Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

 Yasemin asked:

I have trouble understanding this paragraph, can you help me?

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility — assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument — this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Answer by Graham Hackett

The author is suggesting that there are still too many people who are willing to base claims of knowledge on faith alone, unsupported by evidence, and suggests that when faith is lacking, or insufficient in itself to sustain belief, too many fall back on authority for support. Not just a case of “believe this”, but “believe this, or else…”.  The author makes the assumption that the truth is something “out there” to be discovered, independent of our minds.

I do not recognise the passage, but the criticism may be aimed at two problem areas.

The first target may be  Fideism, which is the view that claims to knowledge can be  underwritten by faith alone, quite independently of any kind of evidence. There are almost no philosophers, and I would hope (in agreement with the author) fewer and fewer of all kinds of people who would support Fideism. The reason is because it is just too permissive a standpoint; you could hold pretty well any kind of opinion as true provided you could show that people had an active faith-based belief in it. As the author suggests; “this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being.” 

It is quite true that many hold that religious beliefs are only supported by faith. For example, Tertullian, the early christian divine, is alleged to have remarked “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Athens would be seen as the home of reason and Jerusalem the home of faith, and Tertullian is clearly making his argument in favour of Jerusalem rather than Athens. Calvin is often cited as settling the argument in favour of faith alone, even suggesting that we have a ‘sensus divinitatus”, a reliable human organ for detecting what beliefs we should have faith in. However, the matter is not quite so straightforward. St Augustine uses the maxim “faith seeking understanding”, and St Aquinas has the famous “Five Ways”, which has five arguments for belief in God, quoting reasons and evidence. These two examples suggest that Christians, at least, were not always happy with relying on faith alone. However, I do not wish to over-egg the pudding, as I do not have any knowledge as to how, in comparison with Christianity, Islam and Judaism deal with this matter.

The other target of the quoted text could be said to relate to the activity, behaviour and character of the believer. There is a great deal to be said for a “due diligence” approach to knowledge aquisition. Have we used all the tools and methods available to us for checking the truth, have we examined the authenticity of all testimony respecting the belief and the credentials of those providing the testimony? In other words, it is not just the catalogue of evidence quoted in favour of a belief which we should consider; it is also “the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” . To use the language of reliabilism, are we a “reliable instrument for tracking the truth?

I think I would even go one step further in this direction then taken by the writer. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Aristotle’s book, and be prepared to consider the process of gaining knowledge as a set of virtues. There is a recent venture in philosophy known as virtue epistemology, which seeks to explain some knowledge issues as depending to some extent on the character of the agent. Characteristics such as open-mindedness, courage in defending beliefs, thoroughness etc, could be said to be epistemic virtues. If you wish to get the flavour of this kind of thinking, you might read the article “Virtue Epistemology” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by J. Turri, M. Alfano, and J. Greco. The writers are all leaders in this field. For them, establishing knowledge becomes an ongoing process conducted by agents displaying different levels of epistemic virtue, rather than a once-for-all discovery of something which is “out there”.

Well, do you think you are a reliable instrument for establishing truth, showing due diligence, and all the right epistemic virtues?

I need to learn how to stop thinking

Daniel asked:

Hello. For two weeks I have found myself unable to generate a concrete thought as well as unable to avoid generating a thought, my body reacting to philosophical contradictions that always lead to nihilism. I can do almost anything except vomit and puke, and I feel as if my body is vanishing from space. This all seems ridiculous to me, as I have read existentialists such as Camus or Nietzsche (perhaps almost to the point of obsession) and I agree with their vitalist approach. However, my relentless mind and previously conditioned mindset to seek the truth and nothing else has stripped me of every other instinct. I need to know how to simply stop thinking about life and start living. Surely, an actual philosopher may have had a similar experience and learned how to control such things. I would greatly appreciate any form of advice.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Daniel.

It seems you have thought yourself into a corner. This may be something to do with studying existentialism.

If you were a meditative practitioner your state of mind would be considered a wonderful place from which to begin and make progress. You have spotted the contradictions that plague the world-view of most people, you are committed to truth, you have recognised your conditioning, you’ve begun to wonder if you’re disappearing in a puff of smoke and you want to stop thinking and start living. These are perfect conditions for a truth-seeker.  It takes some effort to reach this point.

