I have problems with the fact that Utilitarianism especially negative Utilitarianism doesn't care about a beings' preferences. It contradicts my moral intuitions that we always should regard others as a means or an instrument for reducing suffering. And especially then if we don't know what will exactly lead to reducing suffering we take much risk with this decision to instrumentalize people. It also means that no one as mature as he or she is would be capable of deciding what was right for him/her. So practically and intuitionally I am convicted that self-determination and freedom are things that we should defend.
Well, it can cause suffering for people to be treated as instruments. To the extent that's the case, that's a reason not to do so. Self-determination and freedom have instrumental value through the ways in which they make people suffer less. I don't think we need to build them into the theory as intrinsic values.
Can you think of a case where the focus on reducing suffering causes harm by treating people as instruments? This seems pretty abstract to me.
As Liberty is the core value of humanist and democratic belief systems I feel with negative utilitarianism as withdrawn from dominating modern values as a Taliban might feel.
(For reference, I'm not a negative utilitarian but a negative-leaning utilitarian, whose pain:pleasure exchange rate is pretty high but not infinite.)
I think it's important not to let the best be the enemy of the good. If going too far with negative utilitarianism feels alienating, why not just go part way? Surely society values reducing suffering, and this can be what we work on. We don't have to go to all the extremes of a philosophy, and maybe doing so would be actually counterproductive if it prevents people from being inspired by our example.
In practice, the things we do to reduce suffering (promoting vegetarianism, raising concern for wild animals, etc.) don't have to be divorced from social acceptability.
If it is not concerning myself I am seldom a negative Utilitarian in my moral decision, because I know that other people have other preferences than reducing suffering namely e.g. (not) to be lied at, keeping promises, non-instrumentalisation or the respect of one's freedom.
I think there's considerable value in not lying and keeping promises, even from a utilitarian standpoint. Not just when it's convenient, but all the time as a general rule, because this is what establishes your trustworthiness -- i.e., you actually have to be the kind of person who won't break promises or tell lies when it's expedient. "Rule utilitarianism" is one way to express this idea. Another is timeless decision theory, which may, for example, solve Parfit's hitchhiker.
I never lie, and though I don't often make strong promises, I try always to keep them if I do make them.
As far as non-instrumentalization and respect of freedom, I personally don't care as much about those, but in those cases too, one could make rule-utilitarian-type arguments about why we should respect those principles even beyond a case-by-case analysis. It might be better overall to live in a society where those kinds of principles are upheld.
Brian, how much value has your personal freedom for yourself?
Personally, not much at all. I have to stretch to imagine that other people care about it a lot more than I do.
Do you accept to be instrumentalised for some good end?
Haha, yes. But again, I can imagine that it might cause suffering to others.
Do you demand from yourself to respect other people's Freedom of Choice?
Hmm, it depends on the context. For example, I always respect people's freedom of speech, because I think in almost all cases, it's better if all the arguments are heard. May the best argument win. More information is usually better for social debates. In other cases, I don't think people should be free to do things, such as eating meat. Of course, I can't actually stop people from eating meat, so this doesn't materialize as an actual choice I have to make. In any event, maybe eating meat would fall under the category of something that harms someone else, in which case Mill would agree people shouldn't be free to do it.
In practice, I respect people's freedom partly because doing so is friendly, professional, and considerate. That's how you become friends with more people and ultimately further your cause better than if you acted in a totalitarian way.
How do you think of the possibility of utilitarian dictatorships?
It depends on the balance between how much society was helped vs. how much people hated losing their freedom. But in practice, dictatorships tend not to work very well even from a utilitarian standpoint that ignores liberty. Maybe the best utilitarian dictatorships would involve creating new computational minds that experienced a lot of happiness without caring about their loss of freedom. Desire for freedom is an evolved impulse just like desire for friendship, desire for food, desire for status, etc. It's not fundamental to ethics. There's no reason we can't create creatures that don't have this particular desire.
But what with humans dominating over humans?
There it gets more dangerous, because humans are frail creatures, and "power tends to corrupt." I think it's pretty good as a general heuristic not to give humans too much power over other humans because we can't be trusted.
Jeremy Bentham, an advocate of the authoritarian state said that natural and imprescriptible rights were "nonsense upon stilts"? Whats your opinion to that?
I agree that in principle, rights don't exist. However, in practice, it can be useful to have this construct in society because it promotes the greater good. Laws protecting people's rights are like an instance of rule utilitarianism, and in some cases, I think they make sense. The guarantee of protection is sometimes worthwhile enough that it's okay if the rule doesn't work perfectly in all cases.
Do you think there are invulnerable rights that every sentient being should have?
I think there's less value in rights for animals that don't understand rights. For humans, it's a psychological benefit to know that you're protected no matter what. Animals that don't understand this won't have the same benefit.
Now, obviously, I think animal welfare should be respected vastly more than it is in today's society, but this can be done without giving them rights.
Do you think that special rights for Human being are going along with antispeciesism?
It's a good question. Maybe some people wouldn't understand my reasoning above and would assume that if animals don't have rights, that's because animals are less morally significant, which would be wrong. If so, that is one reason to consider giving animals rights even if they don't need them for psychological benefit, as long as the cost of doing so wouldn't be too high.
Anyway, this is all pretty abstract. In practice, if there were a law extending rights to nonhumans, I would totally support it, because that would move society in a better direction. The details about rights vs. welfare aren't overly important in practice much of the time.
What (human) right would you think is the most important one? I think there should be a right not no suffer.
Haha, I was going to say the same.
Of course, enforcing this is challenging because there are all kinds of things that cause people to suffer that are out of our control (e.g., depression, disease, anxiety, etc.). I guess the starting point would be to talk about preventing "directly inflicted suffering" like torture, and then we could move on to other harms that can be prevented.
But that doesn't only include physical inviolability and the prohibition of torture; that's not enough. Do you think if we respect human rights we should make up new one's to reduce suffering?
Sure. Rights aren't my focus, but if someone were to come up with new rights, I would definitely suggest they center around reducing suffering. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes a good deal of the way there, because it includes things like food, clothing, medical services, etc. rather than just prohibitions of bad stuff.