Philosophy 20                                                                                                                                                                                              W. Lycan
Spring, 2001


    How should we make moral decisions?  By what test or criterion should we judge what is the right thing to do?  Such a test or criterion is what we’re calling a “moral theory.”

Mill’s Utilitarianism

    Mill contends that we always ought to act in such a way as to produce the greatest total balance of happiness over unhappiness.  When you are deciding between actions or courses of action, look at each one, ask whose happiness or welfare it affects, and estimate the net effect it would have on world happiness.  Then choose the action that will produce the greatest overall amount of happiness (or the least overall amount of unhappiness).
    Mill offers roughly the following deductive argument.

            1.  The question “What is happiness good for?” is pointless in Aristotle’s characteristic way.

             2.  If so, then happiness is intrinsically (not just instrumentally) valuable.

             3.  Whatever is intrinsically valuable ought to be maximized.

           \ 4.  We should act in such a way as to maximize happiness, i.e., to produce the largest possible total balance of happiness over unhappiness.   [1,2,3]

That conclusion is Mill’s “Greatest Happiness” principle, GH.
    Evaluation of this argument was left to you as an exercise (Ex. 4).

    Here are three further advantages of GH.  First and most importantly, we do often think and argue in that way, inevitably in public policy but also in our personal lives:  You don’t insult Grannie and knock her glasses off and kick her around, because those things would cause her pain and unhappiness without any compensating advantage; duh.
    Second, GH is a simple theory, easy to apply once you know all the relevant facts.  (It may not be at all easy to discern all the relevant facts, but that’s a problem about life and reality, not the fault of the Utilitarian theory; it’s a problem for nearly any moral theory.)  Third, unlike some other theories, GH is universal, in that, again given the relevant facts, it applies to nearly any possible situation.  (The very special case of abortion is perhaps a lone exception.)

    Objection 1, version 1:  If you’re sufficiently out of sorts or sadistic, you might get more pleasure out of mistreating Granny then she will be caused pain.  in that case, your gain in happiness will offset her loss, and GH rules not only that mistreating her is permissible, but (n.b.) that it’s your moral obligation!  Version 2:  A thick-skinned and pugnacious Granny might actually come out ahead.  She doesn’t like being insulted, pushed around, etc., but she gets some fun out of insulting you back and maybe nicking you with a kitchen knife.  But that still doesn’t make it all right for you to insult and mistreat her in the first place.

    Objection 2:  The Utilitarian theory entails that if all parties affected by your action come out as well as possible, there can be nothing wrong with the action; in fact, the action is morally exemplary.  Yet there are wrongful win-wins:  Drug deals (in which no really harmful drug is conveyed); arguably certain kinds of sexual acts between consenting persons; bribery and corruption of one sort or another.

    Objection 3:  The theory entails that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with breaking the law.  Usually, of course, breaking laws is disutile and so frowned on the Utilitarian.  But quite often one creates great happiness or prevents great unhappiness by breaking a law; it may even be a win-win.  In such a case, the fact that your action is illegal isn’t even morally relevant (except that you have to calculate in  your potential unhappiness if you should get caught and punished).  But surely an action’s being illegal is at least a reason against performing that action.

    Objection 4:  Since the theory evaluates proposed actions entirely in terms of their expected consequences, it is entirely forward-looking.  What has happened prior to your decision is not relevant; for the Utilitarian, bygones are always bygones.  Examples: The deathbed promise; undeserved punishment and sparing deserved punishment.

    Objection 5:  The theory’s maximizing feature leads to unfair distributions of happiness.  In particular, one person could be subjected to frightful unhappiness and/or death, if it would cause enough pleasure for lots of other people.  Examples: Snuff TV; Dürrenmatt’s The Visit.

    Objection 6 (Rand, pp. 534-35):  Utilitarianism (along with the other “altruistic” views Rand opposes, whatever they are) is too egalitarian, in that it forbids our giving more weight to the welfare of our loved ones than to total strangers.  If you are forced to choose between saving the life of your spouse or child and saving the lives of several strangers, and doing the latter would produce more total happiness, then the Utilitarian says you are obligated to save the strangers.  But it would be morally monstrous not to give at least some preference to your loved one.

    A fairly damning set of criticisms.  Perhaps the Utilitarian is just off the track entirely.  Or perhaps the theory can be tweaked to avoid these various problems; but that would have to be a mighty tweaking.

Singer on affluence

    Singer’s argument is very simple.  (Let’s consider the version based on the weaker principle on p. 592, containing the phrase “without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant.”)  Singer believes that you could give a great deal of your income to the starving, thereby (literally) saving many lives, without sacrificing anything morally significant.  A VCR, a new computer, stylish clothing, or a new car are not morally significant—at least not in comparison to the deaths of hundreds and thousands of innocent helpless children.  Singer concludes that you and I are obligated to slash our present affluent lifestyles and make do with a much lower standard of living.<1>

    A number of good critical points were made by students in class, but here I shall list only those that threaten to deprive Singer of his conclusion.

    Objection 1:  Singer’s moral prescription is just unrealistic.  It is simply not in (most people’s) human nature to make such sacrifices.  Reply 1: Singer is telling us what we ought to do, not predicting what we will do.  Reply 2: Also, the objection merely resists the argument’s conclusion; if you want to reject the conclusion, you have to show what is wrong with the argument.

    Objection 2 (Rand):  Even if I am obligated to help my own neighbor in an emergency, I am in no way obligated to strangers on other continents.  I’m not related to them; I don’t know them.  They have no claim on me.  Singer’s reply (p. 592):  That’s just geographical and historical accident.  Their geographical location, and whether they have had time to e-mail you and introduce themselves, are not morally relevant.  They’re starving to death, right now, and you know you have the means to save them at trifling cost to yourself..

