Tag Archives: Hedonism

Utilitarianism and the Moral Life by J. P. Moreland

I found this essay on After All, but it looks like their site is not working well, so I’m just going to steal it and post it here, in case it disappears completely. This is one of my favorite short essays on utilitarianism, and it’s a wonder that the thing can’t stay up somewhere. Well, it will have a home here now. I’d be surprised to see anyone else be this awesome in a measly 1000 words as Dr. Moreland is below.

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Utilitarianism and the Moral Life

What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (also called consequentialism) is a moral theory developed and refined in the modern world by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). It can be defined as follows:

An action or moral rule is right if and only if it maximizes the amount of nonmoral good produced in the consequences that result from doing that act or following that rule compared with other acts or rules open to the agent.

By focusing on three features of utilitarianism, we can clarify this definition.

(1) Utilitarian theories of value.

What is a nonmoral good? Utilitarians deny that there are any moral actions or rules that are intrinsically right or wrong. But they do believe in objective values that are nonmoral.

Hedonistic utilitarians say that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Quantitative hedonists (Bentham) say that the amount of pleasure and pain is the only thing that matters in deciding between two courses of action, I should do the one that produces the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain (measured by factors like the duration and intensity of the pleasure). Qualitative hedonists (Mill) say that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, but the type of pleasure is what is important, not the amount. They would rank pleasures that come from reading, art, and friendship as more valuable than those that come from, say, a full stomach.

Pluralistic utilitarians
say there are a number of things that have intrinsic, nonmoral value: pleasure, friendship, health, knowledge, freedom, peace, security, and so forth. For pluralists, it is not just the pleasure that comes from friendship that has value but also friendship itself.

Currently, the most popular utilitarian view of value is subjective preference utilitarianism. This position says it is presumptuous and impossible to specify things that have intrinsic nonmoral worth. So, they claim, intrinsic value ought to be defined as that which each individual subjectively desires or wants, provided these do not harm others. Unfortunately, this view collapses into moral relativism.

(2) Utilitarians and maximizing utility.

Utilitarians use the term utility to stand for whatever good they are seeking to produce as consequences of a moral action (e.g., “pleasure” for the hedonist, “satisfaction of subjective preference” for others). They see morality in a means-to-ends way. The sole value of a moral action or rule is the utility of its consequences. Moral action should maximize utility. This can be interpreted in different ways, but many utilitarians embrace the following: the correct moral action or rule is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility for the greatest number of people.

(3) Two forms of utilitarianism: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

According to act utilitarianism, an act is right if and only if no other act available maximizes utility more than the act in question. Here, each new moral situation is evaluated on its own, and moral rules like “don’t steal” or “don’t break promises” are secondary The moral agent must weigh available alternatives and choose the one that produces the best consequences. Rule utilitarianism says that correct moral actions are done in keeping with correct moral rules, However, no moral rule is intrinsically right or wrong. Rather, a correct moral rule is one that would maximize utility if most people followed it as opposed to following an alternative rule. Here, alternative rules (e.g., “don’t lie” vs. “don’t lie unless doing so would enhance friendship”) are compared for their consequences, not specific actions.

What Is Wrong with Utilitarianism?

Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory.

First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

In sum, it should be clear that utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory. Unfortunately, ours is a pragmatic culture and utilitarianism is on the rise. But for those of us who follow Christ, a combination of virtue and deontological ethics is a more adequate view of common sense morality found in natural law and of the moral vision contained in the Bible.

Most Americans think cohabitation leads to a stable marriage, but what does the data say?

Men who cohabitate are not certain that the relationship is permanent
Men who cohabitate are not certain that the relationship is permanent

If there’s one thing that ought to lead people to Christianity, it’s the proven ability of the Christian moral rules to guide believers away from the sins that destroy them. A lot of modern “Christians” have reduced Christianity to being about their feelings and their community, while allowing the culture to determine their goals and moral boundaries. But that won’t protect them from danger.

Cohabitation describes the situation of a couple moving into the same home and being sexually active, but without any legally-recognized commitment. It’s extremely popular among young people today, and even Christians.

Consider this article from The Federalist about cohabitation:

A new Pew Research Center study shows Americans both cohabitate (“live with an unmarried partner”) and find cohabitation acceptable more than before.

