If anyone sincerely believes this, they must have very different kinds of friendships than mine…

    ‘nobody would expect you to do mow your sick neighbour’s lawn’ – this seems to be given as a reason why mowing your sick neighbour’s lawn isn’t obligatory, but this follows (or precedes?) you effectively rejecting Mill & Bentham’s reasoning that we should favour happiness because we do tend to favour happiness. Ie, it sounds like the same naturalistic fallacy you accuse them of committing.

    Lastly, I have a few remarks on some of the more substantive lines of argument developed in the podcast:

    1) I won’t try too hard to defend Mill or Singer here. Mill because I completely agree with whoever said he’s not obviously a utilitarian. I’ve never known any modern utilitarian willing to defend his distinction between higher and lower pleasures, so whether or not you agree with his ideas they don’t really belong in a discussion of utilitarianism.

    I won’t defend Singer much because I really don’t know how to against the abuse he received here. He’s a far more rigorous writer than Mill and probably Bentham, so it’s much easier to engage with his arguments, if you want to. Also, his ideas of the *practicalities* of aid in that essay are over three decades out of date, and he’d be the first to advocate changing them (though I would add that he’d probably done a lot more research on the subject even when he wrote that essay than the people asserting he’s wrong here). If you’re going to reject his argument based on faulty data that he incorporated near its conclusion, you might as well reject any branch of science that has changed its views since then, too.

    So all this makes me feel like Seth and Wes’s response is a reactionary one. In my experience, if people are determined that they’ll never accept a proposition no matter what evidence they hear for it, they’re usually right…

    2) Happiness is hard/impossible to measure (re Bentham’s felicific calculus)

    So is speed, if you don’t have technology that allows you to measure time and distance. That doesn’t mean our cavemen ancestors were unjustified in thinking that some things ran faster than others (and even hypothesising that there was a sense in which you could aggregate speed, despite it being clear that two moving objects is a very different phenomenon than one moving at twice their speed) and reacting accordingly.

    Also (though I realise this isn’t a strong defence of util) most modern ethical views incorporate the idea of comparative welfare. A deontologist will think other considerations sometimes trump happiness, but will think that all things being equal, more happiness is worse than less. So if utility is fundamentally uncomparable, it scuppers a lot more than utilitarianism.

    3) Great art and architecture vs meeting basic needs of the many

    You seem to take it as read that great art and the like is obviously worth more than alleviating distress. But here’s an (admittedly contrived) thought experiment:

    Suppose one day you’re passing by the Louvre, and realise that it’s on fire. Being great a believer in the value of art, you rush in with thoughts of rescuing some of the pieces. Most are already engulfed in the flames, but you spot the Mona Lisa, still untouched by the fire, but with flames licking towards it. As you move towards it, you hear a child calling for help – looking around, you see him trapped under a rafter, that’s pinned him, but that you’re confident you could move. The flames are also moving rapidly towards him. You shout for help, but no-one responds. A classic ‘who to save?’ thought experiment then, but with only one person…

    You’ve no reason to suppose the child is more important than any other. In fact, you recognise the school uniform he’s wearing as that of a nearby special needs school for children with learning difficulties – so he’s less likely to contribute anything great to society than even a randomly selected person from the street. So, with seconds to decide, is it him, or the Mona Lisa?

    If the answer isn’t *obviously* the Mona Lisa, it’s difficult to then justify arguments that we should spend thousands of dollars on subsidising art when the same amount could save the lives of tens or hundreds of children with foreign aid (source: http://www.givewell.net/top-charities)

    4) Most of these responses obscure a key disagreement about whether intuition (as we usually conceive it) has any place in ethics. I think it hasn’t and that anything worth saying about ethics comes from logic and empiricism. While my view isn’t universal among utilitarians, when you’re conversing with those of us who heard it, appeals to our sense of justice, fairness etc. are putting the cart before the horse.

    For eg, my response to the thought experiment immediately above and any like it, is to ignore my emotional response. I prefer the not-so-diplomatic-sounding ‘shut up and multiply’ approach detailed (very succinctly) here: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Shut_up_and_multiply

    5) ‘I wonder whether utilitarianism is really adding anything’

    That depends on what you’re starting with, surely? If its conclusions usually correlate with our beliefs then so much the better – better for utilitarianism if we prefer intuition in ethics, or better for our intuition if we don’t. Either way, if it only differs occasionally it’s potentially better than relying on our gut instinct.

    7) Moral scepticism.

    In my opinion this is the biggest challenge to the idea of utilitarianism as most people present it – and, as you say, it affects any kind of normative ethics. It sounded like at least one of you (Wes?) rejected the idea though, judging by the ‘that’s just obviously wrong’ comment re Singer.

    Anyway, all I’ll say for now is that I think moral scepticism is unassailable, and that even if it weren’t, proving the existence of norms would be useless. (Peter Singer wrote a pretty good essay on this before he became famous, which is online here: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/197301–.htm ).

    Personally I’d go further, and argue that moral scepticism actually implies a normless kind of utilitarianism. But I won’t do so here, since I’d like to leave this PC before Christmas.

    Hope to see you back at Felicifia…


  3. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Thanks much for commenting, Arepo. (Yes, I went back to felicifia.org to comment there.)

