Friday, September 30, 2005

Problems for concequentialists/utilitarians

The standard challenges to utilitarianism are as follows (although these are really just objections to concequentialism)
the promise example:
You and your friend have been trapped in a blizzard in the wilderness. At some point, it becomes clear that he won’t make it back. On his deathbed, he makes you promise to make sure that all his money goes to his eldest son. But when you get back to civilization, you realize that the money would do more good if given to charity. Should you lie and say that your friend’s last wish was for the money to be given to charity?

This is a thought experiment designed to put our fairly "rule utilitarian" intuition up against "act utilitarianism". There are a number of issues
1) Concequentialism is HIGHLY prescriptive - it tells you EXACTLY what to do not just a general guide.
Some moral theories might say "keep promises" and one could easily navigate such a world by just not making any promises. However Act utilitarism results in us constantly having choices between better and worse outcomes that can all be measured against each other. This means that it ma give us a tough set of rules that we cant or don’t want to live up to.

the frame-up example:
A crime causing considerable public outrage has occurred in a small town. Unless someone is punished for it, there will be serious riots, during which some people will be killed. The sheriff can prevent this only by framing and executing (as a scapegoat) an innocent man. Should he do it?

In this question
1) We are confronted by a number of assumptions that most people quite reasonably find hard to believe. These include that our knowledge that the criminal is uncatchable and that framing a person is the best solution. We doubt that this is true and therefore question the sheriff’s morality which in this case has been allocated the title of utilitarianism. In the back of our minds we expect that the person telling us the options may well be mistaken or not thinking of the big picture.

2) We are confronted with two negative outcomes so that following utilitarianism we must give a negative outcome as our morally acceptable answer.
This appears to be less of a problem to some philosophies because they will allow you to disconnect from the event and allocate the harm to another person but utilitarianism in a sense forces you to accept that if you know you could prevent the riot you have the power to indeed prevent the riot (sounds like a truism put that way doesn’t it?).

3) A mater of unit of analysis - In sense we blame the utilitarian for the actions of the non utilitarian crowd or the non utilitarian murderer because we have a utilitarian problem with a bad outcome

3) We ignore a number of ways that the problem could, and possibly even MUST, be mitigated by a pure utilitarian. If required a good sheriff could frame himself, or potentially frame a person guilty of something else and then not charge them for that crime, possibly finding a criminal willing to take such a deal.

the organ-harvesting example:
You are a surgeon in a hospital, where there are five patients who are about to die if they do not receive organ transplants (each for different organs). One healthy person enters the hospital, which happens to have organs compatible with all five patients (while the five patients are not compatible with each other). Should you kill him in order to distribute his organs to the five patients who need them?

In this case we have a problem regarding
1) The ridiculously unlikely nature of the problem - if this is the worst problem created by utilitarianism we are not in that much trouble.
One would expect either
a) An unhealthy or dead person will match
b) The person walking in the door will not match anyone or at best only 1 person.
c) It will be irrational not to wait or irrational to harvest the person in case his organs don’t match etc.
2) There are serious dangers of creating a fear in the general public that you will be harvested for organs - people would live in fear and go to hospitals carrying guns and only when seriously injured. These are the sort of things we take into account here to get an intuitive reaction to it.
The harm to the system would exceed the benefit to the 5 people

It is also easy to write such critiques for the opposite point of view "Deontology"

Assume: It is always wrong to harm another person.
Scientists have discovered that the hair of a particular individual contains a cure for cancer. In order to synthesize the cancer-cure, they need to pluck one hair from the person’s head; however, he does not consent to give away his hair 9because he hates people and wants them to die let's say). Approximately 6 million people die of cancer every year (worldwide). Should we take a hair by force?

Surely Yes?

an ordinary person is driving his car, in normal circumstances. Every car trip has some probability of resulting in an accident, causing harm to innocent people. Is it wrong to drive?

This of course uses a habit that we have and suggests that it might be bad morally - we are then backed into defending it morally (or having cognitive dissonance). This is a little like the methods I critiqued earlier in the other examples in that I think that an action I take every day may well be immoral - it is worse for me to refuse to admit the possibility than for it to be true.
HOWEVER absolute Deontology would suggest that you would not drive as long as there was any risk no matter how small - that is ridiculous.

It is possible that you are a carrier of a deadly disease, and that by leaving your home; you will spread the disease to other people. There is no positive evidence that you have such a disease, but you do not have absolute proof that you don’t. Is it wrong to leave your house?


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