Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Utilitarianism and the Justification of Harm

From guest blogger, Tim. 

I didn’t explain myself very well in class today, so I’ll try to do a better job here. Overall, I don’t like utilitarianism because it justifies harming some people in order to help others, provided that net happiness increases. I think it is difficult to measure and balance out pain and happiness, but even if there was some way to objectively do that, I still don’t think it is justified to help people by hurting others or “violating their rights” (a rather ambiguous statement for now).

My views are of course shaped by my past, so I’ll provide a full disclosure here. I’ve never been a consequentialist or utilitarian. I’ve always held the same moral principle since I first discovered and adopted it – the non-aggression principle, or NAP. I think it captures many of our moral intuitions very well. There are many ways of phrasing the NAP, but I generally use the following: “Under normal circumstances, it is wrong and immoral to initiate force”. “Initiate force” basically means doing anything to a person or their property without their consent. From this principle, it follows that theft, rape, murder, slavery, and many other things we perceive as wrong are indeed immoral. I don’t mean this in an objectivist sense; rather, we simply have a way of explaining the moral intuition. I think a consistent application of the NAP implies that government itself is immoral, so I consider myself an anarcho-capitalist.
So, as you have seen, I’m already predisposed to not like consequentialism, but I don’t believe I can declare it “objectively wrong”. I just ask for consistency, and I think this is something that many utilitarians/consequentialists (or people who advance utilitarian arguments) do not always have. I’ll try to illustrate an example of where I think this contradiction arises by completing my initial idea from class.

Many argue that the government is right to tax “the rich” or “the 1%” in order to directly provide food/services/benefits for poorer people. Assume these people have expressed they do not consent to the tax (if they weren’t thrown in jail for not paying, they wouldn’t pay). The argument is often a utilitarian one and goes like this: The money the rich lose isn’t that useful to them – losing a few thousand won’t affect their happiness at all or will cause them slight harm. Lifting people out of poverty, feeding the homeless, etc. drastically affects their happiness. The calculation then works out that redistributive wealth practices are the right thing to do because they allegedly improve net happiness.

I’m fine with that argument, but if we consider it interpersonally, it seems to disappear. Let’s again consider the same rich person, who doesn’t consent to any entity taking money from them at any time. This time, a homeless person walks up to that rich person, takes their wallet from their pocket, grabs a $100 bill (one of many), replaces the wallet, and leaves. This homeless person then buys some food, clothes suitable for the weather, and other things we would consider to be necessities.

I think the utilitarian then needs to argue that this homeless person stealing was doing something moral. After all, the homeless person’s increase in happiness was greater than the rich person’s negligible (if not nonexistent) loss in happiness.

I don’t think many will do this though. There is a desire to maintain deontological morality interpersonally, with firm rules prohibiting theft. If you ask someone why stealing is wrong, they will probably say “because you can’t take what’s not yours”. They won’t say “it depends on whether the action increases net happiness”. Yet when we consider a government taxation program that does the same thing, consequentialist reasoning is applied and the taxation program is somehow moral, yet interpersonal deontological ethics would consider it to be theft. It’s as if we throw away all of our interpersonal moral intuitions.

I’ve never adopted utilitarianism because it seems like it is always used to justify governmental actions that would not be considered justified in interpersonal situations. It just doesn’t seem like a theory that anyone wants to commit to. There seem to be many situations where we don’t even bother to think about consequences. Some actions are just immediately wrong and no analysis of happiness and pain is required.

So, am I right in saying that a utilitarian is inconsistent if he is fine with the government “taxing” someone to help the poor/homeless, but not alright with the homeless taking the money directly, even if the consequences are the same in both cases?

Perhaps there are utilitarians who would argue both of these actions are moral, eliminating the objection I have stemming from contradiction. However, I think many normal people would draw distinctions between the two cases, applying utilitarianism to governmental choices but a type of deontology to interpersonal ones.

1 comment:

Hannah Blum said...

Hi Tim,

I do agree with you that the utilitarian is inconsistent if he is fine with the government "taxing" someone to help the homeless and poor but not alright with the homeless person taking the money directly, aka stealing. However, I do think the facts lie in the consequences and this is a classic case to think of Robin Hood. Within Robin Hood, the sheriff takes any money he can find from the villagers to give to the King, describing the money as taxes. Rather than these taxes being used to help the poor, they are solely for the King's pleasure. In this case, I think that Robin Hood's stealing to give to the poor ought to be morally justified because the Sheriff and King are not acting moral towards the villagers. I think that the case of the homeless person stealing can be tricky because many homeless people do not proactively participate in Government programs such as soup kitchens and shelters and, while not the case all the time, people may steal extra money for excess goods besides the basics needed for survival. Therefore, I think that if the government is giving the taxed money to the homeless person and he is stealing money he is committing an immoral act, yet if he is not receiving any government help and he steals from someone who is not being taxed it is more acceptable. This also touches on the uneven wealth distribution in our society which is a whole other topic to discuss.