Tag Archives: Philosophy

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.

William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has ever done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates). If you’ve never seen Dr. Craig in a debate with a non-Christian, this one is probably the best introductory one out there. Dr. Craig is the foremost defender of Christian theism on the planet, and probably of all time.

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it! Normally, Dr. Craig debates at major universities in front of students and faculty.

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes

SUMMARY:

WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

William Lane Craig debates Austin Dacey: Does God Exist?

Here is the video and summary of a debate between Christian theist William Lane Craig and Austin Dacey at Purdue University in 2004 about the existence of God.

The debaters:

The video: (2 hours)

The video shows the speakers and powerpoint slides of their arguments. Austin Dacey is one of the top atheist debaters, and I would put him second to Peter Millican alone, with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in third place. This is the debate to show people who are new to apologetics. The debate with Peter Millican is better for advanced students, and that’s no surprise since he teaches at Oxford University and is familiar with all of Dr. Craig’s work. The Craig-Dacey debate is the one that I give to my co-workers.

By the way, you can get the DVDs and CDs for the first Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Sinnott-Armstrong debate. The Peter Millican debate is not available on DVD, but the link above (Peter Millican) has the video and my summary.

Dr. Dacey’s 5 arguments below are all good arguments that you find in the academic literature. He is also an effective and engaging speaker, This is a great debate to watch!

SUMMARY of the opening speeches:

Dr. Craig’s opening statement:

Dr. Craig will present six reasons why God exists:

  1. (Contingency argument) God is the best explanation of why something exists rather than nothing
  2. (Cosmological argument)  God’s existence is implied by the origin of the universe
  3. (Fine-tuning argument) The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life points to a designer of the cosmos
  4. (Moral argument) God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and objective moral duties
  5. (Miracles argument) The historical facts surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus
  6. (Religious experience) God’s existence is directly knowable even apart from arguments

Dr. Dacey’s opening argument:

There are two ways to disprove God’s existence, by showing that the concept of God is self-contradictory, or by showing that certain facts about ourselves and the world are incompatible with what we would expect to be true if God did exist. Dr. Dacey will focus on the second kind of argument.

  1. The hiddenness of God
  2. The success of science in explaining nature without needing a supernatural agency
  3. The dependence of mind on physical processes in the brain
  4. Naturalistic evolution
  5. The existence of gratuitous / pointless evil and suffering

One final point:

One thing that I have to point out is that Dr. Dacey quotes Brian Greene during the debate to counter Dr. Craig’s cosmological argument. Dr. Craig could not respond because he can’t see the context of the quote. However, Dr. Craig had a rematch with Dr. Dacey where was able to read the context of the quote and defuse Dr. Dacey’s objection. This is what he wrote in his August 2005 newsletter after the re-match:

The following week, I was off an another three-day trip, this time to California State University at Fresno. As part of a week of campus outreach the Veritas Forum scheduled a debate on the existence of God between me and Austin Dacey, whom I had debated last spring at Purdue University. In preparation for the rematch I adopted two strategies: (1) Since Dacey had come to the Purdue debate with prepared speeches, I decided to throw him for a loop by offering a different set of arguments for God, so that his canned objections wouldn’t apply. I chose to focus on the cosmological argument, giving four separate arguments for the beginning of the universe, and on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. (2) I reviewed our previous debate carefully, preparing critiques of his five atheistic arguments. In the process I found that he had seriously misunderstood or misrepresented a statement by a scientist on the Big Bang; so I brought along the book itself in case Dacey quoted this source again. I figured he might change his arguments just as I was doing; but I wanted to be ready in case he used his old arguments again.

[…]The auditorium was packed that night for the debate, and I later learned that there were overflow rooms, too. To my surprise Dr. Dacey gave the very same case he had presented at Purdue; so he really got clobbered on those arguments. Because he wasn’t prepared for my new arguments, he didn’t even respond to two of my arguments for the beginning of the universe, though he did a credible job responding to the others. I was pleased when he attacked the Big Bang by quoting the same scientist as before, because I then held up the book, specified the page number, and proceeded to quote the context to show what the scientist really meant.

Dr. Craig is always prepared!

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