Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Utilitarianism and other moral philosophies

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on utilitarianism on the Rust Belt Philosophy blog. The discussion got a bit esoteric, and, not being an academic, I got left behind. Nevertheless, there are some things that came out of it which I thought worth jotting down. Very early in the history of this blog, I wrote an ambitious and lengthy essay called Human Nature (Nov. 2007) where John Stuart Mill gets a mention but the context was too broad to elaborate on the subject of utilitarianism specifically.

Also in the latest Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Philosophy Now, where the theme is Kant & Co, there is a discussion on the famous rail trolley moral dilemma, which is often given as a classic utilitarian problem. I need to say up front that I don’t call myself a utilitarian but I can see merits in the principle. As someone suggests, in the same issue of Philosophy Now, whilst discussing Kant’s moral philosophy, one shouldn’t narrow one’s options when it comes to assessing moral issues. In fact, I’m not sure that any moral principle can be used on its own, but I’ll introduce other moral principles as I progress.

One of the main points that everyone seemed to agree on, both at Rust Belt Philosophy and in Philosophy Now, is that moral decisions need to be considered on a case by case basis and you can’t just feed a set of parameters into a computer and come up with an answer. In other words, there is not a set of rules that you can apply for specific situations like an algorithm. This is one of the fundamental conceptual differences that separates science from humanities, because, in science, one uses algorithms, in the form of equations, quite a lot. Even, in biological sciences, there are categories and generic mechanisms that make biology predictable in a way that psychology and morality isn’t and probably never will be. In fact, morality owes a lot to psychology, and even Mill understood that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Utilitarian philosophy, as espoused by Mill in particular, is generally presented as the ‘greatest happiness’ principle, and on Rust Belt Philosophy, the term ‘maximising well-being’ was used, which was defined as ‘the opposite of suffering’. One of the points I made is that a lot depends on how one employs this principle, because, on face value, it appears that the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number of people’ means that the majority should always gain at the expense of the minority, which is why we have political parties and why we vote for them. Using some common contentious moral issues, found on blogs, in news media and in political rhetoric, I challenged this prevailing view.

I will quote directly from the comment I left on Eli’s blog:

If you look at real world, moral issues that occupy blogs, politics and media, they are invariably portrayed as being about one person’s rights, or one group’s rights, versus another’s. For example: the rights of gays to marry over the rights of straights to maintain the sanctity of marriage; the rights of an unborn child over the rights of its mother; the rights of refugees over the rights of people to maintain control of their borders; and the rights of Palestinians over the rights of Israelis.

If one takes the ‘greatest happiness’ principle or the ‘maximising well-being’ principle, then you might argue that the majority wins and the minority loses. However, I disagree.

If you increase the well-being of gays by allowing them to marry, it has no effect on the well-being of heterosexuals – does not affect them at all.

By increasing the well-being of refugees, it has no immediate effect on the well-being of the current inhabitants, and history shows that it leads to the increased well-being of everyone in the long term (this is a specific, currently contentious issue in Oz).

The well-being of an unborn child is intimately entwined with the well-being of its mother, so you can’t consider the well-being of one without considering the well-being of the other. Anyone who attempts to do this is attempting to take over the mother’s role, which is impossible.

The well-being of Palestinians and the well-being of Israelis should be able to be resolved through compromise, or so one would think. However, there is a serious imbalance in this case, and addressing that imbalance would go a long way to increasing the well-being of both parties.

These arguments, not surprisingly, reflect my own personal views on these matters, and there are contrary arguments, obviously, otherwise these topics wouldn’t be contentious.

In a dialogue with another contributor on the blog, March Hare, I made the following point:

But there is another, more fundamental point here that I think has been lost. Most people see moral issues like a football match, whereby one person’s gain can only happen at another person’s lost. I think as long as we have that attitude then progress on many issues: moral, political and economical; will stagnate. In a relationship, one rarely gains pleasure at the expense of their partner’s misery. Usually, either both parties are happy or both are miserable. When you have conflict the same equation applies. We should be looking at ways that both parties’ well-being is increased. And, in many cases, one party can increase their well-being without affecting the other party; gay marriage being a case in point. Yes, it may affect some fundamentalists’ sensibilities but it doesn’t affect their own well-being.

