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« Should Science Study Religion? | Main | The Problem of Good »

May 23, 2012


If it’s counterintuitive consequences of utilitarianism that one is looking for, they are a dime a dozen. Let us say that utilitarianism is the following thesis (other theses have been proposed by utilitarians, of course):

Utilitarianism: An action A is morally permissible if and only if no available alternative to A results in greater net happiness than A.

Counterintuitive Consequence One

We are morally required to favor policies that result in multitudes of individuals receiving very, very small benefits to policies that result in a few needy individuals receiving very great benefits. So long as the group is big enough, it is better to give a small amount of money to a large but moderately well-off group than a large amount of money to a small but very needy group.

Counterintuitive Consequence Two

Very little, if anything, is supererogatory. You are morally obligated, after all, to do whatever maximizes happiness. It is very hard, therefore, to go over and beyond the call of duty, since the call of duty is so demanding. If sending whatever money you would have spent on a luxury (e.g., vacation for one’s family) to Africa will make the world a better place than the world would otherwise be, then you are obligated to do that, which means doing it is not supererogatory.

Counterintuitive Consequence Three

We are not only permitted, be morally required, to treat individuals as means to the end of bettering the global state of affairs. If somehow it would better the global state of affairs to frame and hang an innocent man, then we are morally required to do so, even if it would only very slightly better the global state of affairs.

Counterintuitive Consequence Four

Most forms of partiality are immoral. For instance, suppose I decide to aid my own two children instead of my neighbor’s four children, because for whatever reason I cannot aid both my children and his at the same time. The fact that my children are my children carries no moral weight at all. All that matters is what course of action will maximize net happiness. It does not matter whose happiness we are considering. So, most forms of partiality towards friends and family are immoral.

Counterintuitive Consequence Five

In cases of alternative courses of action A and B, if both A and B maximize happiness (i.e., are such than no alternative to A or B results in more net happiness), then we ought to be indifferent morally between A and B, even if A involves something we intuitively regard as deeply immoral and B involves nothing of the sort. Suppose A and B both maximize happiness, but A involves killing an innocent person and B involves no such thing. In this case, utilitarianism gives us no moral reasons for preferring B to A, since the only morally relevant consideration is maximizing happiness, which by hypothesis both A and B do.

Counterintuitive Consequence Six

The only thing that has intrinsic worth is happiness, where happiness is construed as a sensation of pleasure. This may not straightforwardly follow from the thesis above as I articulated, but typically utilitarianism is thought of as a view that tells you first to identify what is good and then maximize that. The utilitarian typically says that only happiness is good. But intuitively there are more things than just happiness that are good. Nozick’s experience machine does a good job of bringing out that intuition in us.

The phrase "morally permissible" is an excuse for doing the wrong thing and shifting the responsibility on society. The analog of this can be found in the example of Hitler taking the moral responsibility for the actions of his butchers who murdered millions(this is a fact expressed by his personal secretary in a documentary). This is why this phrase should be detested by all humanity. Let us never forget the lessons of history that we are personally responsible for what we do and that what is morally permissible by any society, may be morally wrong and downright detestable. What society permits should never be our misguiding-star.

If a large group of people benefit from the slavery of a small group of people, is slavery acceptable?

If denying certain rights to a minority (ie banning gay marriage or establishing a state rteligion) makes the majority happier, is it acceptable to deny the rights?

No rights are denied to a minority in banning gay marriage. Heterosexuals also do not have the right to marry a member of the same gender. The same restriction is imposed impartially across the board.

This isn't a matter of rights, but a matter of society determining if two humans of the same gender engaging in sexual relations with each other is right or wrong.

If society determines that it is ok for that to happen, then society is wrong. I hope society is not wrong.

"If society determines that it is ok for that to happen, then society is wrong"

How is that possible without an objective moral standard?


"How is that possible without an objective moral standard?"

The evidence for a moral objective standard can be established if it can be shown that an objective good is accomplished as a result of a particular behavior. It would seem to me that the bringing about of a civilization in which stable families are something that is promoted, not just permitted, brings about that good in bringing up a well adjusted, stable, and productive generation of children that will further contribute the the overall good of the civilization they are a part of. Thus it can be established that marriage as defined traditionally, is the best kind of union to accomplish this good, thus qualifying it for promotion (encouraging more of the same in large quantities)by existing governments. It is in fact morally incumbent on government to do so. Failure to do so, is a moral failure that will result in a reduction of objective and measurable good that civilization is capable of producing. To assume that there is no objective moral standard regarding marriage is to first ignore its purpose and that is to provide a healthy environment in which the next generation of children are provided the necessary tools to build a better world. It has been shown that children do best when they are raised by their biological parents in a loving low conflict family. Since this is the case, it would be foolish to reduce our next generation of children to lab rats in a social experiment of redefined family units that lack the necessary tools with which to accomplish the task of properly bringing them up in a way to benefit civilization by bringing about the greatest possible good for all its members. The negative impact of promoting dysfunctional family units can objectively be measured in crime, drug abuse, utilization of psychiatric services and burdens placed on the economy through public assistance programs necessary to buttress those who are unprepared to deal with life as a result of the tools being denied them early on in their family life.

Good comment, Malebranche.

I don't get it. Why would Valjean himself feel no emotion over Cosette?



You mean utilitarianism is not the Final Moral Theory Revealing Ultimate Truth? I'm crushed! Now our search for such a Theory is doomed. What ever shall we do? Where do we turn?


I don't think the case applies only to Utilitarianism.

It has been argued recently, on this very blog, that individuals only have a right not to be killed if they have already had conscious thought...the mere capacity won't do.

In the case supposed, Cosette has not yet had any such thought. She therefore has no right not to be killed.

Now, this does not immediately get us to a counter-intuitive preference for keeping the promise to find the doll over preserving Cosette's life (as act-utilitarianism does). But it may get us to to a counter-intuitive absence of preference for preserving Cosette's life over keeping the promise regarding the doll.

Who is this Valjean who feels no emotion over Cosette?

This seems to be about abortion.

If so, it seems the girl's interest in a doll stands for any interest a pregnant woman has at stake.


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