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An argument against utilitarianism watch

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    I would like to know your opinion on the following argument against utilitarianism*:

    (For those of you who can't be bothered to read the whole thing, skip to the example below)

    In order for the utilitarist to make a decision on what action is the right action in a particular situation, he must evaluate the situations that would follow from any possible action. I think this evaluation can at least in certain circumstances lead to absurd results and hence make a utilitarist decision impossible.

    Here's why: In assessing a certain situation, the utilitarist has to consider the impact on the interests of all the beings affected by his actions. Now, let us simplify things and supposed only human interests are affected by a certain action or that non-human interests don't count.

    Since all the interests considered are human (ie from the same speicies), we can assume that all the interests considered have equal values. Indeed, if I were to give more importance to one person's interests than to someone else's, I would be applying double standards, which surely can't be right.

    Now, the utilitarist will take the sum of thel level of satisfaction of all the individual interests considered in order to evaluate a certain situation. So, the utilitarist has to assume that the level of satisfaction of individual interests is somehow quantifiable, and that that quantity can be added to another quantity and give meaningful results. In other words, the level of satisfaction of individual interests must be expressed as a real number.

    Here's where the problem lies. The level of satisfaction of individual interests cannot always be expressed as a real number, sometimes it is infinite. Hence, it is absurd to try to quantify it. Therefore, it is in certain cases impossible to assess a situation in terms that make comparison possible and that are hence meaningful to the utiliatarian calculation.

    Hence, utilitarianism does not work in certain cases.

    Example: Suppose you are at the junction, where two railtracks become one (a Y-junction). A train is approaching fast. On the left track, one person is tied to the rails and on the left track, 5 people are tied to the rails. You can't save all of them in time. However, you can decide who will be saved, because you control the machine that determines where the train is going. So, basically, you have to decide whether 1 or 5 people are going to die.

    Now, superficially, the decision is easy for a utilitarist: 5 > 1 => the five people are more important => you ought to save the 5 and kill the 1.

    In actual fact, you are not just comparing the number of people, but the number of people multiplied by the difference you make to their individual interests. In the 5 > 1, I just assumed that they could be cancelled out, as the individual interests are equally important (hence their weight is equal) and the potential benefit to the individual interests is also equal (as for everyone it is a question of life and death).

    So, you are actually comparing 5*x and 1*x. In the 5 > 1, the x's cancelled out, but that was based on the assumption that x is a real number (and non-zero).

    However, in our example, to the individual it is a matter of life and death, hence of infinite significance. The impact on the individual's interest will be infinite. Hence, "x" will non be a real, non-zero number and the comparison becomes absurd.

    Hence the utilitarist situation-evaluation, the utilitarist calculation, becomes impossible and hence, it is impossible for the utilitarist to gain the necessary information to make the right decision.

    *For a definition: http://www.utilitarianism.com/utilitarian.htm
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    I understand the arguement up until:
    (Original post by zizero)
    However, in our example, to the individual it is a matter of life and death, hence of infinite significance. The impact on the individual's interest will be infinite. Hence, "x" will non be a real, non-zero number and the comparison becomes absurd.
    could you explain this?
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    (Original post by Speciez99)
    I understand the arguement up until:

    could you explain this?
    In the example of the 6 six people tied on two railtracks, it is inevtable, that either 1 or 5 of them will die.

    Now, it is my decision who will die.

    Hence, from the individual guy's, who is lying on the tracks, perspective, my decision, is a decision of life and death. The impact my decision will have on his life is absolute.

    So, if you try to quantify this impact, you would have to give it an infinite value.

    BTW, Thanks for replying... I began to think my post was so obscure that no-one would even bother reading it, let alone respond to it.
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    Death is only of infinite importance relative to the person who is dying (and may not be the case even in this instance). To those who are choosing between who dies and who lives, the added benefit to each individual is perceived a constant value.

    EDIT: Some other thoughts I had...

    What if say the five on one side of the track were part of a suicide pact, unbeknown to the train driver? And the one person was someone of great significance, their actions benefiting many thousands of individuals?

    It’s absolutely impossible to tell, and predict the implications of courses of actions taken. The decisions taken by a utilitarian society could harm themselves, hence contradicting their entire ideal and showing the fundamental flaw in their ideology.

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    (Original post by Alec)
    Death is only of infinite importance relative to the person who is dying (and may not be the case even in this instance). To those who are choosing between who dies and who lives, the added benefit to each individual is a constant value.
    If you kill someone, the benefit to the individual will be -infinity.

    When you are considering the interests of one individual, you have to look at things from his/her perspective. You have to do that for every individual affected by your actions.

    If when deciding how to act, the subject only considers his own interests ("To those who are choosing between who dies and who lives, the added benefit to each individual is a constant value."), he is applying double standards.

    I'd be glad if you could elaborate on your point that the importance of death may not be of infinite importance to the person who is dying. I think that's the crunch-point of the whole argument. If what you say is true, my argument falls apart.
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    (Original post by zizero)
    If you kill someone, the benefit to the individual will be -infinity.
    Only if you assume your model is correct.

    When you are considering the interests of one individual, you have to look at things from his/her perspective. You have to do that for every individual affected by your actions.
    Utilitarianism is an ideal on terms of society, not the individual. The added benefit of whatever decision to the individual has to be a constant value, so that the extra benefit to society can be quantified in its entirety. Otherwise utilitarianism becomes inoperable due to the humongous number of variables which need to be considered (i.e. individual circumstances of the entire population).

    If when deciding how to act, the subject only considers his own interests ("To those who are choosing between who dies and who lives, the added benefit to each individual is a constant value."), he is applying double standards.
    See the example on my original edited post.

