Utility versus The Experience Machine: Bentham v. Nozick
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
Bentham argues for utility/value to be judged based on the primacy of pleasure. This view is known as hedonic utilitarianism.
From An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 
Chapter I: OF THE PRINCIPLE OF UTILITY
I. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do…
II. …By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question… I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
III. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.
V. …A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains.
VI. An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility… when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.
From The Rationale of Reward
The utility of all these arts and sciences…the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnished more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few…If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.
*push-pin = card game with points tallied with pinboard
Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
In contrast, Robert Nozick (in his 1974 Anarchy, State and Utopia) argues against the hedonism of Bentham as follows: if pleasure were our sole value, we would have a conclusive reason to plug into an experience machine. Since most of us are revolted by this idea, this is good evidence against the claims of hedonism, as well as for a wider view of what is good.
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences…suppose you can pick and choose from [a] large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in?
What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What is a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?
What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell, there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?
Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a manmade reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance. This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender.
We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machine. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and thereupon plug into the experience machine. Some wouldn’t use the transformation machine at all; it seems like cheating. But the one-time use of the transformation machine would not remove all challenges; there would still be obstacles for the new us to overcome, a new plateau from which to strive even higher And is this plateau any the less earned or deserved than that provided by genetic endowment and early childhood environment? But if the transformation machine could be used indefinitely often, so that we could accomplish anything by pushing a button to transform ourselves into someone who could do it easily, there would remain no limits we need to strain against or try to transcend. Would there be anything left to do? Do some theological views place God outside of time because an omniscient omnipotent being couldn’t fill up his days?
So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like. Nor is the reason merely that one’s experiences are unconnected with what one is like. For the experience machine might be limited to provide only experiences possible to the sort of person plugged in. Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine, which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity. We shall not pursue here the fascinating details of these or other machines. What is most disturbing about them is their living of our lives for us. Is it misguided to search for particular additional functions beyond the competence of machines to do for us? Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.) Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other than their experiences.
John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill’s 1863 book ‘Utilitarianism’ defends a consequentialism that says that the consequence that should be most valued is overall happiness. And happiness isn’t (necessarily) the same as pleasure. This view could be known as felicific utilitarianism.
From Mill’s ‘Autobiography’, ch. 1
I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have been told that it was when I was three years old. My earliest recollection on the subject, is that of committing to memory what my father termed vocables, being lists of common Greek words, with their signification in English, which he wrote out for me on cards. Of grammar, until some years later, I learnt no more than the inflections of the nouns and verbs, but, after a course of vocables, proceeded at once to translation; and I faintly remember going through Aesop's Fables, the first Greek book which I read. The Anabasis, which I remember better, was the second. I learnt no Latin until my eighth year. At that time I had read, under my father's tuition, a number of Greek prose authors, among whom I remember the whole of Herodotus, and of Xenophon's Cyropaedia and Memorials of Socrates; some of the lives of the philosophers by Diogenes Laertius; part of Lucian, and Isocrates ad Demonicum and Ad Nicoclem. I also read, in 1813, the first six dialogues (in the common arrangement) of Plato, from the Euthyphron to the Theoctetus inclusive.
The greatest happiness principle
Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. Pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
Such a theory excites in many minds dislike. To suppose that life has no higher end than pleasure they designate as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were compared.
The Epicureans answered that it is the accusers who represent human nature in a degrading light, since they suppose human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. Humans have faculties more elevated and do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.
Some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others. If I am asked what I mean by quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, there is but one answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which almost all who have experienced both give a preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one is, by those acquainted with both, placed above the other, we are justified in ascribing to it a superiority in quality. Those equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both, do give a marked preference to their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into a lower animal for a promise of its pleasures. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy and is capable of more acute suffering; but he can never wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side. The other party knows both sides.
Many capable of the higher pleasures, under the influence of temptation. postpone them to the lower. But this is compatible with an appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, aware that health is the greater good.
From the verdict of competent judges, there can be no appeal. There is no other tribunal, even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced?
The good of everyone
The utilitarian standard is not the agent’s greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.
The ultimate end is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, in quantity and quality. The standard of morality may be defined as the rules for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but to the whole sentient creation.
The utilitarian morality recognizes in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that sacrifice is in itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted.
The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
The objectors to utilitarianism sometimes say it is too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the interests of society. But this is to confound the rule with the motive. The motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid.
Sometimes utility is called a godless doctrine. The question depends upon what idea we have formed of the moral character of the Deity. If God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. A utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has revealed on morality must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree.
