Mill’s Objection to the Formula of Universal Law

The second paper I wrote for moral phil. I don’t really think i have anything surprising or new in here, but hopefully, I did a decent job explaining the concepts I do put out there.

Mill’s Objection to the Formula of Universal Law

In the “Groundwork for the Metaphysics Morals,” Immanuel Kant proposes a method for determining the correctness of any maxim for an action. The Formula of Universal Law, or FUL, tells us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law.” If one can imagine a world in which the maxim in question is universal applied and no contradiction develops, then the maxim is acceptable. As an opposing theory to his own, John Stuart Mill specifically responds to Kant’s Formula of Universal Law:

This remarkable man… does… lay down an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation; it is this: — ‘So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings’. But when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur. (Utilitarianism, ch. 1)

Mill claims the FUL permits commonly immoral behavior and can only become consistent by resorting to Utilitarianism. In this paper, we will consider and determine the validity of Mill’s objection. While I agree with Mill that Kant’s FUL has problems cases, I do believe that contradictions are derivable, and the strongest point Mill has against Kant is that Mill is better able to differentiate the best action between alternatives. First, I will frame Mill’s Utilitarianism against Kantian ethics and will complete the explanation of the FUL. Next, I will explain the types of contradiction and how Mill would counter their importance. Finally, I will show how Mill provides a more complete theory than Kant with a specific example on the severity of a maxim.

To better frame the quote, we can first analyze Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill proposes that the correct action produces the maximal happiness for everyone. This consequentialist theory evaluates an action purely by the results and not by an intrinsic property of the action. Moreover, Utilitarianism can be reduced to a scientific method if we account for the total utility of all those affected. For example, a man decides to give a child the lollipop he would have eaten himself. This would be a good action if the total happiness, including the man’s pleasure, the child’s pleasure, the child’s dentist’s pain, and anyone else’s, increased. Notably, this principle holds even if one performs a typically immoral action. Perhaps the man gave the child a stolen lollipop. If, even after considering the angst of the robbed shopkeeper and future repercussions of the crime, this still produces an increase in total happiness, this is a correct action.

In contrast, Kant believes that action, not consequence, determines the moral law. To repeat, the Formula of Universal Law (FUL), tells us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law.” While somewhat dense, Kant’s definition of the FUL essentially challenges a maxim to be good enough to be a truth about how a world works. We can use a thought experiment about a world where the maxim is universally applied and attempt to derive a contradiction. If we cannot find a contradiction, the maxim is permissible. For example, a simple maxim is “I will tell the truth in order to be more trustworthy.” Since nothing is clearly wrong with the world where this is universally applied, then my maxim is consistent and acceptable. On the other hand, perhaps my maxim is “I will steal in order to increase my possessions.” If applied universally, this maxim would destroy the idea of property because stealing becomes the norm. Possessions would be meaningless, stealing would no longer have meaning, and we have our desired contradiction.

The FUL also suggests another important difference between these theories. The FUL requires that all people perform the same process to determine the validity of a maxim. Given the same maxim, everyone should create the same universalized world and come to the same conclusion. Blind to the circumstances of either the person or situation, the FUL appeals to our belief in a single, rigid moral law without exception for everyone. The correctness of this interpretation depends upon more of Kant’s theory that will not be discussed here, but it suffices to understand that Kant believes that the correct actions are unconditional. Mill’s Utilitarianism, however, relies heavily on one’s preferences on circumstance. Although everyone must apply the principle of utility similarly, the inputs for whom an action affects and how each of them responds to it always varies. We will revisit this difference later. With an understanding of the FUL, we can now consider Mill’s criticism of Kant’s theory.
First, Mill claims that the FUL doesn’t reject obviously immoral actions. Kant’s only method for rejecting a maxim as immoral is that the maxim creates a contradiction in the universalized world. Specifically, Mill refers to the contradiction as a “logical impossibility,” which can be best interpreted as a fundamental flaw with the existence of such a world. Kant only ambiguously defines what he means by “contradiction,” though Christine Korsgaard offers several potential interpretations. For completeness, we can consider two types of potential contradictions: logical and practical.

