In a previous post, David Deutsch explained why he felt utility was not a good basis for moral justification. I’m going to now give my own thoughts on this, as well as exploring several other possible explanations for morality that ultimately fail. Warning: this is a long post.
I think the problem with a utilitarian approach to morality is that once we boil down morality to utility we’ve effectively created a basis for when we should and shouldn’t follow morality. But this would fly in the face of our moral intuitions which, as I pointed out in this post, by definition we see as applying at all times to all people.
As always, the best way to dismiss an argument isn’t to argue against it, but to follow it to its logical conclusions and see if we can accept them. So let’s follow this through logically and see what plays out.
The Utilitarian Argument
At first, the utilitarian argument seems to function quite well. The idea is that one should be moral because it’s useful to one’s own self to be moral. For example, if you are honest then people will trust you. This will benefit you in business and will (perhaps) make you rich. Being rich is a benefit, therefore being honest is a benefit.
Or another argument I’ve heard is that we should all strive to create a compassionate society because we may ourselves be in need of compassion some day. So we go out and show compassion to others (perhaps by voting for welfare laws — no politicial threadjacks please — or giving to charity) so that such programs will be in place if we ever need them.
We could make up a multitude of such examples. It’s hard to come up with anything of a ‘moral’ nature that doesn’t actually translate into actual utility in some way. So I’ve always found this argument at least in part compelling.
But Only in Part
The problem is that all of these arguments rely on a sort of indirection. You should be honest because it will make you rich. But can’t dishonesty also make you rich? Well, actually, yes. And being rich is a benefit, therefore dishonesty is a benefit. Are you really ready to challenge that? We all know it’s true, don’t we?
And, sure, if I am down on my luck I want to live in a compassionate society. But wouldn’t there be an even bigger benefit to me personally if I choose to not be compassionate but pretended to and encouraged others to? Then I can both benefit from not being compassionate while also benefiting from the compassion of others should the need arise. This would actually be the most prudent strategy.
Threat of Law
Okay, so maybe the real utilitarian value of morality is that if you don’t break the law you won’t be put in jail. Now being put in jail at (if necessary) gun point definitely has negative utilitarian value. So maybe this is generally a pretty good argument in favor of morality.
But this argument has two limitations that need to be addressed. The first is that this isn’t what we mean by ‘moral’ in the conventional sense. A moral person is not perceived as merely ‘law abiding.’ A moral person is one that goes beyond the mere demands of the law. So at a minimum we’ll have to admit that there is a gap between what we think we mean when we speak of ‘morality’ and what it actually is.
But the problem goes deeper than this. For what this really means is that morality is a simple cost benefit analysis. If you have a chance to embezzle you should do your cost benefit analysis. If it comes up that the risk of getting caught it too high then you shouldn’t emezzle. But if the analysis comes up that the risk is very low compared to the benefits achieved, then the ‘morally right’ thing to do is to go ahead and embezzle.
Is this really what morality is?
The utilitarian approach to morality simply will never be able to explain what we mean by morality. When we speak of morality, we don’t merely mean ‘do a cost benefit analysis’ and we don’t merely mean ‘pretend to be moral so that you can benefit from a compassionate society.’ We at least believe we mean something much deeper than this. Therefore utility is not enough to explain nor justify morality on its own.
Is Morality About Well Being?
Sam Harris, in this post, suggested that we view morality as ‘facts about the well being of conscious beings.’ David Deutsch did a good job of explaining the short comings of this approach. Let me now express my own additional concerns.
First, let me say that in some absolute sense, I do believe morality actually is facts about the well being of conscious beings. So at one level I agree with Sam Harris. On the other hand, I am not at all convinced that this approach explains what we mean by ‘morality’ without some needed additional criteria; criteria that is somewhat vague at best.
One problem I see with this approach is that ‘well being’ is so vague as to be almost meaningless by itself. (And I suspect that is why Sam Harris choose that word, actually. Never underestimate the power of vague words that you know have emotional impact and so won’t be challenged.)
Morality and Happiness
Normally, people try to use ‘happiness’ in this argument. They claim that moral choices are about happiness. So if we have two choices, we calculate how it will affect our own and others happiness. Say owning a slave would make you happy. But it probably makes the slave unhappy. Therefore you wouldn’t do it because it’s immoral.
As I mentioned in my previous post on this, Sam Harris is still basically starting with an unproven largely Theistic assumption: that there is a moral law that has claim upon us. He never even tries to argue why, even if facts about the well-being of conscious beings exist, that we should personally care.
