A Utilitarian argument against believing in Utilitarianism

A popular criticism of Utilitarianism is that it is impractical because one is never in a good position to judge what the outcome of some event will be on the world. The immediate outcome can probably be judged probabilistically with some accuracy, but the ultimate effect of this or that action is just incalculable in principle. Thus, what good I do today, just as what evil I do today, has a ripple effect that will touch my whole life, the lives of all those around me, and all the subsequent lives of everyone else who lives from now to the end of time. Just as gravitational force is exerted even at an infinite distance, so also every human action has infinite consequences. This makes Utilitarianism just impractical. However, perhaps we can give a stronger argument along the same lines; Utilitarianism isn’t just impractical, but Utilitarianism may give us reasons to reject promoting Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism says that a moral action is one which increases the overall pleasure to pain ratio in the world. Utilitarianism may prescribe, therefore, that we do not promote the belief that asserting our ‘will to power’ over those who are weaker than we are is laudable.

Any belief which, when believed, itself increases the pain to pleasure ratio, is a belief which it is immoral to hold according to a Utilitarian standard. However, I wonder if Utilitarianism itself qualifies as a belief which increases the pain to pleasure ratio in the world. Consider, for instance, that Utilitarianism can be appealed to to torture human beings in some special circumstances – even Utilitarians often recognize these instances, but many feel that to speak about such instances defeats the Utilitarian agenda (for example, see Peter Singer on the Philosophy Bites Podcast, where he elaborates this point).   Another example, a little closer to ‘home’, might be that Utilitarianism would technically permit cheating on a spouse so long as he/she were never to find out, since it increases your overall pleasure, and certainly doesn’t take away from anybody else’s (again, presuming the relevant people do not find out, etc.).

Now, supposing that we have some other moral system which promotes just as great a ratio of pleasure to pain in other respects, and yet promotes overall a greater ratio of pleasure to pain because it does not under any circumstances promote torturing people. Notice that the implications of the belief that we can torture people has various implications – it says something about human dignity (anthropology), as well as promotes an attitude among those who accept the doctrine of Utilitarianism either hubris or, more perniciously, the moral duty to decide when it may be appropriate for them to hurt another individual, or to cheat on a spouse.

If Utilitarianism as a belief can be demonstrated to promote a ratio R1 of pleasure to pain which is less than some alternative moral belief system promotes a ratio R2 of pleasure to pain, then the moral belief system which promotes R2 ought to be preferred to that which promotes R1. However, this is plausibly the case of Utilitarianism since Utilitarianism is hopelessly impractical (nobody will ever have closure that they are not relevantly guilty of immorality in this or that action), and it also makes permissible certain crimes against humanity the promotion of which would literally be to the detriment of human well being overall. If one could make a compelling case that Natural Law theories have this advantage over Utilitarianism, and they are Utilitarian, then they should promote Natural Law theories such as those which the Catholic Church recognizes as a genuine moral philosophy.

 

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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