    We’ll get more into the political (moral vs. legal rights) in some future ‘casts; I don’t think we did it justice, and some what we did record for this episode was among the casualties of our initial botched recording. I agree (usually) that “moral rights” is not such a helpful term.

    I had originally hoped to do a whole Singer episode, but the other guys were to annoyed by him to permit that, so had to settle with tacking him on as a way to consider a couple of examples. Yes, Mill does defend considering animals in the principle of utility, but doesn’t go so far as to say this necessitates vegetarianism, so long as you treat your livestock well.

    I’ll see if I can bring your Mona Lisa/child example up during out Nietzsche recording (which will be happening in a couple of weeks).

    As for the rest, I’ll see if Wes or Seth wants to respond to your most awesome and detailed post.



  4. Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

    Wow — fantastic response. I wish I had more time to respond — Mark, I think you or Seth should respond on Singer, I don’t remember saying much about that that and I’m not sure if Arepo has us confused on some other issues as well. (i) Just a reminder here that the concept of rights can be incorporated int utilitarianism (as in Mill). (iii) I’m not sure much rests on whether we call it “happiness” or “preference satisfaction”; presumably enough of the latter gives me the former. (iv) Different conceptions of the good (I don’t see the equivocation on “good”): the problem is that we must assume a certain amount of consistency between people’s pursuits of “preference satisfaction.” Certainly we can aggregate it, but it’s not at all clear that we can average it. The utility may spread so unevenly that if we looked at one subsection of a society its utility would be very low, whereas in others it would be very high. And its being high in some segments may in fact depend on its being low in others. Our best average may not in fact be a value of 5/10 for everyone, but 1/10 for some and 9/10 for others. This problem is especially acute when it comes to conflicts over political systems and “culture” generally. The values that people see inscribed in their community are important to them: people are willing to fight wars and die for them. While I’m in fact a libertarian on this point, I think the communitarians have a point. On getting any conclusion you want: it’s not about false premises leading to false conclusions, it’s about whether utility gives us a conception of value or requires us to supply our own. If it’s the latter, then why not talk about maximizing the given value (“the good”) than about maximizing utility? Have we added anything of moral important (this response goes for (5) as well) by saying that fulfilling our obligations and observing others’ rights maximizes utility? Why not just say that the former is the chosen conception of value and forget about the latter. Anyway, I’m not taking sides here — it’s just a classical conflict between deontology and consequentialism that deserves discussion. Singer: the idea everyone would readily admit that suffering is bad simply leaves out the most difficult part of the argument: the idea that it’s bad for me is easy; extending that to the community leads to all ths sorts of problems that ethicists like to talk about. “[Mill’s] ideas they don’t really belong in a discussion of utilitarianism” — we’re discussing the texts first and foremost, so this might be better put “the ideas of contemporary utilitarianism don’t belong in a discussion of Mill” (although I doubt this. “Seth and Wes’s response is a reactionary one. In my experience, if people are determined that they’ll never accept a proposition no matter what evidence they hear for it…” — yikes; you’ll have to tell me which proposition I refused to accept and where the slam dunk evidence is (a rare thing in philosophy). But speaking of premises and conclusions, I think our disagreement would happen at the level of the former, not the latter. (3) — this example is both too general and too drastic. The conflict would have to be between “art in general” and the child, in which case the child gets it. But really, we’re not talking about a conflict between burning babies and the Mona Lisa, art in general, or funding the arts. We’re talking about the kind of society maximizing utility produces and whether it is necessarily a good one: whether maximizing “preference satisfcation” is good in which people are philistines and their preferences suck — leading to cultural decadence, cultural decline, and (as per Nietzsche) unfertile ground for artistic geniuses or ennoblement in general. This is a conservative or elitist argument and I’m not saying I endorse it; I just don’t think it’s easily dismissed. In fact, I am much more of a libertarian animal rights loving utility maximizing philistine consequentialist than my airing of these objections makes me seem. I just like to air the objections (and do homage to my now very weak countercurrent of elitism). Or rather, let’s just say I’m an agnostic on all of these issues.

  5. says

    Couple of follow-up comments…

    I’m sorry for anyone I might have (and probably did) get confused – I’m not American, so your voices sound homogenous to me!

    Also, I didn’t make my point very well on Singer… I really just wanted to criticise the lack of analysis in that part of the podcast. He writes with a much more logical structure than Mill, so it’s frustrating when someone’s main response is ‘he should just shut up’ (even facetiously). It reminds me of those infamous ‘atheists should sit down and shut up’ comments. I didn’t mean to imply that anyone (certainly not me) has ironclad evidence that following his advice is the best way to improve the world, I was just frustrated that no-one really assessed the evidence at all (whereas he and others who share his view have done so in book-length works), before dismissing it.

    If you do mention the Mona Lisa example in a podcast, please don’t attribute it to me. I can’t remember where I took it from (probably Singer, somewhere), but I can’t claim credit for it.

    Re Wes,

    i) suuuuuure… but only in Nozick’s ‘utilitarianism of rights’ sense (which I’m sure some people must accept tacitly at least, but I don’t know any), or in an instrumental sense – ie very alienable, and subject to being overridden. I suspect that’s not a view that many rights proponents would support.

