Utilitarianism andthe StateWord Count: 1400 Utilitarianismis a consequentialist moral theory that is focused on the end results of anaction. While utilitarianism has been argued for in many contexts, I willnarrow down my paper to the state. My purpose is to defend act utilitarianismas the proper moral approach of the state. In the first section, I willintroduce utilitarianism. In the second section, I will introduce my argumentsfor accepting utilitarianism. In the third section, I will defendutilitarianism against various criticisms.
Utilitarianism In this section, I will presentutilitarianism. In evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action, act utilitarianismholds that the right choice is the one that maximizes utility. In other words,the option that maximizes the greatest amount of good for the greatest amountof people. Utilitarian analysis from the state’s perspective would include allthe groups involved and affected by a certain decision or policy.
The “good”can be the general well-being. Such an understanding is sufficient for mostdecisions, since clear differences in general well-being can be demonstrated incomparing governmental policies without having to delve into precisecalculations of an individuals’ personal pain or pleasure versus others. The generaljustification of utilitarianism comes from the hedonistic argument thatpleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad for everybody. Theargument follows as such: (A1)We can introspectively determine that only pleasure is intrinsically good and onlypain is intrinsically bad for us.
(A2) Other people have similarexperiences as us.(A3)If other people have similar experiences as us and only our pleasure is intrinsicallygood and our pain intrinsically bad, then only other peoples’ pleasure and painare good and bad.(A4)Therefore, only everybody’s pleasure is intrinsically good and only everybody’spain is intrinsically bad.
(A5)If only everybody’s pleasure is intrinsically good and only everybody’s pain isintrinsically bad, then the correct moral theory would be one that seeks to increasepleasure and decrease the pain. (A6)Therefore, the correct moral theory is utilitarianism, seeking to maximizepleasure and minimize pain. Premise(A1) is justified through introspection, looking inwards at our subjectiveexperiencesto determine what they are like. We can introspect what pleasure and pain feellike and reveal that pleasure objectively feels good and pain objectively feelsbad. All other experiences feel good if and only if they are “pleasurable.”They feel bad if and only if they are “painful.” Eating something tasty might feel pleasurableto our senses but winning a chess game might also feel pleasurable withoutappealing to the senses.
This interpretation captures even higher level “pleasures”such as accomplishing goals or enjoying freedoms. Everything good is only goodbecause it is instrumental to feeling pleasure. Premise (A2) isstraightforward; experiences might be subjective, but similarities exist andthat is the basis of empathy. (A3) and (A4) logically follow, since myexperience of pleasure and its feeling is not in any way distinguishable from anotherperson’s experience pleasure. (A5) is true since any moral theory would have tobe consistent with the good and pleasure is the only intrinsic good.
(A6)follows since utilitarianism expands the previous idea. However,a distinction is to be made here. Not all utilitarian thinkers definewell-being as pleasure and pain – some recognize other things as also being intrinsicallygood and some argue that well-being is best seen as the desires of the peoplein question. I will not argue the nuances between these ideas in this paper.Instead, I will defend all of them as being valid considerations for theutilitarian state. State actions, thus, ought to be evaluated on a case by casebasis. The just thing to do is to always maximize utility.
The Case for Utilitarianism in Policymaking Here, I make a case for whypolicymakers and the state should be purely utilitarian. My first argument isthat the state is necessarily utilitarian. Policy makers have to deal withuncertainty in all of their actions and evaluate the risks involved throughaverages and data. They are accountable to their constituents, which makes itimpossible to justify tradeoffs for the sake of some higher moral purpose whenpeople are being directly harmed. The state does not have the optionto not act.
There is no distinction between acting and not acting since theactive choice not to do anything is itself an action. In a lot of cases, thestate is the only feasible actor to create change. Thus, not preventing a harmwhen it is possible to do so is the moral equivalent of actively bringing aboutthat harm. Utilitarianism provides thenecessary flexibility for real world decision making.
Instead of dealing withcomplex overarching rules, the right thing to do can be easily evaluatedaccording to utility and in unique contexts that other ethical theories cannotpredict. However, I recognize that the utility of utilitarianism does not directlyjustify utilitarianism. But the constitutiverole of the state, which is to function for the people and is directlyconcerned with how the consequences of its actions affects its constituents,seems to thus demand the state to be utilitarian. If the state ceases to careabout the consequences of its policies upon the people, it ceases to be alegitimate and moral state. Responding to CriticismsInthis section, I will provide arguments against criticisms on utilitarianism. Manyof these criticisms against utilitarianism rely on thought experiments about itsmost extreme conclusions. These criticisms rely on the argument that theseexperiments are wrong and that utilitarianism is unintuitive.
But, we shouldnot be quick to discount utilitarianism because our moral intuitions seem todisagree with the extremes. These scenarios are unlikely and never relevant tothe real world; furthermore, intuitions are unreliable and cognitively biased. Psychologicalstudies have demonstrated that people have poor intuitions when it comes toscope, being incapable of understanding the proper multiplicative valuation of largerscale problems in comparison to smaller problems.
For example, when asked in astudy how much they were willing to pay to prevent either 2,000, 20,000, or200,000 birds from drowning in oil-covered ponds, individuals responded with$80, $78, and $88 respectively.1 When governments are constantly dealingwith millions of people being affected by their policies in a world of almosteight trillion individuals, how can moral intuitions play a role in selectingthe best policy? Nor can the brain’s intuitions properly handle complexprobabilities and calculations about the expected utility of an action. Not all intuitions might be rejected, but argumentsbased on intuition cannot be taken seriously. Various personal experiences createbiases that sway our intuitions.
It is not inconceivable for us to think of aworld, where if we been born into and grown up in, our various experienceswould sway our intuitions to believe something else. Kantian arguments often rely ona-priori reasoning, but such reasoning does not actually exist. Absolutely everythingwe know is based upon experiences that happen to us, inform us, and direct ourreasoning. The kind of reasoning present in much of the literature ofdeontological thinkers is not universal, but westernized and idealized to apoint where it becomes impractical in our world. Even John Rawls’s theory ofjustice, which follows the likes of Kant and avoids pure a-priori reasoning, isinsufficient.
The original position places individuals behind a veil ofignorance that obscures the circumstances (such as race, gender, class) thatthey will be born into in society and asks them to judge whether or not itwould be rational to opt into that society. Rawls argues that individuals wouldnot want the state to be purely utilitarian because there is a risk that theywill be the ones being sacrificed for the greater good. However, rationalindividuals would prefer a state that maximizes utility and increases averagewell-being, since the expected utility of entering such a society wouldincrease as well. In the real world, individuals expect policymakers to be utilitarian and choose policies thatbenefit the most amount of people precisely because doing so increases theaverage well-being.
Furthermore,even if all humans have inherent dignity that cannot be violated were to betrue, utilitarianism would still follow. The equality of all individuals means that the state cannot prefer thevalue of one individual over the value of many, since doing so would be equalto valuing that individual the same as or more than the many. 1Desvouges,William F.; Johnson, Reed; Dunford, Richard; Boyle, Kevin; Hudson, Sarah;Wilson, K.
Nicole (1992). “Measuring Non-Use Damages Using ContingentValuation: An Experimental Evaluation of Accuracy”. Research TriangleInstitute Monograph. 92–1.