My Brief Brief Against Utilitarianism
it's a red flag when people refuse to follow their own moral logic
The response to my piece on effective altruism was heavily positive, and the criticisms were good criticisms, which is always satisfying. I do want to respond to a claim I got from several emailers. They said, more or less, that I was overthinking it, and that all effective altruism really attempts to do is to enact utilitarian principles in the real world instead of in philosophy seminars. It’s just a way to launder Peter Singer for the masses. Which opens up a whole other can of worms, or so it seems to me, but fine. The trouble is that I reject utilitarianism. And since people have asked about why, I’m going to lay it out here. Please understand that I am well aware that there are critics of utilitarianism who are much more informed than I am and can mount better critiques. I’m merely sharing my own thoughts because I’ve been asked.
In brief: one, utilitarianism leads to some very bad places and two, almost no one I’ve known who identifies as a utilitarian is consistently willing to take their philosophy to its natural ends. Utilitarianism inevitably comes to conclusions that violate our moral instincts to such a degree that most people will never follow along. Indeed, what makes Singer admirable (albeit frequently wrong) is that he’s actually willing to own utilitarianism’s repugnant endpoints. But most people aren’t, including most people who are inclined towards utilitarianism. And thank God.
In this country, there are thousands of people in persistent vegetative states. These are people who we have every reason to believe have no consciousness. Most of them are in long-term care facilities. People work at those long-term care facilities. And it may happen that some of those who work at such facilities would like to rape women in vegetative states. I’m afraid that we know that this happens. They also are likely to have the opportunity to rape these women and get away with it. So: what does utilitarianism demand? Since the women lack consciousness, they cannot generate utility; they have no pleasure/mental well-being/happiness through which to generate utility. The would-be rapists, on the other hand, are conscious and would derive pleasure from raping these women. I think any minimally honest vision of utilitarianism would thus insist not only that these men can morally rape the women in vegetative states but must rape them. That’s the action that generates utility.
Go up a level. A security guard works at such a facility. He sees on a security camera that a janitor is raping a patient in a vegetative state. What is his moral duty? If he stops it from happening, he’s denying utility to a human being and doing nothing for a being that cannot feel or think or experience happiness. And if he reports the janitor and gets him arrested, he’s creating significant negative utility for that janitor. The utilitarian calculus is very obvious: the security guard has a profound moral duty to allow the janitor to rape the disabled woman. How’s that sound to you, as a matter of basic morality?
There are of course many other examples where utilitarian logic violates our basic moral instincts. A classic one imagines a race riot in the South in the 1940s; a white woman has claimed that she was raped by a Black man, and white people are massacring the local Black population. You know that you can successfully frame an innocent Black man for the crime and that once he’s lynched, the riot and massacre will stop. Utilitarianism (again, of the honest variety) suggests that you have a moral duty to ensure the murder of this innocent person because the negative utility of killing him will be dwarfed by the positive utility of stopping the riot. Utilitarianism places no value on basic rights. Or imagine that you’re walking home from buying a loaf of bread for your hungry children. A homeless woman and her three hungry children beg you for the bread. You can easily do a utilitarian calculus that insists you give it to them and let your own hungry children starve. Utilitarianism places no value on duty to personal responsibilities. And you could take out a bunch of personal loans and spend the money on the global poor, then gleefully default on the loans under the theory that you’ve created more utility than you would by paying them back. Morally, I don’t have much issue with that, but if everyone followed such a project, the credit system would collapse.
There are two general tacks utilitarians take in response to such complaints. The first is to devise revisions to utilitarianism that undermine the basic flexibility and simplicity that underlie the system in the first place. For example, you sometimes hear about “rule utilitarianism,” where rather than applying utilitarianism to each instance you form a set of rules according to the principles of utilitarianism. So where utilitarianism constantly pressures people to lie, if lying increases utility, rule utilitarianism might create a rule against lying in general based on utilitarian principles. The problem here seems obvious: rule utilitarianism isn’t utilitarianism. You’ve just created a list of rules no less arbitrary than the Ten Commandments, sacrificing what makes people attracted to utilitarianism in the first place.
The second common response is much more annoying. So many people I know who espouse utilitarianism dismiss such moral thought experiments out of hand, demonstrating annoyance at having to think about them and insisting that these are trolley problems that have no connection to real life. “Get serious!” they say, “we should debate real-world problems.” But the situations I’ve laid out are perfectly real, perfectly within the boundaries of the ordinary. Women in long-term care facilities get raped. Innocent people can be framed for crimes in ways that reduce civil unrest. Life puts us into situations constantly in which a greater good could potentially be arrived at in a way that violates basic conceptions of rights, justice, and personal commitments. Declaring that any scenario that puts your utilitarianism at risk in that way should be off limits in a debate suggests to me that the philosophy lacks rigor when exposed to the real world.
And this, to me, is the meta-argument against utilitarianism, and why I am so sure they haven’t got the goods: they get mad when you simply apply their own moral logic consistently.