Sunday, February 14, 2010

Utilitarianism, life, and death

A redated post. 

An implication of utilitarianism that I have never heard discussed much is that pain turns out to be a fate worse than death, according to it. If the calculus attempts to determine what is right based on whether something produces the best balance of pleasure over pain, who is or is not dead seems not to count. Death is just a way of going to zero: no pain and no pleasure either. If you are a utilitarian and you know how to put people out of their misery painlessly, maybe a career as a serial killer is morally obligatory for you.


Brandon said...

I suspect most utilitarians would deny that death is just a way of going to zero because of opportunity costs. Thus death would have to be weighed not only against current misery but the utilities of genuinely possible futures. And the cases where this would clearly favor death are already cases on which some people are inclined to favor euthanasia, so that's really where this sort of discussion would have to take place.

Mark Trapp said...

Brandon, potentiality is probably how I'd address the problem, but then you run into defeating that what makes utilitarianism attractive: being able to calculate the ethical choice. How do you guarantee potential future happiness will be actualized?

Clayton said...

I second Brandon's response, but I know a consequentialist who embraces the conclusion. See:

unkle e said...

If potential is to be assessed, how would this affect decisions about abortion?

Steven Carr said...

Does it increase the well-being of humanity in general and individuals in particular if there are serial killers running loose?

Gordon Knight said...

If I remember right, Peter Singer argues that the badness of death depends on one's future desires and the possibility of satisfaction. So a lizzard, presumably, has few future directed desires, may not even havce a sense of self, yet still feels pain like we do. So, pain is really bad for the lizzard and death is not so bad at all. With cows, chickens and deer, one can argue likewize--though these animals are more developed. Apes and Dolphins are pretty much in the same category as we are--they have future directed desires so their death is a really bad thing, and is certainly worse than shortly endured pain.

But what of the human case. i actually think being tortured for the next twenty years and then dying is OBVIOUSLY worse than just dying. But what being tortured for a while and then going on to live a productive life? you need to weigh the pros and cons, but it may be the desire to live and pursue one's interests is so strong that it outweighs the suffering

I actually think that St. Paul and the Epicureans, for different reasons, were perfectly correct in thinking that death is not an evil for me. I guess have Socrates's view. Either death is nothingness, in which case it is nothing to me and not an evil, or it is a great afterlife experience, which of course is a great good.

Clayton said...

"If potential is to be assessed, how would this affect decisions about abortion?"

Tricky question. If we're working within a utilitarian framework, perhaps it would affect them the same as it would affect decisions about creating children. The effects of non-creation and starting to create but deciding against it seem about the same (bracketing the effects on, say, the woman that benefits by deciding not to carry a fetus to term when doing so is not in her interest) unless we stipulate that we are concerned with cases in which the effects are effects upon a sentient entity whose life is terminated. (

Steven Carr said...

I'm sure there is a morally justifiable reason for allowing serial killers to operate undetected.

Or else God would not be a morally perfect being.

People who approve of serial killers no more have to justify reasons for it than Alvin Plantinga has to explain why God allows earthquakes to strike Haiti.

Anonymous said...

I would be a little careful before I would say the 'utilitarians' think this way. We all are challenged to act in a means to bring the greatest amount of good and if one thinks that this is solely of the "utilitarians." There are some utilitarian arguments by which almost all would initially agree until they know more. Afterwards they see that their action that hurts someone else.

How about a police officer who breaks the law and tells a couple of lies on a report so someone, who has the status of epilepsy, just so he loses his drivers license? No seizure occurred, just to get him off the road. He is acting towards the common good, preventing the possibility for a future accident in the event that the person forgets his medication for 2 or 3 days. It's for the best, right? Out of this ignorance, the utilitarian rationale allows the officer to lie on a police report and vioate the basis of our free justice system. A couple of lies are told on the report, make up a seizure, tell him he has to get on an ambulance for no reason, or he will get arrested. Then send the report to the DMV and a suspension occurs, protecting the public. There is no medical problem, just the fear of the potential that could occur, all out of the officer's ignorance.

A couple of people freaked out when they read that so lets try an easier one. How about a citizen that seeks justice against someone he suspects of rape by killing an individual? Maybe raping him back? This person is acting in the interests of the whole, protecting the public, acting towards the common good and kills the rapist before a trial. However, if our culture decides to adopt such behavior what happens to our rights? If allowed, one who is suspected of rape can be murdered by the culture before a trial occurrs. It happens all in the interests of the whole, acting for the greatest outcome, all for the common good. Looking back, we see a couple of the people we accused actually didn't commit any rape, but we were close, and for the most, our actions prevent a terrible crime happening to others.

There isn't a "utilitarian" that justifies this way. Instead, we are tempted to act in the interests of the whole, for the best and decide what is most useful. Hitler's actions were utilitarian, if we get rid of those Jews the culture will be stronger. If we allow actions determined solely by their usefulness, to maximize the good, it's dangerous as we also determine what the "good" is.