Common objections to consequentialism

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
DanielLC
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Wed Apr 21, 2010 1:47 am

That example would be better in the present day, as we're now much better at insuring a large audience.

People burning cats for entertainment is likely to make them more cruel, and cause more problems in the long run.

Other than that, I'd have to know what exactly the problem is. If it's the idea that the cat is forced to be burned against its will, is this any different than townspeople being bored against there will? If it's the inequality of it all, I've read there's some proof that equality being important implies that there can be times when it's good to add a person whose life is arbitrarily bad. I can't find the reference at the moment. I find this a much worse paradox. Also, people are perfectly okay with having inequality within their own life (holidays and whatnot), and I don't really see how this is different.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

ChrisCruise
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by ChrisCruise » Wed Apr 21, 2010 1:58 am

biznor, your example here sounds very similar to the "lynching is fun" case, where you are a minority, but the racist town would get a lot of pleasure hanging you. so the case was designed to show, if you were a consistent utilitarian, you would be forced to admit that you let yourself be hanged.

Basically, allowing practices like these would lead to them being performed generally, which would have bad consequences. If you take Hare's two-level utilitarian view, there is the intuitive or "rule" based view for everyday actions like not murdering, stealing, lying, etc. Then there is the critical "act" view where you can have time to really contemplate a situation, and perhaps breaking some of those rules might have better consequences than following them in certain instances. If these Medieval townspeople thought that the practice of burning cats was an appropriate form of entertainment, this would lead to the needless suffering of many other cats in the future.

In my opion, the Medieval townspeople also have a false belief. If you have the desire to drink out of your water bottle but unbeknownst to you it is filled with poison, your desire to drink this water bottle is based on a false belief that the bottle only contains fresh water. Your aim was to quench your thirst and not to die which is what would have happened if you were allowed to drink from the bottle. The Medieval townspeople as well as the racists have a false belief about the nature of cats and humans of different races and their capacity to suffer.

biznor
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by biznor » Thu Apr 22, 2010 4:33 am

The problem I have is that there seems to be a good case that can be made for cat-burning on the utilitarian theory, even if it's not absolutely certain that such an action is optimal. Sure, it might be true that such entertainment would make people more cruel, but that's just a bold assumption about sociology with no evidence to back it up. It is just as likely that allowing people to burn cats would have no impact on how compassionate or cruel the culture was. Since the benefits of cat-burning are far more certain and probable than the possible, negative side-effects, it is likely that cat-burning was justified.
I've read there's some proof that equality being important implies that there can be times when it's good to add a person whose life is arbitrarily bad.
I'm not sure what you mean here. Perhaps you could give an example?
If these Medieval townspeople thought that the practice of burning cats was an appropriate form of entertainment, this would lead to the needless suffering of many other cats in the future.
See my first paragraph. We really don't know why people in the Middle Ages were so much more callous and cruel than people today (though there are a number of proposed explanations, see the clip below); we don't have enough information to conclude that cat-burning contributed at all to the apparent lack of compassion that existed in Medieval cultures.



I have also considered the possibility that the townspeople have a false belief about the cat. Perhaps they would not be so callous if they weren't speciesists. The problem is that people in the Middle Ages were almost as callous to other humans as they were to cats (see clip). It seems unlikely that their false beliefs were the cause of their insensitivity.

One last thing I'd like to say is that this argument presents as much of a problem to speciesist rights theorists as it does for utilitarians. If utilitarianism can't account for the wrongness of cat-burning, animals may very well have rights.

biznor
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by biznor » Thu Apr 22, 2010 4:48 am

For an essay version of the lecture in the video I posted, use this link:
http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greater ... ker054.php

ChrisCruise
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by ChrisCruise » Tue Apr 27, 2010 5:05 am

thanks for posting the video biznor, had seen this already but not for a while. Pinker, secret utilitarian? he sites both Wright, a utilitarian sympathizer, as well as Singer as having two views that he finds to be plausible for his thesis on the decline in violence in the video. I went back and checked my copy of Pinker's "The Blank Slate" and he references both "The Expanding Circle" and "A Darwinian Left" by Singer to make his main point in his chapter on politics as well. A copy of "The Expanding Circle" was hard to track down. Long out of print, I was going to buy a copy but it's at least 30 dollars for a used one on any book site, so I went to my university library to reference it. Singer says it is one of his least well known works in "Peter Singer Under Fire". Here is the main epigraph at the beginning of "The Expanding Circle":
The moral unity to be expected in different ages is not a unity of standard, or of acts, but a unity of tendency....At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.

