• GreyScorpio
    98
    Utilitarianism is the theory that an action is moral only if it maximizes pleasure. For example, a classic example, if you were a train driver and your train spontaneously failed causing your breaks to stop working and people were on the two junction tracks. One person on the left and five people on the write. Which track do you take? Utilitarians will obviously say to take the left track with the one person on it sacrificing his life to save the five on the right track. This is because more people would be happy with the outcome as the quantity of people is greater in five than one. However, is it correct to be able to condone killing this way? Not to mention other moral dilemmas of which utilitarianism would perhaps favor the side that is not socially moral.

    Your thoughts ...
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k
    Morality in utilitarianism is defined by the calculus used to derive moral outcomes or the greatest good principle. There is one problem with that though...

    Namely how do you devise such an awesome calculus to define what is moral? There are so many things to factor in that decisions made by such a calculus are hopelessly complex and impractical.

    Maybe when computers become sufficiently complex to factor in all the possibilities of said calculus in the real world, then maybe we could have some impartial arbitration of decision making also.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    Namely how do you devise such an awesome calculus to define what is moral? There are so many things to factor in that decising such a calculus is hopelessly complex and impractical.Posty McPostface

    I completely agree. But how do you feel about Kant's way of resolving this. Instead of having to base morals on a man made calculus, Kant uses a logical categorical imperative in which he claims that there are duties that we ought to do regardless of there consequences. It is near enough the exact opposite to Utilitarianism because it is not consequentialist. So Kant clearly destroys the calculus because he has put in place set rules that do not condone acts such as lying. Whereas Utilitarianism would.
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k


    Yes, but Kant's categorical imperative doesn't deal well with morally contextually bound decisions. So, utilitarianism has the upper hand here.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    Of course, but overall Utilitarianism does condone immoral actions where as the categorical imperative would be more stern on these situations that Utilitarianism just doesn't have the capacity to account for.
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k


    Yes, but utilitarianism is more practical or flexible than kantian imperatives. So, under such an assumption it seems like utilitarianism is superior to categorical imperative moral decision making.
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k
    So, the complexity and flexibility of the utilitarian calculus can be viewed as an advantage over categorical imperatives of deontological ethical based theories.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    but utilitarianism is more practical or flexible than kantian imperatives. So, under such an assumption it seems like utilitarianism is superior to categorical imperative moral decision making.Posty McPostface

    Yes, but the decisions made by utilitarianism would be more flexible on the grounds that it cares solely on the consequences and disregards the actions. For example, If a woman discarded his last amount of food intending to litter but accidentally throws it into the lap of a hungry homeless man, is this woman moral? Utilitarianism would condone this action and call it moral even though there was no moral act. This disregards the theory overall because it no longer becomes a moral theory does it?
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k


    It would be considered as an accidental moral act. Good intent or the desire to obey or abide by the utilitarian calculus also matters in consequentialist moral theories as far as I'm aware...

    If you treat the utilitarian calculus as a rulebook to abide by, then the differences between deontologists and consequentialists kind of gets blurry. A little.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    If you treat the utilitarian calculus as a rulebook to abide by, then the differences between deontologists and consequentialists kind of gets blurry. A little.Posty McPostface

    Agreed, but morality is based on a 'rule book' it needs to be.
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k


    Pretty much. And that's why utilitarianism is in my view better than deontological ethical theories. Because the calculus can always be worked on collectively, where deontologists are bound by what 'feels' right or are trapped in the is/ought problem.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    True, but then what of Emotivism that overcomes is/ought but is still bound by what feels right. It is entirely objective and is based on how you feel when in a situation.
  • Posty McPostface
    5.8k


    Yeah, but think about it from the perspective of an individual. They're hopelessly confounded to.their own feelings and biases. Utilitarianism overcomes these issues by being able to formalize ethical conduct into a calculus.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    As does the categorical imperative, the only thing it lacks is flexibility, but morals do that anyway. We have established that objectivity is not effective when speaking of morals hence an issue with Emotivism, with Utilitarianists it is a way too simple matter of maximizing pleasure when morality is not all about pleasure, clearly. For something to be moral doesn't necessarily always have to favor the most individuals. Like in war, for example. Utilitarianism would say that war is correct in favor of the winner only, meaning that it doesn't look into situations clearly, no?
  • Cabbage Farmer
    165
    Utilitarianism is the theory that an action is moral only if it maximizes pleasure.GreyScorpio
    Do utilitarian theorists nowadays agree that pleasure maximization is the best or only criterion of utility?

