a possible objection to utilitarianism? I guess not

Pretend there is a utilitarian who believes in normative facts that determine the truth and falsity of moral sentences like “you ought not to do that.” Such a person is a type of non-reductionist cognitivist in ethics (to get unduly technical).

Such a person must believe that we gain access to normative facts through some faculty, perhaps reason of some flavor (this would be a Kantian route to take). However, the utilitarian claims that the usual list of normative factors, equality, harm, exploitation, fidelity, duty, charity, and on and on, are all false gods. Thus, it seems that a side effect of the utilitarians monotheism of utility is that it calls into question our moral sensors. After all, the utilitarian claims that throughout history, people have been almost dead wrong about what has value and what moral factors there are. Why then should we believe our moral intuitions in favor of utilitarianism (if we have any)? It seems that if our intuitions are actually right about utilitarianism (maximization conjoined with a theory of the good), then it was a one in a million chance.

Notice that a pluralist can say the opposite. Since there are many values, it seems that people have a pretty good track record. If most of the moral factors we actually believe in, then it seems that we can trust our moral sense to some degree.

However, this argument is of course fallacious. It implies that we could solidify our intuitions by claiming all things that have been believed to be moral factors are in fact such factors. Our moral sense would thus have a 100% success rate.

The argument for the reliability of our moral radar must come independently from our substantive claims about what moral factors there are, and this is as it should be. The metaethical is separated, at least in this case, from the ethical.


4 Responses to “a possible objection to utilitarianism? I guess not”

  1. 1 big B
    March 29, 2010 at 5:44 am

    Hi. Chanced upon this blog. I think you’re right in saying that just because many sources of value have been proposed over the millennia of human existence it does not follow that all of them are in fact sources of value. I’m not sure if I read you correctly, but you suggest that the attack on utilitarianism (on grounds of utility being only one source of value out of the many has a much smaller chance of getting normative facts right than the many of the pluralist) fails because there is no reason to give equal consideration to all proposed sources of value since at least some of them will surely be off the mark.

    But the implicit assumption here is that there is in fact such a thing as value. Aggregation and maximization in utilitarianism (the classical form and its close cousins at least) relies on the existence of value, whether that is utility or some plurality. Why think that? What argument is there for the existence of value? If the only argument is that the normative is impossible without the existence of value, Kant’s categorical imperative, at least in the Formula of the Universal Law of Nature formulation, does not rely on value. Utilitarianism and all its calculus rest uneasy on this huge assumption that there is such a thing as value when no argument has been given for value and other theories have the advantage of not presupposing value.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      March 29, 2010 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks for this comment. The funny thing is that I wrote that post thinking that I had a good point and then only at the end realized what was wrong with it. In response to your point, I would just say that I’m not sure how you were using the term value. I think kantianism does embrace a value, which is the value of rationality, or the value of freedom as understood in terms of autonomy or the value of the good will.

      Also, I’m not sure how morality would be possible without value of sort or another. Maybe your point is that utilitarianism only values consequences whereas kantianism values actions themselves or intentions. I’d be interested to here more.

  2. 3 big B
    March 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Classical utilitarianism is a teleological theory of morality which takes the following form:
    P1. There is something that is good or has value.
    P2. An action that results in more of what is good or has value is better.
    P3. Right action consists of what action is best.
    C1. Right action consists of the action that maximizes what is good or has value.
    P4. Utility (or net pleasure since we’re talking about classical utilitarianism) is good or has value.
    C2. Right action consists of the action that maximizes utility/net pleasure.

    P1 is the problematic assumption, never mind P2 and P3. P4 of course is classical utilitarianism’s stab at P1. But there is no reason to think that P1 is true. And as I argued, P1 is not necessary for moral theorizing.

    Kant’s Formula of the Universal Law of Nature does not take this form and presupposes no good or value. It is deontological. It merely specifies that the concept of morality, if it exists, logically requires that the moral laws or axioms that constitute morality be universalizable.

    As for Kant’s fetish with rationality, I have nothing to say to that. Heh. You’re right if you accuse him of jumping the gun there.

    • 4 questionbeggar
      March 31, 2010 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the response.

      Hmm, yes you’re very clear about how the argument is supposed to go. Still though, I don’t understand how anything could be rational without their being value. Rationality for belief comes down to avoiding contradiction (logic) but rationality for action has no such notion to lean on, and so it must make use of some notion of value.

      Another way of putting it is this, how could anything be ruled out or in by the categorical imperative if nothing was valuable. What use would it to be rational or why be rational. Or, more persuasively, pretend humans were omnipotent and immortal, what moral rules could there possibly be between such beings. The categorical imperative relies on the notion that each person is finite and so cannot achieve their goals if certain impediments are put in their way (like someone coming along and harming them) or someone not helping them (an imperfect duty according to Kant), and so what is valuable is that capability, the ability to be rational and choose a life plan and to then, out of realization of the universal law, bind oneself to moral edicts (autonomy = auto + nomos, which is self law or as Kant says “giving the law to oneself”).

      Anyway, the short answer is that I don’t know how rationality about action would be possible without value, and for Kant, I thought value was autonomy or each person’s ability to be an end in itself.

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