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  1. #1
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    Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    I was wondering what others thought about utilitarianism versus other moral ideologies, including other forms of secular consequentialism or religious moral systems. Which do you think produces the most moral outcome, and which encourages the most valid moral reasoning? Specifically do certain aspects of utilitarianism neglect important factors, and which alternatives do you think are more encompassing ethical systems. Please give reasoned arguments to back up your thoughts.

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  3. #2
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    I think that whilst some parts of utilitarianism are important and central to our concepts of morality, I think it better to adopt a view made up of several ideologies, in order to have a more balanced view of morality.

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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    How can you select which parts of each ideology to follow? What basis is there for doing so?

    My views on utilitarianism are that it does often produce a valid outcome, but it has several flaws:
    It requires equal treatment of everybody, which can produce difficulties (e.g. A man and a woman are both drowning, and yo u can only save one...)
    It often neglects long-term happiness opinion favour of greater short-term happiness
    Happiness is not the only constituent of morality

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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    The nice thing about utilitarianism is that it produces useful results--that is, you can actually use it to solve ethical dilemmas. Once you figure out a way to measure 'happiness' or 'pleasure', you can make estimations about what the probable outcomes of an act are, and then you can compare different alternative acts to find the optimal choice (with some quantified confidence p). Compare this with a system like virtue ethics, which states something like "To do good, do what a good person would do." Or, arguably at least, statements like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

    So if you want an answer to a moral dilemma, utilitarianism will almost certainly be able to get you an answer. Whether or not that answer is actually moral, however, is another question (and some would deny that there are 'actually moral' acts, i.e. they deny moral realism).
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  7. #5
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    I agree, and I also think that utilitarianism has the benefits of being easy to apply universally and efficiently. But I still reckon that it does not apply effectively to certain situations, where a consequentialism that observes the impact of an action on people, not only an aggregate quantification of happiness, will produce a fuller, if much harder to reach, outcome.

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  9. #6
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    I think its pretty useful and its certainly how I approach a lot of moral challenges, though for me there are usually other factors involved. For one I take a short and long view of happiness, trying to balance out both the short term benefit vs long term. And also I think life is not just hedonism. We enjoy challenge and contention to a degree. Pleasure is not our only pleasure as it were. We like a certain amount of fear and challenge in our lives so long as we can return to a state of peace and security. But I don't always weight long term over short term because of the uncertainty of life.

    I also think scope is important. Individuals get into trouble when they try to make moral decisions for too many others. We just don't have enough information about their mental states. And there is inefficiency in each person looking out for their own interests to a degree. Not that we should all be entirely self focused, that doesn't work out well either. So again there is a balance to be struck where we first look after ourselves and then look outward, but not beyond our effective reach.

    So you might say I mix a little Taoism into my utilitarianism.
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  10. #7
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    I think there are some problems with Utilitarianism.

    1) Usefulness is subjective, attempts to define it have proved elusive and related to the particular cultural values of the time. The classical argument of the "the greatest good for the greatest number" is extremely subjective and hard to make a real policy with. This tends to be reinforced by confirmation bias. I like decision A therefore I weigh more highly the benefits that will lead to that decision.

    2) The total utility of the decision is largely unknown, complex and multiple order effects play out. Utilitarian arguments tend to focus on first order effects of the decision, which can often be planned and understood, however the magnitude of second, third, fourth, etc effects can outweigh (and as we've seen in public policy spheres) the value of the first order effects. This is generally what Hayek was referring to in his Nobel speech "The Pretense of Knowledge" and what Sowell has often referred to as "Stage 1 thinking."

    3) It can lead to some problematic outcomes like death camps. If the only metric is increasing "net" good, you can overlook some relatively horrific individual atrocities.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
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  12. #8
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    This tends to be reinforced by confirmation bias. I like decision A therefore I weigh more highly the benefits that will lead to that decision
    I agree, and I think there are further examples of this. For instance, a predetermined altruism towards one or more of the parties (especially if they are relatives or close friends) involved would affect the decision made (such as a situation where both your father and another person who you do not know are drowning, and you have only one life ring).

    Furthermore, utilitarianism fails to acknowledge that happiness for person x may be completely different for person y, and defining this difference may be even more difficult than quantifying happiness in the first place. The many flaws of utilitarianism have led to my opinion that it is valid little further than being very easily (once you surpass the difficulties of quantifying happiness) and universally applied, and often (but, as I have said, not always) producing moral results. However, these traits still render it an efficient decision making tool for many situations (if it is wielded by the right hands)
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  13. #9
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut77 View Post
    However, these traits still render it an efficient decision making tool for many situations (if it is wielded by the right hands)
    ,
    That is a very ominous caveat there. What would define "the right hands?"
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    That is a very ominous caveat there. What would define "the right hands?"
    Somebody who is generally free from major bias towards anyone affected by the decision... Somebody overtly racist would not make a good utilitarian, for instance. I also mean somebody who sufficiently understand the fundamental principles of utilitarianism, and is able to apply them as intended... Somebody who is not well-acquainted with the concept of utility, for instance, cannot possibly make utilitarian decisions.

