Monday, April 15, 2013

Extreme Utilitarianism

**This is from guest blogger, Kelsen A.**

J.J.C. Smart is an Extreme Utilitarian. The Extreme Utilitarian believes that an action is right based on the total utility of that particular action and not the general utility of an action. A few examples may make this clear. He uses the example of saving a drowning person. In general this is the right thing to do. So the Restricted Utilitarian will say it is always right to save a person who is drowning. However, Smart believes that in particular cases, breaking the rule is in fact the right thing to do. For example, if the person drowning were to be Hitler, the total utility of letting him drown would be higher than saving him. Smart's next example (which is a common example) is much more interesting though. Here is the scenario: Your friend is on his death bed on a desert island and asks you to promise to give all his money away to a jockey club. You promise to do so. When your friend dies, you have the opportunity to give his money to a hospital instead which would make better use of the money and produce overall more utility. No one will ever know that you made a promise so the effects on the integrity of keeping a promise will remain intact. Smart argues that breaking the rule of keeping promises is the right thing to do in this scenario. I find this to be tricky. It seems like you owe your friend to keep the promise but there is clearly a better option. The restricted utilitarian will stick with abiding by the rule, "One ought keep promises he or she makes." But the Extreme Utilitarian after careful calculations of the options can in this instance break the rule because the happiness of breaking the rule is greater than not. I think this is the more reasonable stance to take. Abiding by the rule seems to be a general stance to take but given one particular instance following the rule when it's not producing the most utility is giving some importance to the rule. We talked about happiness being the only intrinsic good for the utilitarian. This would seem to put the restricted utilitarian in a place where obeying a rule provides some good other than happiness. Smart agrees that obeying the rule will be right 99% of the time but there are cases when given time to reevaluate, one should break the rule. I can see a few places to ask questions here. What reasons would we have for not breaking the rule in these 1% of cases? If breaking a rule is acceptable, why do we have general rules? Couldn't we just evaluate each one on it's own? Do we praise the person for breaking the rule when as a society we should abide by there rules?

Smart has a few answers and I find the discussion on the difference between an action being right and an action being praiseworthy to be the most interesting follow up. Smart argues that a person can be wrong but praiseworthy. For example, the person who saves a drowning Hitler did the wrong thing but is praiseworthy for making a snap decision and going in to rescue the drowning person. Similarly, the person who gave the money to the hospital did the right thing but, he would be blameworthy for breaking his promise. This is not particularly intuitive. A person can be blamed for doing the right thing? Smart uses an example of watering flowers in a water shortage. If everyone did it, there would be problems. So by rule, no one should water their flowers. However, if one person does it and gives the pretty flowers away to make someone happy this won't have any negative effects on the water supply and will have positive effects on the people receiving flowers. It seems like the right thing to do is for one person to break the rule. If you had to choose, and knew you were the only one considering doing this, would you break the rule? You would be doing the right thing in the extreme utilitarian sense but would be blameworthy for using water on flowers. I'm not so sure this distinction works but a disagreement in which the person is praiseworthy leads to problems of one person being praiseworthy for watering her flowers and the next is blameworthy for watering his flowers. This seems to commit us to saying that if we believe in extreme utilitarianism, then we must also accept an extreme view on praiseworthiness and blameworthiness in order to not have a conflict of right and blameworthy that Smart is willing to accept.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

The distinction between action A being right and action A being praiseworthy is not like something of a distinction between categories. It is a distinction between actions to be evaluated. Utilitarians evaluate actions by their consequences. For an action to be right but blameworthy is simply to notice that blaming someone for doing A is itself another action above and beyond A, say action B. A may have been the right thing to do, which is to say that the consequences of A were the best (say letting Hitler drown), but still blameworthy because action B, the act of blaming the person who did A, will have the best consequences (re-enforcing broadly that letting someone drown is bad). So, the distinction between A being right and A being praiseworthy/blameworthy is simply to notice that praising or blaming A is itself another act which is to be evaluated by its consequences.

Sorry, I know this doesn't directly comment on any of your questions or assertions, but I hope it helps clarify what's at stake.

Chelsea R. said...

I think Extreme Utilitarianism offers a a solution to some pitfalls of traditional utilitarianism. For instance, it is always said that utilitarianism can make some bad things seem okay. Like killing your aunt to distribute everyone's inheritance money early. Extreme Utilitarianism might say that killing your aunt isn't permissible in that case because the total pleasure of the group will be the same in 8 years when she dies of natural causes. While in the case of not fulfilling your dying friends wishes, is it really that bad? A lot of people were helped by that money.

Cassy K. said...

I think basing an entire decision-making moral code off of "in general" assertions is silly - restricted utilitarianism falling into this category. Without even going into deep philosophical thought, it just seems intuitive to me that real moral issues are much more complicated than that. It's difficult to make specific "in general" rules about anything. You can assert them easily (ie. we say things like "in general, X is Y" all the time) but that doesn't mean that it's so easy to actually apply them in all cases.

Basically, I agree with Chelsea here. Extreme UT does offer some consolation for the worries of traditional UT. I think you'd have to test the total utility (however you'd go about actually doing that, I still don't exactly know) based on a specific, individual action rather than a general rule.

T. Stoehr said...

Basically, here's what I'm thinking: the likelihood of "general" rules applying accurately to specific cases seems quite low. In how many cases are we able to apply the rule "dont kill" without taking other facets of the situation into account? Yes, in general, this rule applies, but I dont think it's plausible to "base an entire decision-making moral code", as Cassy said, off of these general rules.

Also, I think Smart's assertion that rule-following seems praiseworthy under RU is interesting. If this is how the situation is playing out, then RU has lost its utilitarian-ness, for we are no longer doing an action to maximize pleasure, but because its what the rule commands. Saving Hitler from drowning, for example, would be wrong because Hitler's not the greatest guy around, but it would be praiseworthy because you've saved a life. In this case, its foolish to subject the individual to a rule-based system of judgment, because the details of this case are pertinent. In cases such as these, I cant understand how someone would favor RU over EU.

Cole D. said...

While this article swayed me away from RU, that doesn't mean that EU is entirely off of the hook. Chelsea, I found the example you gave to still be problematic for EU in a real-world scenario. Say, for instance, you decide to live your life as a dedicated Act Utilitarian. You develop a calculus for utility based on what you know right now; it's not perfect, of course, because the technology does not exist to perfect it. Essentially, you would be like a blindfolded vegan at Old Country Buffet. Even though your actions may not result in adherence to your beliefs, you would still try valiantly to act as your doctrine dictates. If your calculus advises you to kill your aunt and you go through with it only to decrease utility, your actions would still be seen by the masses (and a jury) as neither good nor praiseworthy. Even assume that killing your entirely innocent aunt does increase utility, as she was very rich and not doing anything with the money, but now all of her relatives can buy jetskis with their inheritance. This action still seems wrong to us in a way; namely, it seems unjust. The importance of justice is integral in John Rawls's rejection of Utilitarianism, which I believe we are reading later this semester.

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