Utility is often given the name Expediency, to contrast with Principle. But the Expedient generally means what is expedient for the agent himself or for some temporary purpose, but violates the greater good. The Expedient in this sense is hurtful. It would often be expedient to tell a lie. But the cultivation of a sensitive feeling on veracity is very useful. The violation, for a present advantage, of such a rule is not expedient. Yet even this sacred rule admits of exceptions, as when the withholding of information from a malefactor would prevent evil, and this can only be effected by denial. The principle of utility can weigh these conflicting utilities against one another.
The proof of the principle
The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.
The only proof that an object is visible is that people see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it. In like manner, the sole evidence that anything is desirable is that people desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct and criteria of morality. But it has not proved itself to be the sole criterion. To do that, it would need to show, not only that people desire happiness, but that they never desire anything else. Now they seem to desire things distinguished from happiness, for example, virtue and the absence of vice. And hence the opponents of the utilitarian standard infer that there are other ends of human action besides happiness, and that happiness is not the sole standard.
Utilitarianism maintains that virtue is to be desired, disinterestedly, for itself. The mind is not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it loves virtue as a thing desirable in itself. The ingredients of happiness are various, and each of them is desirable in itself. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not originally part of the end, but it can become so.
There is nothing originally more desirable about money than about any heap of pebbles. Its worth is solely that of the things which it will buy. Yet money is, in many cases, desired for itself; the desire to possess it is often stronger than the desire to use it. From being a means to happiness, it has come to be a principal ingredient of the individual’s conception of happiness. The person thinks he would be made happy by its mere possession. It is included in his happiness.
Virtue is a good of this description. And with this difference between it and the love of money — that there is nothing which makes a person so much a blessing to others as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue. The utilitarian standard, while it approves other acquired desires, up to the point where they would be more injurious to the general happiness than promoting of it, requires the cultivation of the love of virtue to the greatest strength possible, as being above all things important to the general happiness.
So there is nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, is desired as a part of happiness. Those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united.
We have now an answer to the question, of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible. If human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness — we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable. If so, happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test to judge of human conduct.
Whether this is so can only be determined by observation. This evidence will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are two different modes of naming the same psychological fact; to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing.
But if this doctrine be true, the principle of utility is proved. Whether it is so or not must now be left to the consideration of the thoughtful reader.
Questions on Mill
1 Formulate the greatest happiness principle. Use an example to illustrate how it works.
2 How does Mill respond to those who say that his view is worthy only of swine?
3 On Mill’s view, are mental pleasures higher because they contain more pleasure? How do we decide which pleasures are superior?
4 Can some people experience both higher and lower pleasures and yet prefer the lower pleasures?
5 Whose happiness are we to consider when applying the greatest happiness principle?
6 Under what conditions should we perform self-sacrificing acts?
7 Do the golden rule and the “Love your neighbor” principle conflict with utilitarianism?
8 Must all our actions be motivated by the goal of promoting the good of society?
9 How does Mill respond to the charge that utilitarianism is a “godless” doctrine of “mere expediency”?
10 How does Mill argue that (the general) happiness and it alone is desirable as an ultimate end?
11 Is virtue desired only as a means to pleasure?
12 How are these three related: “I desire X for its own sake,” “I find X desirable for its own sake,” and “I regard X as pleasant”?
Herewith some 20th-century commentary on key utilitarian ideas…
1. Richard Brandt – Act and Rule Utilitarianism
Brandt originates the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism. He is keen to defend rule utilitarianism.
a) Act Utilitarianism: atomistic, erratic, inconsistent, lacking in integrity
“Act-utilitarianism” holds that the rightness of an act is fixed by the utility of its consequences, as compared with those of other acts the agent might perform instead. Act-utilitarianism is an atomistic theory: the value of the effects of a single act on the world is decisive for its rightness. “Rule-utilitarianism,” in contrast, applies to views according to which the rightness of an act is not fixed by its relative utility, but by conformity with general rules; the correctness of these rules is fixed by the utility of their general acceptance. Rule-utilitarianism is an organic theory: the rightness of individual acts can be ascertained only by assessing a whole social policy.
