Common objections to consequentialism

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Arepo
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Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Wed Nov 19, 2008 5:34 pm

In response to faithlessgod's suggestion, here's a thread on objections to consequentialism and/or utilitarianism and our responses to them. In response to GordonHide's comments, I'll split them into two sections - criticisms that apply to any form of consequentialism, and criticisms that apply only to utilitarianism.

Anyone who wants to can post a response to some or all of the points - please make it as clear as possible which you're responding to. Hopefully this will effectively become a multi-author FAQ.
General objections to consequentialism

1) In some situations [insert your favourite thought experiment here], consequentialism says we should do something which is clearly immoral.

2) In some situations, applying consequentialist ethics would create a situation which is clearly undesirable.

3) In still other situations, making consequentialist deliberation would lead to negative consequences

4) In yet other situations, applying consequentialism would mean becoming non-consequentialists.

5) Most consequentialist values are impossible to measure, so following aggregative consequentialism is impossible.

6) It’s impossible/undesirable to impose a structure on ethics. Better to rely on our judgement, and take one situation at a time.

7) Saying we should prefer some type of consequence is like saying we should respect people’s rights – a fundamental axiom that you either accept or don’t.

8) It's very hard or impossible to evaluate actions the way consequentialists say we should, because they might have very long term consequences.

9) I don't like applying labels to myself.

Specific objections to utilitarianism

10) Happiness isn’t a universal sum which everyone contributes to or subtracts from, it’s a subjective experience that varies from each individual to the next. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.

11) Utilitarianism demands impossible sacrifice from us (this Demandingness Objection seems to apply to most forms of consequentialism, but maybe less so than to util).

12) ) Utilitarianism says that our only goal is to maximise happiness, but people obviously don’t act as though it is.

13) I agree with the sentiment of increasing wellbeing, but I disagree with the idea of using people for the benefit of others. It treats them as less than human because it disregards their intents and goals. So utilitarianism is a good starting point for ethics, but we must also respect human dignity.
Let me know if you can think of any that I've missed, or can think a better way of phrasing anything above. Also, let's keep this thread for immediate responses to the common objections so that it remains clear - if you want to argue a point, better to start it in a new thread.

Thanks,

A
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Thu Nov 20, 2008 2:13 pm

First, I put my vote of support behind this project. I like that it promotes utilitarianism and that it is practical: 1. It starts at home - Felicifia's home - the internet. 2. It deploys a strength of forum-posters, explaining why they're wrong and we're right.

I just read an essay relevant to this topic, RM Hare’s How to Argue With an Anti-utilitarian. It taught me:
> that RM Hare was adversarial in his defence of utilitarianism
> that the first step in debunking an objection to utilitarianism is discovering whether we are thinking intuitively or critically.

I think that we should categorise objections according to the thought-processes of non-utilitarians. i.e. I think we can name categories more usefully than ‘semantic confusion’, ‘misapplication’, ‘indoctrination’ etc. So with this in mind, I suggest:

Objection by Intuition:
1
2
and, I'm sure, many more to come

Objection by logic
Applied utilitarianism is inconsistent or incoherent
3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10

Many people are not utilitarian so utilitarianism is not true (relativistic)
5

The idea that we ‘should’ do one thing or another is not true (nihilistic)
9

NB. In 5, like 4, objectors seriously misunderstand utilitarianism, thereby seeing it as contradictory. So 5 could be lumped in with Applied utilitarianism if there is a consensus on this. Also, Applied utilitarianism could potentially be split, I see 3 and 4 (contradiction) as a pair, 6 and 7 (incoherence) as a pair. And then 8 and 10 only half-fit in applied utilitarianism, but I felt I couldn't make a better fit anywhere else.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Sun Nov 23, 2008 11:34 am

Added a couple more that I've seen people say around here.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by GordonHide » Mon Nov 24, 2008 3:03 pm