    ‘we can aggregate it, but it’s not at all clear that we can average it’ – I’m not quite sure what you mean. My first response is that anything we can sum, we can provably average, because that’s a straightforward mathematical claim.

    If your complaint is that it’s inegalitarian, that’s true (although are you familiar with prioritarianism? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prioritarianism), and just as true of total utilitarianism – five people with 102 hedons apiece and five people with -1 each is better than ten people with 50 hedons each. Equality has a high instrumental value, since inequality tends to cause resentment and misery.

    But ultimately this boils back down to the intuition comments. If I find the view that we shouldn’t *necessarily* seek equality counterintuitive, fine, but it’s that intuition is orthogonal to my view that utilitarianism is, in some sense, correct.

    I don’t know why it would be better to talk of maximising ‘the good’ than maximising utility. Both seem equivalent to me. And you could theoretically plug in any variable, seek to maximise it, and call your view utilitarianism. In practice, few people choose anything besides happiness or preference satisfaction. As one of those who choose the former, I’m more than happy to talk simply of maximising happiness.

    ‘Have we added anything of moral important (this response goes for (5) as well) by saying that fulfilling our obligations and observing others’ rights maximizes utility?’ You’ve made an empirical (and IMO partially false) claim, rather than an assertion that ‘we should fulfil our obligations and observe others’ rights.’ I think that’s a big step in the right direction. You can now potentially do some sums to test it. They’ll be very rough, but sometimes the answers to particular questions are so clear that innaccuracies turn out not to matter much (see eg this paper http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html – though I do think the author goes overboard)

    Re ‘art in general’, that sounds suspiciously abstract to me. I’d want to know how much art we have to be talking about before the cumulative value somehow overtakes comparable numbers of people, and what effect causes it to do so.

    I’d also point out that once/if we solve world poverty, we’ll start to save huge amounts of resources on aid and millions more people will have enough spare time to pursue art and the like. So the expected number (and quality) of great works of art over the medium-long term surely raises if you invest now in eliminating poverty.

    (I’d prefer to avoid writing posts this long on here, since they’re too easy to lose and the format is limited – can I reinvite you to the forum if you want to discuss further?)

  6. Dan B says

    Hey guys. I listened to the episode on utilitarianism and I pretty much agree with your analysis, but I can see how there are going to be objections to the Singer “shut up” argument. That isn’t very polite, but somewhat understandable. lol. I am not into ethics in philosophy that much. I think utilitarianism in its different forms does provide us with some useful ideas in our considerations of ethical dilemmas, but personally don’t think any of the systems can definitely solve all ethical problems or calculate the right thing to do.

    Utility is one concept I might call on in some situation–it might be just one consideration–but in another situation it might not be appropriate and might not have that much weight. I am sure there are all sorts of objections to me using multiple theories like this, but that is what I do. I usually consider the consequences and my intentions and weigh things out depending on the situation. The answer is not always clear and may depend on the different circumstances. I don’t always get it right but I usually do my best to consider other people and treat myself and others with respect. I act in “good faith.”

    When I consider why I did something it usually comes down to how I want to see myself. Since I think of myself as a caring honest person, that is how I try to act. I think a lot of it comes down to the psychology and personality of the individual, not some objective standard or system. To me being honest and considerate of others is also more aesthetically pleasing. Being dishonest and inconsiderate of others is poor character, ugly.

    Since I care what kind of person I am and I was raised a certain way were I was taught to respect others, I tend to act ethically. For example, just this weekend while at a conference I found a thick bank envelope stuffed with cash in the men’s bathroom at the hotel. I didn’t count all of it but I flipped through and saw a few hundreds. It was left in one of the stalls on top of the toilet. I asked the other people and nobody else had recently used the stall. Nobody would have ever known if I would have kept that money. It is unlikely that they would put cameras over a toilet for some kind of hidden camera thing. But I was watching myself. I judge myself.

    I felt good as a side-effect when I turned in the money to the front desk and walked away. I was thinking what it would have been like if I had lost money and somebody else found it. I would hope whoever found it would turn it in so I could get it back. It seemed like the right thing to do because I was being considerate. That was consistent with my self image. I didn’t really think about the utilitarian reasons of maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain calculation or some rule for that situation. That is the way most of our everyday ethical decisions go. If it were some rare heavy life or death situation with time to think then there would be a lot more to it and I may never feel completely comfortable with the outcome. I think my judgement would consider many different factors depending on the situation. There are some ethical problems where I just don’t know the answer and kind of leave it unanswered or unsure.

    These philosophical ethical systems are useful because they get people thinking about ethics, which can help people make better decisions. I think by studying these theories you become a little more refined in your thinking. I read the arguments and agree with a lot of it but stop short of becoming a full believer in the whole system. Most of the arguments seem to say things that I tend to agree with a lot of the time. I guess I need to read more. As you can see, Ethics is not my area.

  7. Seth says

    [I’ve been occupied with work and vacation, so just now getting a chance to weigh in]

    With respect to Singer, I read his argument as something like this:

    1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter & medical care are bad.

    2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it.

    3. Do not take distance and proximity into account.

    I actually don’t disagree (too much) with #1 & #2. What I took issue with was premise #3. It isn’t clear to me that relationships, proximity, community, language, culture, etc. don’t play a role in determining our moral oblgations. At the very least you would have to tell me why I should care more about Somalia than Austin on the same issues/obligations.

