(Original post by grumballcake)
“Preferred by whom? I agree that if I prefer A to B then A is preferable to B for me, but so what? That doesn't mean that A is preferable for anyone else. Or even that because I prefer A it is preferable at all. Suppose I prefer to torture animals (I don't, before you ask) is it therefore ethical to torture animals? It's obvious from common sense that it isn't, but it's not at all obvious from your formulation. You seem to have a mix of situational ethics in with utilitarianism. If a society prefers to abuse children (examples available from real societies on request), can you condemn them?”
They are preferred by the people who hold the preference, by definition. It doesn’t matter that different persons prefer different things, and thus that preferring ‘any specific thing’ is not universal. What is universal is that people prefer that which they prefer, which is sufficient.
It doesn’t need to be ‘obvious’ obviously, the strength of an ethical system is in its actual validity, not how easy to remember it is. If you prefer causing harm to another in some way, then it is clearly preferable, ceteris paribus, that your preferences aren’t frustrated as you’ll suffer from not having your preference being fulfilled. However, demonstrably by the definition of the scenario all else isn’t equal: you cause harm (denying preferences) by fulfilling your own, and in harming the other person for pleasure you will bring greater harm to yourself, frustrating other preferences. Therefore it isn’t ethical to bring harm in whatever manner, unless this harm is the least harm that could be brought about, and therefore is the most least un-preferable action.
This isn’t a mix with situation ethics, though in my view all coherent ethical systems are reducible to utilitarianism and situation ethics (correctly interpreted) is perfectly coherent. The point, regardless, is that the ethic described is utilitarianism.
If persons prefer to torture children then their preference ought not to be fulfilled, assuming that torture of children is not going to bring about the least torture (harm) all round.
“So, if a society prefers child-beating, that's a benefit?”
If persons prefer anything including child-beating, it is beneficial, ignoring all other factors, that their preference be fulfilled- that they should benefit rather than suffer. It is not actually beneficial, if we acknowledge that child-beating is not the most preferable policy to all those affected.
“Your definition is yet another tautology. If benefit is the outcome of a right action, then a right action is one which produces benefit. Yet what does that add in explanatory terms? It's like saying that red paint is paint which is red.”
That isn’t a tautology, a benefit is defined by net preferences, namely the preferences of all those affected, a right action is one which results in the best fulfillment of those total preferences.
“So you now have a neat system which allows no external critique either. If we show that it does allow atrocities, then we must be wrong because it doesn't, by its own definition. The old
Rule 1: I am always right
Rule 2: If I appear to be wrong, see rule 1
I'm afraid that cuts no ice with me. You can't say that we're "incorrectly applying" the rules just because you don't like the outcome.”
It’s not the case that utilitarianism has unreasonably set up a system that defines itself as right- and maintains that “opponents are wrong because we don’t like them.” Such is the nature of definition- we have simply defined atrocity in two different ways, I’ve defined an atrocity on account of it bringing suffering. You’ve chosen to define atrocity in some contrary way, such that it can be an “atrocity” even if the action minimises suffering/maximised benefit to the best level possible.
Of course for there to be basis for critique there has to be potential agreement (as we’re arguing about a term which we’ve defined contrarily there isn’t one readily available). If you accept that the preferences of all ought to be considered without bias, then you would be forced to concur with the utilitarian system, outlined above.
“Except that you haven't yet produced any evidence of this, or a system to back up this bald assertion.
Your appeal is now to ignore/avoid preferences and appeal to "that which most preferable overall", but how will you determine this? Preferable to whom and measured how?”
Evidence of what? How would one create a system to “back up” the statement that that which best fulfils the preferences of all persons who have preferences, is that which is most preferable.
In what sense am I ignoring or avoiding preferences? It is clear that “that which is most preferable overall” is not reducible to “preferences” in the sense that you’ve defined “what the majority prefer” or preferences as defined by a “quick vote.” Clearly if some small children “prefer” to stay up late, get drunk and not do their schoolwork, and even if they hold a vote demonstrating their consensus on this preference, it is clear that their actual net preferences are not being fulfilled by following this course of action.
“Most preferable overall” means taking account of all agents who prefer, without bias, towards persons or preferences. This doesn’t necessitate a system, as with the most basic matter of deciding which actions will fulfil our preferences, we have to determine this based on available knowledge.
“If I put on my teenager hat for a moment: "Well, duh!". Right, that's got that out of the way, so what on earth are you talking about? How will I know when I've found the "greater good" and how will I tell it from a "lesser good" in real, concrete terms? Will everyone else agree with this definition?
Let's go back to classical utilitarianism for a moment. Are you advocating act utilitarianism (Bentham), or rule utilitarianism (Mill)? At times you've veered towards eudaimonism since you've talked about hapoiness as the greatest good a few times. I'm just trying to get a feel for where you're going.”
The fact that the assertion is absolutely obvious is hardly a weakness.