    So, by the right hands, I simply mean anyone generally capable of employing utilitarian ethics without changing or omitting some of its principles, or introducing bias that would undoubtedly pervert the morality of the outcome.

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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut77 View Post
    Somebody who is generally free from major bias towards anyone affected by the decision...
    Even if the bias isn't towards a particular person, individual biases still distort the moral decision made however. Allowing a third party who is unbiased (and presumably not overly incentivized to make the right decision) to make the decision instead of those most affected by it seems extremely problematic. It is akin to when we have the government come in and set prices. Sure the third party (the government) is perhaps unbiased (not really of course) and it sees the situation as fair, but it is almost certainly unfair to the market participants.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  16. #12
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    So you're suggesting that it is OK for utilitarnanism to be administered to a situation by someone not necessarily uninvolved in its outcome and not necessarily free from bias towards others involved? I think that his would almost certainly pervert the decision made, and furthermore, a third, unbiased party passing the final decision is by no means a bad thing. The example of the government setting prices is not adequate as the outcome is not a perversion of justice, but more a deprivation of a choice that is 1) not the government's responsibility and 2) not affecting the parties involved in a dramatic and potentially irreversible. A much better example of a third person party being involved in a decision would be a court of law, where the judge, who is both unbiased and I influenced by the outcome, sees the untarnished evidence from all parties and makes a decision based on that. The same goes for utilitarianism, where an unbiased decider would be liable to making a fairer decision. Anyway, I did not originally suggest the presence of a third party decision maker, only that the person making the decision, affected or unaffected by that choice, would not hold any bias towards any particular outcome, including one beneficial to him-/herself (although an unaffected decision maker would almost always be ideal, this is not always a possibility).

  17. #13
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut77 View Post
    So you're suggesting that it is OK for utilitarnanism to be administered to a situation by someone not necessarily uninvolved in its outcome and not necessarily free from bias towards others involved? I think that his would almost certainly pervert the decision made, and furthermore, a third, unbiased party passing the final decision is by no means a bad thing.
    Absolutely, remember that utilitarianism is by its very nature subjective. We are talking about the greatest good for people, but the good they receive from getting peanuts varies widely. Some love them, some will die from them. Entrusting that decision to the people who understand that weighting the best is far more moral than a third party, who is incapable of making a fully informed decision, from making it for them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    The example of the government setting prices is not adequate as the outcome is not a perversion of justice, but more a deprivation of a choice that is 1) not the government's responsibility and 2) not affecting the parties involved in a dramatic and potentially irreversible.
    Oh? So if the government sets a price involving, say, dialysis that is below the market price and therefore less dialysis is offered in the future. Given that, many will have to wait longer and some might die. How is that not a perversion of justice? How is that not irreversible? Also if it is reversible then it is by definition not morally good to a utilitarian since the greatest good should have been served with the price setting.


    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    A much better example of a third person party being involved in a decision would be a court of law, where the judge, who is both unbiased and I influenced by the outcome, sees the untarnished evidence from all parties and makes a decision based on that.
    Does that decision maximize utility above a voluntary exchange? IE if you and I came to an agreement about the dispensation of a property would that be more or less utility maximizing than a Court doing so for us?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    would not hold any bias towards any particular outcome,
    That is the problem. With no bias (ie preference) no decision can be made in utilitarianism. If the judge here has absolutely no preferences then he is unaware of what the greatest good will be. Rather, what happens is that the judge uses his own personal preferences to impose what he personally feels is justice upon the two parties. Some times that is the the nature of a law written, often it is not, but it isn't based on some kind of objective value measurement.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  18. #14
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Absolutely, remember that utilitarianism is by its very nature subjective. We are talking about the greatest good for people, but the good they receive from getting peanuts varies widely. Some love them, some will die from them. Entrusting that decision to the people who understand that weighting the best is far more moral than a third party, who is incapable of making a fully informed decision, from making it for them.
    In what way is the third party not capable of making a fully informed decision, acknowledging that it can observe the situation and all of the evidence? Furthermore, utilitarianism may well be subjective, but your point does not evade the very real problem which is that if a person directly influenced by the outcome is deciding the outcome, there is almost certainly going to be a biased decision. This is just testament to how utilitarianism has its flaws. Furthermore, one of my original points (and Perphaps one you are trying to get at also) is that happiness itself is subjective and by its very nature cannot easily be quantified. So, if the point that you are making is that utilitarianism is subjective because everyone's interpretation of happiness is different, then I agree, but I also think that if this is the case, utilitarianism would not prove a valid system in some situations, because the interpretation of happiness would vary between every possible decision maker.
    That is the problem. With no bias (ie preference) no decision can be made in utilitarianism. If the judge here has absolutely no preferences then he is unaware of what the greatest good will be. Rather, what happens is that the judge uses his own personal preferences to impose what he personally feels is justice upon the two parties. Some times that is the the nature of a law written, often it is not, but it isn't based on some kind of objective value measurement.
    Why would the judge be unaware of the greatest good? Utilitarianism tries to maximise happiness, but if a person is biased towards a decision, he potentially rules out other options which optimise happiness. He does not use his personal preference, as to do so would in incline him to a certain, profitable decision, but he would use his unbiased judgement and his interpretation of the situation (not preference) to decide on the option that maximises happiness. Although, I would agree partially with your stance in a situation where utilitarianism is being applied to a complex situation, because in that case there would be too many factors, and some opinion (but not bias) would have to be applied to make sense of the situation, and it is here wherre we find great differences between the decisions made by different people. So, in my ranting I have proposed another flaw of utilitarianism, which is that it can only be applied effectively and without too much influence of personal opinion in a situation with very few factors to consider, which are rare in real life. But in no case do I think that bias is necessary for making the decision, rather that a subjective interpretation of happiness is.

