Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

The Attainment of Happiness (Section 2)

October 15, 2008
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One objection against utilitarianism is that happiness is unattainable, and therefor you can’t base a moral theory on an infinite and unknown quantity. Mill points out the ridiculousness of this charge, because it fundamentally skews what utilitarianism is. It assumes that the ultimate utilitarian goal is to achieve total happiness, 100% of the time, and since this is impossible utilitarianism is then directionless. He points out that: A) utilitarianism is also the avoidance of pain, and so even if we can’t achieve happiness, there’s something to be said for trying to make life less loathsome; B) this Utopian view of happiness is completely false, precisely because it is unrealistic – utilitarianism is based on the realistic maximization of happiness and elimination of pain, as much as physically possible.

It’s also argued against utilitarianism that if people gain such lofty views about how happy they should be, they’ll become despondant considering how difficult it would be to make the world a happy, safe place. Mill points out that even if the world will always have more pain than pleasure, at least we can eliminate some of the pain, and if any pain is eliminated the world is that much better; also, that people adapt to their situation, and as long as they know they’re as happy as their circumstances allow, can be easily satisfied.

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Arguments Against Utilitarianism

October 5, 2008
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The argument against utilitarianism, on pages 326-327, is essentially that utilitarianism requires too much of people, that it is too difficult for the average person to go around thinking about the numerical consequences of every single action, and it expects people to act as disinterested and unbiased judges when the average person never does this.

Mill’s argument starts with a very basic rebuttal: that the factual morality of someone’s action is independent of why they do it, whether it be through unbiased judgment, or emotional compulsion. The detractors are trying to bring a non-utilitarian argument against Mill, not seeming to realize that utilitarianism takes only consequences into account, and so motivation is irrelevant. Morality and motivation are therefor separate. Mill puts it well: “He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble”.

Mill then goes on to say that the action of the average person is too inconsequential to mandate that we go around weighing the utility of every single action we take. Generally then, if we just consider the local effect our actions have on us and those around us, he says, then we will do what is generally right, and if everybody does this then the totality of consequences will be happiness. On those occassions when an idividual has enough power to sway the fate of many, such as in voting, public office, or in use of large funds, then total utility should be used as much as possible. Mill says: “The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but … that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not … travel beyond the particular persons concerned …”.

The problem with the first part of Mill’s argument is that he glosses over the fact that in order for people to truly act morally, they must be disinterested judges of their own actions. True, a man who saves another person from drowning because of money saves that person, but if you leave motivation out of it you essentially remove justification for action (‘sure, you should do the right thing, but whether you want to do it or not is not important’). If people were inherently predisposed to act in a utilitarian manner, then it would be fine, but I think we can agree that people aren’t, and that they can be taught to do things that are decidedly un-utilitarian. Take discrimination for example: a person discriminates against another because they were brought up to do so, and so it seems perfectly right to them. In order to counteract this, they need to desire to be just, to be good. If no one acts out of “a feeling of duty”, or a desire to be moral, why would they ever act moral?

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The Value of Pleasure

September 21, 2008

I wouldn’t disagree with Mill that intellectual pleasures are better than others, but for a different reason. Think about what the intellectual pleasures are: the introduction of intellect to normal pleasures. Artistic entertainment is when these pleasures are taken and observed and contemplated, then communicated back in a more refined form to the audience. (Art gains more by then adding intellectual intention beyond that, like making a political or philisophical point.) Intellectual pleasures are better, not because they contain more joy, but because they involve the intellect, which allows a very special thing: appreciation. The difference between a pig having sex and a human having sex is true, intellectual appreciation of the experience. A pig eats, but a human cooks, and while most people only desire good food, many set out to make unique and better food (and even those who don’t wish they could, but can’t because they aren’t good at it). “Higher” pleasures are just “lower” pleasures given intellectual appreciation. So in this way two experiences can be equal in pleasure, but uneven in the joy they bring because one is fully appreciated and the other is simply used up and discarded.

What’s ironic is that Mill’s argument actually seems to destroy his own possition. By essentially saying that some people preffer one pleasure to another, regardless of actual ecstasy involved, for no other reason than it is better (he’s sort of nebulous about it), he’s arguing for preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, not happiness utilitarianism. By saying what he says, he basically states that people ultimately judge certain pleasures by another standard. So, wouldn’t it make more sense that this standard be the basis of morality instead of happiness, which he shows through his own example to be subsidiary?

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Morality and Action

September 17, 2008
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There is a degree to which it is irrelevant what motive a person has for an action, as long as they know they should do it, and at least attempt to do it. Morality is reliant on purpose. Without it, the result merely becomes random byproduct. Consider: A man casts a fishing line and, thinking he’s caught a fish, reels the line in. It turns out he has hooked the shirt of a drowning girl, and so ended up pulling her to safety. Is this moral? The outcome was certainly good, but how could morality be deduced from random chance? Morality is dependent on cause and effect, because what rule could we say applied to the fisherman? That you should fish and hope you save someone’s life? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.

In the case of the two men, each who save a girl from drowning, but for different reasons, both actions are good, because both intended to save the girl and made steps towards enacting it, whether or not one was successful. Even the man who saves the girl’s life because he wants attention from women understands the moral concept behind his action: he should save the girl. The reason he thinks women will like this is because they will conclude he is a good person, which he is prettending to be. (You can say he is lying then, which is another issue, but that doesn’t detract from the morality of his saving the girl’s life.) Intention to perform a moral action or obtain a moral outcome are neccessary for the action or outcome to be moral at all.