Logical contradictions prevent such a world from even existing. By construction, the world doesn’t make sense according to the maxim. For example, the maxim “I will destroy any machine on sight in order to save the environment” has a logical contradiction. In a universalized world, all machines would be destroyed. And because all potential creators share the desire to destroy machines, no one ever creates a machine in the first place. The logical contradiction is that this maxim needs to destroy a non-existent object, so this would not be a good maxim.

Practical contradictions occur when the generalized maxim defeats its own purpose. Practical contradictions often determine actions that depend on the maxim being willed exceptionally. For example, the maxim “I will run the red light in order to get to work faster this morning” depends on only one person disobeying traffic laws. In the universalized world, everyone would run red lights to hasten their trips as well, and the combination of accidents and chaos would likely result in longer commutes for everyone.

In both of these interpretations, however, the strict requirement of contradiction remains, which is a somewhat difficult standard to meet. Mill accuses Kant of lax requirements for immoral actions. Because contradictions are difficult to derive, there exist maxims that we consider immoral for which we cannot derive any contradiction. Mill somewhat ambiguously states if he believes contradictions in other worlds are impossible, but he does imply that contradiction is the wrong condition for rejection.

The second part of Mill’s claim is that when we try an immoral action in a universalized world, we create something less desirable than our actual world. Mill asserts that Utilitarianism is more effective than Kantian ethics because Utilitarianism can reject these maxims based on the undesirability of universalized worlds. If we accept the FUL as a fair test for whether a maxim is correct, we can see worlds that are hopefully distinct from our own. For example, consider the maxim “I will kick every pedestrian in front of me as I walk in order to get kicking practice.” This is absurd and would induce much pain in other pedestrians, and even much pain for myself, but no contradiction exists in the construction of such a world. This world is imaginable and sustainable, and everyone would get kicking practice. Conventionally, this maxim is immoral, likely because of our instincts to avoid unnecessary pain, yet Kantian ethics don’t disallow it. If it were forbidden because the imagined world is worse, this would be a reversal of the principle of Kantian ethics. Instead of judging the action on its own value, we would be judging the action on its consequences. If so, the core principle that judges an action would be consequentialist, and only by appealing to the Theory of Utility and determining the absolute difference in pleasure and pain can we judge between these two worlds. In this case, Mill provides a more consistent evaluation for the correctness of this action.

A stronger interpretation of Mill’s statement implies that some of Kant’s contradictions aren’t even contradictions but simply undesirable worlds. I disagree that we can never show contradictions, because we have used several already, though perhaps they aren’t the proper grounds for evaluation.

Consider a more complete example. Bob is the manager for a concert venue, and he’s concerned about health issues in a crowded, public place. He formulates the maxim “I will kill anyone who sneezes at the concert in order to avoid widespread infection.” By conventional morality, this sounds unnecessarily harsh. Testing by the FUL, we can universalize this maxim in another world where all sneezers at concerts are killed. Because the construction of such a world is sound and imaginable, there is no logical contradiction. And because all outbreaks at concerts will stop, there is no practical contradiction. Without any contradiction, the FUL permits this action, even if it doesn’t require it.

In Mill’s Utilitarianism, we must consider the difference in utility. First, we can evaluate the utility of this maxim in our world. If the manager did enact this maxim, there would likely be great pain on the part of the person who died, coupled with outrage in the public over the action. Most people would believe that the pain of a potential outbreak is less than that of the death of a mostly innocent person. Thus, the maxim is not permissible. This example also shows how Utilitarianism includes action-based judgment. While it still deals only with consequences, the moral value of actions are factored into the pleasure and pain of individuals. Our belief about the categorically immoral action of killing causes us great pain, which is then counted in the summation of pains and pleasures. Thus, Mill could argue that Kantian ethics form a subset of Utilitarianism.

Mill could also argue from the perspective of the universalized world. In his statement on the FUL, he asserts that we would only see a world less preferable than our own. Comparing the universalized world with our own, most would likely prefer ours for its greater total utility. The pain associated with being constantly fearful at any concert for sneezing on punishment of death seems unnecessary, so Mill still rejects this maxim.