Of course one can’t know absolutely what will bring the greatest good, defined as the greatest fulfilment of preferences for all persons who hold preferences; in the absence of total knowledge of all consequences of all potential actions it is therefore impossible to know absolutely what the greatest fulfilment of preferences would be, or how that could be brought about. Nevertheless one obviously has a responsibility to act in a way likely to bring about better consequences, in real, concrete terms. You ‘tell,’ namely postulate based on your current knowledge, through your observation and theorisation about your fellow preferring agents.
Act utilitarianism is the best formulation, as its clearest, but essentially there’s no distinction between the two, logically carried out. Rule utilitarianism would provide identical results to act utilitarianism as the only rule that could rationally be formulated would be act in all cases so as to maximise good. Likewise, the formulation of utilitarianism as maximising happiness over suffering is identical to preference utilitarianism if formulated correctly.
“You'd feel right at home with Derrida. ”
No, I’m sure I wouldn’t, despite his hospitality.
In any case, what I’m discussing is absolutely concrete: things are preferred (one can suffer or benefit), assuming persons other than myself can also suffer or benefit, and without any basis for privileging my own preferences over their own, it is clearly more preferable that preferences are satisfied to the best extent possible, and that persons act so as to maximise benefit with as little suffering as possible. That’s not mere platitude.
“So how will you objectively establish this weighting? After all, it's central to your thesis.”
There is an objective difference between the preferentiality of action, otherwise any action or consequence would be absolutely as good as all others. That one cannot absolutely establish this weighting is true, for we lack absolute knowledge of the consequences of potential action- but this does not diminish the necessity of acting with the knowledge that we have, similarly we don’t have absolute knowledge, that would prove the viability of the thesis that some things are preferable to others. Neither of us can absolutely advance an argument that disproves moral scepticism. Despite the absence of absolute, self-proving knowledge, it is still clearly preferable that less suffering occur than more; if you absolutely deny this then there exists nothing more to be advanced against you. All that can be done is try to convince persons that, persons suffer and that it would be preferable that this not occur, thus one ought to act to bring this around.
“It's also not true - it isn't "logically identical" at all.”
It is. Treat others as you would like to be treated clearly leads inevitably to utilitarianism. If you “love your neighbour as yourself” it is clear that you ought not to treat them, as if they were you, namely “I want a new polka dot shirt, therefore you too must have such a shirt!” Rather, you must treat the preferences of your “neighbour” as carrying equal weighting as your own, in themselves- thus being identical to utilitarianism.
“So Fred West was acting morally? He wanted to kill people and he thought that on the balance of probabilities he'd be happier if he did. He also considered that his happiness outweighed the needs of the others to live. QED.”
If some-one sincerely believes that they’re acting in the most moral way that they can then clearly the are, person’s morality, in themselves must be judged on their intention, not the success of their action, because clearly a good person is one who wishes to act correctly, not a person who’s actions are lucky enough to bring good consequences. If I bake you a nice cake to thank you for your debating, I am clearly not responsible if you have a nut allergy, or a chronic fear of cake. Conversely if try to poison you, but mistakenly slip walnuts (your favourite!) into the cake, rather than poisonous peanuts, I am clearly not a good person for doing so. Likewise if some complete madman thinks that killing every-one is a good plan, it makes no difference to the moral system itself. If some-one believes, in opposition to you, that the “rules of the game” are that “murder is very good because God said so,” it reflects the individual not the ethical reality.
“He obviously did, unless you think he was psychotically deranged. People usually act for what they see as the greater good, it's just that their view of what that is, will usually be tinged by selfishness. So Mao's vision of the greater good (i.e. power and wealth for him and China) allowed him to ride over the peasants' vision of the greater good (i.e. not starving).”
To be honest I think he doubtless was mad, but as I stated before this is a discussion for psychologists or historians, not ethicists. It is irrelevant if persons incorrectly discern what ethics (good) is, it is irrelevant if they define ethics correctly but incorrectly determine what would actually be preferable, it is irrelevant if they correctly determine what would be preferable but mistakenly discern what actions would bring about these preferences. All that is important is the acknowledgement that suffering is less preferable than less suffering, without privileging the avoidance of your own preference over others.
“I'd argue that indifference is the default state and that it's an absense of something, rather than an object in itself. If we're simply unaware that cheap jeans are bought by the suffering of others, then are we morally culpable? We're happy (in your terms) so there's clearly a good, but is it a moral good? Kant argues against happiness as a greater good, since he believed that happiness needed to be earned.”
Absence or object, is irrelevant, indifference is only pertinent to this discussion insofar as we both said that it was needed for this situation to occur.
Whether one is morally culpable is unimportant. What is important in deciding upon which action ought to occur is solely which action will bring about less actual suffering. If one is unaware of the suffering caused by an action, clearly the person acting unawares cannot be considered culpable, but culpability is irrelevant. It is good that persons are happy rather than that they suffer, per se, ‘good’ cannot be ascribed to happiness in itself in any other sense. What can be stated is whether a choice between actions is ‘good’ insofar that some will bring about more good than other, or whether the happiness of the jean-wearers is good, in the sense that the fulfilment of their preferences, providing their happiness, results in the greatest good overall, in this instance it doesn’t because their happiness necessitates a greater loss of happiness for those enslaved to provide it.