Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Measuring Well-Being and Utilitarianism

We discussed a number of interesting issues today in class.  One set of issues has to do with the difficulty of measuring well-being and how this might make for trouble for utilitarianism.  What do you think is the strongest way of putting this problem?  Is there an example that helps illustrate this problem (e.g., from Russ Shafer-Landau's book or from our discussion in class)?  How serious do you think this problem is for the utilitarian?  Comments related to these questions are most welcome.

12 comments:

Yeet Chien Tan said...

Since Utilitarianism focuses on the results or consequences of certain actions,value measurement provides significant problem. For example, how can we measure precisely the value of love or virtue and combine them to see if they maximize total goodness. To make things worse, utilitarians cannot account for two intrinsically valuable good such as happiness or autonomy because there is no precise measurement on which good gives more goodness.

In my opinion, although I think this problem is serious for the Utilitarians, they might have reply to this. They might say that there are certain crystal clear cases where some actions create more overall benefit than other and hence, those do not need precise measurement. For me, I still think that it is hard to follow the steps outlined by the utilitarian which are add up the benefits and harms and then determine the balance to see whether the balance is greater than that of any other actions.

Lik Sheng Ooi said...

I don't think the difficulty of measuring the utility of actions is not a crucial weakness to utilitarianism. In some distinct cases, ie. killing and lying, it is obvious that killing brings more harm than lying. It shows that we still have some method of comparing the utility of two cases. The difficulty in comparing two cases with similar utility merely shows that we are not good at measuring utility, not that we are incapable of measuring utility; it only shows our limited knowledge about our actions and its morality. Therefore, the argument against utilitarian's inability to measure utility is not a very strong argument.

Su Jia Wong said...

It is difficult for utilitarianism to measure well-beings, such as friendships, knowledge and happiness. We cannot really come out with a precise unit of measurement to measure these benefits. All these factors seem to be subjective and vary from person to person. In the case where autonomy and happiness are the only two factors that contribute to well-beings, we are not able to determine which factor is more important and contributes the most well-beings. As mentioned by Russ, consider the case where a patient is dying and his family begs his doctor to keep the secret so that the patient is not sad over the fact that he doesn't have much time left. But does hiding the truth really makes the patient well-off? The patient has lost the autonomy and we do not really know we should care more about the happiness or the autonomy of the patient. The kind of situation creates problem of value measurement for utilitarianism.

The problem of finding a precise unit of measurement creates serious problems for utilitarian in some cases, but there are many clear cases where some actions create more overall benefits and it is not hard for us to determine which option is the best. If the advantages for each option is roughly the same, then we will choose the one that results in less harm. Thus, I think that even though utilitarian sometimes find it hard to defend against the problem of value measurement, but they are able to give a precise answer for most of the situations we face every day.

robert broome said...

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory stating that an action is morally required just because it brings about the most the most “net” well-being. If this definition is true, than utilitarianism does have a big problem. It is impossible to quantify benefits, and furthermore to compare benefits to drawbacks and ultimately come up with the most optimific ratio. Also, how should one weigh future benefits as opposed to immediate benefits? Since there are no units of measurement with regards to benefits and drawbacks—UT fails in its strictest sense.
However, if people aren’t judging UT by its most literal definition, I think it is a theory that can be practical and accurate. One can use “intuition thumping” in most cases to know which action or scenario is most beneficial. Take the following made-up situation: someone can either push button “A” which kills their dog, or push button “B” which kills a mosquito. In that scenario, the person can sufficiently calculate the benefits vs. the harms of both situations without precise measurements and ultimately make the right decision. Only in dilemmas is it really hard to decide which option is most optimific, and even in those cases one can make a decision without taking the time to come up with specific quantities or measurements. As such I think the “measuring well-being” problem is only a big problem for those regarding UT in its most literal sense.

Noratikah Ali said...

It is true that the difficulty in measuring well-being creates a problem for utilitarian. Sometimes, the actions is good for certain people and sometimes it is bad for certain people. Not only that, utilitarian cannot precisely measure the amount of goodness or badness that will be resulted from their decisions. However, I feel that it will not create a serious problem for utilitarian because they need to do their best in evaluating their actions. They can base their decisions from previous cases and decide whether it will give the results that benefits the most for all parties.

Yuan Xu said...

Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of people’s actions. It suggests that people should take actions whichever bring out the greatest wellness. However, without having a certain measure system, it is hard to have a universal standard for everyone. I think the lack of measure value system is a problem for utilitarianism.

