Cross Post: The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian

Written by Hazen Zohny 

Please note that this essay was originally published in Quillette Magazine.


The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian 

I recently answered the nine questions that make up The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. My result: “You are very utilitarian! You might be Peter Singer.”

This provoked a complacent smile followed by a quick look around to ensure that nobody else had seen this result on my monitor. After all, outright utilitarians still risk being thought of as profoundly disturbed, or at least deeply misguided. It’s easy to see why: according to my answers, there are at least some (highly unusual) circumstances where I would support the torture of an innocent person or the mass deployment of political oppression.

Choosing the most utilitarian responses to these scenarios involves great discomfort. It is like being placed on a debating team and asked to defend a position you abhor. The idea of actually torturing individuals or oppressing dissent evokes a sense of disgust in me – and yet the scenarios in these dilemmas compel me not only to say such acts are permissible, they’re obligatory. Biting bullets is almost always uncomfortable, which goes a long way in explaining the lack of popularity utilitarianism enjoys. But this discomfort largely melts away once we recognize three caveats relevant to the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale and to moral dilemmas more generally.

The first of these relates to the somewhat misleading nature of these dilemmas. They are set up to appear as though you are being asked to imagine just one thing, like torturing someone to prevent a bomb going off, or killing a healthy patient to save five others. In reality, they are asking two things of you: imagining the scenario at hand, and imaging yourself to be a fundamentally different being – specifically, a being that is able to know with certainty the consequences of its actions.

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Partiality, Ethical Theory, and Christmas

                                                                                                                                                                                  Written by Roger Crisp

Over recent decades, a lively debate has arisen in ethical theory over whether so-called ‘impartial’ views, such as utilitarianism, are inconsistent with the view that we have reasons, or even moral obligations, of partiality. Consider someone converted to utilitarianism who decided against a life-saving operation for their own child because the money could do more good if used to help strangers.

The standard utilitarian response has been that relationships involving partiality – relationships of love, friendship, and so on – not only produce a lot of good or well-being for those involved, but also, because of the kind of beings we are, motivate us to help others when otherwise we wouldn’t. This seems a reasonable defence, at least to some extent, though the question remains just how partial we should be.

Consider Christmas. Deloitte estimate that in 2016 US citizens spent $1 trillion during the Christmas period, much of which will have been on gifts and hospitality for family, friends, and colleagues. If we accept Jeffrey Sachs’s  claim that to end extreme world poverty in twenty years would cost around $175 billion p.a. (The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in our Lifetime (New York: Penguin, 2005)), then it seems that Americans would need to channel less than one fifth of their current spending over Christmas into overseas development to bring to an end the terrible injustice and suffering caused by extreme world poverty. And of course if the rest of us in the developed world did the same, the amount required from each of us would be even smaller.

There is still a difference between utilitarians and those who believe in non-derivative obligations of partiality, of course. Utilitarians think I should look after my children because the world will go better if I do; partialists believe I just should. But, given the current state of the world, relatively little of practical importance hangs on this debate. No plausible version of partialism could allow the huge disparities that exist between the amount spent in the developed world within partial relationships and that spent on alleviating suffering and injustice in the world as a whole. That is something all of us, whether impartialist or partialist, might do well to remember when Christmas comes round again.

Video Series: Larry S. Temkin on Peter Singer, Effective Altruism and Our Obligations to the Needy

What does Peter Singer’s famous ‘pond example’ tell us about our obligations to the world’s needy? Is rescuing a child drowning in a shallow pond really the same as donating money to effective aid organisations? Is it okay to spend large amounts of money on ‘dramatic rescues’ (e.g. after an earthquake, to find perhaps one more person alive…)? Does donating money to poor countries with corrupt regimes do more harm than good? Is the approach of Effective Altruism too narrow? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, Professor Larry S. Temkin (Rutgers) casts serious doubts on views that have been widely accepted for decades.

