[6.5.] Arguments Against Utilitarianism.
Rachels gives a number of arguments that are supposed to show that utilitarianism is false. We will consider two of them.
[6.5.1.] Utilitarianism Doesn’t Take Rights Seriously.
The Rights Argument (discussed at EMP 113-15)
1. If utilitarianism is true, then it is always moral to violate someone’s right to privacy when doing so will result in an increase in overall well-being.
2. But sometimes is it not moral to violate someone’s right to privacy, even if doing so will result in an increase in overall well-being. [The examples of Angelynn York and of the successful peeping tom are supposed to illustrate this claim.]
3. Therefore, utilitarianism is not true.
This argument is supposed to illustrate that utilitarianism is incompatible with taking rights seriously:
The notion of a personal right is not a utilitarian notion. Quite the opposite: It is a notion that places limits on how an individual may be treated, regardless of the good purposes that might be accomplished. (EMP 115) [This gives us a bit more insight into the concept of a moral right, which we first encountered in Thomson’s pro-choice article.]
· In general, violating a person’s right to privacy will decrease utility.
· But sometimes it will increase utility, and according to utilitarianism, on those occasions, violating a person’s right to privacy is morally permissible—perhaps even obligatory.
Similar arguments against utilitarianism can be constructed using other rights, including the right to life, e.g., involuntary organ donation to save the lives of multiple people.
This is why, in his argument in defense of active euthanasia (RTD 316), Rachels builds in consideration for rights. If utility is the only thing you take into account when deciding whether an action is right or wrong (i.e., if you think utilitarianism is a complete theory of morality), then people’s rights are morally irrelevant—including their right to decide whether or not to die.
[6.5.2.] Utilitarianism is Too Demanding.
1. If utilitarianism is true, then you are always obligated to do whatever will have the best overall consequences for everyone.
2. But you are not always obligated to do whatever will have the best overall consequences for everyone; at least sometimes, it is permissible for you to do trivial things that benefit only yourself.
3. Therefore, utilitarianism is not true.
An illustration: if utilitarianism is true, it is immoral for me to spend $15 for a new CD or DVD, or for a concert ticket, when I could cause a greater increase in the amount of well-being in the world by doing something else with that money. E.g., UNICEF estimates that around 19,000 children under the age of 5 die each day due to easily preventable conditions, including pneumonia and diarrhea (sometimes resulting from malnutrition).
According to some estimates, it costs very little money—only about $15 dollars per month—to save the life of one child. Clearly, I could raise the amount of well-being in the world more by saving a life than I can by purchasing an CD or DVD or concert ticket for myself.
But according to moral common-sense, it is at least sometimes morally permissible for me to buy a new album, etc. rather than give my money to the poor. Maybe it would be wrong for me to spend all of my money on relatively trivial items for myself; but utilitarianism implies that it would be wrong for me to spend any of my money on relatively trivial items for myself. (And in fact, this is the position that Peter Singer takes in “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” one of your upcoming readings.)
This argument is supposed to show that utilitarianism places too great a moral burden on us: it demands too much.
Another way of putting the point is to say that utilitarianism implies that many actions are obligatory when they seem to moral common-sense to be supererogatory.
[6.5.3.] Evaluating the Arguments Against Utilitarianism.
· Both of these arguments are examples of modus tollens, and so they are both valid.
· premise 2: in both arguments, this premise seems true to moral common-sense; but of course, that is no guarantee that these premises are true; the point is only that most people would have a very hard time giving these premises up.
· premise 1: it definitely seems true. As we’re about to see, there is a defense of utilitarianism that admits that premise 1 and premise 2 are true, but goes on to change utilitarianism so that premise 1 no longer applies to it.
[6.6.] J.J.C. Smart’s “Common Sense is Wrong” Defense of Utilitarianism.
Some philosophers have taken a rather startling approach to defending utilitarianism against arguments like the Rights Argument and the Excessive Demand Argument.
This is the approach taken by the Australian philosopher J.J.C. Smart (1920-2012), in the book An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics (1961):
Admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view “so much the worse for the common moral consciousness.” That is, I was inclined to reject the common methodology of testing general ethical principles by seeing how they square with our feelings in particular instances. (EMP 112)
Smart would defend utilitarianism against its critics as follows:
· acknowledge that common-sense agrees with the second premise of the Rights Argument (“Sometimes it is immoral to violate someone’s right to privacy, even if doing so will result in an increase in overall well-being.”) and of the Excessive Demand Argument (“You are not always obligated to do whatever will have the best overall consequences for everyone; at least sometimes, it is permissible to do trivial things that benefit only yourself”);
· claim that in the case of these arguments, common-sense is simply wrong and that the second premise is false;
· maintain that utilitarianism is true.
Let’s return to the Excessive Demand Argument. Smart’s defense of utilitarianism would be to say that the second premise of that argument is false. That premise says: “it is not always morally obligatory to do something other than what will have the best overall consequences for everyone.” This seems like common-sense, something almost everyone would agree with. But Smart thinks that in this case common-sense is mistaken. (As we will see, this seems to be the view on world poverty taken by Peter Singer.)
Returning to MCR for a moment… One of the important lessons that Rachels thinks we can learn from Moral-Cultural Relativism is that, for the most part, our moral beliefs result from inculcation rather than from a rational process of examining all the options and choosing the one that has the most reasons behind it. We have the moral beliefs we do because of how we were raised; what we were taught by our parents, teachers, and others; absorbing beliefs and habits from the people around us and from the culture as a whole. This is where our “moral common-sense” (or as Smart says, our “common moral consciousness”) comes from.
But these common-sense ideas about right and wrong might be incorrect. In particular, they might be incorrect if they are incompatible with a moral theory that has the weight of reason on its side.
Two hundred years ago, the moral common-sense of many Americans told them that it was moral to treat black people very differently than whites. This just seemed obvious to many people. And we now know that they were wrong.
A different way to illustrate this point: On most issues (murder, rape, punishing the innocent, torturing children, dancing, riding in an automobile), contemporary Americans share the same common-sense responses.
But there is a small group of issues (e.g., abortion and homosexuality) where our moral common-sense diverges. For some issues, many people think that X is obviously immoral, while many others think that X is obviously not immoral. Someone’s common-sense reaction is mistaken. So our moral common-sense is fallible (it is capable of being wrong).
Even if we reject Smart’s defense of utilitarianism, we can still learn this valuable lesson from it: moral common-sense is fallible—it is possible for it to be wrong.
Stopping point for Tuesday March 4. THIS IS THE END OF THE MATERIAL THAT WILL BE COVERED ON YOUR SECOND EXAM.
This class will not meet on Thursday March 6.
When we reconvene on Tuesday March 11, we will cover any material in this notes that we didn’t get to discuss in today’s class. We will then review for your second exam, which will be on Thursday March 13.
Remember the public lecture this Thursday, March 6, about which you can write an essay to earn extra credit in this class. Information about this event and instructions for writing the essay are here:
 An obituary for Smart is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/30/jjc-smart .
This page last updated 3/4/2014.
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