Arepo wrote:1) In some situations [insert your favourite thought experiment here], consequentialism says we should do something which is clearly immoral
Pardon me, but if your moral system tells you that something OK by consequentialism is immoral then you aren't a consequentialist. Are you? Perhaps I misunderstand. Are you talking about restricted choice - least of two evils?
Arepo wrote:2) In some situations [insert next thought experiment], applying consequentialist ethics would create a situation which is clearly undesirable
See above.
Arepo wrote:3) In still other situations, applying consequentialist ethics would lead to a situation that's clearly contrary to utilitarian goals
Does this matter? Not all consequentialists are utilitarian. A problem for utilitarianism maybe but not consequentialism in general.
Arepo wrote:4) In yet other situations, applying consequentialism would mean becoming non-consequentialists
:? Perhaps you could give an example.
Arepo wrote:5) Utilitarianism says that our only goal is to maximise happiness, but people obviously don’t act as though it is
What's that got to do with consequentialism?
Arepo wrote:6) Happiness (and similar concepts) are impossible to measure, so following aggregative consequentialism is impossible
Again, not directly related to consequentialism.
Arepo wrote:7) Utilitarianism demands impossible sacrifice of us
See above.
Arepo wrote:8) It’s impossible/undesirable to impose a structure on ethics. Better to rely on our judgement, and take one situation at a time
I thought that's what consequentialists were doing?
Arepo wrote:9) Saying we should make people happy is the same as saying we should respect people’s rights – an unjustifiable axiom that you either accept or don’t
Again, not directly related to consequentialism.
Arepo wrote:10) Happiness isn’t a universal sum which everyone contributes to or subtracts from, it’s a subjective experience that varies from each individual to the next
See above.
Arepo wrote:11) It's very hard or impossible to evaluate actions the way utilitarianism says we should, because they might have very long term consequences
You can only make your best attempt. ...And shouldn't you have said "the way consequentialism says we should"
Arepo wrote:12) I don't like applying labels to myself
I certainly don't.
Arepo wrote:Let me know if you can think of any that I've missed, or can think a better way of phrasing anything above. Also, let's keep this thread for immediate responses to the common objections so that it remains clear - if you want to argue a point, better to start it in a new thread.

Thanks

A.

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Mon Nov 24, 2008 5:21 pm

Thanks Gordon, that's very helpful. To clarify a couple of things, these are criticisms levelled at consequentialism/utilitarianism by nonconsequentialists, so they're unlikely to be phased by a 'you're not a consequentialist' response. I should make that clearer in the OP, though.

I should also clearly separate objections to consequentialism from objections to utilitarianism. At the moment I've got written 'utilitarianism' where the criticism applies only to that, and 'consequentialism' where it applies more broadly, but I've obviously mixed them up in at least one place (#3).

I deliberately avoided giving specific examples, since thought experiments are almost endless, but the details are inevitably irrelevant, since the fundamental objection always seems to be one of those in 1-4. Maybe I could give egs in a footnote, at the end of the post.

So, some editin' required...

[ETA] Some editin' done. More still to come - but I've messed up your reply Ryan, sorry. You might want to reorder your #s to fit mine.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Fri Nov 28, 2008 7:03 am

1. This is true of of every ethical theory, probably including your own. One example I've heard of for the including your own part is essentially praying while smoking is good (praying is always good) but smoking while praying is bad (it's sacrilege). Virtually all of these also involve assuming something that never applies in real life (for example, the muslims who think a cartoonist should be killed for a comic with Muhammad not being outnumbered by christians who don't) or involve not noticing less direct, but equally important effects. Also, some are just plain stupid (you can't stop a train by pushing someone in front of it, no matter how fat he is).

2. By the definition of consequentialism, every other action must result in a situation that's less desirable. Either that or it relies on incomplete information, in which case coming up with a situation like this for any ethical theory is trivial (if he acts like a consequentialist, go on a murder spree).

3. How's this different than 2?

4. If you assume that the person is omniscient, this is impossible. In reality, it happens all the time. We call it making rules of thumb.
Edit: what I mean is, it's best to not try to think everything through at every moment. You'd never do anything. This is why we make rules of thumb.

5. Measuring it requires making large numbers of unfounded assumptions and simplifications. So does statistics. Considering that's a rather large branch of mathematics, I think we can live with a few assumptions.

6. That's meta-ethics. I can't speak for all of us, but I think it's not so much that we're imposing something on ethics, as we're imposing what we believe to be ethics (consequentialism) on reality. In any case, if you believe in determinism, you are going to be imposing a structure no matter what. Even if you don't, we all know that even though there's no clearly defined and logical structure to human thought, it's still pretty structured. In any case, completely not structured just means random. Does that seem right? I know I just used the fallacy for argument 1.

7. I agree completely. Why is this an argument?
Edit: I'll change that to: Consequentialism requires only one such axiom, unlike other ethical philosophies. By Occam's razor, ours is more likely correct.