    Objection 3:  My money is mine.  I earned it (let’s suppose<2>), legally and honestly and through hard work.  So although it would be good and praiseworthy of me to give lots of it to the starving,<3> it would be above and beyond the call of duty.  In fact, that’s what’s distinctively good about it: I would be doing more than I am obligated to do.  From which it follows that I’m not obligated to do it.  Reply: So, you wouldn’t be obligated to save a drowning child if doing so would cost you $15 of your legally etc. hard-earned money for dry cleaning?  There may be some very strict sense in which you are not so obligated, but if you did not save the child at the cost of a dry cleaning bill, you’d be a monster; it would be very wrong to let the child drown, not just a lack of philanthropy.  Rejoinder: All right, but it’s a long way from $15 to the huge cut in lifestyle that Singer is demanding.  How can we determine that alleged boundary between obligation and philanthropy?

Ethical Egoism and Psychological Egoism

    Ethical Egoism is a moral theory in our sense, but a very odd one.  What it says is: that everyone ought always to act in her/his own interest.
What’s odd about the theory is that (a) to my knowledge, no philosopher has ever actually defended it, and (b) no ordinary person has ever accepted all its consequences.  So why does it come up for so much discussion?  Because, I think, it is easily confused with other, less implausible claims that some people do believe.
    In support of (b), notice that according to Ethical Egoism, if you have ever once put someone else’s interest ahead of your own, even if that person is a loved one, you have violated an obligation and acted immorally.  I have never heard of anyone who actually believed that.

    The writer who has come closest to defending Ethical Egoism is Ayn Rand.  But even she does not hold that everyone ought always to act in her/his own interest.  One ought to help a neighbor in a genuine emergency, she concedes, and it is perfectly OK to subordinate your own interest to that of your spouse or child.
    She does qualify those concessions.  Love, she says, is not “selfless,” but is “an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one’s own values in the person of another…, a rational part of one’s selfish interests” (p. 534).  This is hard to understand.  The most obvious interpretation is that Rand is committing the fallacy Feinberg scouts on pp. 495-6.  That is the fallacy of moving from the trivial truism “I can act only on my (own) motives” to the seemingly obvious falsehood, “I can act only selfishly,” or as Feinberg puts it, from “(i) Every voluntary action is prompted by a motive of the agent’s own” to “(ii) Every voluntary action is prompted by a motive of a particular kind, viz., a selfish one.”  That the motive itself is (duhh) the agent’s own  says nothing about the motive’s content.

    (That fallacy infests a common argument for Psychological Egoism, the psychological thesis that everyone is always motivated solely by self-interest.  As Feinberg documents, there are other arguments for Psychological Egoism, but his overall case against that view seems to me very convincing.
    Psychological Egoism has itself been used as an argument for Ethical Egoism.  But even if Psychological Egoism were true, (a) that argument is invalid, since Psychological Egoism is a factual claim about how we are motivated, while Ethical Egoism prescribes what we ought to do when we have a choice.  And (b) if Psychological Egoism were true, you would think that no moral theory—Ethical Egoism or Utilitarianism or any other--would be supported by it.  If as a matter of psychological law we can do nothing but act in our own interest, what could be the point of doing any preaching about what we ought to do?)

    Perhaps Rand does not commit the foregoing fallacy.  Perhaps instead she intends the more abstract metaphysical argument reconstructed by Rachels<4> on p. 540.  But then Rachels’ criticism of that argument applies: We don’t have to choose between Ethical Egoism and whatever extreme view it is that Rand calls “the ethics of altruism”; “the common-sense view…that one’s own interests and the interests of others are both important and must be balanced against one another” is the obvious and plausible middle ground.

    Rachels goes on to consider three arguments against Ethical Egoism: the two “B and K” arguments offered by Baier (pp. 542-3), and his own preferred argument based on the principle that “We can justify treating people differently only if we can show that there is some factual difference between them that is relevant to justifying the difference in treatment” (italics his).  He argues that Ethical Egoism is an extreme form of racism, tantamount to the insane view that one is a uniquely, cosmically privileged character, worthy of obeisance by all others and to whom all others’ interests must be subordinate.
    What’s strange is that Rachels seems to have forgotten the criticism he himself had just made of Baier’s first “B and K” argument.  Ethical Egoism says, in effect, that life is an individual sport in which every player, every person, is trying to grab all the marbles.  It does not assume that anyone is intrinsically superior to anyone else.  I try to achieve my goals at your expense, but not because I think you and everyone else are inferior to me.  (Rand seems to think that every individual life is fundamentally of equal value.)  I fully expect you to boost your own interests at my expense, and that’s fine; may the best player win.
    That’s as far as we went in class.  I’m now not sure my objection is fair, because I didn’t say where it cuts into the argument as formulated on p. 544, and Rachels’ (1) and (2) still look plausible.  No doubt he would challenge me to say what exactly is wrong with the argument, then, if I don’t like the way he’s characterizing Ethical Egoism.  OK, I’ll say it, or rather hint it and let you work out the details:  Note a mismatch between (1) and (2).  (1) says, “Any moral doctrine that assigns greater importance…,” while (2) says, “Ethical Egoism would have each person assign greater importance….”  You do the math.


1  In case you’re wondering, Singer himself gives (or has said in interviews that he gives) 40% of his own income to the poor.

2  Notice that many of us have not, in fact, earned as much of our money as we may think.  Most well-off people have been given a lot of money by their parents; most of the best-off people inherited their money and then increased it through investment, not through work.  Very few affluent people are self-made.

3  Rand would disdain that concession.  She had nothing but contempt for philanthropy of any kind.

4  Who is, by the way, a distinguished graduate of the UNC Ph.D. program in philosophy.