Tag Archives: moral philosophy

Utilitarianism vs. Common Sense

Utilitarianism is a simple ethical theory that a lot of people fail to understand.  The reason for the confusions appears to result from approaching the philosophy either too broadly, or too narrowly.  Thus, I think its useful to take a look at the core points of utilitarianism, in order to get a clear analysis.

In simplest terms, utilitarianism is the ethical theory that actions are to be judged right and wrong solely by virtue of their consequences, and right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness.  With everyone’s collective happiness being counted as equally important.

The main line of objections one hears deals with the claim the utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense.  An argument that best illustrates this line of reasoning is known as the McCloskey Case.  This case uses a hypothetical example to illustrate its point:  Suppose that a utilitarian finds himself in an area that has a great deal of racial strife.  Furthermore, suppose that during his stay there, a black man rapes a white woman, causing a violent backlash to ensue against the black community in search of the culprit.  Now, if the utilitarian has the option of testifying against a particular black man (any black man), who happens to be innocent, in order to end the racist backlash and prevent further violence against other innocent people, by the reasoning of utilitarian standards he would be required to allow the conviction of the innocent man to produce a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness.  Here, the McCloskey case attempts to show how doing something that would otherwise be considered morally wrong, is acceptable by the principle of utility, as long as the good consequences that result outweigh the bad (such as bearing false witness against one innocent man to prevent the death of dozens of innocent men).  However, common sense dictates that it is still wrong to let an innocent man die on the grounds that it conflicts with our ideal of justice, which requires us to treat people fairly and in accordance to the merits of the particular situation.  Thus, as an ethical theory that places the demand for utility above the demand for justice, utilitarianism cannot be right as it conflicts with our moral common sense.

A related (less dire) objection against utilitarianism is based on what one might call backward-looking reasoning.  Here, you’re asked to imagine a scenario where you promised a friend you’d meetup with him later in the day, but as you prepare to leave you remember that you could instead spent the time reviewing your school work for the upcoming test.  By utilitarian standards, it is argued, you are justified in staying home and breaking your promise, because the consequences of you getting a better grade outweigh the irritation your friend might feel for being stood up.  Once again, the case can be made that this conflicts with our moral common sense, as most people would want to affirm that your obligations to keeping a promise are not something that can be so easily escaped just for a small gain in utility.  The argument maintains that because utilitarianism places such exclusive concern on the consequences our actions will have, it limits out attention only on future results.  But, normally, most people think that past considerations are also important, like keeping a promise to a friend.  Thus, utilitarianism seems to be faulty, because it excludes backward-looking considerations.

These objections have prompted utilitarians to respond with several rebuttals in defense of their ethical theory.  The first line of defense denies that utilitarians conflicts with moral common sense at all, as the examples given don’t sufficiently discredit utilitarianism because one could easily argue that acts such as bearing false witness (per the first example above) and breaking promises to friends (per the second example) don’t result in good consequences.  Thus, these acts would not be done or endorsed by utilitarians.  Lying under oath can get you in trouble with the authorities, and delay the capture of the guilty culprit.  Not to mention, broken promises lead to broken friendships.  Merely because one thinks that a particular action will have the best result, it is not possible to be completely certain, and since experience shows the contrary, utilitarians would not condone such behavior.  The best response against these utilitarian defenses is that it’s fundamentally weak, as it assumes that utilitarianism and moral common sense must be compatible because morally right decisions always yield good consequences.  But it is reasonable to assume that in at least some cases it is possible to achieve a good result by something moral common sense condemns.  Therefore, attempts to reconcile utilitarianism with moral common sense fails on principle.

A much better rebuttal made against the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense is for utilitarians to just bite the bullet, and say, “Yeah, it does.  So what?”  After all, there is nothing inherent in the notion that a matter which follows in line with our common sense is necessarily correct.  Common sense would also tell us that the sun moves across the sky, as was once believed, but we now know to be false.  The impression that the earth is flat and stationary can also be defended rather easily just by appealing to common sense, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the planet is spherical and rotating on an axis as we speak.

As to the qualifier concerning moral common sense, a similar approach can be made.  For centuries, white people in American held it as a point of moral common sense that they were superior to other races.  Does appealing to common sense make them right?  What about a sexist male, whose moral common sense tells him that his misogyny is justified by the superiority of men over women?  These are not hypothetical examples; people like this actually do exist, and they do appeal to their moral common sense to vindicate prejudices the rest of us repudiate as absurdly wrong.  So, a utilitarian could easily argue that in certain circumstances it is quite appropriate (even necessary) to question whether it is our moral common sense that needs to be discarded in favor of utility.

The Impact of Moral Prohibition

People have a tendency to define morality strictly by altruistic terms, focusing on empathy and compassion in regard to the moral relationships we share with others.  But, to me, this is a very myopic view on moral values, which ignores the fact that human beings do not seek to simply elevate particular positive attributes we consider to be moral, we also seek to shape the moral compass of others to align with our own image of what is to be deemed good and bad.  The implementation of prohibition and imposition are inseparable from our species’ moral practices.  It is not enough for us to hold to a particular moral standard, others must recognize the superiority of our personal values, too, and thereafter adopt it as their own standard, or face some degree of punishment (either in this life, or an ascribed next one).  Morals built around human sexuality are the clearest example of the prohibitory nature of human values.