Consider the man who gives money to a false charity, unintentionally causing children to be poinsoned. The consequence was not intended, but it was still bad. In the case of the two men who tried to save the girls’ lives intention was important, only in that they intended a good outcome by their actions. The man who gave moeny to a charity that turned out to be a murder plot still intended a positive action, an action that by utilitarianism would be good (had it turned out like he’d intended). Consequences are important in that the intended consequence of an action should be good, and the person should genuinely try to make it occure. Whether or not the outcome is as intended is more dependent on ability to perform than moral failing. (In the case of the two men, one was able to save the girl and the other was too slow, though through no fault of his own. As for the man who donated to the evil charity, he may have been duped but that is more an issue of stupidity. Is it immoral to be stupid?)

So I see it as a sort of half-and-half situation. Intention is neccessary for an action to be judged morally at all, but it can only be good if the intended consequence is good (this “good consequence” can potentially be judged to be the consequence that brings about greatest happiness). So in a way, Utilitarianism can be reworked to actually include intention. ( 😛 Boone. Beat that.)

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God and Logic

September 14, 2008

I don’t think rejecting Divine Command Theory would do anything to harm our conception of God, but that’s ultimately because I think our conception of God is limited and wrong. The average person thinks of God as a sort of metaphysical person with super-powers. The self-contradictory theology of most religions is taught to people as what God is, so despite them saying that God makes morality, their conception of God and how God acts is very limited to normal standards of (human) sentience. Some might not like the idea that rejection would allow us to ignore the Bible (or other texts) and discover morality for ourselves. This might make them accept Divine Command out of attachment to their conceptions of Religion’s place in society (which is probably why Divine Command Theory was envisioned: to justify morality – and thus law – being based on Biblical exegesis). Whether or not rejecting Divine Command Theory would affect our conception of God has more to do with how we conceive God, not how God actually is or ought to be. It’s dependent on social factors, nothing more.

In fact, I would say that rejecting Divine Command Theory would help most religious persons reach intellectual consistency with their beliefs. This in no way though, proves that that is thus the way God is. The friendliness of a notion to our conceptions does not make the notion right, just palatable.

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Divine Command Theory

September 10, 2008

The question of should/could God change the nature of morality is moot. In order for God to be God, God must have no limits. If God made everything, and morality exists, then God made morality. This is true if even the nature of morality is whatever achieves the greatest happiness. If this is what we define as morality (or what “is”) then God can change it. If it is the greatest happiness, then God can change what the greatest happiness is, or even happiness itself. God cannot be judged by anything, because God defines the standards (and I would argue, actually is the standards, but I won’t spend 100,000 words here advocating pantheism). If God defines morality, then you can’t judge any action by God – including the changing of morality – unjust or arbitrary because those inheirently demand a standard that is itself created and subservient to God. (How can God be unjust when God makes justice? How can God be arbitrary when God makes purpose? Could God even avoid arbitrariness, considering that justification is subservient to God, and in order for God to be just, Justice must be above God to be capable of describing God.) Who’s to say that we would even be aware if morality changed? If it is concrete, and it was altered, being ourselves subservient to the orders of the universe our perception of morality would change (I assume here that our morality is based at least somewhat on rationality, so therefore if what was rational changed, so would our observations and opinions). The problem with even having this argument is that we can’t physically have it. A) The concepts and restrictions that must be discussed don’t even apply to a being that is litterally above all catagories and concepts; B) Even if there are any restrictions that would apply to God (and I would argue that if there are that “God” isn’t actually worth the name – but that’s another argument) we would be incapable of comprehending them, in the way that a two-dimensional intelligence could not understand 3-dimensional life because it is mentally equipped to only handle two (which means in order to fully understand all things, humans would probably have to modify their own intelligence – but that’s, again, another argument). We probably don’t even have full understanding of the concepts at stake. Really though, a true “God” is omniscient and omnipotent, and thus any argument over limits or “should/could/can” are irrelevent. (The only relevant arguments then, are not about these things, but about how best to break down our conceptions of boundries to more further comprehend true “infinity” when talking about God.)

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Cultural Relativism

September 6, 2008
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It’s pretty easy to find an event to debunk Cultural Relativism, but I think the Protestant Reformation is a pretty good example. Catholicism was dominant in European culture, and dictated the morals of the culture. One of the morals it dictated was that the Catholic Church held all moral authority, and if you challenged the Church you were an immoral person. The Protestant peoples were themselves once Catholic, and so by Relativistic logic they were being immoral. Of course, they didn’t think that, they thought that the Catholic Church itself was being immoral, and thus Catholic Culture (their dominant culture) was immoral. In response they threw off Catholicism and branded themselves as a new cultural group: Protestants. How can Cultural Relativism deal with the divergence of cultures? For cultures to form, they must first begin to break (and cast off) old moral rules. Cultural Relativism deals only with a very modern perspective of history, not with the dynamic and fuzzy nature of cultures as they’ve actually grown. As a Protestant you have certain moral values different from Catholics, but that could only be done by breaking the rules of authority. So then, are Protestants their own cultural group, or just a bunch of bad Catholics? Cultural Relativism supplies no answer for this, which is part of the problem with relying on such a nebulous concept as “culture”.

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