(Original post by grumballcake)
“Well, I deny that it's incorrect, so it's not 'undeniable'. As an aside, if you try to make your words carry weight by adding forceful adjectives, it usually has the opposite effect. When you use 'undeniable' it had better be about something which really cannot be sensibly denied, like 2+2 = 4.”
You have (again) solely quoted an assertion of mine, in this case without even referring to what I believe is incorrect, without referring to any of the actual argument presented.
That the inability to possess an ‘independent scale’ of what other people value does not render the utilitarian formulation impossible, is undeniable, insofar as you have conceded that it is possible to reasonably speculate as to relative preferences, and this is all that is required for the utilitarian principle to be applied.
“Uh? Did you mean 'impossible'?”
Yes, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear.
“Well, we're back to whether these preferences are commensurable and transitive. If A > B and B > C then is A > C?”
You have already asserted that you do take account of relative preferences of others, simply not as the sole factor. Any demonstration you make of possible uncertainty in practical ethics doesn’t render the utilitarian principle problematic, unless you are maintaining the total impossibility of comparison of preferences, which you have already denied.
As I stated the first time you asked the question, preferences are comparable, further the relative preferentiality of things is transitive, so long as that representation accurately represents the relative preferentiality: i.e. providing that the model you’ve presented refers to a single scenario. For example, choosing between preserving the preferences of Socrates, a fool, a pig: Socrates’ preferences more significant than those of a fool, fool’s than pig’s, Socrates’ better than pig’s.
“it becomes incumbent on the utilitarian to exactly delimit this scale, doesn't it? Such a hierarchy must be axiomatic, since it cannot be derived from pure utility. So what criteria will we use to formulate this hierarchy 'correctly'? Who will draw up the scale and what if some people prefer a different scale?”
This objection is the same as the previous objections relating to the necessity of a ‘calculus’ in comparing preferentiality. That a hierarchy can be observed does not imply that it “must be axiomatic… it cannot be derived from pure utility.” The point, as demonstrated so adroitly by the passage you quoted to make the opposite point, is that the only hierarchy is of pure utility, and any hierarchy thereafter demonstrated is purely an expression of pure utility.
Hence it is more preferable to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, because Socrates’ preferences are more preferable than those of the pig. Note that such a judgement of relative preferentiality can only be made through speculation. This relative preferentiality can be expressed through any number of hierarchies or axioms: Socrates will likely benefit from significant preferences for reflection etc, more than the pig; similarly the preferentiality can be suggested insofar as Socrates is higher in the “Socially productive->less so” hierarchy, and the “Brings happiness to peers->less” hierarchy”. None of these demonstrate anything except a series of generalisations based upon the original speculation.
The question of ‘what if persons prefer a different scale?’ is not a question of whether the utilitarian formulation is correct, but whether knowledge of the utilitarian formulation would maximise its ends, were it disseminated. Such a question is dealt with by Singer in ‘Is Act-Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?’ but such a consideration is beyond the scope of our discussion, because as I stated above, one’s conclusions as to the two questions can be determined distinctly.
“I don't think that's true unless you make 'pleasure' malleable to the extent where a sado-masochist's pleasure is somehow different from a philanthropist's.”
There is no reason to make a distinction between the two except insofar as one or the other differs in terms of their actual utility. ‘Pleasure’ is consequently in no sense malleable except insofar as the experiences of sado-masochism and a philanthropist’s are actually different; a possibility delineated in the prior ‘what if some-one prefers to torture people?’ situation.
“He can assert it, but he can't demonstrate it, since it's entirely a matter of personal opinion. De gustibus non disputandum est, as the Latin saying goes.”
We have agreed that no-one has access to an objective measure of a person’s personal experiences. It is therefore an opinion that persons suffer more from brutal rape than they enjoy it, nevertheless based upon observation of persons etc such a speculation is valid.
“No, you really haven't. You've just repeated yourself at length. You've refused to work through any examples, not given any guidelines about how it deals with any real-world systems.”
You have stated previously that you take account of suffering and pleasure when making ethical choices, consequently you’ve already acceded the possibility of this principle being practically applicable.
I have stated that suffering is intrinsically bad, that one can reasonably speculate about what persons will actually prefer, and as to which acts will best satisfy this goal. Unless you are refuting the possibility of speculation as to these ends, then on what basis are you objecting to utilitarianism’s practical applicability?
“What is that goal? A system of ethics without God? I certainly don't accept that.”
Were that a goal, it would be the goal of a utilitarian, not the utilitarian goal, which is solely the utilitarian principle: greatest satisfaction of preferences.
“I've already said that I don't accept that people's preferences have binding force at all. I believe we can subordinate individual preferences in order to pursue a higher goal. Because I believe that people are sinful, I don't consider their preferences to be an inerrant guide to what's good and noble. Rather the contrary.”
Whether you believe that preferences can be subordinated to a separate higher goal is a separate question. The question is whether you believe that ceteris paribus, satisfaction of preference is preferable to frustration of preference. If you also believe that higher goods exist, and you believe that God has given superseding ethical significance to contrary ethical goods, then this is a distinct matter, and the question is one of judging these goods.