    (Original post by Alec)
    What if say the five on one side of the track were part of a suicide pact, unbeknown to the train driver? And the one person was someone of great significance, their actions benefiting many thousands of individuals?

    It’s absolutely impossible to tell, and predict the implications of courses of actions taken. The decisions taken by a utilitarian society could harm themselves, hence contradicting their entire ideal and showing the fundamental flaw in their ideology.
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    If you're driving a train then you're stuck on one of the tracks anyway - so it's not really you're decision who dies. Unless of course you're superman/woman and can fly to change the rails.
    :rolleyes: :cool:
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    You could also talk about the fact that you don't know the consequences of the situation this individual may be the scientist that would have cured cancer and the other 5 may be murderers and robbers. In this case it is obvious that a utilitarian would pick the single person but then you don't know what the people will do after you save them.
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    However democracy is a utilitarian system and I am all for democracy so utilitarianism ain't that bad.
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    (Original post by zizero)
    I
    However, in our example, to the individual it is a matter of life and death, hence of infinite significance. The impact on the individual's interest will be infinite. Hence, "x" will non be a real, non-zero number and the comparison becomes absurd.


    *For a definition: http://www.utilitarianism.com/utilitarian.htm
    the way i would see it is..assuming, as you do, for that one man, that life and death is infinite for all 6, then you still have 1*x < 5*x
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    (Original post by Alec)
    It’s absolutely impossible to tell, and predict the implications of courses of actions taken. The decisions taken by a utilitarian society could harm themselves, hence contradicting their entire ideal and showing the fundamental flaw in their ideology.[/size]
    That's not a fundamental flaw, it's just a mistake.
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    (Original post by vienna95)
    the way i would see it is..assuming, as you do, for that one man, that life and death is infinite for all 6, then you still have 1*x < 5*x
    Well no, because 1*infinity is infinity and 5*infinity is also infinity.

    You cannot compare infinite quantities.
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    (Original post by zizero)
    Well no, because 1*infinity is infinity and 5*infinity is also infinity.

    You cannot compare infinite quantities.
    obviously, but im taking it as a matter of logic and not mathematical perfection.
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    (Original post by zizero)
    Well no, because 1*infinity is infinity and 5*infinity is also infinity.

    You cannot compare infinite quantities.
    But there are different kinds of infinities. I don't know any of the maths behind it, you'll have to ask somone older and wiser.
    As an example, there are an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2, 1.00000001, 1.00000002 etc., but there an infinite number of whole numbers between 1 and infinity, as well as infinite fractions between each consecutive number.
    I'm not sure if this proves anything, I just know that there is a branch of mathematics which deals with this kind of thing, and maybe one of the maths graduates here could help you.
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    (Original post by vienna95)
    obviously, but im taking it as a matter of logic and not mathematical perfection.
    Hmm..I would be inclinced to agree with you. We may very well mathamatically say that 1*infinite = 6*infinite, but when applied to a real world situation...not the abstract maths world then it still remains that you would rather inflict this 'infinite' on only 1 person rather than 6!
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    (Original post by hitchhiker_13)
    But there are different kinds of infinities. I don't know any of the maths behind it, you'll have to ask somone older and wiser.
    As an example, there are an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2, 1.00000001, 1.00000002 etc., but there an infinite number of whole numbers between 1 and infinity, as well as infinite fractions between each consecutive number.
    I'm not sure if this proves anything, I just know that there is a branch of mathematics which deals with this kind of thing, and maybe one of the maths graduates here could help you.
    i think the point is, we're not looking for a mathematical figure, rather a statement of logic. in this case, i argue that x = infinite = any value we deem fit, as long as we assume the loss of life to one person is equatable to all. that is probably a bigger dilemma to the utilitarian.
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    (Original post by vienna95)
    i think the point is, we're not looking for a mathematical figure, rather a statement of logic. in this case, i argue that x = infinite = any value we deem fit, as long as we assume the loss of life to one person is equatable to all. that is probably a bigger dilemma to the utilitarian.
    Yes, but zizero was insisting on being mathematical about it, and I was merely trying to address that.
    I don't believe that the situation he has described would pose any real problem to a utilitarian.
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    To translate my mathematical reasoning into "real-life", I would argue that loss of life is not something you can quantify or compare. If you try to quantify it, it would be infinite. Hence no comparison possible, even between losses of lives.

    What counts is the benefit/loss of your action to every single individual involved. After all, society is made up of individuals, and the benefit/loss to society is the sum of all individual benefits/losses.

    If one individual incurs an infinite loss, society incurs an infinite loss, and the action that creates that is clearly wrong.

    In the example I mentioned, every action would be wrong.

    Hence, I think that's where the utilitarian model is not able to provide an answer.


    I must admit though that I have not been able to show that loss of life does indeed mean an infinite loss to the individual. That's basically the premisse I worked from, but it's not secure.

    BTW, I was inspired by Albert Camus' "Plague" for this little argument, so that's perhaps why I initially considered it self-evident that loss of life meant infinite loss to the individual.
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    (Original post by hitchhiker_13)
    I don't believe that the situation he has described would pose any real problem to a utilitarian.
    neither do i, since the reduction appears to be straightforward in my eyes.
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    You are talking about their desire to live from what i gather. So you are saying for example this guy on his own might have 100 points worth of desire to live and the other 5 put together only have 95. Therefore the utilitarian would have to pick the single guy however, he cannot assume the different desires so would be stuck with what to do. Am I right in that was what you were trying to say?
 
 
 
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