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Archive for the ‘Utilitarianism’ Category

Jonathan Freedland’s Utilitarian Problem

In Israel, Just War, Utilitarianism on August 15, 2014 at 3:32 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 28th 2014, 2:56 pm.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland has argued that not only is the Israeli government’s action in Gaza wrong, it is “utterly self-defeating”:

More Israelis have died in the operation to tackle the Hamas threat than have died from the Hamas threat, at least over the past five years. Put another way, to address the risk that hypothetical Israeli soldiers might be kidnapped, 33 actual Israeli soldiers have died.

I first should point out an inconsistency in his article. Freedland earlier states that the Israeli concern is not that specifically soldiers will be kidnapped but that civilians might be. The tunnels are “designed to allow Hamas militants to emerge above ground and mount raids on Israeli border villages and kibbutzim, killing or snatching as many civilians as they can.”  He even seems to accept that the tunnels are intended for kidnapping purposes by noting that “tranquillisers and handcuffs were reportedly found in those tunnels.”

His implication is clear: perhaps the odd person might get kidnapped, but better that than 33 soldiers lose their lives trying to prevent such an action.

I disagree with Freedland and I will do so initially by highlighting an analogy which in itself fails on certain levels to be a good analogy, but on another level it is an ideal analogy. The analogy is one discussed by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his popular book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Penguin, 2010). It is a true story and dates back to the 1970s.

In summary, Ford had a car, the Pinto, where it knew the fuel tank was prone to explode in the event of a collision. For a small cost per car it could fix the problem. But Ford chose not to do so for a utilitarian reason. Ford estimated that the cost in compensating those that died through exploding tanks would be less than the costs of installing a safety device in all the cars. This was the approach taken. Ultimately the decision process reached the court and the jury was outraged. Ford were fined punitive damages for such behaviour.

The flaws with this analogy are obvious: comparing finances with lives lost. However, the principle is valid: the right thing to do is not necessarily the thing that costs the least. And it does not matter if that is in lives or in money. The simple utilitarian approach is not satisfactory. It ignores duty. In the case of Ford its duty was to install the safety device and, in the case of Israel, very high on the list, is the duty to protect its population from a hostile attack.

While Freedland’s negotiated solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians might be ideal, this takes time (and has not proved successful for decades) and the Israeli government’s knowledge about the tunnels might not allow so much time. Something had to be done. It is unthinkable that a government, any government, should acceptably say to its population: “Some of you might get kidnapped. We are sorry about that, but we are not willing to risk our soldiers’ lives to protect you from kidnap.”

The Israeli government could not know in advance how many, if any, soldiers’ lives would be lost following the Gaza ground invasion decision. According to the Jerusalem Post, the toll by yesterday stood at 43. Unfortunately, in war, soldiers do die. But it is understood that this is a risk soldiers (even conscription soldiers) take. Civilians also die in war, but they should not be deliberately targeted and they should be protected. Hamas fail on their side of the equation. They deliberately target civilians and hence commit war crimes. On its side of the equation Israel should not also fail. It should protect its population.

A following point is also relevant. For Freedland’s utilitarian calculation the input data should also be accurate. He seems to assume that the number of soldiers or civilians killed or kidnapped via the use of Hamas’s network of tunnels will be miniscule. The Gatestone institute report of a plot planned for the Jewish New Year, September 24:

The Hamas plan consisted of what was to be a surprise attack in which 200 fighters would be dispatched through each of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel, and seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.

We are dealing here in counterfactuals but if this alleged plot was allowed to proceed, the amount of Israeli citizens killed or kidnapped might be far greater than the amount of soldiers that lose their lives in the actual Gaza offensive. If so, under its own fundamental principle, Jonathan’s Freedland utilitarian argument would be completely shattered.


The Utilitarian Doctors: A True Story

In Animal Rights, History, Human Rights, Utilitarianism on March 10, 2014 at 2:57 PM


The time: 1932. The place: Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), in Tuskegee, Alabama, among the nation’s oldest, most respected African American institutions of higher learning. The study’s sponsor: the U.S. Public Health Service. The participants: 399 impoverished African American men who volunteered to receive, without charge, what they were told was “special treatment’’ for their “bad blood,” not knowing that in fact they suffered from syphilis and that the “medicine” they were given was not medicine at all and would have no therapeutic effect. Also unknown to the participants was the reason for the study. It was not to help them recover from their illness; it was not even to find a cure for syphilis; instead, the study was conducted to determine what would happen to the men if their condition went untreated. To learn this, the researchers thought, would help physicians understand the long-term effects of syphilis. Armed with this knowledge, syphilis sufferers in the future could receive better treatment.