Act-utilitarianism has implications difficult to accept. It implies that if you - have employed a boy to mow your lawn and he has finished the job and asks for his pay, you should pay him what you promised only if you cannot find a better use for your money. When you bring home your monthly pay-check, you should use it to support your family and yourself only if it cannot be used more effectively to supply the needs of others. If your father is ill and has no prospect of good in his life, and maintaining him is a drain on the enjoyments of others, then, if you can end his life without provoking public scandal or setting a bad example, it is your duty to bring his life to a close. Rule-utilitarianism avoids some of these objectionable implications.
b) Rule-Utilitarianism: an alternative to Act Utilitarianism
The principle with which we end is this: “An act is right if and only if it conforms with that learnable set of rules the recognition of which as morally binding — roughly at the time of the act — by everyone in the society of the agent, except for the retention by individuals of already formed and decided moral convictions, would maximize intrinsic value.”
If the proposed principle is correct, we can give at least a partial answer to a person who asks why he ought to perform actions he is obligated to perform, if they conflict with his self-interest. We can say to him that by doing so he plays the game of living according to the rules which will maximize welfare.
2. Bernard Williams –Utilitarianism’s lack of integrity
a) Two examples: George and Jim
Let us look at two examples, to see what utilitarianism might say about them.
(1) George, who has just taken his Ph.D. in chemistry, finds it difficult to get a job. He is not robust in health, which cuts down the number of jobs he might be able to do. His wife has to work, which causes a great deal of strain, since they have small children. The results of all this, especially on the children, are damaging. An older chemist says that he can get George a decently paid job in a laboratory which pursues research into chemical warfare. George says that he cannot accept this, since he is opposed to chemical warfare. The older man replies that he is not too keen on it himself, but George’s refusal is not going to make the job or the laboratory go away; what is more, if George refuses the job, it will certainly go to a contemporary of George’s who is not inhibited by such scruples and is likely to push the research with greater zeal than George would. What should George do?
(2) Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified. A heavy man in a khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are about to be killed to remind other possible protesters of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honored visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then the other Indians will be let off. If Jim refuses, then Pedro will kill them all. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are begging him to accept. What should he do?
To these dilemmas, utilitarianism replies, in the first case, that George should accept the job, and in the second, that Jim should kill the Indian. Not only does utilitarianism give these answers but…it regards them as obviously the right answers. But many of us would certainly wonder whether, in (1), that could possibly be the right answer; and in the case of (2), even one who came to think that was the answer, might well wonder whether it was obviously the answer. Nor is it just a question of the rightness or obviousness of these answers; it is also a question of what sort of considerations come into finding the answer. Utilitarianism cuts out the idea that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do. This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity. It is often suspected that utilitarianism makes integrity as a value more or less unintelligible.
b) Remote effects
We should first ask whether we are assuming too hastily what the utilitarian answers to the dilemmas will be. In terms of more remote effects, counterweights might be found to enter the utilitarian scales. Thus the effect on George of a decision to take the job might be invoked, or its effect on others who might know of his decision. Such effects are often invoked by utilitarian writers dealing with lying or promise-breaking, and similar considerations might be invoked here.
The certainty that attaches to these hypotheses about possible effects is usually pretty low; in some cases, the hypothesis is so implausible that it would scarcely pass if it were not being used to deliver the respectable moral answer, as in the standard fantasy that one of the effects of telling a particular lie is to weaken the disposition of the world at large to tell the truth.
c) J.J.C. Smart - A response to Bernard Williams’ thought-experiment
…Now though a utilitarian might argue that it is empirically unlikely that some such situation would ever occur, [Williams] will point out that it is logically possible that such a Situation will arise. If the utilitarian rejects the unjust act he is giving up his utilitarianism…Even in my most utilitarian moods I am not happy about this consequence of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, however unhappy about it he may be, the utilitarian must admit that he might find himself in circumstances where he ought to be unjust. Let us hope that this is a logical possibility and not a factual one.
…I am not happy to draw the conclusion that [Williams] quite rightly says that the utilitarian must draw. But neither am I happy with the anti- utilitarian conclusion. For if a case did arise in which injustice was the lesser of two evils (in terms of human happiness and misery), then the anti- utilitarian conclusion is a very unpalatable one too, namely that in some circumstances one must choose the greater misery, perhaps the very much greater misery, such as that of hundreds of people suffering painful deaths.
Among possible options, utilitarianism does have its appeal. With its empirical attitude to means and ends it is congenial to the scientific temper and it has flexibility to deal with a changing world. This last consideration is, however, more self-recommendation than justification. For if flexibility is a recommendation, this is because of the utility of flexibility.
