Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The paradox of utilitarianism

Can an argument be made  that focusing on consequences produces worse consequences overall than other reasons? For example, the consequences of lying for all concerned might give worse results than our egotistic thinking patterns are bound to recognize. Hence, a general rule "don't lie" might produce more happiness overall than saying "lie if and only if it will maximize happiness."

4 comments:

John Moore said...

The key thing in consequentialism is that it's about the future. We have a hard time predicting the future. So you need to have a certain humility and always admit that you don't know for sure.

If you want to get some interesting paradoxes, just assume we have certainty about the future. Or if you want to resolve those paradoxes, just admit we don't have certainty.

Since we don't know for sure, it's often a good idea to stick to traditional moral rules, because those rules have tended to work pretty well in a lot of situations in the past. They're probably good rules of thumb. This way, consequentialism ends up looking a lot like other moral frameworks.

Hugo Pelland said...

"Hence, a general rule "don't lie" might produce more happiness overall than saying "lie if and only if it will maximize happiness."" because it's a good rule of thumb to not lie, by default, because it works better, things are more efficient, and we can hypothesize on the consequences of lying. I think that fits with what John said.

John Moore said...

Traditional moral rules sometimes conflict, such as when the Gestapo asks whether you're hiding any Jews in your attic. On the one hand, there's a rule against lying. On the other hand, there's another perhaps unwritten rule that says don't let these innocent people die.

You can use your gut feelings to decide, perhaps on the spur of the moment. Or you can try to analyze probabilities and guess what the different future scenarios will be. A consequentialist might say we're better off analyzing future scenarios than trusting our gut feelings.

Steve Lovell said...

Not so much a paradox as a vicious infinite regress: will deliberating over the consequences of my action produce the best possible consequences? Should I deliberate? Should I deliberate about whether or not to deliberate? If deliberation on consequences is ever necessary, why would it not always be necessary? And then how does one begin? At deliberation about whether to deliberate about whether to deliberate about ...