Remarkably, in a country founded on respect for human dignity, the study was carried out on these uninformed, trusting men, from 1932 to 1972-for forty years with funds from, and with the knowing support of, the United States government.

All this is bad enough. What makes matters worse is that even after it became known, in 1957, that syphilis could be treated successfully using penicillin, the researchers withheld the cure. The results? By the time the true purpose of the study was exposed, twenty-eight men had died from the disease, another one hundred had died from related complications, forty wives had been infected, and nineteen children had been born with syphilis.


Tom Regan, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp.68-69.

Karl Popper, the Utilitarians, and the End of the World

In Philosophy, Utilitarianism on December 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

In a recent blog post I commented that the basic principle of utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom:  “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

We can construct the following hypothetical society: imagine a country where the majority take great delight in watching the torture of the minority. When individual members of the minority are tortured, hundreds of members of the majority come to watch and they have a seemingly insatiable appetite to view such a spectacle. The sum total of the additional happiness of those watching the torture is so great that it more than offsets the pain of the member of the minority being tortured. The utilitarians who follow Bentham’s axiom would know what to do: open torture theatres up and down the country and have numerous daily torture shows to maximise happiness.

The thought is horrific. Karl Popper was aware of such problems with standard utilitarianism. He wrote the following:

I suggest… to replace the utilitarian formula “Aim at the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, or briefly, “Maximise happiness”, by the formula “The least amount of suffering for all”, or briefly, “Minimize suffering”. Such a simple formula can, I believe, be made one of the fundamental principles (admittedly not the only one) of public policy. [1]

He went on to say:

A … criticism of the Utilitarian formula “maximise pleasure” is that it assumes, in principle, a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering—such as hunger in times of an unavoidable shortage of food—should be distributed as equally as possible…. It adds to clarity in the field of ethics if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness. [2]

Professor Popper’s negative formulation (negative utilitarianism or NU for short) of the standard utilitarian principle has a fundamental problem pointed out by R.N. Smart in 1958:

Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds.[3]

If the human race were to continue in existence for an infinite amount of time, no doubt there would be an infinite amount of suffering to go with it. According to this ideology, it is far better to have a finite amount of suffering and end the world now.

Bernard Williams concluded his critique of utilitarianism with the following words:

The important issues that utilitarianism raises should be discussed in contexts more rewarding than that of utilitarianism itself. The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it.[4]

There are those who predict that the world will end tomorrow, December 21, 2012. NASA has denied that this will occur.[5] While those putting forward the prediction are not blaming negative utilitarians with a world ending weapon for this disaster, the negative utilitarians might look forward to its occurrence. I have been trying to think of any good that will come of the end of the world and have finally come up with something: Bernard Williams’ prediction that the day will come when we will hear no more of utilitarianism will finally be fulfilled.


[1] K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato, (Fifth revised edition, Routledge, 1966), p.235n6(2).
[2] Ibid., pp284-285n2.
[3] R.N. Smart, “Negative Utilitarianism,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 67, No. 268 (October, 1958), pp. 542-543. A copy of this is available freely on line.
[4] Bernard Williams, “A critique of utilitarianism,” in J.J.C. Smart & Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: for and against, (Cambridge University Press, 1973,) p.150.
[5] http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html.

The Queen v Dudley and Stephens, Redux

In Philosophy, Utilitarianism on December 6, 2012 at 4:00 PM

An interesting news item from Russia has appeared in the press. The basics of the story are that four fisherman disappeared in remote and inhospitable areas of the country in August. Two of the four have since been discovered as well as the remains of a human body including chopped up bones. The news article leads one to conclude that the two men located are suspected  of murder and cannibalism to stay alive. A murder probe has been launched and the two men are on the run.

One of the reasons why this case is interesting is the facts as stated will lead lawyers in many countries to recall one of the most famous cases in English criminal law: R v. Dudley and Stephens. The full judgement, from 1884, can be read, but the basic elements of the case were that four men jumped into a lifeboat with very little food. When the food ran out, and after a number of days, some in the boat came to the conclusion that the only possibility of staying alive was to eat one of the passengers. While a decision to draw straws as to which one was eaten was ultimately abandoned, at one point after 19 days adrift, a prayer was said, and the cabin boy, Parker, who did not give his permission, was killed for his flesh and blood to eat and drink. The men were ultimately rescued and Dudley and Stephens were tried and convicted for murder. The reason the case is so well known is that an important principle of law, one still in existence today, was established via the judgement: necessity is no defence to murder.