[…]More young adults have cohabited than have married. Pew’s analysis in the summer of 2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth found that, for the first time ever, the percentage of American adults aged 18-44 who have ever cohabited with a partner (59 percent) exceeded the percentage of those who have ever married (50 percent).

I thought this was very interesting, especially for the Christian parents and pastors who imagine that their lovely pious daughters all have a Christian worldview just because they sing in the church choir:

Just 14 percent hold a view consistent with a biblical sexual ethic, that cohabitation with an unmarried romantic partner outside of marriage is “never acceptable.”

Just to be clear, in my life I’ve met about 6 non-Christian men who cohabitated with women, and every single one of them cohabitated with a Christian-raised woman. That should tell you what young women are being told about relationships in their homes and churches about sex and marriage. “Do whatever you want”.

So what purpose does cohabitation serve?

A majority of Americans (69 percent) say that “it is acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they don’t plan to get married.” They may assume that they can decrease their chances of a bad marriage and increase their chances of a good one by giving the relationship a cohabitation “test run.”

[…]A plurality of Americans believe cohabitating before marriage yields more successful unions. Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) believe that couples who live together before marriage “have a better chance of having a successful marriage.” This view is even more prevalent among young adults aged 18-29 (63 percent).

Another 38 percent of all Americans say cohabitation “doesn’t make much difference” on marital success. Only 13 percent of Americans believe cohabiting couples have “a worse chance” of having a successful marriage.

[…]Most Americans believe cohabitating couples raise children just as well as married couples. Pew also surveyed people’s opinions about cohabiting couples raising children, and 59 percent of Americans declared that cohabiting couples “can raise children just as well as married couples.” Again, the younger respondents were most likely to have a favorable view of cohabitation: among adults aged 18 to 49, 67 percent agreed cohabiting couples do just as well, while 32 percent said: “Married couples do a better job raising children.”

Yes, cohabitation seen as a test run, and it’s supposed to make stable marriage more likely and not be harmful to children at all.

But why think that a test run should be part of getting married? After all, when I buy a parrot from the pet store, I don’t expect to later return that parrot. Why not? Because I am not buying the parrot to enhance MY life. I am buying the parrot to make a commitment to care for the parrot. Whether the parrot fulfills any of my needs is irrelevant to me. I want the bird in my house so that I can decide what it eats, what it drinks, and invest myself into making it happy, according to its birdish nature. This is because I think that parrots have value in and of themselves, and they deserve a certain quality of life. When I buy the parrot, I am guaranteeing a permanent commitment to the bird to provide for its needs, physical and emotional. And that commitment carries forward to the time (now) when the bird is elderly, and can’t even fly up to his cage or down to the floor. He calls for me, and I go over and pick him up and move him. That’s commitment.

Cohabitation, on the other hand, is the practice of saying to another human being: “I am going to try you out as an entertaining commodity in my home, but if you don’t fulfill my needs then I’m going to send you right back.” That’s not a commitment. That’s self indulgence. It’s defining a relationship as entertainment that is designed to meet my needs and make me happy. And that’s because the concept of commitment in relationships is not presented to young people at any time in their lives. Not from parents. Not in churches. Not in the secular left culture as a whole. Everything is a consumer good designed for the purpose of entertainment – including people. It was only the Christian worldview that had a view of people as creatures made by God for eternal life, so that marriage was about guarding the other person’s faith, and building them up to achieve all the things that God wanted them to achieve for his purposes.

But does cohabitation really work to create stable relationships? After all, anyone can find a partner when they’re young and pretty. The real question is whether that partner will stick around when you’re old and ugly and can’t be as “fun” as you used to be.

Here’s a recent (2018) study on cohabitation and stability:

A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family finds that the “premarital cohabitation effect” lives on, despite what you’ve likely heard. The premarital cohabitation effect is the finding that those who live together prior to marriage are more likely, not less, to struggle in marriage.

[…]Michael Rosenfeld and Katharina Roesler’s new findings suggest that there remains an increased risk for divorce for those living together prior to marriage, and that prior studies suggesting the effect has gone away had a bias toward short versus longer-term effects. They find that living together before marriage is associated with lower odds of divorce in the first year of marriage, but increases the odds of divorce in all other years tested, and this finding holds across decades of data.

Strategy advice to those who debate this issue: just be aware that Team Secular Leftist is using papers that have short-range samples, which don’t show the instability problem, because they deliberately cherry-pick recently married couples.