    Also, I feel like Singer represents a kind of naive 80s global view – at least politically – when he says things like:

    Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block.

    That is just patently false and has been proven so over and over. The reality of corruption, theft, violence, etc. and the difficult political situations many ‘third world’ countries entertain render views like this simply ridiculous, to me.

    I have some additional thoughts on Mill/Bentham but can’t respond in detail to the comments above right now. I’ll stand by my view that Bentham was more focused legislation of morals and that getting into the details of the calculus might be useful in that context to a bunch of politicians and academics, but that a regular person really can’t use a structure like that to make every day moral decisions.

    Mill spends a significant time in his text defending Utilitarianism from various criticisms and again, I’ll stand by my reading that in many cases he is referring to cultural norms or common sense. Whether or not you disagree, if your doctrine appeals fundamentally to common sense or cultural norms, I question how much value it actually has as a doctrine.

    I’ll also say that I try to stay close to the text and I like to think I read generously, trying to respect the authors. Thanks for listening and participating!

  8. Sean P. says

    It strikes me that (and I am by no means a philosophy student, I should add) utilitarianism like all the ‘isms’ imperfectly creates a structure for applying ethics. However, I believe that when enacting a decision it can be a useful tool to inform a course of action. For example, in the health sphere there is a often competing demands for patients. Utilitarianistic practice is used to deny lifesaving treatment for one patient if to do so would increase the morbidity or mortality of others. This is a basic principle of health care delivery in extreme circumstances (disaster mass casualties..a busy day in the ER etc). So my point is that, yes, utilitarianism is a pretty futile exercise for day to day ethical decision making but there are circumstances where it is a useful tool in cases where one has to be, let’s say, dispassionate. I think most of my colleagues would use ethics in this way… not to be trapped in one particualr system or philosophical approach, but to use what is best or more appropriate from a variety of ‘dead white guys’ and apply it to the dilemma that faces them. BTW love the podcast…keep it up….the podcast that is.

  9. Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

    Thanks Sean. You raise an interesting point about ‘triage’ and medical ethics in general. The emergency situation case seems to present in some ways an ideal case for maximizing utility: the consequences are limited and obvious; the definition of utility clear; the structure of the quandary (X resources vs. Y needs); the repercussions for mistakes and failure mitigated.
    I ask you, though, whether what is happening is that the Doctors are practicing some form of utilitarianism, or whether they are applying rules specific to their discipline which has little to do with utility (happiness).
    Let’s assume that the overriding principle for Doctors (or EMTs) is to preserve life. So the emergency situation is an exercise in maximizing the number of lives saved. If the amount of time spent saving A will mean that B and C die (and vice versa), you spend your time on B & C and let A die. Net result is more lives saved.
    To begin with, this seems to rely on some concept of the sanctity of life. All lives are sacred, all lives are equal. This isn’t a bad thing, but there will be utilitarians that take issue with it. Additionally, there is nothing here about the quality of the lives saved. Suppose A would be fully recovered with no impairments, but both B & C will have serious ongoing physical issues or impairments. Is it still obvious that the trade off is worth it?
    There is no doubt that medical personnel in emergency situations are performing a type of calculus and I have the greatest admiration for what they do. I think that how they do it is probably much less burdened with theory and a broader view of general good than utilitarianism demands. They make very difficult, pragmatic choices based on situation exigencies guided by faith in the dignity of human life.

  10. Sean P. says

    Alright I’m having a second attempt at this…. I was reading Collapse by Jared Diamond last year and there was an extreme case of what appears to me to be Utilitarian practice. This is the justified infanticide case. I think we all agree that killing babies is not really a justified practice but Jared Diamond has a historical example of a South Pacific island which was so small that the population had to remain static or the population would experience famine and probable extinction. The solution was infanticide should the family grow too large.
    This is a prima facie case of murder and our response is of course abhorrence. However, what choice did the inhabitants of this island have? Assuming that they did not know the causality of sexual intercourse and pregnancy (and therefore practice abstention) they could not allow a third child to live without risking the entire next generation. So….. my point is that faced with the same situation all of us who practice some form of virtue ethics would switch to Utilitarian ethic. I guess what I’m saying is that the different ethical models, as described in the podcast seem absolutist… that is you’re a Utilitarian or a Kantian but why can’t you be both? Applied ethics surely is about justifying one’s response to each individual circumstance with a logical or rational process. Utilitarianism is not wrong…it’s just wrong if you apply it all the time. Virtue ethics is not wrong it’s just wrong if you apply it blindly all the time.

    The next step, I suppose, after making a rational and logical decision about an ethical dilemma is justifying it (which would indicate some sort of weighting or quantifying) and I don’t know if there is some system to do this.

    Anyway, I don’t know if I’m barking up the wrong tree about this; but my impression is that philosophy demands absolutism. I’m now interested in how the abstract process of logic can articulate with the ‘world’. For example, if it is contentious whether numbers ‘exist’ or have some type of Form ouside and above the world could one say the same about logic? Adding one apple to another to make two apples doesn’t necessarily infer the actual existence of the square root of negative one; therefore, does using logic in the abstract say anything about the world? I was thinking this when contemplating Hume – as an intuitive human being i of course reject the notion that the sun isn’t going to rise tomorrow and so I’m trying to construct arguments against this proposition (without the benefit of any formal philosophy training I might add!). I don’t know if these musings merely betray my absolute ignorance but I guess I’m trying to relate abstract thought to actual phenomena as they appear to me….