  19. #15
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut77 View Post
    In what way is the third party not capable of making a fully informed decision, acknowledging that it can observe the situation and all of the evidence?
    Can a third party be aware of all the potential trade off values (in economics the indifference curves) possible in any given situation? Can he be fully aware of every single pertinent fact that led to this situation?


    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    Furthermore, utilitarianism may well be subjective, but your point does not evade the very real problem which is that if a person directly influenced by the outcome is deciding the outcome, there is almost certainly going to be a biased decision.
    I think you are misunderstanding my position. I'm not saying that person A should get to make the decision over person B's life. I'm saying that Person C should not make a decision that affects person A and person B. The only person, under utilitarianism, that should make a decision for person A is person A.


    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    but I also think that if this is the case, utilitarianism would not prove a valid system in some situations, because the interpretation of happiness would vary between every possible decision maker.
    Ding, we agree. Its an ok (sort of) situation for individual decision making, it isn't for social decision making.

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    Why would the judge be unaware of the greatest good?
    Because he can't possibly be aware of the different indifference curves of the people at hand. He is trying to make a decision in accordance with law, not in accordance with utility.


    Quote Originally Posted by Abut
    Although, I would agree partially with your stance in a situation where utilitarianism is being applied to a complex situation,
    I think you might be surprised just how complex even simple situations that we could talk about are.
    "Suffering lies not with inequality, but with dependence." -Voltaire
    "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” -G.K. Chesterton
    Also, if you think I've overlooked your post please shoot me a PM, I'm not intentionally ignoring you.


  20. #16
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    It seems we have located some common ground. Despite the fact that I am still unconvinced over the matter of bias and third person judges, I think we can agree that, in response to my OP, the uses of utilitarianism are very restricted.

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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by CliveStaples
    Whether or not that answer is actually moral, however, is another question (and some would deny that there are 'actually moral' acts, i.e. they deny moral realism).
    Moral realism is absurd philosophical position.

    Quote Originally Posted by Abut77 View Post
    I was wondering what others thought about utilitarianism versus other moral ideologies, including other forms of secular consequentialism or religious moral systems. Which do you think produces the most moral outcome, and which encourages the most valid moral reasoning? Specifically do certain aspects of utilitarianism neglect important factors, and which alternatives do you think are more encompassing ethical systems. Please give reasoned arguments to back up your thoughts.
    I'm a very staunch economic and legal egalitarian, if we're to use these terms, which has lead me to more Leftist mindset. Egalitarianism makes up one of the most important tenets of my political worldview. I wouldn't say that I necessarily follow the classical theories on it, but the central principle I believe in.

    As for "the most moral outcome", this is a rather meaningless question. If you mean which one objectively is a moral moral system, this sentiment is an oxymoron. If you mean which one leads to a more moral outcome based on your feelings on morality, then this isn't something that I can answer.
    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." --Voltaire

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  23. #18
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by GoldPhoenix View Post
    Moral realism is absurd philosophical position.
    You're an absurd philosophical position.
    If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. - Soren Kierkegaard
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  25. #19
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by GoldPhoenix View Post
    Moral realism is absurd philosophical position.
    Why is it absurd?
    "The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual.” --"The Mental Universe” | Nature
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    Re: Is utilitarianism a valid ideological system?

    Quote Originally Posted by eye4magic View Post
    Why is it absurd?
    Provide a proposition for me that is "true". And by true, I mean a verifiable fact that is not based on human feelings or sentiment.
    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." --Voltaire

 

 
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