You now have choices. You could try to control these thoughts and feelings. I would not advise this. It would be counter-productive and a waste of all your work so far. Or you could make use of of your situation. To build on this beginning you would need to forget all about existentialism and all other ‘isms’ and set out to discover what is true.

Meditation is the usual way forward. This entails doing just what you wish to do, namely stopping your wayward ordinary mind from controlling your life.  The topic is too extensive to discuss properly here but there is a vast literature. It will take you beyond the mind entirely.

I’d suggest a study of Zen. Perhaps you could try a book Cultivating the Empty Field by Dan Leighton, a compilation of the poetry of Zen master Hongzhi. His poetry says much about his state of mind and reveals a peace and tranquility that should appeal to you while the preface and introduction deal with the philosophical issues.

As for philosophical contradictions, which as you say can ‘do our head in’ and lead us into nihilism, for Zen and the Perennial philosophy there would be no such thing. This would be what is discovered in meditation. All contradictions would be misunderstandings. For more on this issue Nagarjuna would be your man. I’d recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom: Teaching on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamptso.

I know of no other method for dealing with the problems you describe than meditation and a study of the non-dual philosophy of the mystics. This will require leaving behind the muddled and purposeless philosophy of our Western universities and it seems you’re keen and ready to do this. Frankly, while I admire Nietzsche I see a study of his thoughts as a fairly direct road to depression and insanity. The problems you describe do not arise for meditative practitioners because they don’t deal in theories or guesswork and become able over time to see the tricks of the mind for what they are. The purpose of the practice is to realise the truth about Reality so this is the go-to method for truth-seekers. The Oracle at Delphi was no fool.

YouTube is your friend. Try watching a few talks by, say, Rupert Spira, Mooji or Sadhguru. You’ll see that they show no signs of suffering from your problems.  They will explain that your body cannot ‘disappear into space’ since neither your body nor space would be truly real. Perhaps you’re intuitively sensing this. If you explore further you’ll find no need for nihilism or pessimism and your mind will become much easier to live with.

Good luck!

Logical and non-logical justification

Abpraxis asked:

I read and hear “logical justification” and I can’t find a definition for it. Is it as pedestrian as it sounds (can be put in the form of logic and makes a valid argument), or is it a term of art? When a philosopher insists that there is no such thing as “empirical justification” and that the “only justification is logical justification”, I’d like to know just what exactly the latter is.

Answer by Graham Hackett

Abpraxis, the more I read about epistemology, the less I think I really know. I think you are right in asking whether an expression like “logical justification” has any real precise meaning, which is invariable from one context to another, or whether it is a “term of art”, only acquiring meaning when we know the context in which it is used. Even more unhelpful if you are looking for a precise meaning, is the suspicion that it might have become a folk term — a well-known phrase or saying — used without much concern for exploring meaning.

You mention empirical justification, and logical justification as though in comparison, and imply that the former is not real, proper, trustworthy justification, whilst the latter is. I assume that you’ve done some background investigation on the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. For example, a form of argument such as;

All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal
Therefore Socrates is mortal

is a famous example of classical logic. My conclusion that Socrates is mortal is based on previous propositions, in this case, that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man. No empirical evidence needs to be gathered; the conclusion is justified purely by the structure of the argument, and by the assumption that our propositions are incorrigibly and self-evidently true. 

In comparison, an argument like “all ravens are black” needs empirical evidence, real hard data gathered from many observations of ravens, before we can conclude that it is justified. You can easily see that this kind of reasoning, although it might falsify our assertion that all ravens are black (we might observe some non-black ones), can never prove conclusively that our assertion is true, because any smart Alec (there are many of them) could just suggest that even after a huge number of sightings of black ravens, we have no way of knowing whether the next raven to come will be black or non-black.

So I suppose that you could use this conclusion to hold that empirical justification is never really justification at all. But here we come to the tricky part of the argument. What does justification really amount to? What has to be the case before we can say we are justified in some conclusion we have made? This is where the ground really starts to slip from under our feet.