  11. David says

    First of all I want to say that I just discovered your show and I really enjoy it. Your episode on Kant was fantastic, I actually feel like I learned a bit from the Danto episode, and the Turing episode was well done as well.

    However, I couldn’t get past the first 30 minutes of this one – the questions you raised about utilitarianism (especially Benthem’s overly simplistic version) were completely valid, but the fact that no one could answer them was greatly disappointing. There are multiple, mature versions of utilitarianism that account for the basic objections raised upon first hearing about the ‘maximization of utility.’ Usually on the show (and this is why I’ve liked it so much so far) is that on every important at least one person raises an objection, but then there’s usually someone who can defend the position at hand. The fact that no one seemed to be able to defend utilitarianism at all was so irritating I couldn’t finish the episode.

    Does anyone defend it within the episode?

    • Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

      Hi David, thanks for the compliment. Regarding this episode, I thought Mark made some defenses, but I’m not sure; I certainly was down on it. Mark, do you remember your take during that episode?

      But I think you’re right — someone should be prepared to defend (and someone should be prepared to object — although I think in most episodes we have shortage of that). Generally we’re conducting more preparation on episodes of late — meaning we look at more mature positions and some secondary literature. There’s the question of the extent to which we simply stick to the text at hand and the extent to which we read outside that (and yet try to avoid bringing that into the conversation in a way that’s confusing to readers who haven’t boned up on all the same secondary literature).



    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      I think I defended it to some degree (though it’s been a while since I listened to that ep). I did not, however, read a bunch of secondary literature addressing the theoretical issues; we just read the Peter Singer bit that we talked about, which was applied, not arguing for a modern version of the statement of the formula. This would be nice, but I think the main point of what we do is engage with the primary texts and think for ourselves what direction an improvement might take (at least that’s generally my tack).

      Happiness, I think, is a naturalistic criteria that flows as an obvious good from our own experience. Nietzsche has an equally naturalistic objection against “the last man,” i.e. people whose needs are all fulfilled so that they sit in “happiness” and do nothing, but this can be countered by saying that human needs are complex, and that Nietzsche is right that we need challenge and risk, and even suffering when it’s meaningful, and all this goes into human happiness, which is not so idiosyncratic among individuals as Nietzsche might have us think. We also talk about rule utilitarianism, which is a response both to the impossibility of applying the calculation in real-time for every situation and to the charge that utilitarianism leads to doing horrific things because they benefit the majority, though I don’t think it completely counters that charge. Lastly, there’s the charge that util makes us ignore our personal responsibilities in favor of going out and helping the vastly less fortunate. Well, as Singer says, this is an apt charge to some degree: we should do much more for the poor; our duty is not just to our families or even just our fellow countrymen. Still, again rule utilitarianism can give us grounds to keeping our personal commitments to our families/community/etc. over abandoning them to go help in some poor country.

      So, I don’t know if that captures the most current secondary literature defenses of utilitarianism. If you’ve got some more, go ahead and post ’em. It’s been our hope that our listeners can chime in via this blog and correct our deficiencies.

  12. Laurence says

    Just listened to this episode, and I was pretty disappointed. You were barely charitable to Singer at all, and Wes and Seth seemed to give just a casual dismissal of his position. I’d suggest listening to the Philsophy Bites and Philosopher’s Zone episodes with him. I think he makes a compelling case, and I used to despise utilitarianism.

  13. Bob says

    You guys are great and I’m slowly working through your discussions and enjoying them greatly. However, did someone really say that America as a nation gave generously in terms of foreign aid? The foreign aid policy of the United States is one of the most deplorable things in politics. I’m guessing I misheard completely but if any of you actually believe that then you should have a look at the facts.

    Keep up the great work.

  14. David says

    I am preparing a much more detailed post on Utilitarianism as well as Peter Singer. For now I’d like to say, first, that I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard so far of your podcast, and think you’re generally all wonderfully articulate and often quite insightful. But (like other commenters) I was very let-down by this one, and your comments on Singer in particular, as well as somewhat angry. Singer has been called the most influential contemporary philosopher and is absolutely one of the best known among laymen, for his stance on euthanasia if nothing else (which he hasn’t been focusing on as much lately, thankfully).

    Furthermore, he has been called the father of animal rights and while I’m sure it’s not entirely deserved, my research suggests that Animal Liberation had a pretty damn big impact and plays a big role in the modern animal rights movement and is likely responsible to a great extent for the high degree of awareness about factory farming in American society. Also, as mentioned by the 1st (non-podcaster) poster, his arguments are very well structured and deserve and demand serious consideration, when approached philosophically (I’m okay with people dismissing them offhandedly in their personal life and decision making, although its a case-by-case thing). But to do this in philosophy is indefensible. You are only saved from judgment in my eyes because he was not the focus of the episode (I certainly think he deserves his own episode, though). In my opinion, Peter Singer has done more to promote ethical thought and action than possibly any other philosopher except Marx. He also is the only philosopher I know of to make a serious and significant effort to elaborate the consequences of Utilitarianism in a way that creates a substantial set of ethical guidelines for the individual.