Now maybe he doesn’t need to. Belief in morality is ubiquitous after all. But that makes Harris’ explanation circular, doesn’t it? Morality is ‘facts about the well-being of conscious beings’ and we should care about it because it’s the moral thing to do.
Circular logic aside, there is another problem with this approach. What if me owning a slave hurt one person but made several people (my whole family?) really really happy? If morality is nothing more than facts about conscious beings then just exactly how many personal and family happiness points can be used to balance against the unhappiness (or non-well being) of that slave?
Yet we all know this is just silliness. Slavery isn’t wrong only if I can’t make enough people happy enough to offset the slave’s unhappiness, it’s wrong because no amount of happiness can offset one person’s suffering. But wait! I just had to appeal to morality to explain morality! Gosh dang! That keeps happening.
Morality and Suffering
Okay, so maybe morality is really about not causing suffering. (Popper suggested this approach instead of happiness on the grounds it was more objective.) This works better for me. But is this really what I believe morality is? We can easily imagine some pretty horrific conditions where we are no longer comparing happiness to suffering but suffering to suffering. One person or other must suffer.
For example, if you are about to starve to death, is it morally okay to, say, eat your neighbors? Why or why not from within our proposed ‘suffering’ view point?
Other Moral Considerations
Plus, this just doesn’t seem to get to the bottom of many moral questions. I think of the legal question of what if someone buys a stolen car? Who ends up with the car? The person that it was stolen from or the person that bought it unaware it was stolen?
Who is the victim now? Neither is, yet we still have to make a moral decision about who is going to suffer.
It’s interesting how the law resolves this moral dilemma. It asks, “who is more innocent?”
Let’s say that our stolen car was stolen out of my garage. In that case, the person who bought the car is – while not guilty of any crime – less innocent than me. They should have checked to be sure that the seller was legitimate. So I get the car back and they just lose out.
But what if the person that stole my car was selling on consignment? That is, I gave the thief my car, they sold it, then they skipped town without paying me. Now I’m considered the least innocent. I should have done my homework to be sure this was a legitimate seller. So I’m the one that loses out now.
In this case, morality has nothing to do with ‘suffering’ there is equally suffering either way. It’s something outside of that whole formula.
Cheating On Your Spouse
On Mormon Matters, I remember one commenter — still active in the Church — saying that she had decided to cheat on her husband. She morally justified this by saying that morality was about happiness. Her husband didn’t know she was cheating, and he was happier now because she was happier. And of course she was happier because she was having sex with two men — the one she wanted as a husband and the one she wanted to cheat with. So she saw nothing immoral in her actions. So everyone benefited from her cheating on him.
I hope you just squinched. I sure did. Yet, this is a solid argument if we start with the assumption that morality is nothing more than ‘facts about happiness’ or even ‘facts about well-being.’ So this explanation will not do on its own either.
One possible counter argument here might be that she might get caught, therefore destroying her husband’s happiness. Therefore she is doing something immoral. But rationally speaking, we’re now back to the cost benefit analysis approach to morality, which clearly isn’t what we mean by ‘morality.’ (See above.) This woman may well be justified in believing that her husband will go to his grave not knowing what she is doing. Or she might be deluded, of course. But the point is that we don’t have enough facts to ‘morally judge her’ if we are assuming solely a ‘facts about well-being’ approach to morality.’ She may well be doing the most moral thing. We just can’t tell.
I don’t buy it, and I hope no one does. Or moral intuitions tell us that this is immoral regardless of whether or not her husbands well-being is ever impacted. Why? Because it’s morally wrong. Doh! Just appealled to morality to explain morality again.
I still feel that the ‘facts about well-being’ approach to morality is a good place to start. I don’t want to discount it entirely. But it does seem to come up short. At a minimum, we’ll have to admit that our moral intuitions do not match the reality of what morality really is.
Is Morality Societal Rules?
Another thing you often hear is that morality is just societal rules that allows societies to operate. Again, I think there is something to this argument. Surely societies could not operate if everyone was immoral. But somehow this approach to morality again comes up short.
For example, was Gandhi being immoral when he decided to passively resist the societal rules of his (then British rule) country? Was Harriet Tubman being immoral for breaking the laws of her land?
Tubman is an interesting example because even most abolitionists of her day felt she was being immoral by breaking the law. Yet today, we herald her as a moral hero. How can we explain this in a non-circular way?
And, again, how much sense does it make for us to pass moral judgment on the 19th Century South’s practice of slavery when that was the societal rules of those states?
So again we have to admit that the ‘societal rules’ approach to morality does not match what we mean when we speak of ‘morality.’