March Hare took exception to my point that gay marriage has no effect on the lives of those who oppose it, and we had a protracted discussion over this. March Hare does not oppose gay marriage, by the way, he just believed that my argument was flawed. In particular, he argued that the opponents of gay marriage would be harmed by the law because it affects them psychologically.

To quote him: ‘…they think their way of life is being attacked, they think their country is leaving them, they fear for their future and their children's, they fear for the safety of their children and the moral well being of all. They may even fear god's vengeance on the country.’

And he’s right, because even though the law would have no effect on their own lives it would affect their phobias, as he so aptly describes them. However, if we passed a law, or maintained a law, that validated their phobias then that would create even more harm, though not to them, but to gays, in the way of persecution and vilification, which we’ve witnessed in the past. So capitulating to these phobias would actually create more harm and my utilitarian argument still stands, and, in fact, stands even stronger.

But this issue about ‘rights’ raises another principle, which is ‘universality’ and is taken up by Peter Rickman in Philosophy Now when he discusses Kant’s moral philosophy. Gay marriage is a case in point, where people are asking for a universality of an existing law, that currently applies to heterosexuals, to apply to same-sex couples. If one accepts same-sex relationships as both legal and psychologically valid (as they are in most Western societies), it’s very hard to deny them the same rights as opposite-sex couples, and I’ll return to this specific issue later.

But universality is tied to reciprocity which is tied to empathy: what’s good enough for you is good enough for everyone else. Reciprocity is most famously associated with Confucius, and 500 years later, Jesus, and is often called the golden rule. Confucius purportedly presented it in the negative: ‘Don’t do to others, what you wouldn’t want done to yourself’; which I think has more emotional weight. It emphasises the negation of harm rather than the giving of charity. It also emphasises the need for empathy – we are less likely to harm someone or persecute them or vilify them if we can see ourselves standing in their shoes. I’ve written elsewhere on the importance of art, and storytelling in particular, in promoting empathy. This is very much a humanist philosophy, and Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was in fact the first humanist philosopher (see my post on Jesus’ philosophy, Jan. 2010) though I would argue that both Confucius and Socrates predate Christ by 4 to 5 centuries as more likely contenders.

In an interview in New Scientist (13 April 2011), Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the word evil, should be replaced with the term ‘lack of empathy’ or something similar. I’ve written on this topic myself (refer Evil, Oct. 2007) because it requires the denial of empathy to perform atrocities, yet we hear about it all the time. We have to deny someone their basic humanity in order to treat them inhumanely yet we are surprisingly masterful at it. For this reason, I argue that empathy has to be a key component in any moral philosophy. In fact, I argue that morality cannot be separated from psychology, and I believe Mill understood this as well, albeit in a different context.

Mill, by his own admission, wanted to develop a social science which he called psychology. The term, social norm, had not been invented in Mill’s time, but he certainly understood the concept. In particular, Mill understood that conscience is largely a product of social norms and not some inner voice provided by God.

Everyone believes they know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, intrinsically, and we often say, ‘You know it’s right,’ as if it’s undeniable, carved in stone. But, when people contemplate if something is right or wrong, they invariably and subconsciously reference their social norms. Social norms have been driving moral behaviour through all societies and all ages. Mill understood that social norms could be changed and that they didn’t have to be governed by the Church. And this brings me back to the discussion on gay marriage because it’s an example of a social norm in progress. Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed enormously in the last half century in Western societies, despite opposition from sectors of the Church (to this day), to the extent that it’s no longer considered criminal nor a mental health issue in mainstream society. It’s really only a small step to legalising gay marriage, but one that politicians are reluctant to take. Retired Australian High Court judge, Michael Kirby, in a recent interview, said that it’s really a generational issue because he believes that young people already don’t have an issue with it.

So morality, as it’s practiced, is intrinsically related to social norms. What was considered radical in the past becomes the status quo in the present. Abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage seem so last millennium, yet they were contended more vociferously than gay marriage is today. One would like to think that we are making progress at a societal level, but only future generations will let us know.


The Atheist Missionary said...

We are definitely making progress. This is the theme of Steven Pinker's new book The Better Angels of our Nature: I bought it as soon as I heard Peter Singer had positively reviewed it but I haven't read it yet. Need to get through Derek Parfit's 2 volume On What Matters first. So much to read ... so litle time.

Paul P. Mealing said...


Yes, I think you're right.

I have to admit I haven't read any of Pinker except in interviews and magazine articles. One of the world's better thinkers.

Regards, Paul.