8. We can try.

9. It's not just about what you like. The question is: is there greater Utility in applying labels to yourself?
Edit: This is an objection to calling yourself consequentialist, not an objection to actually being one. As such, it doesn't really belong here.

10. I know. That's why we made up the word "utility". It's the universal sum which everyone contributes to or subtracts from. Maybe you don't believe in such a thing. That's pretty much the definition of not being a utilitarian.

11. Utilitarianism doesn't demand anything. It just says it would be better if we did do (almost) impossible sacrifices. Just try.

12. That's because they're not (ideal) utilitarians. Utilitarianism wasn't meant to describe what you think.

As much as I like the whole "I can't be perfect, but I can try" counter-argument, it tends to result in another problem. You can't try perfectly, so you try to try, but you can't try to try perfectly.... Should we include that as an argument? Does anyone have a good counter-argument for it?
Last edited by DanielLC on Fri Nov 28, 2008 6:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Nov 28, 2008 11:19 am

On objection 11, Utilitarianism demands impossible sacrifice from us
DanielLC wrote: Utilitarianism doesn't demand anything. It just says it would be better if we did do (almost) impossible sacrifices. Just try...
As much as I like the whole "I can't be perfect, but I can try" counter-argument, it tends to result in another problem. You can't try perfectly, so you try to try, but you can't try to try perfectly.... Should we include that as an argument? Does anyone have a good counter-argument for it?
I like your discussion. I can answer it by taking is back to basics: utilitarianism tells us that greater happiness is better. We should do what creates happiness. Trying is an action. So in all cases, we should try in so far as it is helpful. That counts for trying to maximise X, trying to perfectly do Y, trying to try Z. Something like flying to the moon superficially might seem like it'll have positive consequences. But flying to the moon won't have positive consequences because it won't occur. It's impossible.

I answer objection 11 below, touching on impossibility and sacrifice. (It's a work in progress, but please criticise)

Firstly, on sacrifice: utilitarianism describes sacrifice rather differently from other ethical systems. It doesn't describe self-sacrifice as good in itself. Fundamentally, utilitarianism tells us the opposite. It tells us all of our happiness and/or preferences are equal. On poverty, for example, it says that one should decide an appropriate amount of wealth to share with others so that the combined happiness of all people is optimal. Utilitarianism suggests that:
we do not disregard our own needs or others' needs
we sacrifice our own wellbeing only to an extent that is psychologically sustainable

What utilitarianism does not do is tell us to try to act in a way that is impossible. For example, it doesn't advocate that we try to fly to the moon. Of course, if we returned from such a trip, it would create quite a buzz, but we shouldn't attempt to do so because these positive consequences are not going to be realised. These kinds of imaginary consequences don't count. So when we sacrifice our own wellbeing, we have to be realistic.

--
Now, I note that some of your answers are circular reasoning. They just say "If you don't agree with us, then you're not a consequentialist". Well, what we're trying to do here is refute objections to utilitarianism persuasively. Some of the current arguments are no better than the argument "god wrote the bible, therefore the bible is true, therefore there is a god". In particular, I'm looking at
Gordonhide's answers 1 & 2
DanielC's answers 2 & 9
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by faithlessgod » Fri Nov 28, 2008 5:55 pm

Hi rather than get lost in referring to numbers I will quote each list item in my response.
Arepo wrote: General objections to consequentialism

