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PHL 201
David Rondel

January 30 , 2012 “The principle of Charity”  something I should have mentioned at the start… Utilitarianism and Consequentialism: Everything we do has consequences; every act leaves the world in some ways different from before. Some of these consequences are unimportant. Whether you put your right sock on before your left rearranges the molecules in the air a little differently than otherwise, but matters little beyond that. Some actions have consequences that are much more significant. But, if all that we do has consequences, this suggests a simple and compelling approach to acting morally. Why not simply do what has the best consequences? How can that be improved on? Consequentialism, in short, is the view that it cannot be improved on. Stated plainly: consequentialism is the view that acting morally means acting so as to produce the best outcomes. Consequentialism can take many forms; Utilitarianism being a famous species within the genus. Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham argued that there is one ultimate moral principle, namely, the Principle of Utility. This principle requires us always to choose whatever action or social policy would have the best consequences for everyone concerned. “By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question…” (Bentham) 1 All of this may seem trivial and platitudinous, but consider what this picture of morality leaves out: (1)Gone are the references to God or to abstract moral rules “written in the heavens”. (2)Morality is no longer to be understood as faithfulness to some divinely given code or some inflexible set of rules. (3)The point of morality according to utilitarians is the “happiness of beings in this world, and nothing more; and we are permitted  even required  to do whatever is necessary to promote that happiness. That, in its time, was a revolutionary idea. Utilitarianism is one attempt to give morality a purely secular foundation. Bentham and Mill were both Atheists – Bentham more raucously than Mill – and both intended utilitarianism as a moral principle governing individuals’ actions, but also, as a principle that could be put in the service of social policy, law, and politics. “auto-icon” The crux of utilitarianism is: We should judge actions right or wrong depending on whether they cause more happiness or unhappiness. As Mill noted – paying tribute to Aristotle’s old idea : “The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable to that end.” 2 And an important condition: Each person’s happiness must be counted equally in utilitarian reasoning! “The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” (Mill, Utilitarianism) This would forbid any partiality to one’s family or friends. It requires that we assign each person’s utility – your mother’s and a perfect stranger’s – equal weight. Can we do this? Is it possible? Does this count for or against Utilitarianism in your view? *This includes non-human animals – insofar as they are capable of suffering. As Bentham wrote: “The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by then hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin….are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate….Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month…..The question is not Can they Reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer? 3 What do you find attractive about this view? 2 Theories of Utilitarianism: Act and Rule AU = An act is right if and only if it produces at least as great a balance of good over bad in its consequences for all people affected as any other act available to the agent. Gladitorial contests, Organ Harvesting, and Rights….. What about the following case? “Suppose that Jones has suffered an accident in the transmitter room of a television station. Electrical equipment has fallen on his arm, and we cannot rescue him without turning off the transmitter for fifteen minutes. A World Cup match is in progress, watched by many people, and it will not be over for an hour. Jones’s injury will not get any worse if we wait, but his hand has been mashed and he is receiving extremely painful electrical shocks. Should we rescue him now or wait until the match is over? Does the right thing to do depend on how many people are watching – whether it is one million or five million or a hundred million?” (T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe To Each Other, p. 235) RU = An act is right if it accords with a rule the general following of which produces as great a balance of good over bad for all people affected as any alternative rule. -In other words, the question is: what rules should we follow if happiness is to be maximized? Individual acts are then judged right or wrong according to whether they are acceptable or unacceptable by these rules. 4 First, note that RU isn’t strictly speaking a consequentialist ethics. It is no longer solely the consequences of the act itself that determine its rightness or wrongness. If this act of telling a lie would have better consequences than telling the truth, but I don’t tell the lie because following the rule: “Do not tell lies” has good consequences, then it is the rule – not the action’s consequences- that are appealed to. Are AU and RU distinct or equivalent? A serious problem arises for RU when we ask whether its rules have any exceptions? What about the rule” “Don’t tell a lie”? (1)If the proponent of RU says that, yes, there are sometimes exceptions, then RU collapses back into AU – since we are (after all) focusing on specific acts rather than rules per se. (2)If the proponent of RU says that there are never exceptions, then it seems that the utilitarian’s original concern for promoting welfare [happiness for the greatest number of people] has been replaced by irrational ‘rule worship.’ Problems for Utilitarianism in General: (1) How deep do consequences go? Does Utilitarianism require omniscience? The Case of My Uncle Riding in a Jeep….. A true story… My dad’s brother (Raffi) was riding in a jeep in Israel during the summer of 1974. The jeep he was riding in was a convertible, with a removable hard top. There had been rain in the forecast when he left for his drive through the dessert and so the 5 top was on. But on a break for lunch, a few hours into their journey, my uncle and his friend decided to take the top off the jeep. A couple of hours later, Raffi accidentally drove the jeep off a steep cliff. Fortunately, both he and his friend escaped with their lives. As the jeep started tumbling down the cliff, both men were able to free themselves from their seatbelts and escape through the now open top of the jeep. Both men were bruised and mildly injured, but amazingly, neither were hurt in any more serious way. In the summer of 1976 (two years after the accident) my father, now a full and proud Canadian citizen, flew to Israel for a visit. The purpose of the visit, above all, was to spend time with his brother. My uncle was working and living on the farming commune because he had started dating a woman, Sarah, who was born and grew up there. While there, my dad came across a young Belgian woman volunteer. Who, to make a long story short, is my mother. Now the lesson about consequences is this: My uncle’s seemingly routine decision to remove the hard-top from the jeep had tremendous consequences  at least for me! Had Raffi and his friend said, “Taking the top down is too big a hassle; let’s just leave it up and continue our trip.” I would
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