    I expect the evaluation of utility is an open question.


    For example, a classic example, if you were a train driver and your train spontaneously failed causing your breaks to stop working and people were on the two junction tracks. One person on the left and five people on the write. Which track do you take? Utilitarians will obviously say to take the left track with the one person on it sacrificing his life to save the five on the right track. This is because more people would be happy with the outcome as the quantity of people is greater in five than one.GreyScorpio
    Is there another reasonable solution to the problem as it is defined? Flip a coin, perhaps, or just leave the train running down whichever line it happens to be on.... I won't say choosing the left track is worse than leaving the outcome to chance. For my scruples it seems like the best course of action, however we might seek to justify it with moral models.


    However, is it correct to be able to condone killing this way? Not to mention other moral dilemmas of which utilitarianism would perhaps favor the side that is not socially moral.GreyScorpio
    I wouldn't call it "condoning killing" to choose the left track or to condone that choice, in the example as you've defined it.

    It's a reasonable attempt to do the least harm in a terrible situation.


    Not to mention other moral dilemmas of which utilitarianism would perhaps favor the side that is not socially moral.GreyScorpio
    That's where things start getting sticky.

    Vary your problem to put more pressure on the utilitarian and on ordinary moral intuitions: Suppose the person on the left is a brilliant heart surgeon who saves lives and improves quality of life of individuals, thus indirectly benefiting whole communities, and trains other experts to perform similar feats....
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    Is there another reasonable solution to the problem as it is defined? Flip a coin, perhaps, or just leave the train running down whichever line it happens to be on.... I won't say choosing the left track is worse than leaving the outcome to chance. For my scruples it seems like the best course of action, however we might seek to justify it with moral models.Cabbage Farmer

    Flipping a coin then leaves it to something else rather than the rules of morals. I was speaking as if I were a Utilitarian. They would choose the left side (One person) because the pleasure is maximized this way in the sense that more people walk away happy with their lives.

    I wouldn't call it "condoning killing" to choose the left track or to condone that choice, in the example as you've defined it.Cabbage Farmer

    The choice that has been chosen is evidently taking another life. Perhaps that was a bad example. Take this one for thought: A burglar intends to rob a house where an old lady lives. One day he breaks open a window to break in, but sees the old lady on the floor. In shock, he flees. The old lady awakes, it turns out she was unconscious because her boiler broke and released carbon monoxide, the robber breaking the window allowed oxygen to come back into the room allowing her to regain consciousness. A Utilitarian would claim that this is a moral act. In this sense is Utilitarianism not condoning the robber's actions to break into someone else's home?

    It's a reasonable attempt to do the least harm in a terrible situation.Cabbage Farmer

    It would be, but the thoughts that arise at the time is how many people are being killed. I'm sure the train driver would much rather being blamed for one life being lost than five others as it maximizes the pleasure overall.

    I expect the evaluation of utility is an open question.Cabbage Farmer

    Utilitarianism has been evolved multiple times. There is Act, rule and preference utilitarianism that make attempts to rid of the very problems that I am proposing. But, we haven't quite yet got onto the issues of those particular theories.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.7k
    Maybe utilitarianism isn't an appropriate moral framework for individuals. Planners in public health, urban design, military readiness, etc. can better use "the most good for the most people" than 1 individual can. Conversely, Kant's categorical imperative may be a better guide for the individual.

    In the Fucking Trolley set up, somebody is going to get killed, no matter what. The conductor of the trolley will run over 5 or 1, and you will or will not push the fat man off the bridge onto the switch. Ghastly. This doesn't represent any moral system, it's a conversation starter.

    Better to choose real situations to illustrate moral systems. If you are even moderately alert, you will regularly encounter real opportunities to make difficult moral choices. For instance, the beggar problem: How do we judge his or her worthiness to receive our (usually) pitifully small gift? If there are several beggars nearby, which one do we choose -- or do we choose all of them -- or none? How much to give? Does it really matter to you whether they buy beer or buy vegetables? (If you were begging, would not a few beers at the end of another humiliating day be rather pleasant?) Do you have any knowledge of poverty's structure? Do you believe that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps--no matter their personal history?

