1) Utilitarianism Vulnerable to Deception or Manipuation
Akeron wrote:I didn't consider the matter of higher order logic. Put alternatively, I didn't consider how people can scheme, conspire, play dumb, etc. Utilitarianism is very vulnerable to manipulation and being setup,
[EDIT: I found something that might be what Akeron mentioned: Harsanyi's "Rule utilitarianism, rights, obligations and theory of rational behavior." From that you might conclude that a rule-utilitarian would always seek cooperation in the prisoner's dilemma and an act-utilitarian would always defect, and it might seem as though the rule-utilitarian is being manipulated. To this, I might apply Hooker's principle of sticking to rule consequentialism unless breaking the rules can prevent disaster (if I were repetitively losing the gambit). There might also be a case for arguing that the act of cooperating will contribute toward a culture of cooperation and benefit society in the long run]
Utilitarianism can be applied as a personal philosophy (a guide to how I choose my own behaviors) and as part of a political philosophy (how legislators should decide which laws or government policies to implement). As a personal philosophy, I don't think the scheming of other people has a direct role, but perhaps scheming might affect political decisions. I can't think of any good examples, but perhaps somebody would simply claim that they like XYZ so that legislators count utility for that thing. The manipulation could occur only if people said that they really like something that they don't like, and, ideally, to have an important impact on policy it would have to be a fairly large conspiracy to affect things like voting on referenda or altering opinion polls. Maybe such manipulation could be used if people claim that they like something absurd to counterbalance opposite claims made by an opposing party. I am not aware of any vulnerability like this that seems plausible on a wide scale.
2) The Modified Trolley Problem
Your modified trolley problem pits the value of five human lives against the sum of one human life plus the possibility that that human will produce a large amount of positive utility. The trolley problem was already a "marginal case" and now it has become even more extreme. If we are to believe the assumptions of the problem, obviously the human race is impervious to the message of utilitarianism and there would be no reason to believe that the last surviving utilitarian would convert so many people to utilitarianism that it would counterbalance killing the five other people. Let the utilitarian die to save the five others. If humans are incapable of making utilitarian judgment due to their genetics and environment, then that is the way it is.
3) Problems with Deontology
It's for this reasoning that I became a deontologist years ago
Now that you see why the utilitarian should die, you can return to utilitarianism! I'm guessing that there were other influences that led you to deontology, but strictly speaking, identifying a flaw with one system does not constitute evidence in support of another. In other words, the merits of a moral philosophy should be considered directly instead of assuming that one must choose either utilitarianism or deontology (false dichotomy).
An important problem with deontology is the justification for assuming that one person can divine a collection of unrelated metaphysical truths to determine which absolute laws to follow. Careful scrutiny of this problem leaves me with no reason to believe that deontology is anything more than misguided mysticism (that is not to say that utilitarianism is without its challenges). In the West, many people have directly or indirectly based their list of deontological principles from explicit or implicit theories of natural law
and natural rights
Natural law and natural rights are complex topics that date back to ancient Greece. Current ideas of natural law were shaped by early Christian ideas such as those of St. Augustine
(who believed that God endowed people with a spirit through which humans can obtain perfect knowledge--and reason, which was separate from the spirit) and St. Thomas Aquinas
(who merged the constructs of the spirit and the mind, believed in perfect knowledge, and believed that God gave humans reason through which people can obtain perfect knowledge). These theologians believed that God created people with an ability (some combination of reason and communication with spirits) to receive instructions about right and wrong. Many others also relied on the ideas of natural law and natural rights sometimes without making references to the Christian ideas of Aquinas, Augustine, and others. John Locke's Two Treatises of Government
is a good read to see how heavily he relied on the idea of divinity and natural law--his ideas have shaped revolutions ever since, but people did not scrutinize the validity of his theological assumptions. The problem is that so many people have diametrically opposed ideas of what the basic, deontological principles of ethics should be, and this conflict is itself direct evidence that human beings are not endowed with some magical ability to identify the "right moral principles" (if such things even exist).
Aquinas, Augustine, and Locke did not have modern science as a basis for understanding the mind. They did not recognize the biological basis of empathy, which influences moral action. They did not understand the role of reasoning, attention, memory, social environment, or other factors in the formation of habits of behavior and moral beliefs. The scientific view of the "moral intuitions" of which deontologists speak is that these intuitions are the product of genetics, development, and environment as they influence the structure of brain regions that control the antecedents of behavior. Accepting an evidence-based understanding of our moral intuitions is difficult because it requires that we acknowledge that we have been suffering from many illusions, including the illusion that our feelings about right and wrong stem from some metaphysical entity in the universe that defines what is right and wrong.
From another angle, ask yourself what exactly is a deontological moral principle. Is it a physical object in the universe? Is it an attribute of a physical object? Do you assert that your emotions are detecting these physical objects and relaying them to your conscious mind even though your conscious mind cannot identify the source of those feelings? These are troubling questions that stem from our tendency to misinterpret our emotional states with direct experience of physical attributes of the universe. G.E. Moore
said that when we see the color we think that we are experiencing a physical attribute of the universe and that "yellow" is a simple term in that it cannot be defined in more fundamental terms. When you consider what it means to say that something is good
(or right, or moral), there is a problem: do our feelings of right and wring constitute first-hand experience of the attributes of the physical universe (like see the color yellow)? Moore said that simply naming an attribute as good
does not mean that good
has been defined (e.g., is "putting more ketchup on your French fries" a definition that describes what "goodness" really is?). We think that our moral intuitions allow us to identify some moral property of the universe that really exists (similar to what we think happens when we see the color yellow or see a book on a table), but nothing of the sort has actually occurred. This is his naturalistic fallacy
, and it is a strong criticism of deontological ideas of "right" and "wrong."
Utilitarianism (and closely-related types of consequentialism) can be viewed as an attempt to reduce the gap between our experience of the universe and moral beliefs. If you believe that pleasure is better than pain, then you can choose pleasure over pain to manage your personal life. If you apply this to all life on earth, you might generalize your preference for life to others and believe that others value their lives just as you value your life.
There are some challenges when dealing with conflicting interests between humans, animals, and plants, but if you scrutinize egocentrism and anthropocentrism, I think that you will find that there is no objective support for the idea that you are objectively more important than other people on this planet, and perhaps you will view yourself on a more level field with nonhuman life. Valuing people, life, and even inanimate, natural objects is a challenging topic, but if you make a commitment to truth and recognize the lack of rational support for deontology, you might be motivated to pursue an understanding of such valuation.