We might attribute the apparently unreasonable conclusion of Kantian ethics in this example to a variety of trivial reasons. The fundamental issue arises when we tweak the maxim. Instead, let the maxim be “I will eject anyone who sneezes at the concert in order to avoid widespread infection.” While also somewhat unrealistic, this maxim seems far closer to something fair, so while the previous version seems wrong, this version might be permissible. Evaluated by Mill’s Utilitarianism, the pain for the sneezer greatly decreases from death to ejection, so if in recalculating the summative aspect, this action is better than the previous, it would be preferable and perhaps even generally permissible. This shift matches our intuition’s shift that, in some way, the new maxim is morally better. If we consider the new maxim by the FUL, we can again imagine a non-contradictory world where this is universalized. The evaluation largely hasn’t changed, so the FUL again deems it permissible, but not obligatory. Oddly, while conventional moral judgment has changed, the evaluation by the FUL hasn’t.

From this example, Kantian ethics seems to lack the resolution of differences that Utilitarianism has. In all cases, after evaluating both a maxim and its negation, the FUL can only resolve to obligatory, rejected, or acceptable. Given two alternatives that are both permissible, the FUL doesn’t really tell us what to do, so Kantian ethics cannot give the same guidance that Utilitarianism can. Mill presents a specific case of this issue in his objection when he says that decision by contradiction cannot resolve “the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct.” In the above example, the FUL cannot distinguish the severity of an action. We, however, often scale our moral assessment of an action based on severity. For example, spanking a child for misbehavior is socially acceptable, while beating a child violates laws put in place for such immoral actions. Kant does believe in categorical imperatives that do attribute unconditional value to particular actions, and initially, he would seem to have a method for more detailed judgment based on the absolute correctness of actions of varying severities. Unfortunately, the FUL doesn’t reflect these subtleties, and as one of the explicit bases for Kantian ethics, his formula doesn’t seem complete with respect to severity.

While not a complete defeat of non-consequentialist theories, Mill’s objection to the FUL points out a significant flaw in its design: while the FUL provides guidance for maxims based on making oneself an exception, it less effectively counters maxims with consistent intent. A universalized world can help to see the magnified effect of a particular maxim, and maybe one can yield some contradiction, yet Mill seems correct in that contradiction is the wrong criterion for moral judgment. In comparing Mill’s Utilitarianism to Kantian ethics, the inability of the FUL to make stronger distinctions between alternatives demonstrates the weakness of contradiction in evaluating simple choices.

Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics Morals.” Cambridge University Press, 1998. 1-45
Korsgaard, Christine, “Ch. 3: Kant’s Formula of Universal Law,” Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge University Press, 1996. 77-105.
Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

Response to Kant’s Kingdom of Ends

So I did a very smart thing this quarter and did most of my reading responses early, before I got other bigger commitments. I finally got the motivation to write my last reading response last week, so here it is.

Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics Morals.” Cambridge University Press, 1998. 1-45

(As a preface, I had huge difficulty doing this reading, so I’m not really sure about this.)
Kant introduces this idea of the Kingdom of Ends (KE), where everyone has the freedom to pursue his or her own will, with the restriction that one must never violate another’s right to his or her will. The KE seems distinct from the FHE and FUL in that it doesn’t provide a method for determining proper action on a daily basis, but instead proposes the resulting state if we were to obey the categorical imperative alone. The core principle to the KE, however, is that one’s will creates universal law, which similarly doesn’t immediately propose proper action on a daily basis. Kant notes the difficulty reconciling the KE with the Kingdom of Nature (KN), where only the only laws are “externally necessitated efficient causes.” The successful application of the KE requires that everyone obey it. For example, perhaps I never cut in line because it will result in getting through faster. Universally followed, we would have no conflict here, yet in a world governed by KN, others would cut in line as they follow no law requiring that they avoid trampling my will (sorry for the bad example).
Moreover, there’s a similar issue to Utilitarianism in that we can’t know everything. While we can certainly hope to respect everyone’s will, we might not know that we had prevented someone else from pursuing their maxim. Moreover, there isn’t a method here to resolving conflicts. If my will contradicts someone else’s, does it become my responsibility to not pursue my will because it would trample on his or her’s? Kant might argue that the construction of the CI inherently means that we cannot have conflicts, yet I feel certain that the recursive definition of the KE (my will being dependent on the will of others) leads to problems which aren’t immediately resolved.

Arguments in Defense of Preference Hedonism

Here’s the first complete Phil paper I’ve written for my Moral Philosophy class. I turned it in Wednesday, and was reasonably satisfied with it. Like most things I write, I wish I had had more time to edit it, but at least I got a rough draft reviewed by my TA before turning it in. You’ll notice some logical fallacies/omissions, but I tried to smooth those as much as possible.