Take, for example, homosexuality.  It would be one of the gravest of understatements to say that, historically, we heterosexuals care about the sexual practices of gay individuals (we are apparently absolutely obsessed with it!).  Even though, technically, it has no binding affect on us, we have convinced ourselves through various moral inferences that somehow the sexuality of gay men and women is of the utmost priority to maintaining our own sexual “purity.”  Why?  Because it conflicts with the moral standard we have accepted, and, therefore, it is seen as a challenge to our values.  Many self-appointed moralists will shriek for hours on end about the perversity of homosexuality, and the need to “cleanse” it out of human consciousness, lest we want to witness every moral framework of society crumble before our very eyes.  Employing roundabout arguments that hold no real practical application to morality:

“Homosexuality is clearly immoral.”

“Why?”

“Because human sexual anatomy has clearly made opposite genders sexually compatible for the sake of reproduction.  To do otherwise would be unnatural.”

“Even if we concede to the first part, how does that make homosexuality unnatural and/or immoral.”

“Well, if the point of sex is to reproduce, sexual relation that negates this will lead to less reproduction among the species, making it unnatural; thus, it poses a survival risk to humanity, which makes it immoral.

“Homosexual relations are not novel, but extend back to antiquity, and across the animal kingdom (including other members of our Great Ape family), and it has caused no detriment to human survival.  In addition, on a planet that houses now 7 billion members of the human species, the greater threat to human health is increased overpopulation, not underpopulation.  Furthermore, by your standard of what is unnatural and immoral, the fact that I wear glasses to correct my naturally weak eyesight is not natural, either.  Would you, therefore, conclude that wearing glasses is immoral, because it is also unnatural?”

“No, because wearing glasses has no adverse affect on human survival.”

“Sure it does.  If my myopia is genetic, then my children can inherit the adverse trait, contributing to its spread into the greater human population.  One could argue that good eyesight can be quite salient to the survival of humanity.  Thus, for us near-sighted individuals to procreate, and pass on our poor vision, is a negation of something that is vital to human survival; hence, by your logic, it is immoral.  Not only that, but the fact that we wear glasses is itself immoral, since it is ‘unnatural’ to begin with.”

“Having poor vision is hardly crippling anymore in today’s age, and wearing glasses is not immoral since you did not choose to be near-sighted.”

“Worrying about human procreation is also redundant in a world inhabited by 7 billion people.  And by what measure did gay people choose to be gay, and how does this relate to morality?”

“You can choose who you have sex with.”

“But you can’t choose who you’re attracted to.”

“No.”

“And is there not a direct line between who you’re attracted to and who you want to have sex with?”

“Yes.”

“So, how is being gay a choice?”

“Look, I’m not saying that being attracted to someone of the same sex is itself immoral, just that to engage in homosexual relations is not a natural expression of human sexuality.”

“My disagreement with you on the natural vs unnatural part is irrelevant in this discussion, since my greater issue lies with how you arrive at the conclusion that having gay sex is immoral.”

“It is simply my belief that it is so.”

“How does your personal belief and preference translate to a universal moral framework?”

“Well, I didn’t say it was universal.”

“But you didn’t qualify it as subjective, either.  Meaning that you see your moral values as the ideal standard for others to follow.”

“Yes, I think ideally people shouldn’t be having sex with the same gender.  You obviously disagree.”

“Again, my disagreement is irrelevant.  I’m question the part in which you are trying to overextend your personal preferences to human morality.  I would even go further to say that even if homosexuality did somehow cause some adverse affects on our current social conduct, you still have not demonstrated that it is by definition immoral, rather than simply undesirable to the current societal structure we happen to reside in.”

“Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

“I don’t agree with that.”

If such arguments seem lackluster, it’s because they are.  I deliberately chose to discuss the morality of homosexuality because it is (at least, here in the American South) the primary example of how people tend to blur the distinction between what they might consider to be personally displeasing and what is morally wrong.  For the sake of complete disclosure, the above scenario is one I know too well, since it was only a few years back that I was (much to my present shame) openly engaging in circular reasoning similar to the hypothetical person above [though my former homophobic stance didn’t rest on morality, as much as my idiotic cultural indoctrination that heterosexuality was the more normal mode of sexual expression, maintained through the stubborn fervor of adolescent arrogance]; realizing my error in thinking was only hard for as long as I bothered to construct faulty premises to support a prejudiced conclusion.  Once this was pointed out to me, I had no choice but to tuck my tail between my legs and admit that my stance rested on nothing more but my acceptance of the mores of my cultural upbringing, and since I had in childhood never bothered to accept the prevalent values of my surroundings, it was downright baseless to continue upholding this one.

Much of what we deem moral is determined by both internal preferences, and external influences.  It is also within our nature, as humans, to consider our personal moral preferences alone as insufficient standards on which to judge the actions of others, thus we are forced to create a greater authority for the origin of our moral values than ourselves, because we must convince others of the superiority in our way of thinking.  In that, we profess not to be arbitrarily determining what is right and wrong, good and evil, but are merely vassals of a higher virtue that deep down everyone innately recognizes.  Until, of course, we change our minds about something, then our new stance totally becomes the new higher virtue that everyone recognizes (no matter if it completely contradicts the innate virtue we were previously sure was the moral standard).  We can’t just empathize through altruistic gestures, we must also prohibit that which is dangerous to our moral framework.  Otherwise, how is it to reign supreme?