Tuesday, August 09, 2005

question for the natural law/non-utilitarian folks

Would you be willing to enforce these 'laws' (or whatever other non-utilitarian system of ethics) if it meant sacrificing human welfare/happiness/well-being/utility? If yes, how do you justify causing someone harm (maybe indirectly) given that we can't really know what these laws are? If not, how does that make the 'natural law' position any different from the utilitarian/consequentialist position that seeks to optimize human welfare/happiness/well-being/utility?


Blogger Joseph Schultz said...

It is true that we don't know exactly what the system of moral laws are - but we do have a pretty good idea.

Is it OK to deny someone life if that person has denied the right to life to others willingly and with force? Taking that person's life causes a loss of utility (it is assumed that the person values his or her own life). It seems to me that doing so is morally justified (maybe not required).

Is it right to allow slavery if that is the price for keeping those slaves alive? This is not an abstract question - it is directly relevant today and throughout human history. I would say there is a morally virtuous thing to be done here - free the slaves. Force is probably required to do it though (and lets say an overall drop in utility). So do you do it if you have that power? I would say yes, though a utilitarian would say no.

I have a question for the utilitarians out there. Would you be willing to kill off a section of the population if it meant an overall increase in utility for the rest of the society? People have advocated genocide for this sort of utilitarian approach. It seems to me incredibly reprehensible to say killing someone who has not forefited their right to life is justified - but you utilitarians are bound to kill such a person. This is actually a common line of reasoning taken by the pro-choice types. Thoughts?

7:47 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Well, I'll say upfront that I'm a utilitarian.

A few quick points:

I think there are very strong utilitarian arguments for abolishing slavery.

Also, I think many objections to utilitarianism are just people 'calculating utility' really badly.

"Would you be willing to kill off a section of the population if it meant an overall increase in utility for the rest of the society?"

Well, before I answer, let me say that there are very strong utilitarian arguments for prohibiting killing. I also think it is very difficult to come up with situations where killing off part of society would increase utility. AND even if such cases existed a utilitarian could argue for abolishing killing off sections of society on strictly utilitarian grounds because we're not perfect and we make mistakes and the times when we might make a mistake in the "utilitarian calculus" and wrongly kill off some people would be so horrendously bad for so many people that it would far outweigh the utility gains we might get from those other situations where there might be a utility gain. (so yes, if all these concerns were met, I would be for killing off "a section of the population" on utilitarian grounds). For example:

Let's say a very fat man is jammed in the entrance of a cave so that 1000 people are trapped in the cave behind him, and the only way to get him out is to kill him. Would natural-law types throw their hands in the air and start bemoaning the fate of those innocent 1000? (he's a "section of the population" after all!). I think it would be totally wrong to leave the fat man there and let 1000 innocent people die. I say, Let's kill the bastard!

9:16 PM  
Blogger See Jay run said...

Hello Tony,

And using this utilitarian example of the fat man, I am curious about your consideration of "Fat Man" and "Little Boy"?

9:31 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Hey CJ,

My personal view is that they were a really really bad thing, and should never have been dropped. The same goes for any wholesale slaughter of civilians in wartime. I think there are alternatives that lead to a better outcome (in terms of total utility if you want to think about it that way). Of course, a utilitarian could certainly disagree arguing that they were neccessary and dropping them was the best possible action (again in terms of total utility). It's all just a matter of maximizing (total - although there is some disagree if this should be total or average) utility/happiness/well-being.

10:15 AM  
Blogger See Jay run said...

---"I think it would be totally wrong to leave the fat man there and let 1000 innocent people die. I say, Let's kill the bastard!"---

Could it be reasonably argued that the dropping of THE BOMBS was different from your hypothetical situation above in no other manner than magnitude, that is, instead of the murder of one innocent to save 1000, we "murdered" tens of thousands of "innocents" to save hundreds of thousands (especially of our own)?

5:47 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Sure. I think there are reasonable people who make this argument. I just don't agree with it. In no way does either position inherently conflict with Utilitarianism. (Although I'm still unclear if "natural law" would prohibit the killing of fat man in cave.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Joseph Schultz said...

The common defense utilitarians offer for the 'maximizing utility by killing innocents' argument tends to take a mismeasurement approach. I must say that such a defense is untenable.

Consider that a situation could and does occur in which innocents can be killed to maximize overall utility. something simple like killing off homeless people because everyone else in the society would experience increased utility could be a real-world example. Is it right to do so? Sadly, utilitarians MUST say that it is - that's why utilitarianism sucks (IMO). You can place NO inherent value on human life. For that matter, everyone's life is valued differently by definition of utilitarianism. So NO ONE is created equal and NO ACTION is necessarilly bad.

For the 'fat man' case, I've heard this argument as well. Moralists have a perfectly acceptable response to this, and yes, you get to blow up the fat man.

Basically, its one of those inaction is the same as action arguments. You are being forced to choose between killing one and killing 1001 people (or 1000, depending on the presentation of the problem). Generally, you go with the option which violates the least number of rights - blowing up the fat man.

The 1000 case it a bit more difficult. Here, the fat man will not die should you choose to kill the 1000 people trapped in the cave. One primary rule (generally) among moralists is that you don't get to kill someone for the sake of someone else (with a bunch of contingencies). Here, the 1000 people die.

I guess the second situation doesn't make people want to be moralists - but you always got to consider the alternative.

: )

7:20 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Do you really think a utilitarian is compelled to support killing off the homeless? Or are you joking? Seems to me your argument goes like this: ASSUME some horrible action is going to maximize utility - and then LOOK! Utilitarians must support that horrible action!

GREAT proof...

"For that matter, everyone's life is valued differently by definition of utilitarianism."

You've seen some quirky definitions.

"NO ACTION is necessarilly bad."

Yep - you're right on there. If you're aware of some "necessarilly bad actions," I'd love to know what some of those are.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Alex Tabarrok has a great post on this topic up at www.marginalrevolution.com

Check it out.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

This should be a more permanent link:


11:25 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

Update: Robin Hanson just put up a post on this topic over at Marginal Revolution as well.

Check it out.


2:15 PM  

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