The bright side of Brexit

Let’s suppose, entirely hypothetically and for the sake of argument, that Brexit is a disaster for the UK. Let’s suppose that sterling crashes; that foreign travel is punishingly expensive and that, if you can afford to go abroad, you’re a laughing stock. Let’s suppose that the Treasury’s estimates of billions of pounds of losses each year are reasonably accurate; that unemployment rises; that credit ratings plummet. Let’s suppose Brexit creates a corrosive tide of racism; that things that should never be said, and can never be unsaid, are shouted at high volume. Let’s suppose that there’s a torrential brain drain; that UK universities fall down the international league tables; that the innovative treatments prescribed (to private patients only, unfortunately – no money left for the NHS) by the UK’s (predominantly white) doctors are all devised in New York, Paris and Rome rather than London and Leeds. Let’s suppose that the environment, unprotected by EU legislation, is trashed, and that Scotland leaves the UK.  Let’s suppose, too, that nervousness about all this creates an increasingly authoritarian style of government .

If all that happens, it’ll be great. At least if you’re a consistent utilitarian. The horror of the UK’s experience will strengthen the EU and prevent other countries from thinking that they should leave the Union – which would have similarly disastrous results for them and, if the EU itself dissolves, tectonic consequences for the stability of the world. Continue reading

Things look really good…if all you care about is money

Are things really getting better? Well, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ if you’re a monetary consequentialist (i.e., think all that matters is maximizing the amount of monetary resources in the world).  A group of 21 economists plus one Bjørn Lomborg have a new book coming out soon that will survey 10 pressing global problems such as health, air pollution and gender equality in the world from 1900 to 2050.  According to Lomborg’s précis, they have found that on most of the dimensions, things are improving (only biodiversity is identified as having gotten worse), and the positive trends are expected to largely continue.  This will come as some relief to those bemoaning recent political, environmental and humanitarian crises.  But don’t break out the champagne just yet – their analysis evidently relies on a crude GDP-centric measurement tool that obscures a number of crucial issues.  Continue reading

Fellow-Citizens, Foreigners, and Statistical Lives

Like many in the UK, I was gripped last week by the reports from Wales about the search for four trapped miners, and saddened to hear of their deaths. Readers outside the UK perhaps heard nothing, or very little, about this story, thought it dominated the news here. One important reason for that, of course, is that most of us care much more about fellow-citizens than foreigners, and about identifiable people than merely ‘statistical lives’. 

That we care is a mere fact. But since the days of David Hume many philosophers have claimed that we can take moral sentiments of this kind as the foundation for our ethics, and indeed that such sentiments can be the only such foundation. So our attitudes might justify our spending much more on saving the lives of identifiable fellow citizens rather than those of foreigners or unidentified people in the future.

Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born on Tuesdays than those born on other days. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about Tuesdays.) Even sentimentalists about ethics will probably wish to claim that there is something dubious about this differential attitude. But that raises the question whether we should say the same about a preference for identifiable fellow-citizens.

 The property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen is not clearly morally irrelevant in the way that being born on Tuesday is. Indeed, it seems similar in important ways to the property of being one’s child, and most of us think that this is a property of great moral relevance when we are deciding how to spend our scarce resources. But there is of course one big dissimilarity: in most cases, a parent has deep personal relations with a child, and these could be taken to ground a parent’s giving greater weight to the interests of her child over those of others. The fact that such a relationship is lacking in the case of identifiable fellow-citizens suggests that the property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen may well be morally as irrelevant as that of being born on a Tuesday.

 Should we, then, try to avoid our bias towards identifiable fellow-citizens? In the utilitarian tradition, some radical thinkers have occasionally argued that we should seek complete impartiality, not giving priority even to the interests of our own children over the interests of others. It has plausibly been said in response that, though from the utilitarian point of view the priority we do give is almost certainly far too great, trying to be completely impartial – given our psychology, evolutionary history, and so on – would be quite likely to be self-defeating.

 I think a similar argument can be mounted in defence of the special concern we have for  identifiable fellow-citizens. So is everything all right as it is? Far from it. What we must do is build upon that care and concern and, as Peter Singer puts it, ‘extend the circle’ to include foreigners and statistical lives. We do not have to choose (other than in bizarre philosophical examples) between saving people from mines and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives. We can, and should, do all of these things.



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