3. J.J.C Smart: Act-utilitarianism
Does Smart’s version of utilitarianism avoid Williams’ charge that utilitarianism lacks ‘integrity’? Is it vulnerable to Brandt’s critique that it would encourage a moral free-for-all?
I am here concerned to defend act-utilitarianism. Act-utilitarianism is to be contrasted with rule-utilitarianism. Act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself. Rule-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness of an action is to be judged by the goodness and badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform the action in like circumstances.
I have argued elsewhere the objections to rule-utilitarianism. Briefly they boil down to the accusation of rule worship: the rule-utilitarian advocates his principle because he is ultimately concerned with human happiness: why then should he advocate abiding by a rule when he knows that it will not in the present case be beneficial to abide by it? To refuse to break a rule in cases in which it is not beneficial to obey it seems irrational and to be a case of rule worship.
The utilitarian position is here put forward as a criterion of rational choice [not one to which we owe slavish obedience]. We may choose to habituate ourselves to behave in accordance with certain rules, such as to keep promises, in the belief that behaving in accordance with these rules is generally optimific, and in the knowledge that we often do not have time to work out pros and cons. The act-utilitarian will regard these rules as mere rules of thumb and will use them only as rough guides. He acts in accordance with rules when there is no time to think. When he has to think what to do, then there is a question of deliberation or choice, and it is for such situations that the utilitarian criterion is intended.
There is no inconsistency in an act-utilitarian’s schooling himself to act, in normal circumstances, habitually and in accordance with rules. He knows that we would go mad if we went in detail into the probable consequences of keeping or not keeping every trivial promise: we will do the most good if we habituate ourselves to keep promises in all normal situations. Moreover he may suspect that on some occasions personal bias may prevent him from reasoning in a correct utilitarian fashion. If he trusts to the accepted rules he is more likely to act in the way that an unbiased act-utilitarian would recommend than if he tried to evaluate the consequences himself.
This is not the law worship of the rule-utilitarian, who would say that we ought to keep to a rule that is the most generally optimific, even though we knew that obeying it in this instance would have bad consequences. Nor is this utilitarian doctrine incompatible with a recognition of the importance of warm and spontaneous expressions of emotion. Consider a case in which a man sees that his wife is tired, and from a spontaneous feeling of affection he offers to wash the dishes. Does utilitarianism imply that he should have stopped to calculate the various consequences of his different possible courses of action? Certainly not. This would make married life a misery and the utilitarian knows well as a rule of thumb that on occasions of this sort it is best to act spontaneously and without calculation. There are good utilitarian reasons why we should cultivate in ourselves the tendency to certain types of warm and spontaneous feeling.
b) Hedonistic and non-hedonistic utilitarianism
An act-utilitarian judges the rightness of actions by the goodness and badness of their consequences. But is he to judge the goodness and badness of consequences solely by their pleasantness and unpleasantness? Bentham, who thought that quantity of pleasure being equal, the experience of playing pushpin was as good as that of reading poetry, could be classified as a hedonistic act-utilitarian. Moore, who believed that some states of mind, such as knowledge, had intrinsic value independent of their pleasantness, can be called an ideal utilitarian. Mill seemed to occupy an intermediate position. He held that there are higher and lower pleasures. This seems to imply that pleasure is a necessary condition for goodness but that goodness depends on other qualities of experience than pleasantness and unpleasantness. I propose to call Mill a quasi-ideal utilitarian.
Let us consider Mill’s contention that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” A hedonistic utilitarian, like Bentham, might agree with Mill in preferring the experiences of discontented philosophers to those of contented fools. His preference for the philosopher’s state of mind, however, would not be an intrinsic one. He would say that the discontented philosopher is useful in society and that the existence of Socrates is responsible for an improvement in the lot of humanity generally.
Again, a man who enjoys pushpin is likely eventually to become bored with it, whereas the man who enjoys poetry is likely to retain this interest throughout his life. Moreover reading poetry may develop imagination and sensitivity, and so as a result a man may he able to do more for the happiness of others than if he had played pushpin and let his brain deteriorate. In short, both for the man immediately concerned and for others, the pleasures of poetry are, to use Bentham’s word, more fecund than those of pushpin.
c) Average and total happiness
Another disagreement can arise over whether we should try to maximize the average happiness or the total happiness. I have not yet elucidated the concept of total happiness, and you may regard it as a suspect notion. But for present purposes I shall put it in this way: Would you be quite indifferent between (a) a universe containing one million happy sentient beings, all equally happy, and (b) a universe containing two million happy beings? Or would you, as a humane and sympathetic person, give a preference to the second universe? I myself feel a preference for the second universe. But if someone feels the other way I do not know how to argue with him.
