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Towards a Utilitarian Metamorality

There are three major approaches that can be used to define a moral philosophy: virtue ethics, where moral good is derived through moral character; Kantian deontology where moral good is arrived at procedurally, through complex duties and rules; and utilitarianism where the consequences of actions, rather than the intent, determine what is morally good. Each of these moral philosophies has merits, yet utilitarianism appears to be the best prepared to operate as a metamorality, that is a guiding philosophy for a multi-tribal society

Utilitarianism succinctly answers two central questions that confront any potential metamorality: who deserves moral consideration and what should the common currency of morality be? Utilitarians believe in maximizing happiness, impartially. So happiness, or more specifically the overall quality of experience, is the common moral denominator across different groups. And everyone deserves moral consideration, equally. Furthermore, utilitarianism is based around consequences — the outcomes of, rather than intentions behind, specific actions are what determine whether the actions themselves are justified. This is not how most people are accustomed to thinking of morality.

For many people, morality is defined by the values of their in group or ‘tribe.’ This more traditional approach is the basis for religious morality and tribal morality more broadly. Virtue ethicists ask what a ‘good’ person would do? The moral philosophy is grounded in the idea of Aristotelian idealism: that things are good when they conform to their natural purpose. [1] The limitations of virtue ethics as a foundation for metamorality are obvious. The definition of a good person is highly dependent upon tribal modes of thinking. For Aristotle, it meant looking at role models within a society and working to emulate those who excelled. Virtue ethics is a philosophical codification of innate tribal ideals. It defines “good” in the terms of what is valued by a single group. While a philosophy of virtue ethics is good for inducing cooperation within a group, it cannot function effectively as a metamorality.

The third model for a normative metamorality comes from Emmanuel Kant. Kantian ethics is highly humanistic — and initially appears as though it would provide a solid foundation for a type of universal morality. It is predicated on respect for humanity, the innate dignity of people and individual autonomy. Kant derives these noble principles through the empiricism of pure reason. For Kant, a good person follows the “laws they give themself.” And all of these self-derived laws should follow the categorical imperative. That is be unconditional moral obligations that is binding in all circumstances; it applies to everyone so must be universalizable.[2] The core tenet of Kantian deontology is that people should not be used as means to an end. The deontological theory of ethics that Kant promotes would run into limitations as a universal metamorality. Kant arrives at his conclusions through some impressive rhetorical acrobatics. He appears to rationalize intuitive feelings about morality rather than providing the foundation for a self-consistent moral system. His theory of self-derived universal rules and duties lacks the symbolic clarity of utilitarianism.

That’s not to say that utilitarianism is perfect. There are two categories of criticism that utilitarianism faces: (1) shallow, naive criticisms based on a facile understanding of the philosophy and (2) deep criticisms that engage with the philosophy and hit upon edge cases that appear morally questionable. This paper will focus on the later category. Criticisms that fall into this category tend to be thought experiments that in which maximizing ‘happiness’ seems to lead to problematic conclusion. This paper will examine three of these thought experiments: Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” Robert Nozick’s “Utility Monster” and the “Repugnant Conclusions” arrived at by Derek Parfit.

In “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” noted science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin, describes the fictional almost-utopia of Omelas. It is a idyllic city where its citizens happiness is maximized: “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. … Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”[3] However this utopia is, for reasons that are left unclear, predicated on the suffering of a single, pitiful child who remains locked up, isolated, in the darkness of a cellar. This child has done nothing to deserve this treatment; it is not a punishment. And yet if the child were to be released, the city of Omelas would be crumble within the hour.

This situation encapsulates what is, in many ways, the fundamental critique of utilitarianism: the discomfort of seeing an individual used as a means to an end. There is not justification for the child’s imprisonment, beyond the supernatural supposition that releasing the child would result in the disintegration of the utopia. Everything about this situation feels wrong. Le Guin describes in great detail the child: “It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals… They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas.”[4]

Le Guin asks the reader to weigh the suffering of a child against utopia — and she freely puts her finger on the scale. The vivid details she includes certainly speak to her skill as a writer but perhaps not as a moral philosopher. The same moral question that her short story prompts could be stated more dryly: Is it right for the prevention of single person’s suffering to result in an increase in the suffering of many others? The framing of Omelas accentuates an emotional response to utilitarianism. By flattening the narrative of a child’s torture to a neutral, intellectual question, Le Guin’s critique loses some of its sting.

It would be fair to respond that child of Omelas might experience a degree of suffering that outweighs the happiness of all the people. If this were indeed the case, the city of Omelas would be committing an immoral action. However, it would be immoral by the tenets of utilitarianism, in addition to violating Kant’s categorical imperative.

