Saturday, May 08, 2010

Benthamite Utilitairianism vs. the Active Choice to be an Arse

A while ago, I listened to a podcast of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do Series, which featured lectures by Michael Sandel about philosophy and ethics. One lecture was about Bentham's Utilitarianism. The lecture implied that there were moral limitations to utilitarianism, that eventually pure, unfettered utilitarianism could lead to justifying outrages that shock the conscience.

Examples were given:
  • The Roman Coliseum
    It was claimed that a utilitarian argument could be made that the pure, ecstatic joy provided to thousands of Roman spectators could outweigh the short-term pain inflicted on a few Christian martyrs.

  • The Pinto gas tank
    In this case, Ford Motor Company made a utilitarian calculation about the cost of replacing a defective gas tank design that was leading to death and injury in rear-end explosions. During a trial, it was revealed that Ford calculated that the $11 repair, multiplied by millions of cars, outweighed the benefit of reducing a few hundred deaths. Sandel in his lecture claimed that a utilitarian argument justified this calculation.

  • The Ticking Time Bomb
    The question was asked in today's situations with terrorism. If you know someone has information about an up-and-coming terrorist plot which could kill hundreds, it was asked, wouldn't it justify a little torture to save those lives?

Given the horrible outcomes of the first two cases, the argument was that moral philosophers have been forced over the centuries to seek limitations and modifications to utilitarianism. I would disagree that unfettered utilitarianism is to blame.

Q: Are the Romans currently tearing apart Christians?
A: No, they ticked off so many of their neighbors that they were eventually overrun by the Gauls.

Q: Is Ford Motor Company doing well financially today?
A: No, the liberal media and trial lawyers tore them apart during those trials leading to great financial loss back then and, as some conservatives have argued, helped usher in a regulatory environment that hurt them.

So, if your calculation were to provide emotional benefits to your Roman citizens, your calculus failed. You forgot the Gauls. If your calculation was to provide financial benefits to Ford shareholders, you failed. You forgot the liberal media. In my estimation, there was an active choice in each of these cases to be a meanie, one which blinded planners to all the likely outcomes.

Now let's consider the case of torture, or those enhanced interrogation that Amnesty International calls torture. First of all, let's assume you actually have a person who has knowledge of ticking time bomb cases. Many critics of torture have argued that the tortured person gives not what you need to know but rather any and everything that he or she thinks will stop the torture. In this example, even over the short term, the utilitarian calculation may be weak.

Over the long term, I would argue that there are additional factors that have to be considered. It has been said that making the torture a policy of the state endangers U.S. soldiers who in the future might ever be captured. And if you ever torture someone who wasn't actually a radical, he or she sure as heck will be by the time you're done.

Certain questions in society may be difficult to answer. They may have a right or wrong-ness fully apart from any utilitarian calculation. I believe that Benthamite Utilitarianism does not in and of itself lead to awful questions, if you consider the "Gauls" in any situation.

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