“He's talking nonsense though. For a start it's not what Jesus taught. Jesus did not teach "Love your neighbour as yourself" in abstraction. It was always subordinate to "Love the Lord your God with all your strength, soul and mind".”
Mill isn’t talking nonsense, it’s a reasonable assertion. Whether or not “love your neighbour as yourself” leads logically to utilitarianism is a reasonable assertion; which you can disagree with as you wish. Whether “Love your God…” is an ethical prescription which is contra utilitarian is another question altogether, which requires the assertion that Loving God leads necessarily to a goal other than acting in the best interests of all preferring beings. If one accepts that “Love your God” supersedes “Love your neighbour” such an assertion is only pertinent if one can demonstrate the conflict between the prescriptions of Loving God and best satisfying preferences.
“Of course it does. The whole thesis if Christianity is that Jesus gave up Godhood in order to rescue mankind. He gave up the greater pleasure for a lesser one. Surely no-one can believe that human beings are more valuable than God? That's the mystery of the Incarnation.”
Even within the context of that assertion giving up Godhood, being a chosen course of action clearly demonstrated a preference. I fail to see that your example offers any critique of utilitarianism since it is an example of some-one sacrificing their personal preferences for the preferences of all mankind. In any case, asserting your beliefs about higher, goods entirely separate from their impact upon people, is clearly a separate question to the validity of utilitarianism. One can still discuss the ethical preferentiality of preferences, even if one still intends to assert after the conclusion of the argument that human suffering can be superseded by Divine prescription.
“Yes, but agape is a sacrificial love.”
Yes, but this doesn’t suggest that it is morally relativist.
“No, not at all. Utilitarianism is about pleasure. It tries to appropriate other terms in order to cover up its cold, calculating heart. It always has to borrow from other philosophies in order to shore up its own flaws.”
That you think utilitarianism “tries to appropriate other terms in order to cover up its cold, calculating heart. It always has to borrow from other philosophies in order to shore up its own flaws” is obviously irrelevant. The point was that both situation ethics and utilitarianism offer absolute ethical prescriptions.
“I don't think so. I simply think utilitarians want to dress up a shallow philosophy by equating it to a better (if still incomplete) one.”
You may think that, but the argument was about whether GR logically led to utilitarianism, both that question and whether utilitarianism is comparatively shallow, require a demonstration of a logical difference between GR’s conclusions and utilitarianism’s.
“Then you've made it so woolly that it will baa soon. So, what of God's preferences? By what fiat did utilitarianism suddenly constrain God? “
Stating that it is woolly isn’t an objection. If there’s an actual flaw in the assertion then feel free to state it overtly. Utilitarianism has in no sense ‘constrained God.’ In order to judge the utilitarian thesis you have to critique it based on its actual assertions, deciding whether or not ceteris paribus, one ought to act in order to satisfy preferences. If one then wants to posit the existence of God, then we’re having a different discussion, whether the existence renders utilitarianism false, but such an assertion is yours to make- demonstrating that God exists, holds personal preferences, holds preferences which outweigh all others, and which conflict with these other preferences.
“I thought I criticised utilitarianism on the basis that it relies on a calculus which can embrace atrocities. I criticised your version on the basis that I think that it's just platitudes and that you've refused to say how it might work in a specific example.
If you're now arguing that you only ever meant Golden Rule ethics, not classic utilitarianism, with its essential calculus, then I'll move on to address that.”
As I’ve stated there isn’t a distinction between the conclusions of classical utilitarianism, my formulation and Golden Rule ethics (providing one applies the Golden Rule without bias). If such a distinction exists then one would have to demonstrate it; you’ve consistently asserted that Mill and Bentham had a “calculus” which render their versions distinct from my formulation, and yet you’ve not responded to my assertions that this calculus is by nature identical to the utilitarian principle. Similarly not only have I stated that how the principle would work is irrelevant to the validity of the ethical principle- to which you haven’t responded, I have also offered a number of specific examples for how this works. Further I’ve also stated that one acts in practise, by judging what persons will prefer based on their observation of what persons seem likely to prefer, and what actions seem likely to bring this about. Of course not only is this irrelevant to the validity of the ethical assertion, but you’ve already asserted that you do consider the preferences of others in practise; either you’re disputing this on reflection, or you’re suggesting that there is a distinction between this process and utilitarianism per se. Whether you believe that you must follow other ‘goods’ is irrelevant to the question of whether you believe considering the suffering/pleasure of others, is possible.
“I'm trying hard to be polite here, so bear with me. Very few real-world actions have a simple yes/no answer. The example I gave earlier has dozens of different benefits and costs. Even sitting and typing this message has a whole realm of possible outcomes, some of which would be of benefit and some not. It might help you understand if I type some more, but that means that I'll spend less time with my family. So it's hard to envisage that I can reduce each action to a simple benefit/cost. There will always be a spectrum, not black/white. This is a multi-factorial world and any attempt to reduce it to pleasure/pain is not only flawed, but stupid.”
