Sunday, 17 January 2016

Right and Righteousness in Utilitarianism

One of the problems in utilitarianism is that the rightness of an action depends solely on the actual consequences of the action, rather than foreseeable or probable consequences of it. This means that a sincere utilitarian may try to increase overall happiness and end up doing the wrong thing, and conversely, someone describable as having a repugnant moral character might "accidentally" increase overall happiness by their actions and so have done the right thing both unknowingly and unwillingly. Given that our actions have repercussions into the far-flung future that are arrived at by long and complex causal-chains, it seems impossible even with hindsight to accurately determine whether an action is right or wrong - and trying to use foresight is even worse.

This problem of utilitarianism whereby the consequences of actions are so complicated that it is seemingly impossible to use utilitarianism as a practical ethical theory can be called the epistemic problem, because it is a problem with our knowledge of the world. It is much like trying to predict the weather far into the future: even if it may be possible in principle to do, it seems unattainable in practice with any modicum of precision.

So, it seems, it is impossible to declare any action to be right or wrong, even what may seems like obvious goods or evils. Only simple, isolated scenarios can even hope to be evaluated by utilitarianism and these only occur in our imaginations. From this it is straightforward to conclude that utilitarianism is perfectly useless in practice.

I disagree, but let me grant that argument for the sake of exploring a concept related to moral rightness which is usually wrongly lumped with it: moral character. Rightness is a concept that applies to actions but not to persons, whereas both persons and actions can be immoral. In English at least this distinction is clear, since describing someone as moral gives them a moral judgement (unsurprisingly) whereas describing someone as right seems to give them a judgement based on the content of their beliefs or assertions.

Utilitarianism gives in itself no grounds for describing the moral character of persons; it is a more conservative theory describing actions. However, our use of language allows us to ask another question: what makes a person good? A utilitarian may say that such a concept is undefined except by saying that a moral person is a person that does good. This seems unsatisfactory, however, because it seems obvious to most that describing the character of a person should have something to do with what they are like as persons, not whether their actions happen to be good (from the vantage point of some omniscient observer who can foresee the consequences of all possible actions in a scenario).

Confining utilitarianism to the description of actions, it can be defined that a moral person is someone who intends to maximise happiness. That is to say, they choose their actions based on what they perceive to be the action that would most increase happiness. Their righteousness, to use an unpopular term, is determined by their intentions and not the actual consequences of their actions.

I contend that this view of moral character is upheld sufficiently by our use of language without the need of further metaethical argumentation. What people mean when they say of someone that their character is good is that they intend to do good. This is illustrated clearly in the fact that people readily ignore that actual consequences of actions when they are suitably convinced that the agent did not intend them to come about.

This allows for one of the most important concepts in ethics: responsibility (and the corollary blame). A person is responsible for the consequences of their actions insofar as they can be reasonably expected to have foreseen them, and not responsible otherwise. Hence, a doctor is responsible for the known effects and side-effects of a drug they administer, but not for whether the life he is saving turns out many years down the line to be a serial killer. Similarly, the serial killer is responsible for the deaths of those they kill, but not responsible for the prevention of a terror attack that may result from their unknowing of a terrorist.

With this in mind, I think shift could be enacted from trying to maximise happiness to attempting to be a moral person. Where other theories have doing right and being righteous as the same thing (notably virtue ethics), utilitarianism may always have a decided tension between these two. Nonetheless, this line of reasoning can still provide the basis for moral function in a practical sense within a community.

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