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Old 05-10-2021, 06:39 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Question Utilitarianism

Hey there banterers. Philosophy is part of the title of this forum, so I thought it might be interesting to talk some moral philosophy. Are there any utilitarians among you?

Out of the moral philosophies, it is the one that has resonated the most with me. If you don't know what it is, it is basically a moral theory that says actions that result in increased happiness and/or reduced pain/suffering are morally preferable.

There are various formulations of this principle, but generally utilitarianism is more concerned with good consequences (in terms of happiness/pain) than it is with specific dos and donts.

A couple of caveats for myself:
  • I don't think moral theories need to guide us in every common, everyday moral situation. For good or bad, we have a moral compass, a gut feeling, and people generally follow that. To expect people to not act like this is futile. We mostly need moral theories when we are confronted with moral dilemmas that nature and nurture has not equipped us to deal with and where we are morally unsure.
  • When it comes to societal issues, I tend to adjust the utilitarian principle accordingly: The best decision is the one that promotes quality of life for people in the long run.

Many criticize utilitarianism, but I believe we often follow it when push comes to shove. For example, we might not like the idea of placing different worth on the lives of people, yet we might still prefer the death of a sick old person to one young and healthy.

So whatcha think?
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Old 05-10-2021, 06:51 AM   #2 (permalink)
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whenever someone starts criticizing utilitarianism...more and more prefaces get added and "oh I'm a Rule Utilitarian oh I make an exception for that" and so on
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Old 05-10-2021, 07:11 AM   #3 (permalink)
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whenever someone starts criticizing utilitarianism...more and more prefaces get added and "oh I'm a Rule Utilitarian oh I make an exception for that" and so on
I think that's true for most moral theories. Like someone might say they're against murder, except if it's war - then it's okay.

Every conceivable context is hard to account for. However, I do think utilitarianism is better equipped than many moral theories considering it's often a little unclear exactly how to achieve the wanted results. It tells you what to aim for, but not how to achieve it.
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Old 05-10-2021, 07:25 AM   #4 (permalink)
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It's pretty uncontroversial. That's what makes it such a great tool for propaganda, since heinous acts can be misframed as the utilitarian alternative to a hypothetical worse situation that's allegedly being prevented (nuking Japan's an obvious example of this in my mind). It's still a strong baseline for the critical mind that few people truly reject, but in practice, it's applied retroactively to justify actions as opposed to predicating them.

Your example generally holds but I think that when push comes to shove, people view things in a more shortsighted way that runs contrary to utilitarianism. For example, if the older person was a relative, they might prefer the short term emotional utility that they provide to them versus the longer term and more widespread social/labour utility that the younger person would provide.
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Old 05-10-2021, 07:41 AM   #5 (permalink)
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It's pretty uncontroversial. That's what makes it such a great tool for propaganda, since heinous acts can be misframed as the utilitarian alternative to a hypothetical worse situation that's allegedly being prevented (nuking Japan's an obvious example of this in my mind). It's still a strong baseline for the critical mind that few people truly reject, but in practice, it's applied retroactively to justify actions as opposed to predicating them.
Yes. I believe defending the nukes is a difficult and controversial example, but in general, I tend to accept that line of reasoning as long as the arguments are solid enough.

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Your example generally holds but I think that when push comes to shove, people view things in a more shortsighted way that runs contrary to utilitarianism. For example, if the older person was a relative, they might prefer the short term emotional utility that they provide to them versus the longer term and more widespread social/labour utility that the younger person would provide.
Sometimes they probably would and sometimes not. I do agree that if a gut feeling of right or wrong presents itself (such as when sparing a relative), people are generally not going to choose counter to that. I wouldn't expect anyone to.
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Old 05-10-2021, 10:24 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Yeah I'm more of a negative utilitarist (minimising unhappiness seems better to me than maximising happiness) but I'd call myself a utilitarist.
Also in its pure form its virtually impossible to apply, which leaves a lot of freedom which I think is part of the reason it's abused so much

The only possible way of applying it is to generalise somehow since you can't look into the future and judge outcomes case by case. I think the best way is not to base rules on it (with laws like 'stealing is bad' there are too many exceptions) but evaluate abstract concepts, like empathy, jealousy, etc. and go from there, which requires a lot of honest introspection. But I guess you need that for any kind of moral compass
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Old 05-10-2021, 11:19 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I don't think people are going to en masse act in a utilitarian manner in their day-to-day lives. At least not consciously and consistently.

To me, utilitarianism's big potential is I think it's a good value and goal for society to pursue. A utilitarian principle, like the one posed in my first post, should be used as a guide to figure out best politics / legislation. F.ex. whenever a new law or national road project or whatever is up for discussion, whether or not it is going to, in some manner, add to the (long term) quality of life for people should be the ultimate thing to consider.
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Old 05-10-2021, 04:13 PM   #8 (permalink)
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there's a term for this, although I don't remember it

but I lean towards some concepts inherently having value

Freedom, Truth, Justice etc

they are not justified by their outcomes, they're justified by some notion of righteousness whether it's learned or biological
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Old 05-10-2021, 04:18 PM   #9 (permalink)
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also the metrics used to judge outcomes can be flimsy

Happiness?

philosophers can't agree on what that even means

Doestoyetsk argued humans don't even necessarily want to be happy
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Old 05-10-2021, 04:20 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by elphenor View Post
there's a term for this, although I don't remember it

but I lean towards some concepts inherently having value

Freedom, Truth, Justice etc

they are not justified by their outcomes, they're justified by some notion of righteousness whether it's learned or biological
that's just what I was talking about I think. Those notions of righteousness are ultimately based on the idea that they lead to a good outcome, and that idea gets generalised by assigning those values to concepts like freedom. Then you don't even realise where it originally came from, but you have a concept like freedom that you can apply easier than 'gee let's weigh all possible outcomes of this decision'
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