Home > Uncategorized > A classical utilitarian position implicates that individuals have no moral rights

A classical utilitarian position implicates that individuals have no moral rights

from Tanja von Egan-Krieger and RWER

. . . the World Bank builds on a utilitarian definition of efficiency, which is of course a normative criterion. It is a criterion of judgement. The implicit aim is increasing the net value or total wealth. The World Bank refers to this idea in terms of a “social benefit”: “Even investments that are highly profitable for an investor will generate sustainable social benefits only if they are not associated with environmental externalities”.

An ethical reflection immediately raises the question for whom the net value is produced. Who does benefit from the increasing total wealth? From a utilitarian point of view this question doesn’t matter. The ethical maxim of classical utilitarianism is to maximise the sum of pleasure and pain and thereby the overall utility. The economy, and ultimately society at large which encompasses the economy, is thus regarded as a collective subject. An action is ethically right if the overall utility, in case of the economy the total wealth, is increased. Thereby individuals become mere “represents” of utility quanta. They are off-settable assets.

It was Gunnar Myrdal who named this construction of social harmony sarcastically a “communistic fiction”. By taking no account of potential social conflicts between individuals endowed with moral rights, and of questions of distributional justice, prima facie legitimation is attributed to every possible distribution, as long as the sum of utilities, however these are qualified, grows. We can detect an interesting friction in classical utilitarianism. On the one hand classical utilitarians claim that there is no such thing as community because it is just the individual which can experience pleasure or pain and therefore it is just the individual which has to count.

On the other hand the ethical maxim of maximising the trans-personal sum of pleasure and pain seemingly leads to the contrary. To transfer this maxim e.g. to the collective entity of “the economy” implicates that it is just the collective body which counts. A classical utilitarian position implicates that individuals have no moral rights besides the claim that their utility, however measured, counts as much as everybody else’s. Even if economic activity comes along with a distribution which violates what is seen from other ethical perspectives the moral rights of individuals, this does not matter for utilitarianism as long as the overall utility increases. This is why classical utilitarianism conflicts with nearly all other ethical theories.

read more: http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue95/Egan-Krieger95.pdf

  1. Ken Zimmerman
    September 14, 2021 at 10:16 am

    Developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as a secular alternative to Divine Command theory, classical utilitarianism contends the sole moral obligation is to

    Maximize utility (= happiness = pleasure).

    Unfortunately, utilitarianism faces many problems. One of these has to do with so called “utility monsters” — individuals who would experience much greater utility or disutility than average as a result of some possible action. For example, suppose you would get a small utility from sneezing, but you are standing next to someone who absolutely can’t stand sneezing and would experience massive negative utility if you sneezed. Then, insofar as you can control your sneezing, it would be IMMORAL for you to sneeze. Or suppose it would bother you somewhat to have your ear fondled, but the person standing next to you would experience great hedonistic utility if he fondled your ear. Then, on classical utilitarian theory, your moral obligation is to permit the fondling. In these examples, you are faced with utility monsters: persons who, a psychologist might say, show exaggerated affect. Their perverse psychological quirks are controlling your moral obligations.

    Put another way, utilitarianism starts by appearing very egalitarian, treating all as equals. But since it treats the magnitude of pleasure/displeasure as the ONLY morally significant state of the world, it actually treats beings very unequally — those who have very large utility/disutility count for much more than those who don’t.

    Note: In politics, utility monsters are called “special interest groups.”

    One objection made by philosophers is summarized by Ray Briggs, “One objection to this interpretation of utility is that there may not be a single good (or indeed any good) which rationality requires us to seek. But if we understand “utility” broadly enough to include all potentially desirable ends—pleasure, knowledge, friendship, health and so on—it’s not clear that there is a unique correct way to make the tradeoffs between different goods so that each outcome receives a utility. There may be no good answer to the question of whether the life of an ascetic monk contains more or less good than the life of a happy libertine—but assigning utilities to these options forces us to compare them.

    A bigger problem some claim is that utilitarianism does not consider justice. Frederick Rosen (2003) points out that claiming that utilitarians are not concerned about having rules is to set up a ‘straw man.’ Similarly, R.M. Hare refers to “the crude caricature of utilitarianism which is the only version of it that many philosophers seem to be acquainted with.” Given what Bentham says about second order evils, it would be a serious misrepresentation to say that he and similar utilitarians would be prepared to punish an innocent person for the greater good. Nevertheless, whether they would agree or not, this is what critics of utilitarianism claim is entailed by the theory.

    H. J. McCloskey presented the “sheriff scenario” in 1957.

    “Suppose that a sheriff were faced with the choice either of framing a Negro for a rape that had aroused hostility to the Negroes (a particular Negro generally being believed to be guilty but whom the sheriff knows not to be guilty)—and thus preventing serious anti-Negro riots which would probably lead to some loss of life and increased hatred of each other by whites and Negroes—or of hunting for the guilty person and thereby allowing the anti-Negro riots to occur, while doing the best he can to combat them. In such a case the sheriff, if he were an extreme utilitarian, would appear to be committed to framing the Negro.”

    There are dozens of other condemnations of utilitarianism.  All and all, I’m of the mind that utilitarianism should follow epicureanism into oblivion.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.