--W.E.H. Lecky, The History of European Morals


So if we take this as a starting point, clearly the the Townspeople had a "smaller circle" than we, and did not include the interests of the cat or the "animal world" in their consideration because they were both literally and figuratively "sub-human" to them, to use the same phrase as Pinker. They also did not have a sufficiently "cosmopolitan" attitude; they did not have the Darwinian history that shows our common ancestry with the tortured cat(s).

biznor, you say that cat burning may not be optimal, and that it might be true that this form of entertainment could make people more cruel, but you are still skeptical. I personally fail to see how it would be just as likely to be impact-neutral on the compassion of the Townspeople, and I also do not see how the benefits are more certain than the negative side-effects. Even if we do not have precise evidence about why inhabitants of the Middle Ages were not compassionate, this still does not mean that they were justified on utilitarian grounds to burn their cats. Perhaps these people were just as cruel to other humans, I think this is still a false belief, or maybe having an insufficiently "cosmopolitan" attitude. And so I don't find this scenario is a problem for utilitarians; I think that the cat burning was wrong, and that the cats do not have "rights" as such.

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Arepo
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Tue Apr 27, 2010 4:49 pm

Something that rarely gets offered in these discussions is that maybe, when you make the circumstances extreme enough, cat burning becomes ok. That's basically what these examples are trying to get at, and it's basically a truism for consequentialists - any finite amount of unpleasantness can theoretically be justified by preventing a greater unpleasantness.

I'm fine with that, personally, and I'd turn the question around to anyone who criticises - can you really imagine no calamity so bad that you wouldn't consider sacrificing a cat to prevent it? Once you've got them to agree to that, it's like that old (and mildly sexist...) joke:

Man: Would you sleep with me for £1,000,000?
Woman: Yeah, I suppose so.
Man: Will you sleep with me for £5?
Woman: What kind of person do you think I am?!
Man: We've established that. Now we're just haggling.
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biznor
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by biznor » Thu Jul 01, 2010 9:03 pm

I've found another objection to consequentialism, which I feel is just as strong as the last one I raised. I would be interested in hearing how other utilitarians respond to it.

Utilitarianism may proclaim that in some imaginary, hypothetical circumstance, in which we must either allow one person to die a terrible, painful death, or allow googols of people to get mild headaches that last a matter of seconds, it would be better to prevent the headaches.

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RyanCarey
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Jul 02, 2010 5:37 pm

The utilitarian RM Hare would begin by challenging the objector to state whether he is objecting on an intuitive or analytical basis. If the objector is using pure intuition, he must concede that our intuitions can not always be trusted in odd hypothetical scenarios such as this worldwide headache. If, on the other hand, the objector is analysing the scenario analytically, he must be prepared to come to a conclusion that he was not prepared for when he began the analysis. That is, in analysis, unintuitive conclusions are okay.

The utilitarian, ultimately, argues that our analysis should favour one terrible and painful death over a sufficient number of headaches. Although our intuition leads us to favour a million headaches, our intuition is wrong. It is systematically wrong in this sort of scenario because the human mind places unreasonable emphasis on quality of experience at the expense of quantity of experience.

Here's another thread where I've treated the issue: viewtopic.php?f=7&t=213#p1440
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Gee Joe » Sun Jul 25, 2010 1:58 am

I have mild headaches frequently. I don't know exactly the cause but I take a pill that takes them away sometimes, not always. They are annoying. If I knew that dying myself or killing somebody I would make people have no more mild headaches ever again (which is not the case) I'd do it. The amount of unhappiness all the mild headaches produce adds up quickly in comparison to a single death. It is quite obvious.

I like your (RM Hare's) answer RyanCarey. I'm all for analytical philosophy. That killing or dying might feel wrong is not a compelling argument against it when there's a considerable reward to be had.

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by EmbraceUnity » Thu Aug 19, 2010 2:14 am

Biznor,

There are a couple of possible responses. One is that the suffering to the cat is so great that there would need to be an audience that is extremely large in order for it to be worthwhile (this depends on how much utility weight you give to the suffering of cats, since it is almost certainly less than humans).

Another possible response is the negative utilitarian response that no amount of happiness can justify suffering.

A third possible response is that certain forms of suffering and happiness are just categorically different and thus no amount of one can aggregate to the other, even though aggregate utility still applies in many or most cases.

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Ubuntu » Fri Sep 10, 2010 10:02 pm

The utilitarian stance on individual rights (ie. burning cats if it increases pleasure in more beings than it causes suffering in) is why I can't consider myself to be a utilitarian, even though I consider myself to be a consequentialist. I think it's acceptable to sacrifice one's interest to prevent even greater harm to another (ie. using force to prevent a rapist from harming a woman, it will cause him distress but less distress than it would cause the woman to not stop him) but I don't understand the (stereotypical, maybe straw man?) utilitarian argument that 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few'. 100 people suffering is no worse than 1 person suffering, at least not on the basis that there's one hundred of them. Suffering is a private, subjective experience, nobody else has direct access to what you feel because your 'mind' is a self-contained, separate universe. I'm open to any counter argument, maybe I just don't understand what utilitarianism actually means. Until I'm convinced otherwise, I'm going with hedonist-consequentialism/an ethics of empathy.