Based on people’s common sense, certain actions are for sure immoral. For example, killing and raping are definitely immoral no matter how people value and measure these results. Therefore, I do think the difficulty of measuring well-being brings problem for utilitarianism but not that much.

Caitlin Cooper said...

I think being unable to measure wellness is a problem for utilitarianism but it’s not a big issue. It’s pretty easy to figure out what actions will cause more overall happiness even if you can’t put an exact number on it. I know that if I were to donate food to a good pantry that I would make more happiness than if I were to eat that food myself. I think having a rough estimate on how much well-being would be created is enough to be able to make a decision on.

I think there are other larger problems with utilitarianism than the inability to measure well-being, like the fact that utilitarianism doesn’t support that there are any intrinsically wrong actions. I find it hard to support theories that can justify horrible actions that are obviously immoral.

Daria Kryuchkova said...

It is really challenging if not impossible to measure well-being. We tend to think that there are many components of well being. Friendship, love, virtue, autonomy, happiness etc. I am taking a stand of pluralism, which poses hard problems. UT would recommend to maximize all the components of well being I just mentionned. However, it is not possible to do that. There is times when we have to sacrifice one or another. It is not about desire satisfaction. UT is a future oriented theory that does not take into account self-interest. I think well being measuring is a serious problem, which UT theorists wouldn't be able to justify. Moreover, all these components is the personal/individual matter. To summarize i would say that conflicting intrinsic values is one of the biggest problems of UT theory.

Sara Klunk said...

The strongest way to put this problem seems to be that it is very difficult to measure the ripple effect of every action. There are consequences, known and unknown, to every action. How these consequences are measured in terms of affecting someone’s well-being can be a significant problem because it is hard to even determine all of these consequences, let alone measure and calculate each effect on a person’s well-being. There is no well-being barometer or the ability to administer polls or surveys for each action, thus making well-being a difficult thing to measure.

Despite this difficulty, I do not think that this is a major problem for utilitarianism. Though well-being can be a difficult thing to measure in numbers, there are ways to predict the resulting well-being of an action. For actions that would result in major change, we vote, take polls, do research, and talk to those who would be effected by the change. These are all things that should be done to make an educated decision, so it is a good thing that utilitarianism requires these actions before making a major decision. For smaller actions, I think it is safe to rely on one’s own intuition to best estimate the results of an action as long as the well-being of others is taken into account during the decision process. It seems to be unreasonable for any ethical theory to require someone to predict the future, and therefore, the best estimate of one’s action seems to be a reasonable expectation.

Emily Engel said...

Because Utilitarianism is based on doing what results in the most benefit for everyone, I think that not being able to measure well-being is a huge problem for the theory. To me, if you can't prove that one option is better than another, then you can't definitively say which is the better choice. While there are situations where it's rather obvious that one choice is better than another, like sending a train down a clear track rather than letting it run over a person on another track, this doesn't help determine an answer for more complex situations. For me, Utilitarianism might be a reasonable theory if there were a way to measure well-being, but without it, the theory is pretty lackluster.

Robert Romeo said...

I think that this is a serious problem for utilitarians. The whole premise of utilitarianism relies on the fact that you are supposed to do the most good while minimizing the amount of bad you do. However, without a way of measuring good there is no way to really know how much of a utilitarian you are being. Of course, this philosophy is still possible to maintain in a broader sense just by using ones best judgement in situations. But until there is a more scientific way of measuring good and bad in situations that call for it then this philosophy is impossible to really fully implement. People may say that the best guess is good enough, but being that utilitarians base the morality of a decision on the outcome and not on the intended result, someones best guess is really not good enough when trying to estimate happiness created by a decision.

Reed K said...

Like we talked about in class, the strongest way of putting the problem was taking one person's life to save many lives. This puts the utilitarian in a tough spot because he/she has to decide a person's life is no longer worth living based on a a very subjective and incomplete estimate of how much better or worse the world could be if that person gave up his/her life. It isn't clear if the person's opinion, in this case the right to live, matters in a case where his/her sacrifice would benefit the world. This seems to be a pretty serious problem for the utilitarian. Say I value my life more than anything in the world but I have the cure to cancer in cells that can only be retrieved by killing me in cold blood. The utilitarian ought to kill me, for the greater well being of the world, but in the process, he has killed me against my will. This being the moral thing to do doesn't seem quite right.