Why I Am Not a Utilitarian
Utilitarianism is a widely despised, denigrated and misunderstood moral theory.
Kant himself described it as a morality fit only for English shopkeepers. (Kant had much loftier aspirations of entering his own “noumenal” world.)
The adjective “utilitarian” now has negative connotations like “Machiavellian”. It is associated with “the end justifies the means” or using people as a mere means or failing to respect human dignity, etc.
For example, consider the following negative uses of “utilitarian.”
“Don’t be so utilitarian.”
“That is a really utilitarian way to think about it.”
To say someone is behaving in a utilitarian manner is to say something derogatory about their behaviour.
When Jeremy Bentham introduced utilitarianism in the 1700s, it was a radical, revisionary and welcome new moral theory. Its core was human equality: each is to count for one and none for more than one. Until that point, princes counted for more than paupers. But utilitarians such as Bentham argued that every person’s well-being and life counted equally. The right act is the act which maximises well-being, impartially considered. The basic idea of utilitarianism is straightforward – the common currency of ethics is human well-being. What matters to each of us is how our lives go. Morality is about treating everyone equally, that is, considering their well-being equally.
Utilitarianism had its heyday until about 50 years ago when it started to be pushed aside for neoKantian, feminist and virtue theories. There has been a resurgence of interest in the last decade following the pioneering work of Joshua Greene which was used to suggest that utilitarians made moral decisions in a more rational deliberative manner.
To test whether people are utilitarians or not, Greene used an old dilemma first described by Philippa Foot called the “trolley dilemma”. This has become a cottage industry of its own (see Dave Edmond’s recent book “Would You Kill the Fat Man”). One of Greene’s (and other recent researchers’) prime tests of whether you are a utilitarian is whether you think it is right to push a fat man in front of a trolley to stop it and save 5 workers’ lives who are further down the track.
In a paper just out yesterday, Guy Kahane, Jim Everett, Brian Earp, Miguel Farias and I present data that suggest that this decision alone needn’t really reflect a utilitarian psychology, but rather can reflect psychopathic and egoist tendencies. People have reported such an association with psychopathy before. We are thus adding to an existing literature, and although the correlation is fairly strong and significant, of course not everyone saying you should push the fat man will be higher on psychopathy – that is just one factor.
Conversely, and more importantly, we found that people who tended to think that the fat man should be pushed to his death to save five did not, in more familiar contexts, show any great altruist concern for the greater good of all, or more willing to make sacrifices to prevent great harm to distant others. Here is a quote from the discussion from an earlier draft:
“A great deal of recent research has focused on hypothetical moral dilemmas in which one person needs to be sacrificed in order to save the lives of a greater number. It is widely assumed that these far-fetched sacrificial scenarios can shed new light on the fundamental opposition between utilitarian and non-utilitarian approaches to ethics (Greene et al. 2004; Greene, 2008; Singer, 2005).
However, such sacrificial dilemmas are merely one context in which utilitarian considerations happen to conflict with opposing moral views (Kahane & Shackel, 2011). To the extent that ‘utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial dilemmas express concern for the greater good—that is, the utilitarian aim of impartially maximizing aggregate welfare—then we would expect such judgments to be associated with judgments and attitudes that clearly express such concern in other moral contexts.
The set of studies presented here directly tested this prediction by investigating the relationship between so-called ‘utilitarian’ judgments in classical sacrificial dilemmas and a genuine, impartial concern for the greater good. Across four experiments employing a wide range of measures and investigations of attitudes, behavior and moral judgments, we repeatedly found that this prediction was not borne out: a tendency to endorse the violent sacrifice of one person in other to save a greater number was not (or even negatively) associated with paradigmatic markers of utilitarian concern for the greater good. These included identification with humanity as a whole; donation to charities that help people in need in other countries; judgments about our moral obligations to help children in need in developing countries, and to prevent animal suffering and harm to future generations; and an impartial approach to morality that does not privilege the interests of oneself, one’s family, or one’s country over the greater good. This lack of association remained even when the utilitarian justification for such views was made explicit and unequivocal. By contrast, many (though not all) of these markers of concern for the greater good were inter-correlated.
In fact, responses designated as ‘utilitarian’ in the current literature were strongly associated with traits, attitudes and moral judgments (primary psychopathy, rational egoism, and a lenient attitude toward clear moral transgressions) that are diametrically opposed to the impartial concern for the greater good that is at the heart of utilitarian ethics”
As we argue, Utilitarianism is a comprehensive moral doctrine with wide ranging impact. In fact it is very demanding. Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by Utilitarianism.
For these reasons, one criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too demanding.
Bernard Williams, a famous critic of Utilitarianism, once infuriated Dick Hare, a modern father of Utilitarianism, in a TV interview by asking him,
“If a plane had crashed and you could only rescue your own child or two other people’s children, which would you rescue?”
Utilitarians should rescue the two strangers rather than their own child.
People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding.
I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save 7 or 8 lives.
Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.
I was discussing the Trolley type dilemmas with my wife. She said that the right thing to do was to throw yourself in front of the trolley to save the 5 people.
That is clearly what utilitarians would do, but not psychopaths or egoists.
What about ordinary people? They had a range of utilitarian tendencies that often came apart. For example, our study did use one dilemma that involved self-sacrifice (it’s reported in the supp. materials.). The majority of ordinary people they should sacrifice themselves (whether or not they actually would) but think it’s wrong to push the fat man.
When my wife suggested the right answer to the Trolley dilemma was to sacrifice yourself, I objected that this was too demanding. You should experience great but temporary pain to save the five, perhaps lose a finger but not your whole life to save the five. That would be a difficult, not easy rescue.
Her reply, which has shaken my moral world, was, “But surely the right thing to do is to sacrifice your life for the five others.”
After all, if morality is meant to be impartial, perhaps the right thing to do is to be utilitarians. It is just that we are too selfish and self-absorbed.
Indeed, if morality is impartial, both I and the folk have intuitions which are difficult to justify. I have argued that it is right to sacrifice the one to save the five, but easy rescue consequentialism suggests I should not sacrifice my life to save the five. If morality is impartial, it should follow that it is also wrong to sacrifice the one to save the five.
Likewise, the folk believe it is right to sacrifice their own life, but wrong to sacrifice the fat man. Again, these should be symmetrical if morality is impartial. Either it is right to sacrifice both yourself and the fat man, or it is wrong. Morality has no eye to who is involved in a moral dilemma.
Perhaps another great utilitarian philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, has a solution to this apparent dilemma. Sidgwick argued that there are two reasons for action that can conflict: Prudence and Morality. Prudence is about what is good for you (self-interest) and Morality is about what is good for everyone, impartially considered. Sidgwick argued that there was no clear way balance these against each other.
In my case, I appear to be giving greater weight to Prudence than to Morality. The folk, on the other hand, appear to give greater weight to Morality, though they may have a non-consequentialist view of morality.
At any rate I won’t be sacrificing my own life for the 5 on the track. But maybe I am just not as moral as I could be. As Peter Singer once said, it is not as if morality should be easy. Perhaps we very often fail to do what morality requires.
Maybe the reason I am not a utilitarian is that I am just not good enough.