1) In some situations [insert your favourite thought experiment here], consequentialism says we should do something which is clearly immoral.
Argument from intuition - response intuition can be mistaken, switch to critical level.
Arepo wrote: 2) In some situations, applying consequentialist ethics would create a situation which is clearly undesirable.
Hmm...it might be undesirable but if it is not immoral... this is rather unclear. I think you were indicating more the unreasonableness or injustice objections?
Arepo wrote: 3) In still other situations, applying consequentialist ethics would lead to a situation that's clearly contrary to their goals.
Of course, how is this an objection? If nothing was ever contrary to anyone's goals and no-one had any complaints there would be no reason for this forum! ;)
Arepo wrote:4) In yet other situations, applying consequentialism would mean becoming non-consequentialists.
I think we need an example to make this clear. Are some consequentialisms self-defeating? Possibly - but that does not refute consequentialism per se.
Arepo wrote: 5) Most consequentialist values are impossible to measure, so following aggregative consequentialism is impossible.
Argument from impracticality. The challenge is met by showing they are not impossible just variably difficult but even guesses and estimates are better than giving up before one has even started. And what alternatives are being proposed that are demonstrably better? None that I have seen,.
Arepo wrote: 6) It’s impossible/undesirable to impose a structure on ethics. Better to rely on our judgement, and take one situation at a time.
Is this an argument from casuistry or pragmatism? Impossible and undesirable are two radically different positions on this.
Arepo wrote:7) Saying we should prefer some type of consequence is like saying we should respect people’s rights – a fundamental axiom that you either accept or don’t.
Ahem rights can be derived from utilitarianism and so does not trump utilitarianism but then rights are not absolute. (In DU there are no fundamental axioms of this type so no black and white acceptance is involved).
Arepo wrote:8) It's very hard or impossible to evaluate actions the way consequentialists say we should, because they might have very long term consequences.
So lets ignore any and all consequences? Throwing out the baby with the the bathwater?
Arepo wrote:9) I don't like applying labels to myself.
You alabelist!!

Specific objections to utilitarianism

Arepo wrote:10) Happiness isn’t a universal sum which everyone contributes to or subtracts from, it’s a subjective experience that varies from each individual to the next.
One reason I reject HU.

Arepo wrote:11) Utilitarianism demands impossible sacrifice from us (this seems to apply to most forms of consequentialism, but maybe less so than to util).
Altruism demands sacrifice, utilitarianism does not have to.(DU avoids demanding sacrifice).
Arepo wrote:12) ) Utilitarianism says that our only goal is to maximise happiness, but people obviously don’t act as though it is.
Correct, (DU relies on this).

A good start but some stuff is too vague or too specific e.g. Objections to utilitarianism should to utilitarianism simpliciter not a specific version such as hedonic or happiness utilitarianism.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Sat Nov 29, 2008 12:31 am

How about objections to nonconsequentialism? I think the idea that doing the right thing makes the world worse just seems wrong.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Sat Nov 29, 2008 1:23 am

I've just set up a thread for discussion of our responses, so we can keep this one focused on direct responses to the question.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Thu Jan 15, 2009 10:30 am

Here's another common objection to utilitarianism (or consequentialism more correctly)
13. I agree with the sentiment of increasing wellbeing, but I disagree with the idea of using others as means. This notion seems to treat others as tools rather than as equals. It seems to depict others as "less than human" because it disregards others' intents and goals. So utilitarianism is a good starting point for ethics only if we bear in mind human dignity and the right to be treated as ends but never as means.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:43 am

What do you mean by "using others as means"? Does paying people for their services count? What exactly does whoever has that objection think we're doing? It's not like we're masterminding a huge Xanatos Roulette.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Mon Jan 26, 2009 10:09 pm

I've found a response to the latest objection which I found:
http://www.philosophyetc.net/2005/05/ut ... rsons.html

What do you think?
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Sat Jan 31, 2009 11:23 am

Here is another objection. Drawn from youtube comments, actually. It's one I don't think will prove too troublesome:

Utilitarianism is self contradictory....
The contention is: "Any action can be described as good or evil based on the ammount of happiness it brings"

Now, in order to deem the amount of good or evil something brings, you must commit to an act of comparison; in other words, deliberate on what the good to bad ratio is, you must make a cost benefit analysis of what the greatest happiness is. But wait, that is an action. So before we can make the analysis, an analysis must be made using the ethical ramifications of utilitarianism on whether the analysis is preferable.

Well, the same is true for that action, and the action that must inevitably follow that. This goes on to infinity. It is a paradox.

How must the (act) Utilitarian avoid this? Well, they must assume the action is moral. However, this is in ethical violation of the Utilitarian principle. And thus, Utilitarianism defeats itself."
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Tue Feb 03, 2009 12:15 am

Here is another
In order to ensure consistency of application, a central committee would be assigned the task of evaluating consequences to a minute degree, and drawing up detailed tables of happiness values.These would at least govern every aspect of public life, if not personal life. Any individual who refused to accept the choice prescribed by applying the maximisation law to his situation must be punished accordingly... Utilitarianism, like Communism, is hopelessly Utopian. It provides an attractive model for ethical decision making, but turns out to be totally impractical...as withCommunism, unscrupulous individuals can useits broad principles to justify any means availableto achieve their ends.
Drawn from the essay "The Poverty of Utilitarianism"
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Feb 06, 2009 7:13 am