Arguments in Defense of Preference Hedonism

In “What Makes a Person’s Life Go Best?”, Derek Parfit considers three primary theories for what makes a life good: Preference Hedonism, Success Theory, and Objective List Theory. Preference Hedonism explains that maximizing the happiness we experience alone determine what is good for us. While Success Theory agrees that we should pursue our own pleasures, it expands the domain to all desires regardless of whether we actually experience it. Finally, Objective List Theory assumes that everything is classified into good and bad, independent of our individual preferences. Of these three, I believe Preference Hedonism provides the most complete theory for fulfillment. By primarily considering arguments on deception from Success Theory and on harmful desires from Objective List Theory, I will defend Preference Hedonism and better explore the aspect of this theory.

Before the arguments, I want to fully define these three theories and highlight important distinctions. Objective List Theory asserts that all things are unconditionally either good or bad. Naturally, a good life maximizes the good and minimizes the bad. This theory appeals to our belief that some things can be good for someone regardless of whether he or she want it or not. For example, I might push my roommate to study harder because working hard is inherently good. In that case, his life would improve, independent of his preferences, because his actions would better aligned with good ones.

Preference Hedonism, as an extension of Hedonism, asserts that happiness alone leads to a good life. Preference Hedonism differs from other forms of Hedonism by rejecting common, rigid definitions of pleasure and pain. Torture–a painful experience–might lead to a better life if one desired it over alternatives, such as divulging the truth. Unsurprisingly, Preference Hedonism is a preference-dependent theory. Because happiness exists only within our own heads and never independently, Preference Hedonism is also psychologically-dependent.

Succinctly, Success Theory extends Preference Hedonism from what we know to what is by asserting that the fulfillment of our own desires leads to a good life. A good life doesn’t include our belief in our desires, but the actual outcome of our desires. If John is a Pittsburg Steelers coach who unfortunately lapsed into a coma during Super Bowl XLIII, his life still improved. Even though he was not conscious of it, one of his desires–to have the Steelers win–was satisfied. While Success Theory agrees with the preference dependence of Preference Hedonism, it differs by also being dependent on non-psychological factors: most notably, the objective world.

A relevant difference between Preference Hedonism and Success Theory is at the limit of what one knows or chooses to know. We make assumptions about the world because we cannot constantly perceive all events. Naturally, not all assumptions are correct, including some imperative to pleasure and pain. Success Theory criticizes Preference Hedonism for its stance on this sort of ignorance. For example, I consider my health important to my happiness. Thus, I might enjoy take vitamins every morning because I believe it improves my health. Someone else notices that the vitamins, which contain cyanide, are actually subtly deteriorating my health until I spontaneously die. From his or her perspective, I would not have led a good life because I was actually unhealthy, yet Preference Hedonism would suggest that I did have a good life because I was happy.

One could summarize the Preference Hedonism response as “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Just as I can’t absolutely know the actual effect of the vitamins, the beliefs I gain satisfaction from could constantly change, even though from my perspective, my life hasn’t changed. For example, I desire for my friends to be safe. While I’m writing this paper, however, my friend Ben could have been hit by a car. Anticipating the argument from Success Theory that Ben’s safety isn’t related to me, I argue that “related” is too ambiguously defined to be definitive. Regardless, my happiness certainly hasn’t changed because of what might or might not happened to Ben. For completeness, we can even consider the opinion of another friend, RJ, who both knows about Ben’s tragic encounters and my ignorance. He could choose never to tell me about Ben because I would have a better life not knowing and worrying about that past event. Everyday, people use these white lies and omissions to protect others under the assumption that one’s life is better if he or she is happier.

A deeper issue from Success Theory is deliberate self-deception or ignorance. Accepting that we cannot know everything, Preference Hedonism still places psychological states above the objective world. Because Preference Hedonism only cares about discernable psychological states, the validity of our beliefs is irrelevant. It therefore equates the happiness of self-deception with that of actually changing reality. The lack of distinction conflicts with our typical morality, which suggests that a good life should be based on generally true beliefs. For example, imagine Bob’s wife is cheating on him behind his back, and one of Bob’s desires is to have a faithful wife. By Success Theory, his life is worse because one of his desires is not satisfied in the real world. By Preference Hedonism, his life is equally as good as if she wasn’t cheating because he doesn’t know to be unhappy. If he were to find out, he could attempt to rectify the situation. If we are considering psychological states, however, he could instead change his memories.