    How 'moral' are our assumptions about other people's visible misfortunes?
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    So Kant clearly destroys the calculus because he has put in place set rules that do not condone acts such as lying.GreyScorpio

    It's altogether too easy to misunderstand Kant. Here are four forms of his categorical imperative.

    "The Formula of the Law of Nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

    The Formula of the End Itself: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

    The Formula of Autonomy: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.

    The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends."

    See? No set rules at all. Guidelines. Rigorous to be sure: mainly they establish abstract boundaries on actions. Every action is to be in concert and consistent with a certain critical thinking (which Kant makes clear). BUT, the thinking itself is never specified; it just has to satisfy the guidelines. In fact, in addition to the rigor, establishing your maxim is also something of a creative art. In addition, if you find yourself with multiple (two or more) conflicting or contradictory maxims, Kant says that one "rules" and the rest fall away (for the situation).
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    Maybe utilitarianism isn't an appropriate moral framework for individuals.Bitter Crank

    This is interesting. So, in a sense morality is different depending on the amount of people that it effects. In which sense the flexibility of Utilitarianism is useful for many people. In terms of maxims, don't you think that there are so many rules for a maxim to be appropriate that the inflexibility forces morality to be set rules?
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    In terms of maxims, don't you think that there are so many rules for a maxim to be appropriate that the inflexibility forces morality to be set rules?
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    In terms of maxims, don't you think that there are so many rules for a maxim to be appropriate that the inflexibility forces morality to be set rules?GreyScorpio

    Can you unpack this a bit? A maxim is just a rule you invent for yourself that, if it's a Kantian maxim, also satisfies certain standards of reason - mainly being universalizable, not self-contradictory, and not using people as means rather than ends. "Morality" comes into the picture in so far as it informs reason, no further.
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    Sorry for the confusion - Kant's maxims are supposed to be universalized meaning that it cannot be illogical or self-contradictory if everyone were to act on a maxim. As a result, there is not much flexibility here. Also, a maxim must not be one that uses a person as a means to your ends and vice versa, these are moral rules, I believe, which limit the flexibility that Kantian ethics has in terms of situations that are more personal. What of those moral dilemmas that depend on a situation to be relevant?
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    Also, a maxim must not be one that uses a person as a means to your ends and vice versa, these are moral rules, I believe, which limit the flexibility that Kantian ethics has in terms of situations that are more personal.GreyScorpio
    I think you got twisted up in this sentence. Try again.

    What of those moral dilemmas that depend on a situation to be relevant?GreyScorpio
    What is a moral problem that is not situation dependent?
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    I think you got twisted up in this sentence. Try again.tim wood

    Again, sorry. My point, anyway, is that Kantian ethics is way too objective and as a result of this, it becomes inflexible. He has put in place rules such as the First and Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative that cannot be denied or disobeyed otherwise you are being immoral.

    What is a moral problem that is not situation dependent?tim wood

    There isn't any. That's my point. Moral dilemmas are situational and I don't think Kantian ethics can deal with them effectively.
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    Moral dilemmas are situational and I don't think Kantian ethics can deal with them effectively.GreyScorpio
    Perhaps you have an example in mind?

    Grammatically, the categorical imperatives (CIs) can look like rules. But they're not rules; they're categorical imperatives. They prescribe no action; they proscribe no action. They inform and advise as to criteria for maxims that you invent to establish your own rules for yourself. The maxims themselves then provide a ground of defense or justification for the particular action you do undertake. And there's nothing moral or ethical about it. It proceeds on the basis of reason. That is, with Kant, you start with reason and if you've done a decent job you arrive at an ethical position. Perfect? Maybe not. Able to be made more perfect if the opportunity presents itself? Sure.

    An important qualification is that maxims cannot conflict. If there appears a conflict, then only one maxim can rule. In the notorious issue of "a supposed right to lie for benevolent motives," the question is, must you tell a murderer where his intended victim is if he asks, or can you lie? Kant says you can't lie. You and I probably would say, "Nonsense, in such a case you lie your nose off!" But such a response is made in ignorance of the depth of Kant's argument.

    The maxim competing with the don't lie rule might be, don't put another person in danger, even if you have to lie to protect them. And if this held in all cases, that the lie did in fact protect, then there would be imo a very strong argument for it's supplanting the maxim against lying. But it doesn't hold in all cases - it can't, and therefore it lacks the strength it needs. Apparently Kant did agree that while you weren't allowed to lie, you could refuse to answer.

