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22.5.05

Utilitarian Shades Of Gray

Guest-posting on Evangelical Outpost, Kevin T. Keith presents a decent summary of consequentialist and utilitarian ethics. There are various nits I could pick, but one of his statements stood out to me because it reminded me of a post I'd been meaning to write. In his section on objections to utilitarianism, Keith mentions perhaps the most popular: it's too hard*. Utilitarianism as typically presented demands that we select the utility-maximizing action, declaring all other actions to be wrong. Given our natural selfishness, most people would find it impossible to truly maximize utility. Peter Singer, perhaps the foremost contemporary utilitarian philosopher, is famously hypocritical for not donating as much of his income to charity as his stated ethical system demands.

However, I think the "it's too hard" criticism relies on a binary moral template improperly imported from non-consequentialist theories (an importation made by Bentham and Mill themselves). In deontological and command-based ethics, rightness is presented as a black and white issue, so each act can be classified as either right or wrong. This kind of system is appealing because of its simplicity -- it gives a clear yes or no, which is useful both for the actor and for those judging him or her. But consequentialism provides us with a more subtle metric of rightness. Acts can be ranked by their contribution to utility -- and hence by their rightness. The utility-maximizing act is not the only right act, rather it is the most right act possible in the circumstances. Suboptimal acts are no longer collapsed into a single category of "wrong," but are rather judged as attempts with varying degrees of success. If he were to adopt this way of conceptualizing rightness, Peter Singer would no longer be a hypocrite, but rather a person doing better than many people but not as good as theoretically possible.

*Given the location of the Keith post, I should note that Christianity is quite explicit about the fact that God's commands are also too hard for people to obey, thus necessitating forgiveness and salvation.

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