The Utilitarian Truth-Seeker

Written by Stefan Schubert

Utilitarianism is often associated with two psychological features.

First, acceptance of instrumental harm for the greater good. The utilitarian is famously willing to kill one to save five in the trolley problem.

Second, impartial beneficence. The utilitarian is equally concerned with everyone’s well-being, irrespective of their gender, nationality, or species. And they don’t privilege themselves over others.

The recent Oxford Utilitarianism Scale defines utilitarian tendencies in terms of these two features.

On this view, you need to have a somewhat unusual psychology to accept utilitarianism. On the one hand, an unusual level of altruism towards all. On the other hand, a willingness to break taboos against harm for the sake of the greater good. 

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But there’s another question, which is subtly different. What psychological features do we need to be able to apply utilitarianism, and to do it well? That’s not the same question as what features make us inclined to accept utilitarianism. But if you’re not careful, it’s easy to conflate them.

Once we turn to application, truth-seeking looms large. Unlike many other ethical theories, and unlike common sense-morality, utilitarianism requires you maximise positive impact. It requires you to advance the well-being of all as effectively as possible. How to do that best is a complex empirical question. You need to compare actions and causes which are fundamentally different. Investments in education need to be compared with malaria prevention. Voting reform with climate change mitigation. Prioritising between them is a daunting task.

And it’s made even harder by utilitarian impartiality. It’s harder to estimate distant impact than to estimate impact on those close to us. So the utilitarian view that distance is ethically irrelevant makes it even more epistemically challenging. That’s particularly true of temporal impartiality. Estimating the long-run impact of our present actions presents great difficulties.

So utilitarianism entails that we do extensive research, to find out how to maximise well-being. But it’s not enough that we put in the hours. We also need to be guided by the right spirit. There are countless biases that impede our research. We fall in love with our pet hypotheses. We refuse to change our mind. We fail to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. We’re vain, and we’re stubborn. To counter those tendencies, utilitarians need a spirit of honest truth-seeking.

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Truth-seeking shouldn’t be added to the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. It’s not needed to accept utilitarianism. Or at least there’s nothing contradictory about a utilitarian who isn’t a truth-seeker.

But when we’re applying utilitarianism, truth-seeking is very important. In fact, it can be more important than some of the features that we usually associate with utilitarianism. We’re rarely faced with trolley-style problems in real life. By contrast, we need a spirit of honest truth-seeking all the time. Without it, vanity and bias can easily cause us to have but a fraction of the impact we could have had. Or we might even do harm.

So utilitarians need to cultivate truth-seeking among themselves, and to make truth-seekers join them. And indeed, the effective altruism community, which contains many utilitarians, defines effective altruism as “using evidence and careful reasoning to take actions that help others as much as possible”. Truth-seeking is front and centre.

Yet truth-seeking is rarely associated with utilitarianism. The archetype of a utilitarian is some combination of a bullet-biter willing to kill for the greater good and an impartial self-sacrificer. But for those who actually put utilitarianism into action, and who do it effectively, truth-seeking is key. So the utilitarian archetype should be revised. Truth-seeking research should loom larger.

There is of course the old academic ideal that one should ardently seek the truth for its own sake. The utilitarian truth-seeker takes the same view, but for different reasons. For the utilitarian, truth isn’t an intrinsic but an instrumental value. It’s a means in the pursuit of the greater good. But empirically, it just so happens that that value is incredibly great. So the utilitarian’s devotion to the truth should be correspondingly great.

Thanks to Lucius Caviola and John Halstead for comments.

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One Response to The Utilitarian Truth-Seeker

  • Nicholas says:

    First, all plausible non-utilitarian theories contain duties of beneficence. This means that a great deal of truth-seeking of this sort is already built into alternative theories as well.

    Moreover, with Kant’s theory in particular, there are truths that the utilitarian theory disregards which are absolutely crucial: truths concerning the motives or intentions behind your actions. As Kant says in Groundwork II, this is about as epistemically challenging as it gets; trying to figure out what is actually motivating you in any given case is extremely difficult and requires keen psychological insight. So the Kantian must also be a truth-seeker, and must try to avoid all the usual biases and rationalizations that occur when inquiring into one’s own psychology.

    Shall I keep doing this? Why not! What truths does the Aristotelian ask us to seek? Well, truths about individual human flourishing and the character traits which reliably lead to that flourishing in human social contexts. This is incredibly challenging inquiry, requiring a huge battery of social, psychological and historical knowledge. Moreover, they insist that the traits themselves can only be properly expressed situationally, which means that individuals must have a keen sensitivity to practical truths ‘in the moment’ without having anything like a rulebook. This epistemic capacity, Aristotle tells us, is incredibly challenging, the work of an entire lifetime. So the Aristotelian must also be a seeker of incredibly difficult truths.

    At this point, I hope you can see the problem. Every other normative theory requires us to seek very difficult truths and to combat biases. Is there some reason to think that the utilitarian mindset is special in this regard?

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