    Nonetheless, I think his arguments are ripe for criticism from a practical standpoint, and I think Utilitarianism is a woefully inadequate (but certainly far from useless) theory. I will post my thought on this in detail hopefully tomorrow.

    Personally, I donated the majority of money I made washing dishes in high school (~$4500) to NothingButNets.com on the basis of ideas such as Singers, although I was already thinking along the same lines as him before I knew of his work. But I found his arguments very persuasive and I’m not honestly sure if I would have done it otherwise. I’ve definitely been influenced tremendously by his writing although, largely because of things I’ve learned about the way the world works, I no longer agree with most of his conclusions.

  15. Earl Baker says

    Just started with your series a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed this discussion of Utilitarianism last night on the drive home. Singer has annoyed me for a long time, but my daughter actually sent me a link to an article today that speaks directly to your discussion concerning Singer’s argument that we should all live like paupers and try to alleviate hunger around the world instead:

    Key point of the piece: “[A] recent study takes this skepticism to a whole new level, suggesting that food aid not only doesn’t work, but also can prolong the violent conflicts it’s meant to help resolve.”

  16. Matt Raley says

    First off, I love the podcast which I only recently discovered. Through your labor of love, you have caused a tremendous uptick in the “pleton” level of your listeners.

    In the off chance I can revive a dormant discussion, I wanted to chime in on the Singer famine relief argument from the utilitarianism episode. I wrote my thesis on this topic back in college and the morality of charity has fascinated me ever since, so I was very excited when I came across this episode. Personally, I think Singer asks way too much, but his argument makes clear that most of us probably should give more than we currently do. Myself included.

    As hilarious as it was to hear Seth say “Singer needs to just shut up!” (how great is it that I found a philosophy podcast that makes me laugh out loud), I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss Singer based on the contention that, due to corruption, contributions to some third world countries won’t reach the desired end as effectively as say doing charity at the local level. Corruption is certainly a problem in many places, but there are countless charity programs around the world, including close to home, that achieve efficient results. (Kudos to Seth for his nonprofit work, by the way.) And the famine targeted by many of those programs is much greater than any of us can satisfy through our individual efforts. So does that mean we have to keep giving to those programs until we are living just above the poverty line (like Singer claims to do)?

    I think a strong attack on Singer can be made by using an argument that sound pretty similar to Mills’ perfect and imperfect obligations, as Seth alluded to during the discussion. I think there are what I call soft and hard moral categories and Singer’s argument fails to account for this. Basically, I would argue that we are morally obligated in the traditional, “hard” sense of the word, to give our fair share to famine relief (however “fair share” may be calculated which is another difficult question). And there will be “soft” moral reasons to give more than your fair share, but failing to do so does not amount to a failure of a “hard” moral duty. In other words, it’s morally good or praiseworthy to give a little more than your fair share, and maybe even a little bad not to, but that slight moral shortcoming shouldn’t cause you to lose sleep at night.

    I tend to think of a moral categories in terms of a boo!/hoorah! approach. Satisfying a hard moral obligation isn’t morally praiseworthy, but not satisfying it is morally blameworthy. On the other hand, satisfying a soft moral obligation deserves moral praise and failing to do so merits (some) moral blame. Then there are supererogatory acts which are morally praiseworthy if performed, but it is not morally blameworthy if we don’t do them.

    Under Mill’s concept of perfect obligation, there is the idea that one person can demand compliance from another, at least morally. Intuitively, I’m reluctant to go so far as say that a famine victim has a moral right to demand that everyone give their fair share to famine relief. If I have a hard moral obligation to do something and I don’t do it, others can boo me all they want but I am not sure that they have a moral right to demand that I do it. Is this a justifiable distinction?

    Keep up the great work!

    Matt Raley

  17. Filipe says

    First of all, thanks for the freely available podcasts and texts guys. They’ve brought me great enjoyment.

    Second, I’ve been listening to your shows for a while now, and I also have to say I’m a little disappointed with this one. I like your style of colloquial conversation, so that’s not the issue – I laughed so much with Wes’ “go get me a hamburger” and I don’t care about “shut the fuck up”. It’s rather than you jumped to insult without serious considering the man’s honest and very thoughtful positions. From a philosophical point of view the serious problem is that your personal problems with Singer’s normative theories got the best out of you: you violated your own “we shall be rigorous in all that we say except [etc]” rule, in order to criticize him (I’m sure you could be entertaining without dismissing Singer’s positions so glibly).

    Third, keep up the interesting stuff.


  18. Ron says

    Since most people are religious by nature, people in a nominally non-religious society would show their piety by driving Priuses and/or caring about pyramid power, auras, “health”, “personal empowerment”, celebrity, etc.

    IOW, people will find something to worship, even if it’s not explicitly “God”.

  19. Profile photo of Chris C says

    Wow, I’m not a huge Singer follower but the disdain for him was pretty striking. So much so that I feel compelled to defend him. I think the last time I heard so many ad hominem fallacies in a single hour was during the presidential debates. I wouldn’t have expected that here. Wes’ hamburger comment seemed born out of nothing short of contempt at his ‘self-righteousness’.

