• Wallows
    6.3k
    Taking the trolly case as an example, can a utilitarian calculus be ever devised? How does one mitigate the problem of time-respective utility maximization?
  • unenlightened
    2.9k
    Well the fat man was just about to produce such a calculus, the benefit of which would have been incalculable, but some short-sighted consequentialist pushed him in front of a trolley.
  • LD Saunders
    314
    Who cares about the alleged "utility-maximization"? What's a util and how can one objectively measure it? And even if one could objectively measure it, how would that be meaningful from an ethical standpoint?

    Utilitarianism has a lot of problems, and has been exposed as an inadequate moral theory, despite attempts from people like Singer to make it the be-all and end-all of morality, and one of its failures is the very straightforward notion that it is impossible to compute it. So, even if hypothetically it was the entire basis of morality, we would still not be able to rely on it to answer moral issues.
  • Andrew4Handel
    771
    Utilitarianism has a lot of problems, and has been exposed as an inadequate moral theoryLD Saunders

    I agree with this.

    I think the idea of a utilitarian calculation is problematic for various reasons. I don't think pleasure and pain are similar things to reach an equality with.

    Pain is almost indisputably bad even just by basic definition (outside of sadomasochism) which makes Negative Utilitarianism and pain minimisation most realistic. This is a negative morality.

    On the other hand pleasure can be attached to dubious things like overeating and causing obesity and heart disease and even Nazis and slave owners experienced pleasure. So I don't think pleasure can outweigh pain in a meaningful ethical way or that pleasure equals the good.

    Another issue is how you make the measurements and what boundaries you set and what things you include and all these things appear arbitrary. For example we can consider the welfare of unborn children,we could include more and more animals and even plants and environments or planets in a calculation. Adding and subtracting things arbitrarily skews the equation.

    We might conclude what is good for us now is not good for people in the future. (climate change etc) The future itself is unknown so how can we know what the impact of an action will be long term?

    I think minimising pain and increasing pleasure are fine but not really moral issues. There is meta-ethical issues to go through first (Why is pain bad & pleasure good? etc)
  • TheMadFool
    2.4k
    Biologically, happiness and pain are chemical reactions. They're complex and yet to be understood but if they are just chemical reactions they can be quantified. Right?

    If happiness and pain can be quantified they can be accurately compared and this would allow us to develop a utilitarian calculus right?

    What do you think?
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Just to elaborate on what I mean by "time-respective utility maximization". I mean to say that the assessment of utility is time-bound; but, we can't peer into the future and say what will happen. Therefore, we are constrained to the present moment in making decisions.
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Well the fat man was just about to produce such a calculus, the benefit of which would have been incalculable, but some short-sighted consequentialist pushed him in front of a trolley.unenlightened

    Well, yes. This is the heart of the issue. Where one cannot deal with the calculus time-bound. It must be a calculus that encompasses the entirety of time in the future. Therefore it's impossible to calculate what is of maximal utility, at least when presented with future events.
  • Kippo
    46
    "Can a utilitarian calculus ever be devised"? Yeah easy. You just need a formula that simplifies to a function of one variable.

    "Will that formula reflect my emotional view of a situation?".
    Firstly, it is unlikely that my emotional view is very clear. Hell! At least a formula can make a decision!
    But if I do have a clear emotional view, then that could be factored in to the formula to make it more "accurate". If the formula is allowed to be a computer program with lots of ifs and buts, then such factors can be accomodated provided they are consistent.
  • Wallows
    6.3k


    I agree with most if not everything you have said about utilitarianism. But, the net-utility is still of value to analyze. As to how to define utility, could be a question worth exploring.
  • Wallows
    6.3k


    Yes, though, this leads to the crude understanding that utilitarianism is a hedonic philosophy, which isn't necessarily true.
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    The calculus must fail, and one ought to walk away from Omelas.unenlightened