First, imagine Bob changes his memories so that he forgets that his wife is cheating on him. Compare two parallel worlds: in one, Bob never realizes his wife is cheating on him, and in another, he finds out, then subsequently forces himself to think he has ended his wife’s actions. By Preference Hedonism, he makes the same choices and experiences the same pleasures and pains before and after his self-deception, making his life equally good in both. By Success Theory, these two lives are largely equal because Bob’s life hasn’t worsened by simply learning something that is already true. The focus of the criticism is then the choice to go through self-deception, and whether that is acceptable in a good life under either theory. If we continue with this example, Bob has two choices if he doesn’t actively improve the situation. One, he neither pursues any method of self-deception nor changes his wife’s behavior. His life has worsened for knowing that his wife is cheating on him. Two, he can have a mind wipe, where he thinks his life is no worse. In both of these cases, an unaware observer would agree with these evaluations if only by outward signs from Bob.

The logical follow-up to this argument is to compare the two situations where Bob tries to change his wife’s behavior, and the other where Bob alters his memories to believe he has changed his wife’s behavior. Ignoring the moral quality of the mind alteration, the future ramifications of dishonesty, confusion, or further harm still make mind alteration less preferable, even by a Preference Hedonist. Thus, these two situations still aren’t equivalent, as a Success Theorist might suggest that a Preference Hedonist believes. If we were to assume, however, that there were no further interactions that ever caused the warped memories to matter again, then we can accept these as effectively equivalent. From pure Preference Hedonism, we must accept that altered memories are no better or worse than an altered reality. Notably, however, I don’t believe that Success Theory offers a better evaluation in this case. While this might not be a standard Preference Hedonistic perspective because it perfectly summative, I accept that these two situations are trivially different and that Success Theory, even in this case, cannot improve upon this evaluation.

As an analogy, consider a single football game, where the Cardinals are losing to the Steelers. Assume that the Cardinals’ ultimate desire is to win, just as a person’s ultimate desire is to live a good life. Within that desire, the Cardinals also desire to gain yards because yards contribute to winning. On the final drive at the end of the game, the Cardinals make a pass that, even if completed, would have them lose. Intuitively, we would say that it doesn’t matter if they had completed the pass or not, a fair judgment of an isolated desire. Because the game is ends after the pass, the completion of that pass couldn’t possibly affect any other desires within the game (including victory), and therefore doesn’t noticeably make the game any better or worse for the Cardinals. Compare to Bob’s final situation where altered memories never affect his life otherwise. In this most extreme example, even when we accept Success Theory with deception-avoidance as a desire, the two alternative situations are trivially different. Completely isolated pleasures, pains, or desires ultimately contribute minimally to the quality of life, perhaps because of the subtly fecundity of all interactions. Even as Preference Hedonism seems to struggle with aligning deception within what makes a life good, Success Theory doesn’t effectively offer a better explanation.

Moving onto objections from another perspective, Objective List Theory would first note that Preference Hedonism is an inherently unfair system and doesn’t establish a consistent moral code. If everything depends on individual preferences, then we truly have no standard for behavior. One can justify any action as long as it improves self-happiness. A correct theory for what is good should expand and apply to both individuals and the groups they create. We hope that our governments are ethical, but a government based upon Preference Hedonism could never make absolute laws. For example, most governments have laws against stealing. If stealing were to fulfill one’s desire, then that should be allowed within the law.

Most Preference Hedonists would likely agree that stealing is generally wrong. They could also extend it to say that it not good specifically for the stealer to steal. Even with laws, typical mob mentality has led to lynching, so the potential pain to an individual is great. Stealing threatens the happiness of others, and they will act in their own best interests to eliminate the potential loss. By and large, violations of conventional morality would tend to lead to greater long-term pain than short-term happiness. The real issue that leads to crime, then, is short-sightedness. Thus, government intervenes by enforcing rules of thumb (similar to Mill’s interpretation) to decrease immediate happiness for an ultimately harmful action. For efficiency, a just Preference Hedonistic government could make absolute laws to discourage generally bad behavior.

