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The worst argument for utilitarianism

How do we tell whether a particular moral theory is correct? What kind of test do we carry out? What kind of evidence do we appeal to? Many people seem baffled by this question. And the confusion around it is, I think, one of the reasons why some philosophers get away with really awful arguments for their favourite theories. One example would be William MacAskill and his “track record” argument for utilitarianism and against Kantianism. Here it is:

Will MacAskill: One [argument] that I think doesn’t often get talked about, but I think actually is very compelling is the track record. When you look at scientific theories, how you decide whether they’re good or not, well significant part by the predictions they made. We can do that to some extent, got much smaller sample size, you can do it to some extent with moral theories as well. For example, we can look at what the predictions, the bold claims that were going against common sense at the time, that Bentham and Mill made. Compare it to the predictions, bold moral claims, that Kant made.

When you look at Bentham and Mill they were extremely progressive. They campaigned and argued for women’s right to vote and the importance of women getting a good education. They were very positive on sexual liberal attitudes. In fact, some of Bentham’s writings on the topic were so controversial that they weren’t even published 200 years later.

Robert Wiblin: I think, Bentham thought that homosexuality was fine. At the time he’s basically the only person who thought this.

Will MacAskill: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. He’s far ahead of his time on that.

Also, with respect to animal welfare as well. Progressive even with respect to now. Both Bentham and Mill emphasized greatly the importance of treating animal… They weren’t perfect. Mill and Bentham’s views on colonialism, completely distasteful. Completely distasteful from perspective for the day.

Robert Wiblin: But they were against slavery, right?

Will MacAskill: My understanding is yeah. They did have pretty regressive attitudes towards colonialism judged from today. It was common at the time. That was not something on the right side of history.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Mill actually worked in the colonial office for India, right?

Will MacAskill: That’s right, yeah.

Robert Wiblin: And he thought it was fine.

Will MacAskill: Yeah, that’s right.

Robert Wiblin: Not so great. That’s not a winner there.

Will MacAskill: Yeah. I don’t think he defended it at length, but in casual conversations thought it was fine.

Contrast that with Kant. Here are some of the views that Kant believed. One was that suicide was wrong. One was that masturbation was even more wrong than suicide. Another was that organ donation is impermissible, and even that cutting your hair off to give it to someone else is not without some degree of moral error.

Robert Wiblin: Not an issue that we’re terribly troubled by today.

Will MacAskill: Exactly, not really the thing that you would stake a lot of moral credit on.

He thought that women have no place in civil society. He thought that illegitimate children, it was permissible to kill them. He thought that there was a ranking in the moral worth of different races, with, unsurprisingly, white people at the top. Then, I think, Asians, then Africans and Native Americans.

Robert Wiblin: He was white, right?

Will MacAskill: Yes. What a coincidence.

So MacAskill argues that moral theories, just like scientific theories, formulate certain predictions, and that utilitarian predictions have turned out to be more accurate that the Kantian ones. This is because what utilitarians like Bentham and Mill believed in the 18th and 19th century is mostly in line with what we believe today. On the other hand, Kant’s moral views seem pretty outlandish to us. Therefore utilitarianism beats Kantianism.

Bentham’s article on homosexuality waited almost two centuries to get published.

One problem with this argument is that MacAskill conflates what philosophers think follows from their theories with what actually follows from their theories. It’s true that Kant held all sorts of weird moral views, however it’s often far from clear how those views – mostly expressed in his Metaphysics of Morals – can be justified with the theory expressed in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Many contemporary Kantians argue that Kant was simply wrong about the implications of his own theory for issues like women’s rights, animal rights, and many others.

But this is not even a very serious problem, compared to the main one, which has to do with what MacAskill means by “predictions”. If moral theories make predictions, they aren’t about what people will consider morally acceptable in 200 or 300 years, they are about what actually is morally acceptable. So in order to evaluate the predictions, we need to first know what’s morally right and wrong. How can we know that? How can we know that, for example, there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage? There are two options: either it follows from utilitarianism, or from some other theory. If it follows from utilitarianism, then MacAskill’s argument is circular. If it follows from another theory, then what’s the point of justifying utilitarianism, given we already know that some non-utiliarian theory is correct? Moreover, MacAskill seems to believe that utilitarianism is generally incompatible with alternative theories. So if some non-utilitarian theory is correct, then utilitarianism cannot be correct.

In short, MacAskill is saying that utilitarianism is true because utilitarianism is true, or that utilitarianism is true because utilitartianism is false. Either way, his argument takes the biscuit.

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