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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.

4 replies on “The worst argument for utilitarianism”

I think he is making an argument from progress, i.e. we are getting closer to morality over time, that goes well within a general meta narrative of progress that is not necessarily uncontroversial but that is held by many, and then apply that to the writings of the time and whether they conform to a more progressive or regressive reading, basically whether they were avant garde to what would be a better morality. The premise is implicit but it is not a circular argument.

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Fair enough, if we simply take moral progress for granted the argument is neither circular nor self-contradictory. My point is, however, that we cannot take it for granted the way that MacAskill wants us to. He makes an analogy between accounting for observations in science and accounting for moral judgments in ethics. But there is an important difference between observing that, say, the Moon’s surface isn’t smooth and then rejecting scientific theories that predict it must be smooth, and judging that, say, gay sex is fine and then rejecting moral theories that “predict” it can’t be fine: the observation is theory-independent in the way that the judgment isn’t. If someone asks “How do you know that the Moon’s surface isn’t smooth?” you can answer “My telescope tells me so”, if someone asks “How do you know that gay sex is fine?”, there’s no telescope, just theories that you set out to evaluate.

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Sure, but the idea of moral progress is simply a correlate of the idea of historical progress which has a dual relationship with the idea of progress in sciences. Moreover, the idea of progress in science, if we grant it as making our understanding closer to truth, does mean that moral ideas would be more grounded in reality over time. That is of course predicated on the idea that abstractions can benefit from understandings of concrete things, which is not uncontroversial. Note that i am not necessarily agreeing with his argument, or the arguments i made in terms of premises but I understand where it comes from (i think) and don’t think it is the worst argument possible

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To be clear: I don’t disagree there’s been a lot of moral progress. We’ve been able to overcome all sorts of prejudice against women, gay people, non-white people, the dispossessed etc. and change our behaviour accordingly. The problem is this doesn’t support utilitarianism or any other particular moral theory. There is no connection between the fact that, say, women used to be are regarded as intellectually inferior to men and discriminated against on that basis and the claim that we ought to maximise the overall happiness. Even if some utilitarians like Mill happened to be sceptical about the anti-women prejudice, this doesn’t vindicate their normative theory. MacAskill gets it all wrong and that’s why I think his argument is so bad.

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