Friday, July 15, 2016

Time-sensitivity and Consequentialism

From guest blogger, Aria.

From a utilitarian perspective, pleasure is the one and only intrinsic good. It states that the morally right action is the one that maximizes the pleasure to pain ratio. Thus, in order to make a decision about what we ought to do in a given situation, we need to calculate the total resultant pain and pleasure. The utilitarian believes that regardless of how difficult it is to predict the net amount of happiness/pleasure, we are morally required to do the best we can, give what we know to predict the consequences.

In my opinion, this view does not fully account for the complexity of time-sensitive dilemmas one could face, when one only has a few seconds to do the calculations and make a decision. To me, the limitation of time and the psychological pressure and strain it could result, greatly impairs the ability of the individual to do calculations and come up with a decision. How are we supposed to calculate the total amount of pain and pleasure and make a decision given the limited time and the complexity of the situation at hand? Consider the trolley problem when you have 3 seconds to decide whether you pull the lever to save the two individuals on the main track but kill the individual tied to the side track, or not pull the lever and let the two individuals tied to the main track die (there could also be a question about whether the utilitarian discriminates between killing vs. letting die). How are you supposed to have time to think about the issue at hand, make calculations, and decide what you ought to do to maximize the net pleasure or happiness in the 3 seconds you have? To me, the utilitarian’s claim that we ought to do the best we can, given what we know is not sufficient in such a complex situation. It seems to me that the utilitarian fails to consider the complexity and time sensitivity of real life dilemmas and does not provide appropriate guidance in such situations.

Furthermore, the utilitarian claims that the one and only intrinsic good is pleasure. But Why? She does not explain why pleasure is the only intrinsic good and why, for instance, knowledge/wisdom is not. I believe that the burden of proof is on the utilitarian to explain this.

Consider the trolley problem again but this time with only one individual tied to each track. Assume that you know that the two individuals are similar in every regard (e.g. they are clones of one another) and we have calculated the net amount of pleasure each of the individuals contributes to the world to be exactly the same. What are we supposed to do in this situation? Who are we supposed to save? Are you supposed to do nothing and let the person on the track die? Are you supposed to divert the track? The utilitarian seems to fail to give us an answer in this situation.

Now, consider a scenario when both of the people tied on the tracks (the main and side tracks) are similar in every regard, except that one individual is more attractive than the other. According to the principle of utility, you are supposed to save the more attractive individual since people get more pleasure just by looking at the person as they pass by her on the street. But is that the right thing to do? Aren’t looks the most superficial criteria to use to base our moral decisions on? To me, this does not seem like the moral thing to do. Thus, sometimes acts that seem immoral are morally required by the utilitarian principles.

What do you think the utilitarian’s response would be to these objections?

1 comment:

Allan said...

I'd like to comment on your thoughts about time sensitivity. In my opinion, situations such as the trolley or the child drowning are merely thought experiments. They are meant to provide fuel for discussions such as the ones we have had in our class. When setting up these thought experiments, Prof. Steinberg laid out presumptions that would guide our debate on the matter. One of his presumptions was that we would have ample time to make a decision in such a scenario. One could debate for hours on the matter but these thought experiments do not carry over to real life. If I, personally, were to find myself in such a situation, I'm almost certain my decision would not be based on morals or ethics. Human beings are known to have a fight or flight response in emergency situations and I would probably make an impulsive decision that would lead my personal benefit/survival. For example, if I had to choose between saving the scientist with the cure for cancer versus saving my own mother on the train tracks, I would save my mother in the rush of the situation. My mother has personally had a positive impact on me and will continue to do so and I see a greater personal gain in saving her. Having not been diagnosed with cancer yet, I do not directly gain anything from the scientist, however grim it may sound.