Utilitarianism

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is it

Can morality be quantified?  Can the good be calculated?  Utilitarianism says the right action is the one which leads to the most overall happiness -– a deceptively simple theory, but not without its detractors.  Is utilitarianism compatible with the idea that people have inalienable rights?  Should we be so focused on the consequences of our actions?  John and Ken welcome Wayne Sumner from the University of Toronto, author of The Hateful and the Obscene: Studies in the Limits of Free Expression.

Listening Notes

Ken and John start off by asking Wayne how he became interested in utilitarianism, and Wayne  tells them it is because he wanted to study something useful. Ken and John immediately delve into how unuseful utilitarianism seems to be, given that it seems nearly impossible to measure the net utility of an action, over an indeterminate span of time, and over an indeterminately large group of people. Wayne, Ken and John discuss how to relate the rightness or wrongness of an action against the moral culpability one has for performing that action, given the difficulty of figuring the net utility of your action.  

In the next segment, Ken and John try to untangle exactly whose welfare should count, and how much, in a utilitarian calculation. Do animals’ welfare count? Does it count as much as humans’ welfare? Do future individuals welfare count? Is it ever okay to count the welfare of those you love more than others? In answering these questions, they discuss whether it is better to have more less happy creatures or fewer more happy creatures, whether there are different kinds of pleasure which can count differently in a calculation, and what to do about the cows we want to eat.

In the last segment, Ken raises his worries about utilitarianism and rights: doesn’t utilitarianism require sacrificing innocent people for the benefit of society? Wayne says that a lot of times utilitarianism requires respecting rights, because violating them turns out to be ‘risky and counterproductive’. Wayne, Ken, and John discuss how to balance the rights of each with the welfare of all, and the realistic necessity (or non-necessity) of sacrificing rights for welfare. In particular, they worry about opening the door to discriminatory rights violation and relativization of measuring welfare. Ken decides that utilitarianism is better suited for a social decision maker than for him and his own moral choices.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:00): Julie Napolin visits a rescue clinic for animals that are not conventionally considered needy but in some ways obviously are so (the ‘Animal Place’, www.animalplace.org): the chickens, pigs, and cows animals that are not only not pampered with petting – but actually killed and eaten! How do, and how should, we think about these animals welfare?
  • Conundrum (seek to 47:15) Jim calls from Copperopolis and inquires whether he may morally raise fifteen kittens for one year each rather than  raise one cat for fifteen years. Ken and John haul out their mutatis mutandis reasoning skills, and try to help Jim out by considering the relevant analogies with people, professors, and cows in India.
 
 

Wayne Sumner, Professor Emeritus of Law and Philosophy, University of Toronto

 
 
 

Bonus Content

 

Upcoming Shows

22 September 2019

Knowing What We Know (And What We Don...

It seems like we know many facts about ourselves and the world around us, even if there vastly many others we know that we don’t know. But how do we...

29 September 2019

Explanation At Its Best

In both everyday life and science, we often feel the pull of simpler, more elegant, or more beautiful explanations. For example, you notice the...

06 October 2019

The Allure of Authoritarianism

In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s “final, most essential command” was “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” Authoritarian regimes call...