    The claim that someone like Singer is self-righteous seems based out of the facts that:

    1. To some extent, he practices what he preaches. Perhaps not a perfect exemplar of his ideas, but certainly more-so than most. In practical terms, my understanding of his position is that this second sentence has a lot of weight to it: he wouldn’t expect everyone in the world to work solely for the benefit of others, but that there is a certain reasonable amount of altruism that can be asked of people, and that most people don’t come close to living up to that. To a certain extent, there is an understanding here that we must do what we can. Even if it will never satisfy an ideal, does that mean it’s not worth doing at all?

    But going back to the original point, the sad truth is that a lot of philosophy is left in the armchair. What good is doing philosophy at all if you don’t apply it to your life in some real way? In my experience, the people who practice ‘philosophy’ as a form of entertainment or intellectual exercise rather than a serious quest for guidance in how to live their lives – day by day – hold some level of disdain for those who actually put their ideas into practice.

    2. What he preaches is something that is largely selfless, and in my experience, selflessness is offensive to those who indulge in mostly selfish acts – a category that I might even put ‘armchair philosophy’ into. It takes effort to actually live out your ideals, and those who lack the motivation or willpower to do so often don’t feel kindly to those who follow through.

    I would also argue that self-righteousness implies a sort of retroactive justification of one’s actions – very much in the Freudian idea of the conscious mind being a narrator for unconscious impulses that are being played out. But it’s absurd to think that someone does and altruistic action, and THEN comes up with a system like Utilitarianism to explain why that action makes them better than someone else. A much more realistic scenario is that people understand – intuitively – that some things outweigh others. The pleasure I might derive from setting the Mona Lisa on fire is certainly nowhere near the level of anguish it would cause for many. In these cases, no calculation is necessary – it’s pretty easily understood. This kind of understanding has been happening since long before anybody had even conceived of ‘Utilitarianism’.

    The way the term ‘self-righteous’ comes off in this episode seems to be in its broadest sense, i.e. “the belief that what one is doing is right.” Well no shit. If you do something that you believe is wrong, you’d be hard pressed to get by in most systems of ethics. So, you’d have to say that anyone who makes ethical claims is self-righteous, unless they don’t act according to those claims, which leads us back to armchair philosophy and intellectual masturbation.

  20. says

    Hey Guys,

    Just started listening to the show and was really interested to hear this episode. I work as an Urban Planner in the Northeast of the United States and for us government types Mills (and Kant I guess it should be said. But Mills more.) is akin philosophical founding father. The treatment here was none too kind, though a lot of fun. I felt like there were a number of logical inconsistencies but I see that most of my issues have been covered in some of the previous notes. I guess there are two points to which I would want to add.

    First, the historical perspective of the contributions of Bentham and Mills in terms of public policy. These works gave a language for decision-making to use that is still part and parcel of politics. It is so deeply ingrained that I wonder if a fair amount of you guys’ not seeing the point of their statements did not come from the amount that this has completely saturated into modern culture. Previous works were either bound up in religion (Vitoria), too generally philosophical (Hume, Descartes), or too nihilistically interested in power (Machiavelli). Mills and Bentham articulated a system where the possession and use of power was neither anathema nor an end in itself. This was particularly important as statecraft was in the process of moving from a Justinian precept identifying the sovereign with order and demanding order at all costs (an idea similar to that expressed by Hume. Justinian’s theorists of course also couched this concept in divine right.) to a political system based on a collective excercise of sovereignty. While the social contract theorists gave the ideas that began to justify this shift, the question of how to ethically legislate under such a system remained open. Part and parcel of such a shift was attempting to define what the state could reasonably demand from its citizens. Conceptions that identified morality as concurrent with legality were already being articulated, but were unsatisfying as they would seem to ultimately justify extreme materialism and its decoupling of punishment from crime (ie, you are speeding, you threaten the state with chaos, you will die in a ditch as a lesson to the others). At the same time conceptions that identified morality with god were no longer really permissible as Europe began to assess the continued fallout of the 30 Years War. So again, Mills and Bentham’s utilitarianism allowed the state to demand compliance with laws based on social responsibility while grounding punishments for infractions on the utility the corrective action would create.

    I get that this is not a historical philosophy podcast (have you listened to Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy? I think its pretty good.), and that someone who opened a feild may not end up being the best practitioner of it, but Mills is still used directly to explain political ethics, in a way that, say, Descarte is not still used to explain the Cartesian scientific method.

    My second big point is really just an example to explain the first. I work in a state that, like many, is threatened by changing sea levels. It may not seem like an imminent threat given the pace of the change but when we build or repair a road or a bridge it is an asset paid for by money we (indirectly) coerced out of the population. In return, the population is going to get an asset that will serve them over a life expectancy of anywhere from 25 to 100 years, depending on what it is. So if we repair a road in an area that is going to be under water in 20 years that is a huge waste of resources. We could do things like building sea walls or relocating roads to make sure the money isn’t wasted, but then that is expensive and we do not have infinite money.