    The moral of this story is that Kant is easy to misinterpret and misunderstand, and people who do either or both often enough heap scorn on Kant for making stupid mistakes, or failing to understanding what he was doing - corrected by our freshman philosopher-critic. More prudent to remember he was one of history's maybe twelve smartest people, and people smarter than our freshman have failed to unseat his reasoning. Or, if you think you've found an error in Kant, or a mistake, go back and read him again.
  • IamTheFortress
    2

    For example, a classic example, if you were a train driver and your train spontaneously failed causing your breaks to stop working and people were on the two junction tracks. One person on the left and five people on the write. Which track do you take? Utilitarians will obviously say to take the left track with the one person on it sacrificing his life to save the five on the right track. This is because more people would be happy with the outcome as the quantity of people is greater in five than one. — GreyScorpio
    This situation is not very good exemplification of controversies related to utilitarianism, because in this scenario, there is no way for the train driver to abstain from any killing, he has to choose the side. So it's not about killing one person or not, it's about killing one person or five people. Most people would agree instinctively that killing one person is lesser evil than killing five people in the situation when you literally cannot choose not to kill anyone, regardless of whether they are utilitarian or not. Perhaps the scenario in which the person can actively kill one person to save other five or abstain from action and let five people die would underline the issue better.
    However, is it correct to be able to condone killing this way? — GreyScorpio
    I think that question about correctness is always dependent on the set of criteria we choose. That is, we cannot know if any objective ethics exist independently of people developing ethics. We may only have some conceptions on what is "right" or "wrong", and judge the quality of those conceptions by their level of internal coherency. Hence, the question whether something is correct of not can be answered only within the frame of certain ethical conceptions. According to utilitarianism, yes, it would be correct. According to moral absolutist who lives under the "do not kill" rule it wouldn't be correct. Both attitudes can be internally coherent, and we can judge just that, what we cannot do is to tell which of those attitudes is closer to "objective moral truth".
    Personally? I'm not sure if I condone killing the way that utilitarians do but as a biologist I think that condemning killing independently of context is hell of impractical and incoherent if we opt for the value of life at the same time. Life is based on killing and every life form has to kill in order to survive. Heterotrophic organism, such as humans need to kill other life forms in order to gain energy, but even autotrophic organisms kill others, for example during the immunological processes or through competing for the same resources and allelopathy. So the only coherent worldview that always ascribes negative moral value to killing would be the one that consequently ascribes negative moral value to life on itself. For people who consider life to be positive phenomenon on terms of morality, the question should not be "if it's correct to condone killing" but "under which circumstances should we condone killing?" since that's inevitable.
    Not to mention other moral dilemmas of which utilitarianism would perhaps favor the side that is not socially moral. — GreyScorpio
    Define "socially moral".
  • gloaming
    85
    "...Utilitarians will obviously say to take the left track with the one person on it sacrificing his life to save the five on the right track. This is because more people would be happy with the outcome as the quantity of people is greater in five than one..." (From original post)


    How does the utilitarian thinker know that he will yield the greatest happiness in this situation solely by the numbers of lives he will save? What information does he possess, or not, about those on the train and their needs or desires for possible outcomes? Maybe every one of them is against any form of killing, but also feel that one life is not to be discounted against a greater number. What if the lone person we feel gets the train is potentially the next Einstein or President of the USA? What if that person is just about to release a formula that will cure diabetes?

    Not very artfully, I'm stating that the utilitarian thinker must make choices based upon expectations, and sometimes using a paucity of valuable information that can confound his reasoning, if after the fact. This makes the orientation on outcomes necessary in the absence of something more 'rigorous', in my view. Something like Kantian reasoning that says the outcome could be purely accidental and unfortunate as long as the 'intentions' of the person performing the acts are borne of the "Good Will." Few mention this all-important quality of Kantian ethics. Utilitarian ethics places the burden of consequences, I think unreasonably, on the person acting. And that person could absolutely act with the best of intentions, also of the Good Will (wanting more people to live than to die). Problem is, it places dying at the summit of the Great Mountain of ethical and moral values as something to avoid.

    Perhaps your discussion needs to be expanded to rate utilitarianism against pragmatism.