The second deep criticism is Robert Nozick’s “Utility Monster.” This monster is a hypothetical creature that gets such gratification from eating a person that it outweighs all the enjoyment that that person will experience in their entire lives by many orders of magnitude. He writes in Anarchy, State & Utopia that “[u]tilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sac­rifice of others than these others lose.”[5] According to Nozick, given these conditions, the good utilitarian would sacrifice herself to this “monster’s maw.” After all, this maximizes the total level of happiness.

This obligation feels repellant. The individual asks herself, “Why should I be forced to sacrifice my life in order to satisfy this creature?” But isn’t it possible that this is the appropriate response? People are so grounded in the primacy of their own existence that it is easy to rationalize reasons that they shouldn’t be obligated to end it. Perhaps she would mention her right to life, or her desire to not be used as a means to this creatures’ end. This feels wrong because humans have evolved to value their own existence and this monster triggers a primal desire for life.

When deconstructed, the core of Nozick’s thought experiment is the obligation of a single person sacrificing themselves in order to produce a good outcome — a better outcome than what would happen if they did not sacrifice themselves. The utility monster is one example of this phenomenon, but so is a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to spare the lives of several of his fellow comrades by shielding them from the blast. So is a starving mother giving the meager rations that she receives to her hungry child.

The utility monster triggers outrage because the situation feels unfair and greedy; in fact the thought experiment is intended to do this. The hypothetical is designed to mask the true moral question, which when rephrased sounds decidedly more reasonable.

A third criticism of utilitarianism comes from Derek Parift in the form of the repugnant conclusion that he arrives at in Reasons and Persons. He believes that the inevitable, immoral corollary of blindly maximizing happiness is that morality is reduced to a ‘mere addition’ problem. Consider two possible worlds. In the first everyone has a quality of life similar to what is experienced by those best off in our world, today. In the second, people experience a quality of life that is precisely half of what is experienced by those in the first world. However, in the second world, there are twice as many people as exist in the first, so the aggregate level of happiness is identical across both. Now add one more person to the second world. The aggregate level of happiness is now marginally higher in the second world.

Which world would be better to live in? Most people would say the former. Yet if impartially maximizing happiness is what truly matters then, according to Parfit, the second world is morally superior. This logic seems like it can lead to a bizarre supposition. Does utilitarianism really advocate for endless slums over a small utopia?

But assuming that each world is unaware of the possible existence of the other, this conclusion isn’t actually that problematic. For all we know, our civilization could be the second world in this scenario. It is easy to imagine a hypothetic alternate world with a dramatically smaller population, which is significantly happier. That doesn’t condemn our society to unhappiness — we simply don’t know what we are missing out on!

Parfit has a response to this. He envisions as world of infinite mildly content rabbits. His critique is that, according utilitarian philosophy, this hypothetical world populated solely by rabbits — and not even the happiest of rabbits, mere somewhat content rabbits — is morally superior to our contemporary society. This is an extreme scenario. And again, on an emotional level, it feels like the logic of utilitarianism resulted in a repugnant conclusion.

These critiques, for the most part, rely on hypotheticals — they are not real world situations and likely never could be. But the innate reactions people have when faced with these moral dilemmas is enlightening in it owns way. The common theme that ties these critiques together is their intention to trigger an emotional response: the defenseless, innocent child of Omelas being tortured; the greedy monster that one is obligated to satiate with the sacrifice of their own life; the mundanity of an infinite sea of rabbits replacing the vibrancy of human civilization.

Many of the traditional criticisms of utilitarianism are simply creatively phrased tradeoffs that trigger a negative emotional response. They feel wrong. Yet when the true moral question of the thought experiment is extracted from the language of the experiment itself, the moral disgust evaporates. The answers that utilitarianism provides are intellectually correct, yet difficult to reconcile with intuitive moral reactions.

When utilitarianism does run up against these uncomfortable conclusions, there are two responses. The first is accommodation: that the outcomes, while they do ultimately follow from the basic principles of utilitarianism, are morally abhorrent. In accommodating these outcomes, the utilitarian implicitly acknowledges that blindly following utilitarianism is not always good. Nonetheless, utilitarianism remains a viable philosophy because these bad outcomes stem from unrealistic situations that would not occur in the real world.

The second response to criticism of utilitarianism is reform. Not reform of the moral philosophy itself, instead reform of society’s traditional conception of morality. This response asserts that though these outcomes intuitively feel wrong, a true metamorality shouldn’t be based on biologically derived emotional responses. In other words, utilitarianism isn’t producing immoral outcomes; rather, humans are just bad at judging what is moral and what is not.

Utilitarianism is valuable as a metamorality precisely because it arrives at unintuitive conclusions. It is an intellectual mechanism that forces people out of the comfort of their traditional moral beliefs — whether those beliefs are based on Kantian deontology or Aristotelian virtue. Perhaps discomfort with utilitarian conclusions says less about the moral system itself and more about the how deeply tribal beliefs are ingrained in the way people intuitively think.



[3] Le Guin 1-2

[4] ibid 3

[5] Nozick 42

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