    Interesting book. What's it 'bout?
  • unenlightened
    2.9k
    It's a short story thought experiment. Wiki has the essence of it. Imagine a great society, according to whatever utility you want to use, everyone is healthy wealthy and wise, or whatever, everyone cooperates and cares for each other... paint the nearest thing to perfection you can realistically imagine, and then add a small price, that one person will be deprived of all this and live in misery and squalor, and this miserable life is the essential learning tool through which everyone else's wonderful life is sustained. That is, maximum utility depends on a radical unfairness and cruelty to one. Is it a price worth paying?
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Is it a price worth paying?unenlightened

    Depends on your calculus of utility of happiness. Nothing ever gets done with happy and content and satisfied individuals.
  • Kippo
    46
    one person will be deprived of all this and live in misery and squalor, and this miserable life is the essential learning tool through which everyone else's wonderful life is sustained.unenlightened

    That certainly sounds emotionally unappealing. I can't imagine it is difficult to translate into a very large negative amount in the calculus.
  • TheMadFool
    2.4k
    Yes, though, this leads to the crude understanding that utilitarianism is a hedonic philosophy, which isn't necessarily true.Posty McPostface

    Isn't Utilitarianism maximizing happiness?

    As for the the time-perspective you mention I agree. Consequences are very hard to predict given that the causal chain extends into infinity. Hitler was, in the short term, very bad, killing 6 million people but, if it wasn't for him, many third world countries would still be under colonial rule. Bad example?
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Bad example?TheMadFool

    Good example. Just wondering about the time-perspective part.
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Isn't Utilitarianism maximizing happiness?TheMadFool

    Yes,
  • Kippo
    46
    I don't think there is a principled difference between the consequences over time and any other consequences - for example the consequences over all people/the environment and so forth. Any formula has to be as accurately predictive as possible over all consequences.
  • khaled
    363
    in that case, the suffering of the child will cause the suffering of everyone else in society as it is emotionally and ethically unappealing and this will be reflected in the calculus making that system unviable. However, if no one (or very few people) knew about his suffering then absolutely yes it will be worth it. We already have people who suffer as described in every moral system except in this case it will be only be one person.
  • unenlightened
    2.9k
    in that case, the suffering of the child will cause the suffering of everyone else in society as it is emotionally and ethically unappealing and this will be reflected in the calculus making that system unviable.khaled

    I don't agree. Perhaps it is worth going into a little. Unfortunately, it is simply not the case that another's suffering makes me suffer that much. If it was generally the case there would be no need for morals in the first place. If hurting you hurt me as much, no one would hurt another. I would prefer not to see homeless people on the street, but not so strongly as to make myself poorer, or give up my own comfort to change their situation. We do have many people who suffer, and in this example, that is reduced to one, and by hypothesis, this is the minimum of suffering. Theemotional suffering of all is the necessary minimum to sustain a kindly peaceful beneficial society.

    In other words, most people will regretfully accept the suffering of one, for the benefit of many, and their regret will console them that they are suffering too. But it is immoral to do so, and utilitarianism that counts justice the supreme value in its calculus is no longer utilitarianism, but deontology.
  • khaled
    363
    I didn't mean it like that. I meant that if the entire population knew that their happiness is sustained by the suffering of an innocent child, that eventually some are going to form a resistance to the system due to the suffering it causes them to know that they are sustaining an unfair system and that resistance will cause massive suffering in the long run. Basically, there will be people like you who will be strictly opposed to the system and will cause suffering to everyone else by being opposed (I don't mean this in a negative way at all).

    most people will regretfully accept the suffering of one, for the benefit of manyunenlightened

    Keyword: Most
    Some will be staunchly against the idea and those some will be the main cause of suffering in the calculus. So in the end, the unjust suffering of one person, if known to everyone, will be reflected in the calculus as an unviable system due to the staunch disagreement of a few.
  • unenlightened
    2.9k
    So in the end, the unjust suffering of one person, if known to everyone, will be reflected in the calculus as an unviable system due to the staunch disagreement of a few.khaled