    As a previous responder has made clear, Kantian ethics/morality (the latter incorporated into the greater former) is merely a prescription for acting that frees the individual acting in Good Will from any responsibility....OTHER THAN acting via universalizable maxims and never treating the person involved as a means to an end. The outcomes, 'good or bad', are entirely irrelevant. To me, there can be no greater nod to realism. For example, a man attempting to rescue a child being swept along in a raging torrent, and does so, cannot be held responsible for accidentally knocking the child's mother into the same current while flailing about. What calculus would our utilitarian realist guru use to evaluate the outcome...a life for a life? Would the child be happy it had lived when asked years later? Would the husband and her other children be happier or sadder when confronted with the awful tally at the end of the day?
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    They inform and advise as to criteria for maxims that you invent to establish your own rules for yourself. The maxims themselves then provide a ground of defense or justification for the particular action you do undertake. And there's nothing moral or ethical about it.tim wood

    Okay, but don't you think that Kant had in mind, when claiming that Maxims must be universalizeable, that we must all abide by this maxim or 'rule' in order for us to be moral or for our actions to hold moral value.
    The maxim competing with the don't lie rule might be, don't put another person in danger, even if you have to lie to protect them. And if this held in all cases, that the lie did in fact protect, then there would be imo a very strong argument for it's supplanting the maxim against lying. But it doesn't hold in all cases - it can't, and therefore it lacks the strength it needs. Apparently Kant did agree that while you weren't allowed to lie, you could refuse to answer.tim wood

    I agree, the flexibility of Kant's ethics is lacking incredibly. Especially against theories devised by Aristotle and other theories such as moral realist theories.
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    Okay, but don't you think that Kant had in mind, when claiming that Maxims must be universalizeable, that we must all abide by this maxim or 'rule' in order for us to be moral or for our actions to hold moral value.GreyScorpio
    No! The imperative "must" is the wrong word and the wrong idea. Why "must"? To argue that a maxim be universalizable is by no means the argument that it must be universalized, or should be, or even can be.

    Example: your maxim might be that you, yourself, can exceed posted speed limits in an emergency. You can argue that this be a universalizable maxim in that everyone should be able to speed in the case of an emergency. Think it through. First, is the maxim a good one? Assuming that for you speeding in the case of an emergency is presumed to increase well-being, is the presumption a warrant for accepting the maxim? What justifies the presumption? Does speeding in the case of an emergency increase well-being? Then, what emergencies? What speeds? What roads? What circumstances? Who decides, and when? And finally, do you suppose that everyone "must" speed in the case of an emergency?

    I think Kant does not have need in mind, nor "ought nor "should" nor anything other than reason. Reason as the only tool that can get to the bottom of things, of those things that have a bottom. And of those that don't, the best scaffolding from which to securely work.

    I agree, the flexibility of Kant's ethics is lacking incredibly. Especially against theories devised by Aristotle and other theories such as moral realist theories.GreyScorpio
    What, exactly, do you want? An ethics of convenience that will allow you to do what you want? If you have a better model, present it. But it's hard to beat reason - unless you abandon it for something else. Is that what you're about? If it is, what replaces reason?
  • GreyScorpio
    98
    What, exactly, do you want? An ethics of convenience that will allow you to do what you want? If you have a better model, present it. But it's hard to beat reason - unless you abandon it for something else. Is that what you're about? If it is, what replaces reason?tim wood

    In a perfect world, a moral theory would suffice the preference of every individual. I was simply giving another side of the argument to Kant's ethics, clearly specifying that its most damaging problem is, in fact, its inflexibility. I do think that theories such as emotivism and prescriptivism are much more specific to the human itself, which raises the question on whether morals should be subjective or objective.

    What do you think about that, and if they are subjective, how do we put this in place?
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    I had to look up emotivism and prescriptivism. Perhaps you might try summarizing each in a sentence or two, that way we're discussing your topic. They both seem individual-centric; i.e., substantized within the individual speaking, rather than in any general criterion.

    I see them both described as non-cognitivist, and both deemed "dismissed." I should like to return to your notion of the inflexibility of deontological ethics. In what sense do you find them inflexible - how would you like them to bend?

    As to tailoring the ethics to the person, it seem to me that it's the flaws of the person that are the reason for there being ethics. If you go person-centric, you have no ground on which to either judge or critique anyone else for acting on their version of their own ethics.
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