And what about children raised in cohabitating relationships?

While Americans are optimistic about the ability of cohabiting couples to raise children, a study published by the American College of Pediatricians in 2014 reported that children whose parents cohabit face a higher risk of: “premature birth, school failure, lower education, more poverty during childhood and lower incomes as adults, more incarceration and behavior problems, single parenthood, medical neglect and chronic health problems both medical and psychiatric, more substance, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and child abuse,” and that “a child conceived by a cohabiting woman is at 10 times higher risk of abortion compared to one conceived in marriage.”

I’m just going to be blunt here. The majority of young people are progressives, and they vote for candidates who believe in abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, and even after birth. Why? Because they don’t want to have their right to seek happiness impacted by the needs of other people. Progressives believe that children, if they exist at all, should enhance the lives of their adult owners. No one should be surprised that people who think that killing inconvenient children is moral are willing to inflict other bad outcomes on them by raising them in an unstable cohabitation environment.

‘Sex and the City’ inspiration Candace Bushnell reaches age 60 childless and alone

Did you know that there is a real woman who inspired the feminist fairy tale TV show “Sex in the City”? She had an enormous influence on young women, who wanted the glamour, fun, and consequence-free sex with “high value” no-commitment men. Most women who adopted the values of the show probably thought that this path would eventually lead to marriage and children.

My friend Chris sent me this article from Fox News, which talks the woman who inspired the show’s storyline.

It says:

“Sex and the City” may have left a trailblazing legacy for women on television, but the book’s original author now thinks her independent lifestyle may not have been as rewarding.

Candace Bushnell, 60, who wrote the original 1997 novel which spawned the successful TV series for HBO, opened up to Sunday Times Magazine about her 2012 divorce, admitting it made her realize how not starting a family made her feel “truly alone.”

“When I was in my 30s and 40s, I didn’t think about it,” she recalled. “Then when I got divorced and I was in my 50s, I started to see the impact of not having children and of truly being alone. I do see that people with children have an anchor in a way that people who have no kids don’t.”

I do think that it’s important for young women to really consider where they want to be when they are 30, 40, 50, etc. A wise person should seek to pattern their decisions off of the decisions of people who have reached the goals that they themselves want to reach. Candace Bushnell clearly has failed to achieve her goals. And those who listen to her will, likewise, fail to achieve the goals of marriage and children.

Making decisions today to achieve goals tomorrow

It’s important not to put too much faith in TV shows. Or any fiction.

Whenever I see women reading books in the office, I always ask them: is that fiction or non-fiction? In 19 years of full-time work, I have never had a woman answer non-fiction. And they usually answer “romance”. Well, I supposed if you were a fictional character, then you might take the advice of fictional characters. But if you are a real person, then you should look at the way the world really works. You should read peer-reviewed research, and take the advice of real people who have come up from humble beginnings to achieve the goals that you want to achieve.

After all, if your goal was to retire at 50, wouldn’t it make sense to read books about investing, and take the advice of successful investors? It certainly would not make sense to imitate the characters in TV shows and movies made by Hollywood divorcers, adulterers, rapists and pedophiles. And yet so many women do the latter with marriage and children decision-making. They seem to derive some sort of unquestionable emotional delight from making important decisions based on appearances, intuitions, peer-approval, etc.

Why listen to celebrities, teachers, politicians, etc. who have infidelities, no children, failed marriages, etc.? Why make decisions by counting votes from your no-achievement peer group? If you want to reach a goal, then there is only one way to proceed, and that’s by consulting the evidence, and seeking guidance from those with demonstrated results.

For example, when I was choosing which state to live in, I made a spreadsheet and filled it with all sorts of rankings of the 50 states that I pulled out of research papers and reports. I looked at things like infrastructure, income tax, economic growth, business friendliness, cost of living, tax as a % of income, abortion laws, support for traditional marriage, single motherhood, gun laws, concealed carry laws, fiscal solvency, etc. I moved here, and I’ve become very wealthy as a result. And my state has actually moved upward in gun rights rankings, fiscal solvency rankings, tax rankings, etc. since I got here. We’re even trying to pass pro-life laws! When you make decisions using evidence and when you listen to good advice from people who have real achievements, you succeed.

Don’t make decisions about sex, marriage and children by “following your heart”. That’s the lesson.

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