    Keyword: in the end

    If you adjust the calculus to reflect the morality of each individual, you no longer have a calculus that can decide morality, rather morality decides the calculus.
  • khaled
    363
    yes, but the morality these people have is not necessarily shared. If the entire world is made of masochists, the calculus will calculate the most optimal way to maximize pain, etc. It's hardly a morality if not everyone shares it. The calculus will decide the most pleaurable option depending on each individual's own view of morality. It will maximize pleasure depending on the individuals' view of pleasure. It does not decide a morality because a common value (other than the avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure, in whichever form that may take) is not necessary for the calculus to find a perfect system. In fact if the world was split in half between masochists and sadists then the calculus would not have a problem with that but it would even try to actively make that the case if it could.
  • Blue Lux
    588
    There is no end all morality. Constantly it is a game of ethics to contain what could be accepted as morality. There will always be the inability of ethics to be morality. Ethics is a reference for morality.
  • Blue Lux
    588
    Pain and pleasure cannot be quantified accurately.
  • Blue Lux
    588
    the question seems to need clarification. Is this an act-utilitarian calculus, or a rule-utilitarian calculus?
  • Wallows
    6.3k
    Is this an act-utilitarian calculus, or a rule-utilitarian calculus?Blue Lux

    Rule-utiliarian calculus.
  • Blue Lux
    588
    On the other hand pleasure can be attached to dubious things like overeating and causing obesity and heart disease and even Nazis and slave owners experienced pleasure.Andrew4Handel

    John Mill has arguments against this, namely that the pleasure of mozart is a higher pleasure for someone who can appreciate music thoroughly than for someone who does not know anything about music, mozart, music theory or art at all. There are thus 'higher' pleasures; that is, rolling around in the mud for a pig is a lower pleasure than, say, listening to mozart, bach or beethoven. Obviously there are problems often with utilitarianism, but John Mill makes countless points and, if I remember correctly, addressed everything you just said.
  • Blue Lux
    588
    the question of why pleasure or pain is good or bad is irrelevant. People prefer pleasure to pain. Pleasure is, in a sense, the escape from pain, the stopping of pain. Sadomasochism... That is not pain but pleasure. The idea of utilitarianism is to say that, given a set of circumstances, what is the sumum bonum, the greatest good, is happiness and therefore the solution to any dilemma in which the question of morality is in play (the question of what is right or wrong) will involve the realization of what solution will include the greatest amount of happiness either for the individual himself regarding his or her own acts, or for the system itself, which includes all thinking, judging people. The most moral solution to an ethical dilemma is what involves the most amount of happiness.
    This is the utilitarian rule of thumb, and though this rule of thumb is not a categorical imperative, it often works.

    My own personal problem with utilitarianism involves the use of drugs. A morphine high is by no means a low pleasure. Firstly, it involves complex chemistry and pharmacological knowledge in order to exist. Secondly, the feeling of morphine is probably one of the best feelings a person can have. So, the question of morality for a heroin addict involves, "Is it moral for me to rob this person to get money to experience the best feeling of pleasure?"

    But, the experienced utilitarian can break this down. A morphine high does not include true happiness. Pleasure is not the utilitarian calculus, happiness is. Happiness and pleasure are often used interchangeably in utilitarianism. Perhaps this is the root of some problems; the snares of language. In any case though, the immediate consequence of a heroin addict making the decision to rob someone does not in any way relate to his eventual feeling of heroin, even though he is robbing for the money for the heroin, and so his judgment would not even constitute a utilitarian calculus.

    Act utilitarianism does not work for the species, only a rule utilitarianism does...
  • Blue Lux
    588
    In the case of rule utilitarianism, there is a fundamental calculus involved, even if the calculus does not necessarily exist to do what we wish it could do in the strict sense of utilitarianism, that is, for utilitarianism itself to be the sumum bonum, the source of the path to the greatest amount of happiness for society. The calculus already in play is the conception of right being what involves the greatest amount of happiness. That is the calculus of what is right, and the opposite would be what is wrong.

    Rule utilitarianism supposes that there is a rule system that could exist that could raise the bar, the average amount of happiness, for every individual within that jurisdiction.

    People simply are not smart enough nor willing enough for this to ever happen.

    This is why it is an ethical theory... it works sometimes, just as any other ethical idea... But breaks down specifically when the problem is more complex than the complexity of the thesis.
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