Sep 14, 2008

utilitarianism as a moral criterion

Utilitarianism seems simple at first, but when considered in depth, complicated issues arise. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

If you're thinking of using a form of utilitarianism as your criterion for the Sept. / Oct. LD permissible killing resolution, or for any other resolution involving morality, consider these issues.

1. Utilitarianism offers a clear standard for what counts as moral--do what maximizes the good--but not what counts as good. In fact, for utilitarianism as a theory, no specific conception of the good is required. [After Daniel E. Palmer's "On the Viability of Rule Utilitarianism," found in the March 1999 edition of the Journal of Value Inquiry, pp. 31-42.]

2. Similarly, utilitarianism as a theory can tell us how we ought to make a decision, without giving a clear indication as to what decision we ought to make. In come the Rule Utilitarians, who ask us to consider our actions in the light of the rules we do--or should--follow. What consequences do those rules bring about?

3. But this is problematic as well. According to many critics, "[T]he set of rules that would bring about the best consequences if people actually did conform to them would consist of only one rule, the rule that states that we should act to produce the best consequences." In other words, Rule Utilitarianism is "extensionally equivalent" to Act Utilitarianism, and therefore suffers from the same shortcomings. [Palmer, op. cit., p. 33]

4. Thus, some Rule Utilitarians focus only on the rules that are normally and generally recognized by actual moral agents. Richard Brandt's "ideal moral code theory" and Brad Hooker's "distribution-sensitive rule consequentialism" are two such methods.

5. Brandt's version can be summed up, in his words, thusly:
[A]n act is right if and only if it would not be prohibited by the moral code ideal for the society.
[qtd. in Palmer] The ideal code is that which produces the best consequences when followed by the preponderance of society. An immediate question: how and why is the societal boundary drawn?

6. Hooker's formulation is slightly different, and combats some of the weaknesses in Brandt's:
An act is right if and only if it is forbidden by the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well-being (with some priority to the worst off).
[Brad Hooker, Ideal Code, Real World, 2000, p. 32]

"Has maximum expected value" is another way to say "maximizes utility," but with an important distinction: the reasonable expectation of a payoff, rather than the post-hoc determination of a payoff, is sufficient to justify a rule. This is critical for anyone who attacks utilitarianism on epistemic grounds--in other words, by arguing that we can't know the precise consequences of our actions, so we are paralyzed in the face of a difficult choice. Hooker's rule avoids that objection.

If you have any good ideas about using utilitarianism in a round--in any variety--leave them in the comments.


okiedebater said...

Whenever I'm using Utilitarianism, I like to try to set it up in cx. I ask questions along the line of:

"Do we live in a perfect world?"-->No
"So we should just do as much as we can for as many people as we can, right?"

If you can get your opponent to agree to something along those lines, you can equate that to Utilitarianism. Also, it is useful because the phrase "greatest good for the greatest number" raises red flags and makes people defensive. This is a good way of trying to keep them off their guard.

Anonymous said...

"we can't know the precise consequences of our actions"

Actually we do know the precise consequences since it is plainly stated in the resolution.

Anonymous said...

The way society promotes safety and security in the community is by making decisions that support protecting the most number of people.

This supports utilitarianism.

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, good thoughts. Two questions for you:

1. The deaths are the only stated consequences. Are they the only consequences?

2. Is society the agent of action in the resolution?

Anonymous said...

Good questions. Just to let you know this is my first time doing a debate so I'm basically a beginner.

1)No, there would be the normal consequences that come from death. But since there are more deaths if one does not kill one innocent, the normal consequences times 2 would be added on to the 2 deaths; whereas one death would add on the burden of the consequences from one death. For example, having to tell a family what they did or could have not done in the situation. Perhaps more burden would be on telling them that you killed their family member, but, as a witness, you must tell the situation and what could have been done to prevent so many deaths. Thus the guilt and regret of having the opportunity to save them but not taking it consumes their mind.

2)It does not state who or what is the agent of action. But society makes the decisions which the agent of action obeys. Utilitarianism does not state that the agent supports utilitarianism for he just carries out the actions. Whoever makes the decision to protect the greatest amount uses utilitarianism as their basis.

Anonymous said...

well i think u can use the idea of killing one to save more in many examples such as war and simply the fact that peoples profession solely lies on this utilitarinism theory (ie. firefighters soldiers, policemen). so it is something that is used every dad and it is the duty of every citizen to preserve life and by killing one to save the lives of many u r preserving life.