One more time: Correcting the ignorant on utilitarianism

I wrote some time ago about Michael Hartwell’s poor grasp of philosophy. Specifically, I went into detail about why he has no idea what utilitarianism even is. However, one thing has been bothering me for quite some time and I want to address it now. Here is what I want to address from Hartwell:

Utilitarianism, in its most basic sense, is committing an evil act to counter a greater evil.

I’ve touched on my issue with this asinine statement, but I want to make sure it is out there in the open as much as possible. It just gets under my skin when someone is this monumentally wrong about something.

Utilitarianism defines what is good as that which maximizes pleasure and reduces pain. Generally, more weight is given to reducing pain, but that is getting into the details and isn’t important here. What is important is that we’re talking about an ethical theory which is in and of itself defining what is good. This cannot be anymore clear. And all the other ethical theories do the same thing. In fact, holy texts do it, too. That’s why it is often futile to argue with certain fundamentalists. Sure, by normal standards we would say it was evil of God to say rape victims had to marry their rapists, but the fundamentalist is going by the assumption that good and evil are defined by the Bible and, more specifically, God. Since God, by definition, can do no wrong, then his rape command cannot be evil. Or so the story goes. The difference, however, with Enlightenment period ethical theories is that they are based and built upon reason.

So I have two problems with saying utilitarianism is committing an evil act to counter a greater evil. First, that could just as easily be phrased, ‘Utilitarianism is committing an act of greater good in order to counter an act of lesser good.’ Talking about evil is nothing more than dishonest spin. Second and more to the point, it makes zero sense to analyze an ethical theory from within if one already has an assumption of what is good and evil. It’s possible to do that analysis looking in from the outside – we do that all the time – but one cannot simultaneously assume the perspective of a given ethical theory and an outside perspective. It would be like criticizing a hockey official because he didn’t call a touchdown when someone scored a goal.

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6 Responses

  1. So your problem here is almost entirely a semantic one?

  2. If by “a semantic one” you mean “the fact that he has the entire premise of utilitarianism wrong”, then yes. He’s yelling at the hockey refs because they aren’t properly adhering to the rules of football.

  3. If you had said that it would have been clearer.

  4. So my own little tenet,

    “The infliction of, or tolerance of, unnecessary pain is evil”

    is a variation on utilitarianism?

  5. That certainly captures a good chunk of the theory.

  6. I’m just clicking through random posts and I saw this:

    “If you had said that [about hockey refs and football] it would have been clearer.”

    I did say that. I said it starting from “Second and more to the point” until the end of my paragraph. I then ended my paragraph with the same analogy about hockey and football.

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