Self-destructive behavior seems to also fit better with Objective List Theory than Preference Hedonism. Imagine Bill locks himself in a room and lives in misery. By conventional morality, we would say that he does not lead a good life, with which Objective List Theory can immediately agree by placing Bill’s actions on the bad list. This construction of a counter-example is fairly simple for a Preference Hedonist to defeat: Bill simply doesn’t know about greater pleasures. If he had been sheltered and never known the value of love, then that existence is the best choice available. An Objective List Theorist could extend the counter-example by assuming that Bill knew the full extent of pleasures and pains that existed in an idealized manner. While perhaps initially fanciful, this notion carries in even less idealized situations. Many turn to drugs or illegal behavior, which we would typically see as self-destructive and bad for one’s life, when fully knowledgeable of the alternatives.

Given that the argument from Objective List Theorists holds in non-idealized worlds, a Preference Hedonist must simply concede that an apparently bad existence is the one that leads to the most happiness. If Bill truly preferred an existence that everyone else finds repugnant, perhaps his aggregate happiness totals to less than the average, yet is still the best out of his alternatives. By premise, Bill would dislike being forced into a marriage or love than his previous life. On the basis of pleasure, this reversal is no different than putting a normal, innocent man into prison. By any of these theories, this is wrong, and on preference, this is the same as Bill’s situation.

While the examples used seem somewhat outrageous, the distinctions between these are necessarily bizarre. In conventional usage, these theories largely propose similar intuitions and goals, and thus, we can assess the validity of them by considering extremes. Preference Hedonism’s defense of some principles is somewhat tenuous, particularly with respect to self-deception, yet across objections to all of three of these theories, I find Preference Hedonism most consistent in maximal coverage.

Works Cited
Parfit, Derek, “What makes Someone’s Life Go Best?” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

Response to Mill’s Utilitarianism

This is for tomorrow’s lecture. Sorry it tails off at the end, but I had to clip it to fit one page.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

While John Stuart Mill also proposes a type of utilitarianism, his theory differs from Bentham’s most notably in his conception of pleasure and pain. One point I found interesting was his evaluation of the quality of pleasures. Basically, he says that one pleasure can be more desirable than another if the majority of those who have experience it believes that it is better. Thus, his judgment of pleasure seems to be somewhere between preference dependence and independence. The pleasure one experiences aren’t really dependent on his or her preference, but that of everyone else’s. Mill is actually slightly ambiguous on whether that person’s preference should at that point be considered, but then again, he’s actually quite vague on the domain from which “the majority” should be taken. We could take a hypothetical set of all persons living, dead, and those yet to be born. Otherwise, the quality of pleasures would change with time, and that would be an evolving morality, which I find somewhat strange.

Mill makes another point that the pleasures involving the higher faculties are absolutely better than those involving the lower faculties because all those who have experienced it believe that it is better. Let us temporarily assume that his non-empirical assertion about the majority’s opinion is correct. His reasoning here, however, still seems somewhat circular. By higher faculties, I believe Mill means intelligence, and intelligence is typically gained through experience, which is a prerequisite for being included in the domain of those who can be counted in the majority. So it would almost seem that there’s an inherent bias in the measurement for the pleasure of higher faculties. I also don’t see why a similar argument can’t be used for, say, physical strength as enabling greater pleasures. Since both that and intelligence are both developed skills, I would think that they would be incomparable.

Response to Response’s to Bentham’s Utilitarianism

The topic we’re currently on is utilitarianism, so here’s one that I wrote for yesterday’s reading.

Nozick, Robert. “The Experience Machine.” Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, 1974. 118-119.

Parfit, Derek, “What makes Someone’s Life Go Best?” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

In his excerpt, Derek Parfit provides several alternative theories to utilitarian hedonism on how to make value judgments. While I found the arguments and examples interesting, I was also somewhat confused by the importance of them. Notably, I find that the alternative theories don’t fit utilitarianism. The main principle of utilitarianism is that we are driven by pains and pleasures that we can actually experience, and Parfit notes that Success Theory accounts for events after an individual’s death, which have no connection to worldly pains or pleasures. Moreover, these events certainly don’t affect our actions (unless people really roll over in their graves). The Objective List Theory I find generally even less compelling, perhaps only because people are different. In assigning absolute values to actions, this theory avoids the preferences that actually impact our behavior.