    So we set priorities. We figure out what roads are going to be impacted by sea level rise, try to figure out when, and then start discussing the road’s utility. How busy is the road? Is it the only road serving a community? How immanent is the impact? How severe is the impact? What kind of population is being impacted? These are measurable things. We assign each of these indicators a weight based on how important they are and score the affected roads, and arrive at our priority list.

    I hope the Millsian basis of this is clear as I think it touches on a lot of the points you guys were discussing. We are determining roads that we will either continue to repair, possibly improve, or possibly abandon altogether. People’s lives are going to be directly impacted, their homes (a significant portion of many individuals’ life savings) may end up valueless as they can only be reached by boat. On the other hand it does no one any good if the entire transportation infrastructure crumbles because we spent all our money trying to build a sea wall around the cul-de-sac that goes to some guy’s beach cottage. So we have to value the system above any individual, in other words the greatest good for the greatest number. To do this we assign weight based on what we think is more important to create a score. Is the score arbitrary? Well, yes and no. The weights we assign are not based in some universal truth or in any kind of solid math. On the other hand we are skilled professionals with years of educational and professional experience, and the process is systematic and basically impartial, at least in the sence that we aren’t trying to make sure our property gets special treatment.

    This is a pretty limited and possibly for your tastes overly practical example, but I tend to think of Mills and Bentham as providing a logical decision-making framework, providing ethical machinery if you will. This may not be as immediately compelling as metaphysical discussions of what good or happiness actually mean, but having a framework for the application of such concepts, and a way to frame public discussions, can itself be pretty radical. After all Mills was a huge advocate for women’s sufferage in an age when that was not the cultural norm. The systematic application of basic principals is often the only thing needed to change cultural norms.

  21. Andrew Davies says

    First post… a bit nervous. Love the podcast, but just started listening last month.

    I agree with others who found the “unmeasurable” criticisms a bit thin. There are plenty of reasonable and very useful measures of human good. One of my favorites is Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) or a related metric, Cost per Disability Adjusted Life Year ($/DALY). These obviously don’t resolve “apple and orange” issues of art versus life. When we do agree on a defined value, however, they can provide an excellent way to show how pathetically inefficiently we tend to spend our resources.

    One example is breast cancer. It is a relatively treatable and non-deadly cancer compared to some others, yet it receives an inordinate amount of funding compared to cancers whose funds save significantly more life for each dollar spent. Another example is canned food drives, which are far less effective at feeding the hungry than direct donations which allow much more efficient food-buying choices.

    Why don’t we make these changes? An example from my wife’s women’s group at our church may illustrate. They had an activity sewing menstrual pads for young women in developing countries. The woman showing them about it gave an emotional presentation of the girls who couldn’t go to school when menstruating. Naturally, there were plenty of tears in the room. My wife spoke up and tried to suggest that spending time sewing like this may may be less effective than (1) sending money to localized companies that make them more efficiently, or (2) buying menstrual cups which could cost less for a more reusable product that doesn’t require as much maintenance or water. The women were not impressed. My wife was just being a buzz-kill.

    My takeaway from this and other experiences is that we are far more interested in feeling like we’re saving lives and being charitable than in actually saving lives or helping. We want the warm fuzzy, and without it we aren’t as likely to give. Breast cancer gets a lot more money because it is — for lack of a better word — a sexy cause. It pulls at our heartstrings because women have a strong sense of self wrapped up in their breasts. Men like them too, so they tend to pay attention. Colons, pancreases, and prostates are just gross.

    This is also why my insurance is required by law to pay for post-mastectomy boobs, but not for plastic surgery to fix my son’s cleft which affects how he looks to the world, how well he eats and breathes, and his speech. Frankly, while I’m clearly not objective, I don’t see why we don’t tell the lady to pad the bra or buy her own fake boobs, but instead fix a kid’s face. It sounds heartless and cruel to say it, which is exactly why nobody does.

    And finally, scarcity. This economic issues kept coming up, but was never really addressed from an economics perspective. The only reason we have these discussions of utility is because we have limited time, money, energy, life, food, and attention spans. Everything is scarce.

    I’m an overweight accountant and I.T. professional with a wife, 5 kids, a mortgage, a minivan, and a CNG car for commuting. (My wife also has a cat, which I tolerate because it was a prerequisite of marriage). You’d better believe I know about scarcity on many levels. To me, economics gives us many normative answers and tools. Principles like marginal analysis, sunk costs, and return on investment (ROI) give us ways of thinking, not just ways of making money.

    For example, sunk costs teaches me that what you’ve spent on something in the past doesn’t matter. It’s only value is its worth today and its likely value in the future. The women in the church group felt “invested” emotionally, so they didn’t want to let go of their cause, in spite of my wife’s arguments. My kids feel cheated on a regular basis when they don’t get as much as their siblings or friends, in spite of my constant lecturing that I will never care about what is Fair (the “F” word in our home), only about what is Helpful and Kind. Being Mormons living in Utah means they hardly ever hear the other “F” word. We are Democrats, though, which I compare to being a Southern Baptist gay person living in Mississippi.

    I guess that’s enough for a first post. By the way, I also started out in English, then Philosophy, then Political Science. But I ended up finishing a degree in accounting since that’s what I was doing for a living… and my wife was pregnant with our first child. That damned scarcity does tend to be a big incentive. (sorry for the potty mouth)


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