DanielLC
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Fri Sep 10, 2010 11:20 pm

One person suffering can be worse if they're suffering bad enough.

Look at it in terms of expected utility. You don't know how bad each individual person suffers, but if all you know is that they suffer, and you have to make a guess, you'll get the same answer for each person. 100 people suffering is, on average, 100 times worse than one person suffering. This is true no matter how you distribute how much they're likely to suffer.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

Ubuntu
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Ubuntu » Sat Sep 11, 2010 4:25 pm

DanielLC wrote:One person suffering can be worse if they're suffering bad enough.

Look at it in terms of expected utility. You don't know how bad each individual person suffers, but if all you know is that they suffer, and you have to make a guess, you'll get the same answer for each person. 100 people suffering is, on average, 100 times worse than one person suffering. This is true no matter how you distribute how much they're likely to suffer.
I can understand comparing one person's state of mind to *a*nother person's state of mind, but I don't understand comparing one person's state of mind to the consciousness of 100 other people. I can see saying that punching someone in the nose is acceptable if it prevents someone else from getting cancer but I don't see the logic in saying that it's acceptable to give one person cancer to prevent 100 other people from getting cancer. I've tried hard to understand the justification for 'the needs of the many' argument but I can't. Maybe I'm missing something.

DanielLC
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Sun Sep 12, 2010 3:11 am

Would you say that it's better for zero people to have cancer than one? Does this change if another person happens to have cancer? If you "move" cancer from one person to another, there would be no net change in utility, so it would follow that one person having cancer is better than two other people having it.

As another way of looking at it, would you rather be punched in the nose once or one hundred times? Each time, you have a different state of mind and a different consciousness. If that's not enough, shift the punches in the nose to other people.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

Ubuntu
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Ubuntu » Mon Sep 20, 2010 8:43 pm

^^ I can't really criticize the first argument, although I don't know if I agree, but I know I would not kill my wife in order to save a million lives. I view an individual as an entire mental universe in themselves, not just a 'unit'. As for the second argument, wouldn't being punched in those nose hurt more the second time than the first? Or by 'different states of mind/consciousness' do you mean I wouldn't recall having been hit before?

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Arepo
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Arepo » Wed Sep 22, 2010 1:55 pm

I think Daniel’s point is that each experience of being punched in the nose is qualitatively different – cf. the classic Heraclitus idea ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man’).

So you can’t compare one punch to the next, but you might still wish to receive fewer of them (and be willing to trade on other qualitatively different happy/painful experiences to avoid receiving them).
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Ubuntu » Fri Dec 10, 2010 6:47 pm

My views have changed since I last posted. I think I can consider myself to be a hedonistic utilitarian, I'm no absolutely certain yet.

Does this work : causing someone to suffer is only justifiable if doing so is *necessary* in order to prevent a greater amount of suffering or produce a greater amount of pleasure. So these sadistic speciesists would have to show that there was no other possible way for them to gain pleasure except by torturing cats and that's obviously not practical.

DanielLC
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by DanielLC » Fri Dec 10, 2010 7:42 pm

If they have something else that results in higher net happiness, they should do that. Exactly where to put the burden of proof is a complicated question. Putting it them would probably be best, since there's likely going to be plenty of not-quite-sadistic-enough speciesists for every one sadistic enough for it to be worth while, and they'd certainly like to convince you it is.

One thing to think about is if someone makes a video of torturing one cat (or person for that matter) and puts it online. That way, all the sadists will get to see it, so it would produce tons of happiness, but it only produces disutility once.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

Ubuntu
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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by Ubuntu » Fri Dec 10, 2010 7:52 pm

DanielLC wrote:If they have something else that results in higher net happiness, they should do that. Exactly where to put the burden of proof is a complicated question. Putting it them would probably be best, since there's likely going to be plenty of not-quite-sadistic-enough speciesists for every one sadistic enough for it to be worth while, and they'd certainly like to convince you it is.

One thing to think about is if someone makes a video of torturing one cat (or person for that matter) and puts it online. That way, all the sadists will get to see it, so it would produce tons of happiness, but it only produces disutility once.
In any event, I will be hugging my cat close tonight :( .

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Re: Common objections to consequentialism

Post by rehoot » Sat Apr 02, 2011 11:33 pm

"It was never contended or conceited by a sound, orthodox utilitarian that the lover should kiss his mistress with an eye to the common weal" (John Austin, The province of jurisprudence determined, 2nd Edition, 1861, p. 101)

In this case, I think "common weal" means "commonwealth."

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