Whether an action is “yes/no” is irrelevant. Either different course of action are relatively preferable, or there is no difference in preferentiality.
As I stated and you quoted “For it to be practically possible to base ethical behaviour on maximising pleasure all one need is the possibility, however slight, of being able to speculate as to whether an action is more or less likely to bring more or less pleasure.” Thus judgements may not be simple but they are possible: even if your decision is based on the judgement that “discussing online and family are good; lying motionless on the floor is less likely to be good,” you’ve made a judgement as to preference- it may not be black:white, but all we need establish is that it is not exclusively the same shade of grey.
It is not “stupid” to reduce it to pleasure/pain. Even if you posit that your preferences contain elements which are distinct from pleasure/pain, you demonstrably still prefer some things over others.
“It was to show you that your system will involve a calculus and that you'll have to establish a scale. Once that becomes apparent to you, it will be much easier to show you why that calculus will support atrocities, if we take it to its logical conclusion.
If you deny that an atrocity can exist at all, then that would be a fruitful line of discussion. I believe that there are values outside hedonism which factor in our decision making. When trying to deal with earlier examples, you've used such principles while simultaneously denying them.”
I’ve asserted before, ethical decisions do not necessitate a calculus in this sense.
It is taken as the utilitarian principle that one ought to act as to best fulfil preferences.
Thus faced with any situation one tries to lead to as much total fulfilment as possible: fulfilment of positive preferences – fulfilment of negative preferences.
One can judge this solely based upon one’s suppositions about firstly, what persons will prefer and also what actions will bring about the fulfilment of these preferences. Both of these judgements are of course speculation based on imperfect knowledge.
In a situation there are therefore total preferences, and total possible causes and consequences. There is also a possible scenario wherein preferences would be best fulfilled and a course of action that would lead to this.
Any person without omniscience knows neither what every-one prefers, nor every consequence of every course. They must therefore speculate about what actions are possible, what their effects would be, and what persons would prefer in each of these situations. Clearly a person has no access to objective, paradoxically self-justifying rules, which demonstrate the answer. Rather all one has is the totality of their supposition, from fire hurts me, and hurt I dislike, fire probably hurts persons also, which they also probably will not like, to speculation about the likely result of a system of free speech upon a community of preference-holding persons. The totality of their presuppositions are, clearly, all that a person has, unless one argues that one cannot make such observations, or that there exist other facts about ethics which can be accessed from a direct, absolute source- obviously an assertion that you might want to make.
Based upon one’s speculation, one of course notes a host of general rules. Nevertheless there is no difference between the making a judgement of probably preferences based on one’s speculation’ and making a judgement based upon a calculus that is exclusively the result of generalised rules drawn from one’s supposition, obviously such a “calculus” can only ever be a generalised form of one’s speculation, or else a statement of the totality of one’s speculation in an infinite series of generalised rules.
I have asserted that utilitarianism can never lead to an atrocity. Obviously a person acting without total knowledge can cause an atrocity, even if their sole intention is to avoid such a thing. The point is that utilitarianism always necessitates a person acting so as to fulfil preferences to the best of their ability, thus always endeavouring to result in the best consequences. I have not simultaneously used/denied principles outside of hedonism; an atrocity would be impossible based upon the best fulfilment of preferences, because the best fulfilment of preferences would always bring the results that bring the least amount of relative suffering- were this end to be considered an “atrocity”, the only alternative would be an atrocity to a greater extent as it would necessarily be a result that was worse for all those concerned.
“Au contraire. Working through examples is exactly how one can demonstrate incoherence. Bentham starts with a principle which claims to deal with all cases based upon its axioms alone and then shows how it works in practice. We can then demostrate that it does not disallow unethical scenarios like the "sadistic guards". So we show by example that the ethics presented are incomplete and/or incoherent.”
As I stated that would only be the case if there were agreement about that which would constitute good. If we agree that sadistic guards are the only ethical wrong a priori, then we can determine that the best scenario is that with fewer sadistic guards. If we concur that the best scenario is that which brings least overall suffering and most benefit to persons, then we can agree or disagree about a worked example, on the basis of whether or not more suffering results. Since we’re disagreeing about what actually constitutes a good working through an example shows nothing, as I will simply assert that less suffering overall occurs and you will assert that this is an atrocity nevertheless.
“I don't agree that it would be ethics at all.”
That’s why I said it was ‘ethics,’ the point is that it is a mere approximation of rules which will on the whole be better ethically, which is all the “calculus” that you demand, could be, unless it is tautologically identical to the original utilitarian principle in itself.
“I'm not getting very far in showing TCovenant that his belief system isn't an ethical panacaea.”
Whether or not utilitarianism offers a universal panacea isn’t within the scope of the discussion, what is important is whether or one concurs with the assertion that the preferences and suffering of all persons are ethically significant, without bias. Whether you also believe that there exist Godly commands for higher goods, which supersede human suffering, is another question entirely for you to defend.