This disagreement might have practical relevance. It might be important in discussions of birth control. But in most cases the difference will not lead to disagreement in practice. For in most cases the most effective way to increase the total happiness is to increase the average happiness, and vice versa.
4. Singer and Preference utilitarianism
A more recent form of utilitarianism, powerfully defended by the philosopher Peter Singer. Preference utilitarians, as utilitarians, define a morally right action as that which produces the happiest consequences for the people involved. So, as for other utilitarians, the goodness or badness of an act boils down to the state of mind that is produced. The happiest consequences should be maximised, and the unhappiest minimised.
However, the happiest consequences are defined in terms of 'preference satisfaction' – that is to say, in less specific terms than for hedonic utilitarians, who think only of pleasure. 'Good' or ‘happiest’ is described as the satisfaction of each person's individual preferences or desires, and a right action is that which leads to this satisfaction. It’s good to get what you want, and bad to get what you don’t want.
Hence, preference utilitarians recognize that every person’s preferences (thus satisfactions) are unique. What matters for them is not happiness, but getting what you want. The distinction between preference utilitarianism and hedonic utilitarianism is evident in the thought-experiment below, in which I am wrong about what will make me happy. Imagine that I think (have a firm preference for the idea) that staying in and reading Mill on Friday night will make me optimally happy, but actually I would be wildly happier dressing up in a pair of white drainpipe trousers, hanging a wall-clock round my neck, and going out to The Venue in New Cross for the Flavor Flav Impersonators Nite.
The hedonistic utilitarian would say that going out would be better because it would make me happier, even if it wasn’t what I wanted; the preference utilitarian would say that it is better if I stay in, because then at least I am doing what I want. (You might also think about what would happen if both kinds of Utilitarian were offered the chance to plug themselves into Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine: Extreme Pleasure Version’…wouldn’t they choose differently, maybe?)
Divide a page into quarters. Maybe this one. Fill in each quarter with notes about the philosophers, above, indicating with arrows connections and tensions between them.
Some Reasons For and Against Utilitarianism
(Modern) reasons for supporting Mill
Rejects exceptionless rules – flexibility – it’s not always wrong to lie, steal, break your promises, or disobey your parents.
Human happiness and misery give a solid basis for evaluating the norms of different cultures.
(Singer) arguably any non-egoistic moral theory must consider outcomes for others, so utilitarianism is basic.
Cost/benefit analysis a common management tool – clear benefits to this approach
Specifies scientific moral method whilst making clear place for our drives and natural feelings.
Issues: reductio ad absurdam arguments
Could have bizarre implications:
Could justify slavery/racism…
The Cheerful Stupidity Ray – implies we should use it…
(Parfit) = No limit to population growth…
Could justify clearly repellent actions
Murderous Robin Hood?
George and the Chemical Warfare job: is it best to choose the least worst (potential/distant) consequences?
Jim and the Indian Massacre – isn’t it wrong in itself to (directly) kill an innocent person, even if it had the best consequences?
Issues: Deontological views
Right results, wrong reasons (= Kant’s attack)
Are good deeds done by a psychopath of equal merit to those done by a boy scout?
Isn’t there a difference between decent behaviour because of reward, and decent behaviour for its own sake?
Rules out possibility of self being virtuous
the issue of Justice and Rights as moral absolutes
Aren’t some deeds simply wrong? (Bernard Williams’ examples)
Aren’t some rights inalienable?
Aren’t some rights inviolable?
Issues: ‘Natural’ Facts questioned
Nozick and the Experience Machine = good empirical evidence that we would not choose a life of pleasure:
Response: vicissitudes point the contrast
pleasure is therefore meaningful
It remains as an ultimate goal
Bad Pleasures – a natural fact?
Mill says that the importance of pleasure is self-evident/known non-inferentially non-inferential arguments for bad pleasures? (psychopaths etc)
the matter of Special Obligations
e.g. natural facts concerning obligations to one’s children outweighing those to society as a whole
Can these be justified by utilitarian accounts?
Methodological issues: weighing up, mapping the good?
Quantifying Happiness –
Do tools like the Felicific Calculus really work? How?
Might some of us have greater capacity for e.g. pleasure?
Can the consequences of actions always be exactly determined?
Predictable v Actual Consequences – e.g.?
Short-term v Long-term Consequences – e.g?
Local v Global Consequences – e.g.?