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Utilitarianism and
the State

Word Count: 1400

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Utilitarianism
is a consequentialist moral theory that is focused on the end results of an
action. While utilitarianism has been argued for in many contexts, I will
narrow down my paper to the state. My purpose is to defend act utilitarianism
as the proper moral approach of the state. In the first section, I will
introduce utilitarianism. In the second section, I will introduce my arguments
for accepting utilitarianism. In the third section, I will defend
utilitarianism against various criticisms.

 

Utilitarianism

            In this section, I will present
utilitarianism. In evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action, act utilitarianism
holds that the right choice is the one that maximizes utility. In other words,
the option that maximizes the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount
of people. Utilitarian analysis from the state’s perspective would include all
the groups involved and affected by a certain decision or policy. The “good”
can be the general well-being. Such an understanding is sufficient for most
decisions, since clear differences in general well-being can be demonstrated in
comparing governmental policies without having to delve into precise
calculations of an individuals’ personal pain or pleasure versus others. The general
justification of utilitarianism comes from the hedonistic argument that
pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad for everybody. The
argument follows as such:

 

(A1)
We can introspectively determine that only pleasure is intrinsically good and only
pain is intrinsically bad for us.

            (A2) Other people have similar
experiences as us.

(A3)
If other people have similar experiences as us and only our pleasure is intrinsically
good and our pain intrinsically bad, then only other peoples’ pleasure and pain
are good and bad.

(A4)
Therefore, only everybody’s pleasure is intrinsically good and only everybody’s
pain is intrinsically bad.

(A5)
If only everybody’s pleasure is intrinsically good and only everybody’s pain is
intrinsically bad, then the correct moral theory would be one that seeks to increase
pleasure and decrease the pain.

(A6)
Therefore, the correct moral theory is utilitarianism, seeking to maximize
pleasure and minimize pain.

 

Premise
(A1) is justified through introspection, looking inwards at our subjective

experiences
to determine what they are like. We can introspect what pleasure and pain feel
like and reveal that pleasure objectively feels good and pain objectively feels
bad. All other experiences feel good if and only if they are “pleasurable.”
They feel bad if and only if they are “painful.”  Eating something tasty might feel pleasurable
to our senses but winning a chess game might also feel pleasurable without
appealing to the senses. This interpretation captures even higher level “pleasures”
such as accomplishing goals or enjoying freedoms. Everything good is only good
because it is instrumental to feeling pleasure. Premise (A2) is
straightforward; experiences might be subjective, but similarities exist and
that is the basis of empathy. (A3) and (A4) logically follow, since my
experience of pleasure and its feeling is not in any way distinguishable from another
person’s experience pleasure. (A5) is true since any moral theory would have to
be consistent with the good and pleasure is the only intrinsic good. (A6)
follows since utilitarianism expands the previous idea.

However,
a distinction is to be made here. Not all utilitarian thinkers define
well-being as pleasure and pain – some recognize other things as also being intrinsically
good and some argue that well-being is best seen as the desires of the people
in question. I will not argue the nuances between these ideas in this paper.

Instead, I will defend all of them as being valid considerations for the
utilitarian state. State actions, thus, ought to be evaluated on a case by case
basis. The just thing to do is to always maximize utility.

 

 

The Case for Utilitarianism in Policymaking

            Here, I make a case for why
policymakers and the state should be purely utilitarian. My first argument is
that the state is necessarily utilitarian. Policy makers have to deal with
uncertainty in all of their actions and evaluate the risks involved through
averages and data. They are accountable to their constituents, which makes it
impossible to justify tradeoffs for the sake of some higher moral purpose when
people are being directly harmed.

            The state does not have the option
to not act. There is no distinction between acting and not acting since the
active choice not to do anything is itself an action. In a lot of cases, the
state is the only feasible actor to create change. Thus, not preventing a harm
when it is possible to do so is the moral equivalent of actively bringing about
that harm.

            Utilitarianism provides the
necessary flexibility for real world decision making. Instead of dealing with
complex overarching rules, the right thing to do can be easily evaluated
according to utility and in unique contexts that other ethical theories cannot
predict. However, I recognize that the utility of utilitarianism does not directly
justify utilitarianism.  But the constitutive
role of the state, which is to function for the people and is directly
concerned with how the consequences of its actions affects its constituents,
seems to thus demand the state to be utilitarian. If the state ceases to care
about the consequences of its policies upon the people, it ceases to be a
legitimate and moral state.

 

 

Responding to Criticisms

In
this section, I will provide arguments against criticisms on utilitarianism. Many
of these criticisms against utilitarianism rely on thought experiments about its
most extreme conclusions. These criticisms rely on the argument that these
experiments are wrong and that utilitarianism is unintuitive. But, we should
not be quick to discount utilitarianism because our moral intuitions seem to
disagree with the extremes. These scenarios are unlikely and never relevant to
the real world; furthermore, intuitions are unreliable and cognitively biased. Psychological
studies have demonstrated that people have poor intuitions when it comes to
scope, being incapable of understanding the proper multiplicative valuation of larger
scale problems in comparison to smaller problems. For example, when asked in a
study how much they were willing to pay to prevent either 2,000, 20,000, or
200,000 birds from drowning in oil-covered ponds, individuals responded with
$80, $78, and $88 respectively.1
 When governments are constantly dealing
with millions of people being affected by their policies in a world of almost
eight trillion individuals, how can moral intuitions play a role in selecting
the best policy? Nor can the brain’s intuitions properly handle complex
probabilities and calculations about the expected utility of an action.  Not all intuitions might be rejected, but arguments
based on intuition cannot be taken seriously. Various personal experiences create
biases that sway our intuitions. It is not inconceivable for us to think of a
world, where if we been born into and grown up in, our various experiences
would sway our intuitions to believe something else.  

            Kantian arguments often rely on
a-priori reasoning, but such reasoning does not actually exist. Absolutely everything
we know is based upon experiences that happen to us, inform us, and direct our
reasoning. The kind of reasoning present in much of the literature of
deontological thinkers is not universal, but westernized and idealized to a
point where it becomes impractical in our world. Even John Rawls’s theory of
justice, which follows the likes of Kant and avoids pure a-priori reasoning, is
insufficient. The original position places individuals behind a veil of
ignorance that obscures the circumstances (such as race, gender, class) that
they will be born into in society and asks them to judge whether or not it
would be rational to opt into that society. Rawls argues that individuals would
not want the state to be purely utilitarian because there is a risk that they
will be the ones being sacrificed for the greater good. However, rational
individuals would prefer a state that maximizes utility and increases average
well-being, since the expected utility of entering such a society would
increase as well. In the real world, individuals expect policymakers to be utilitarian and choose policies that
benefit the most amount of people precisely because doing so increases the
average well-being.

Furthermore,
even if all humans have inherent dignity that cannot be violated were to be
true, utilitarianism would still follow. 
The equality of all individuals means that the state cannot prefer the
value of one individual over the value of many, since doing so would be equal
to valuing that individual the same as or more than the many.

 

1
Desvouges,
William F.; Johnson, Reed; Dunford, Richard; Boyle, Kevin; Hudson, Sarah;
Wilson, K. Nicole (1992). “Measuring Non-Use Damages Using Contingent
Valuation: An Experimental Evaluation of Accuracy”. Research Triangle
Institute Monograph. 92–1.

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