My main concern with these two alternate theories is that they don’t seem to form a normative philosophy. While they might give compelling reasons for specific examples, I don’t think they are entirely coherent or applicable to how we should live. Parfit points out flaws with the Bentham/Mills style hedonism, yet he doesn’t seem to fully propose an alternative that works better. In the final part of the excerpt, he suggests that “what is best for people is a composite.” So far, he has already proposed a variety of situations in which the various theories best fit our intuitions on morality, and my assumption would be that the composite is an amalgam of these theories, each with a limited domain over the issues they best address. How they fit together in an understandable manner seems like the most interesting question to follow from the reading.

Response to Ethical Egoism 2

The reading for today in my moral philosophy class was again on Ethical Egoism, though from a different author. Specifically,

Rachels, James, “Ch. 21: Ethical Egoism,” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Russ Shafer-Landau ED., Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 213-220

Early in the excerpt, James Rachels makes the distinction between Psychological Egoism (which I will lazily abbreviate as PE) and Ethical Egoism (EE), which sounds very similar to me to the difference between positive and normative economics. While he focuses on EE, I think the arguments he makes can be more broadly applied to PE, if with a different target. I find PE much more compelling because I believe it sufficiently explains modern morality.

In order for it to work, I’m establishing the third argument for EE (reciprocality) as the basis for this perspective. When considering the differences between the more extreme strands of EE and conventional morality, the establishment and importance of society divides these beliefs. Society, which was constructed by people, largely seeks to raise the standard for all members equally. Moreover, I believe that it is roughly equal because humans are more driven by negative reinforcement (threats) than positive reinforcement (rewards). We very much value what we have. So reciprocality seems to work because it can either perpetuate beneficial or harmful cycles.

Rachels points out two weaknesses of this perspective on EE, both of which I think substantiate how our society works. First, he notes “as a general rule it is to one’s own advantage to avoid harming others.” This naturally happens in the real world, and we call them unsolved crimes. Solved crimes are generally cases of short-sightedness on one’s self-interests. Second, he points out that there could be more reasons for actions than self-interest. This is very true in today’s ethics, as an important role of society is instilling guilt in people. This has to be a move of self-interest, as guilt drives other individuals to be more altruistic, benefitting the guilters.

Response to Ethical Egoism

One of the classes I’m taking this quarter is Phil 20, intro to moral philosophy. Of which I know nothing. The class assignments are all writing (and I’ve never done phil writing before), including several response papers to our reading. They’re not supposed to be polished, and probably don’t even have to be right, but they will certainly exist, and I figure I can put them up here. Since these are reading responses, they might not be very meaningful out of context, but I’ll post the title of the readings so that you can find it if you wish.

Response to:
Rand, Ayn. “Value Yourself.” The Moral Life, 2nd Ed. Ed. Louis Pojman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 569-579.
“Egoism and Altruism.” The Moral Life, 2nd Ed. ED, Louis Pojman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 580-589

As I was reading Ayn Rand’s excerpt, I was constantly having problems with some of the assumptions she makes. For example, she states there exists only a single path to happiness and survival, which, I assume she suggests, is ethical egoism. This not only seems narrow-minded, but is stated in ignorance of many happy lives people lead to old age without her method. She also states that “if you wish it, it’s evil; if others wish it, it’s good.” This also seems to misrepresent the intent of a typically altruistic person. While one might be willing to give food to a beggar, that same altruistic person might withhold money if he or she thought it would be used for drugs. Many consistently condone the desires for some things, regardless of whether it is for themselves or others. Thus, I agree with Pojman who states that Rand seems to consider only the extremes. When compared with unrestrained altruism, ethical egoism does have merit, yet this ignores the spectrum between that offers compromises.

Another issue I had with Rand’s stance, I believe, comes from a difference in how we perceive the world. I believe society is fundamentally built on the guilt that we should do good things for other people. It builds a method of enforcing reciprocity between people. When we do something good for someone else, it is because we believe it will continue the cycle of goodwill between people, while rude behavior results in ostracism. In an economic sense, parties benefit from trade purely by comparative advantages, and thus, the biggest mistake one can make is to not participate in trade at all. Similarly, ostracism and egoism will ultimately cost one in the long run. Pojman calls these being grudgers and offers an evolutionary explanation for this. While I don’t necessarily believe that our biological/evolutionary tendencies always offer, I think this one happens to be correct and represent our society well.