Thursday, December 17, 2009

Utility and the Good by Robert E. Goodin

I'm blogging my way through every article in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, the essay entitled "Utility and the Good" by Robert Goodin goes under the knife.

1. The Right, The Good and the Utilitarian
We must begin with some distinctions. Ethical theories are usually divided into two component parts: a theory of right and a theory of good. The theory of right specifies which actions help to realise or respect the good. The theory of good specifies what is valuable and worthwhile (see my post on consequentialism for more).

Now you may not know this, but utilitarianism is a theory of good, not a theory of right. As it happens, there is very little agreement among about what is good. Some Aristotelians might specify virtuous character traits and some natural lawyers might pinpoint abstractions like "knowledge", "friendship" and "play".

For utilitarians, the matter is more straightforward: ethics is about people, and the only things that are good are those things that are good for people. These things should be maximised. Goodin points out three variations on this basic utilitarian theme.

2. Three Types of Utility
The first variant of is hedonic. It was popularised by that irrepressible social reformer Jeremy Bentham. He took the view that something was good for people if it resulted in sentient pleasure. In other words, if it resulted in some conscious feeling of contentment or euphoria. Thus, the moral society was one that maximised sentient pleasure.

The hedonic version of utilitarianism is frequently caricatured. It would seem to encourage us to become a "mad assembly of pleasure hogs constantly out for a buzz" (Goodin's words). But Goodin counters this by saying Bentham's theory was simply premised on the factual accuracy of the hedonic psychology, i.e. on the assumption that it was empirically true that people acted so as to obtain pleasure. This can easily be corrected with a more accurate and sophisticated psychology.

This brings us to the second variant: preference utilitarianism. This replaces the picture of human beings as short-term pleasure hogs, with the picture of human beings as longer-term preference-satisficers. Actually, "replace" is not a good word because hedonic utilitarianism is really subsumed within preference utilitarianism: short term pleasures are a subset of preferences.

A problem for both of these versions of utilitarianism is that they are egalitarian in their treatment of pleasures/preferences. In other words, the goal is simply one of maximisation, the quality of what it being maximised is irrelvant. The sadist and the saint all count for the same or, in Bentham's famous words, "pushpin [a child's game] is as good as poetry".

This seemed unpalatable to some (John Stuart Mill and G.E. Moore), so much so that they tried to introduce some qualitative distinctions between pleasures/preferences. A certain weighting could then be given to the superior or higher pleasures/preferences.

Goodin thinks there is a more convincing answer to this worry: welfare utilitarianism. This variant does not focus on subjective pleasures or preferences. Instead, it focuses on objective welfare interests. For example: life expectancy, access to education, employment, health, access to housing and so on.

3. The Attraction of Welfare Utilitarianism
Goodin thinks welfare utilitarianism an attractive concept. It seems to solve some of the problems that confront the other variants of utilitarianism. For example, the other variants would force us to "get inside each others heads"; welfare utilitarianism does not.

Further, it would be difficult to develop an impersonal way of measuring subjective pleasures and pains; objective welfare interests (such as life expectancy, access to education and employment) are easier to quantify and compare.

That said, problems undeniably remain. Two biggies concern the way in which the pie of pleasures, preferences or welfare interests is divided up. Because utilitarians advocate an impersonal summing and maximisation of utilities, they could end up with a society where one individual gets everything. Likewise, they could end up with a society where there is a radical redistribution of utilities (irrespective of merit). Both would seem to be justified on the utilitarian logic.

Goodin responds to each of these scenarios as follows:
  • The phenomenon of diminishing marginal utility (e.g. getting less out of the third mars bar than the first) makes the radically inegalitarian society unlikely.
  • The costs to security, stability and productive output would make the radically egalitarian society unlikely.
These responses are probably accurate but note: they are contingent upon empirical facts. There is nothing within utilitarianism itself that prevents the inegalitarian or radically communist society from maximising utility. The mere possibility of such societies is enough to make rights-theorists quake in their boots.

Nonetheless, Goodin maintains that welfare utilitarianism is the most pragmatic and effective guide for policy-makers.

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