Dudley and Stephens is also interesting to students of philosophy as it is can be used as a real life example to those studying utilitarianism. The Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, uses it both in his Justice lecture series (Episode 1, part 2) and his  associated book, Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (Penguin, 2010) for precisely this purpose. It is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom (A Fragment on Government, 1776, preface)  whereby “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” that is often taken as the basic principle of utilitarianism. It is not the actions themselves which matter but the consequences of the actions. In the case of Dudley and Stephens, the consequences of killing the cabin boy was that three survived and one died, whereas had the cabin boy (or someone else) not been killed, all four could have died. Moreover, Parker was an orphan and had no dependants who would miss him. The others had families. Based on this, for the greatest happiness to the greatest number, taking into account people’s families, then the death of the cabin boy would cause the least amount of pain.

Bentham went so far as to envisage (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781, Ch. 4) that values could be ascribed to pain and pleasure. Intensity, duration and other factors would all be measured. The correct action to take would be the one that produced the highest utility: the difference between the sum total of the pleasure values less the sum total of the pain values. This whole idea was ridiculed in an amusing fashion by Steven Lukes in his book, The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Novel of Ideas, (Verso, Second Edition, 2009). The author invented a fictitious place known as Utilitaria where “Everyone treasured pocket calculators” (p.43) and many used them at all possible occasions in order to decide how to act.

“A critique of utilitarianism,” was written by Bernard Williams. (It is contained in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For & Against, [Cambridge University Press, 1973], pp.75-150). In this essay (pp.98-99), Williams uses a thought experiment whereby twenty captured people are to be shot but Jim is offered a gun and if he agrees to shoot dead one captured person, the other nineteen would go free. Williams explains that the captured men and all other villagers are begging Jim to accept. He poses the question: “What should he do?”  He correctly states that for the utilitarians, not only is it correct for Jim to shoot someone dead, it is “obviously” correct. The right thing to do is to maximise the value of pleasure over pain, and if that means shooting an innocent person or killing someone and eating them, so be  it.  In a damning conclusion, Williams states: “utilitarianism, at least in its direct forms, makes integrity as a value more of less unintelligible.”

I am very aware that it is easy to sit in a comfortable home in London with plenty of food available to eat and moralize as to how others should behave in a desperate situation. I have never been starving to death in a lifeboat or in inhospitable areas of Siberia and quite frankly I do not know what I would do if I were in that situation. What is known is that when people are starving to death and the only food they have to eat is other humans, then they resort to cannibalism. There are a number of examples. In his recently published book, Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine, (Allen Lane, 2012), Yang Yisheng cites (p.135)  a 1961 report on what happened in Mao’s famine:

Cannibalism occurred in many places. Among 41 production brigades in ten communes in Lixnia City, 588 people ate the remains of 337 others. In Hongtai Commune alone there were 170 people who ate 125 corpses as well as killing and eating five other people. Cannibalism occurred in six of the eight production teams of the Xiaogoumen brigade, with 23 households eating 57 people. In some cases individuals barbarously consumed their own parents, children, spouses and siblings…. In Qiezang Commune’s Tuanjie production brigade, a poor peasant couple, Ma Yibula and his wife, killed and ate their fourteen-year old daughter, and after Ma died, his wife ate him.

On and on it goes. I have little to say about the specific actions of those that I have listed that resorted to murder and cannibalism; my issue is with utilitarianism, an ethical theory of which some of its adherents would get out their calculators, determine that the greatest difference between pleasure and pain was reached by killing and eating people and judge that not only had nothing been done wrong, but that that the murderers were morally correct to act in the way that they did. While they ultimately only received a short sentence, it was right that Dudley and Stephens were found guilty of murder. If it is accurate that the two men on the run in Russia did indeed murder and eat a third man, then the fact that they are on the run is indicative that they might be aware that they have done wrong; they are not, at least at this stage, declaring that they acted for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Hat Tip: M.R.

The Utilitarian Problem

In Utilitarianism on April 28, 2012 at 11:04 AM

The video below, just under five minutes in length, is worthwhile watching to the end.

Just as Dan Barker in the video believes it is acceptable to rape two million women to save humanity, other utilitarians think likewise. The case reminds me of an example provided by Geoffrey Scarre in his book,  Utilitarianism. (Routledge, 1996, p.164):

A tribe believes that the end of the world is nigh unless their god is fed with constant blood sacrifices. This deity happens to be of a sporting turn, and particularly enjoys seeing human beings hunted down by lions. Grimly and regretfully the tribespeople organise a weekly spectacle in a special arena. They know it is a cruel thing that they do, but it is better that some people should die to please the god than that all life should become extinct.

Scarre comments:

The sacrifice… [is] clearly justifiable…. It is a laudable aim to save the world—more laudable even than saving a few individuals, and infinitely more so than enjoying others’ death-agonies. It is not the moral judgement of the tribe that is at fault here, but their empirical beliefs.

One wonders about the mentality of those who would rape two million women, kill six million Jews, or make blood sacrifices to a god, and go to sleep at night believing that they acted morally.