Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Utility of Universal Utilitarianism

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Thankfully, The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick appears to have been helpful to Ernie, so I will again thank the Ebon Muse for putting that together. Ernie has replied with his thoughts on Universal Utilitarianism. While it is not our normal practice, Ernie and I have exchanged a few emails about this topic and I believe that will help us move a bit more quickly in our discussion.

While Ernie appreciated the general thrust of UU, his major complaint seems to be that it does not properly recognize the problem of hypocrisy, that in a society characterized by adherence to UU, a rational actor seeking to maximize his personal welfare can cheat, thereby gaining the advantages of UU as well as of selfishness. He even goes so far as to say "However, I would claim that any theory of ethics that fails to recognize this problem is demonstrably incomplete, and wholy useless in the real world." And in an email he asked,

Yes, [in] an ideal world we'd all cooperate. But in an imperfect world, it is optimal to defect. I just don't see why (or even "if") he thinks virtue is the optimal response in the "real" world. Is this just a thought experiment, or a practical definition of virtue?

In my mind, the thrust of these comments and questions misses the point. It is not necessary for a theory of ethics to ensure that a rational actor who chooses to maximize his own personal happiness will not do so at the expense of others. The ethical theory may simply state that such actions are unethical. If it turns out in practice that there is always a choice that maximizes happiness for both self and others (as Ernie appears to be driving toward), that is well and good and according to UU such a choice is the most ethical. If such an alignment is not always possible, UU still provides guidance on what characterizes an ethical choice. This is not at all useless, especially since it is not at all obvious that we live a world where that alignment always occurs.

Naturally the problems of hypocrisy and selfishness are real and they must be taken into account in any practical societal system. UU does not ignore this as Ernie claims. It simply says that some actions chosen due to selfishness are unethical. (Some selfish actions are still ethical because some selfish actions benefit others, or at least do not harm them, even when that is not the motivation.)

Another way to look at Ernie's position is that he seems to be demanding that the most purely selfish choices (those that maximize personal happiness) will necessarily be those that also maximize the personal happiness of others, so that true selfishness becomes, in effect, a virtue or at least indistinguishable from virtue. Ernie may like this to be true -- who wouldn't? -- but an ethical theory that depends on this being true is rather fragile. UU, on the other hand, is compatible with this state of affairs, but is still useful when reality does not cooperate in this way, which frankly seems more likely.

Ernie's final response in our post-post exchange was the last comment found at the end of his post, where he wrote:

Okay, let us concede that UU is the ideal state if "consistently practiced" by everyone. But that merely raises the question:

  1. Do you have any rational basis for believing that a large group of humans could "consistently practice" those principles?
  2. Do you have any empirical data regarding the actions necessary to achieve such a state?

If by "consistently practice" Ernie means that everyone in the group could live according to UU all the time, then I would say "No." At least, we typically do not have enough information to accurately predict all of the consequences of our actions, particularly related to the subjective happiness (or suffering) that will be experienced by others (or even ourselves). But any kind of consequentialist ethics suffers from this problem, even if we had some theoretical or empirical basis for believing that there is no necessary tension between self and others. Even with this limitation, UU is useful because it both defines a standard and a goal. We may not be able to build an internal combustion engine that attains the theoretical maximum possible efficiency, but knowing what that limit is is still useful. In a similar way, even if we cannot attain the maximum possible welfare we can still benefit from knowing in which direction it lies.

As far as the actions necessary to achieve such a state, this is where we have a lot to learn. It is a difficult problem for which we have no complete solution. I previously described using different ethical theories to inform my decisions, and this is the reason why. In some science and engineering problems, we can find equations that describe idealized versions of the problems, but even then, actually solving the equations may be too difficult, so we make simplifying assumptions that are valid in different regions of the problem domain. In those parts of the domain we may be able to get accurate solutions, while in other parts of the domain, the simplifying assumptions break down and our solutions degrade. In the same way, I think there are some situations in which we can make relatively unambiguous statements about what is or is not ethical under an ethical theory like UU, while in other cases this will be much more difficult.

Of course, having some agreement among the members of the group that such a state is the goal is likely to be important. Members who derive their ethics from substantially different sources (like religious fundamentalists or moral relativists) will make achieving such a state difficult.

I hope that adequately explains why I do not believe that Ernie's criticism of UU is well-founded. I do not claim Univeral Utilitarianism is perfect or even complete, but it does qualify as objective and universal and is far from useless, even if the steps necessary to achieve a state where a large group of people consistently practice it are presently difficult to discern.

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