Here is an expression of objection 8, drawn from a critique of Peter Singer written by Roger Scruton
If I give my money to Oxfam in order to help people in the developing world, then this is justified, because some of the money, I believe, will get through to someone who will benefit. But equally, if I don't give a penny to Oxfam and actively campaign against its work, on the grounds that the money will merely encourage the political systems that maintain people in poverty, then this too excuses me. One or the other of those views may be false (possibly both are). But how can I know? And how can I know in time to make the decision?
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Jun 19, 2009 10:01 am

Here is another criticism of Peter Singer and utilitarianism:
An additional error in Singer's thinking is the assumption he makes that the suffering (or happiness) of individuals can somehow be added to each other and thus create "all this suffering in the world." C. S. Lewis explains that if you have a toothache of intensity x and another person in the room with you also has a toothache of intensity x, "You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x." There is no composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as the sum of collective human suffering, because no one suffers it.
It was drawn from this essay
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Mon Jul 13, 2009 1:30 pm

Here is a reply to criticism 3. It's shown to be defective by examples from Peter Railton's Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality
A highly competitive tennis player comes to realize that his obsession with winning is keeping him from playing his best. A pro tells him that if he wants to win he must devote himself more to the game and its play as such and think less about his performance. In the commitment and concentration made possible by this devotion, he is told, lies the secret of successful tennis. So he spends a good deal of time developing an enduring devotion to many aspects of the activity, and finds it peculiarly satisfying to become so absorbed in it. He plays better, and would have given up the program of change if he did not, but he now finds that he plays tennis more for its own sake, enjoying greater internal as well as external rewards from the sport.
...
a sophisticated consequentialist has reason to inculcate in himself certain dispositions to act rapidly in obvious emergencies
...
Many decisions are too insignificant to warrant consequentialist deliberation ("Which shoelace should I do up first?") or too predictable in outcome ("Should I meet my morning class today as scheduled or should I linger over the newspaper?").
...
The sophisticated consequentialist need not be deceiving himself or acting in bad faith when he avoids consequentialist reasoning. He can fully recognize that he is developing the dispositions he does because they are necessary for promoting the good.

A further objection is that the lack of any direct link between objective consequentialism and a particular mode of decision making leaves the view too vague to provide adequate guidance in practice. On the contrary, objective consequentialism sets a definite and distinctive criterion of right action, and it becomes an empirical question (though not an easy one) which modes of decision making should be employed and when. It would be a mistake for an objective consequentialist to attempt to tighten the connection between his criterion of rightness and any particular mode of decision making: someone who recommended a particular mode of decision making regardless of consequences would not be a hard-nosed, non-evasive objective consequentialist, but a self-contradicting one.
Peter Railton is not a utilitarian, he's a consequentialist who believes in making morality more intuitive and less demanding than I do. But this objection of "self-defeatingness" is used to criticise to all sorts of consequentialisms and it fails for utilitarians just as it fails for egoists or tennis-pros :)

I'll improve the opening post soon, by the way.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Aug 07, 2009 10:15 am

Here is a reply to criticism 8 taken from Peter Singer's interview here about 26 mins in
Peter Singer: It requires very complex calculations because we don't have a set of simple moral rules that say don't do this, do that, we have to work out what the consequences of our actions are as in this area that we're talking about about what kind of aid is effective, it's very difficult to work out what the consequences of our actions are and it's sometimes very difficult to know what's the right thing to do.

Interviewer: But you think we nonetheless should do what we think is best no matter however imperfect a guess that may be

Peter Singer: I don't really see what else we're supposed to do. It would seem to me wrong to say well because I can't calculate the consequences I'm just going to follow this simple set of rules. Because I can't calculate the consequences. But why follow this simple set of rules, where do they come from? I don't believe we have any god-given rules, I don't think that our moral intuitions are a good source of rules because that's the product of our evolutionary history which may not be appropriate for the moment that we're in. So despite the difficulty, I don't really see what the alternative is to trying our best to figure out what the expected utility is.
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by biznor » Wed Apr 21, 2010 12:27 am

The best objection I've heard to utilitarianism is that if it's correct, than Medieval townspeople were justified in burning cats for entertainment, provided that the audience in each case was so large that aggregate pleasure outweighed the suffering of the cat. Anyone have a response to this one?

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