I don’t wish to become too entangled with questions about the new and old epistemology, but you might like to do a little research on Alvin Plantinga, and his observations on justification, and his preference for using the term “warrant” instead. Although we use both terms often in much the same way — that we are warranted or justified in the things we assert, Plantinga asserts that “justification” has often been too much tied up with evidence. We claim to be justified by our evidence. Plantinga wishes to attach the term “warrant” to our beliefs. Our beliefs can be warranted in many ways. To use Plantinga’s own examples, we can be warranted in our belief that God is speaking to us personally when we read the Bible, or that he disapproves of some action of ours, or that our feeling that God has forgiven us is warranted. What makes us warranted in our beliefs (according to Plantinga) does not always have to be grounded in empirical evidence, or testimony. Our beliefs can be “properly basic” (Plantinga’s own expression) without evidential support.

Plantinga’s ideas on warrant have been much discussed. Many have criticised them as being a case of special pleading for religious claims. Plantinga himself recognises that the idea of warrant cannot be used indiscriminately to declare beliefs as properly basic. The famous example given is that we might easily be led to conclude that belief in the Legend of the Great Pumpkin (Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon) is just as warranted as any other belief, unless we establish some rules about the use of the term “warrant”.

We still have to show that we have used reliable methods, and that our beliefs in some way “track the truth”.

I am sorry that my remarks may be a little disappointing, and I am conscious that I may have muddied the waters rather than clearing them. But my main conclusion I hope is clear; logical justification is no more than a popular phrase. People think they are warranted, or not in believing something, and “warrant” however vague it is, includes more than just the traditional rules of logic and empirical data.

Morality and moralities

Fabricio asked:

What’s the difference between moral subjectivism and moral pluralism? How do I know which one I follow? I do agree that Stalin was both evil and not evil… but utterly, there is no truth.

Answer by Paul Fagan

I will concentrate on the spirit of your question, in an attempt to describe the two branches of moral classification that you have highlighted; I hope this gives you enough pointers to pursue your own research.

A good place to start in this area is provided by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, where one chapter is entitled ‘Subjectivism in Ethics’. Basically, if you found an action such as abortion to be reprehensible or you found homosexuality to be disgusting, and you rested your dislike only upon your intuitions, then you would be enacting a form of ‘moral subjectivism’.

However, most of us, when given a choice, change our minds about many important aspects of our lives: our religion; our politics; our diet; and our conduct towards others. The very fact that there are other opinions that we may adopt, should give us a strong hint that being morally subjective is often not the most rational way of living our lives, and we may query whether there are other more cogent moral approaches.

Often such questioning of one’s own opinions is a precursor of accepting, what may be termed, ‘moral pluralism’ (and one definition may be found in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/moral-pluralism/v-1). Moral pluralism generally acknowledges that there is a variety of viewpoints, but moreover, one may be encouraged to apply a selection of these viewpoints to problems to find a solution.

The example of the twentieth century soviet leader, Josef Stalin, provides a focus where both moral viewpoints may be demonstrated. Firstly, if you think that Stalin was a ruthless, political ideologue who would stop at nothing in order to introduce his politics to the world, and nothing will shift your opinion from this, then you are possibly prone to moral subjectivism. However, if you accept this first stance as only one opinion, but at the same time, would also consider that Stalin liberated oppressed peasants by industrialising the Soviet Union and provided the dynamism for the creation of a world superpower, then you are possibly a follower of moral pluralism.

To conclude, if you are set in your ways and have a dogmatic opinion on the most important aspects that affect people’s lives then you may consider yourself to be a moral subjectivist: but if you are likely to change your mind about such things, after due deliberation, then you may be a follower of moral pluralism.

Faith, reason and ancient philosophy

Ali asked:

If the methodology of ancient philosophy was so potentially at odds with faith, why didn’t European thinkers simply ignore it? What does their determination to grapple and reconcile philosophy and reason reveal?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The idea that Ancient philosophy was ‘at odds with faith’ contains a serious misunderstanding. The way of reason, championed by the Presocratic philosophers, and by Socrates and Plato — for the purpose of this question, I’m assuming we’re talking about philosophy in the West — is a very different thing from contemporary scientism and anti-theism.

I have little to say about the history of montheistic religion, whether it be Judaism, Christianity or Islam. I’m tempted to respond: why wouldn’t the rabbis, monks and theologians want to claim that their views were rationally based, and who better to appeal to than the Greeks? More importantly, you only have to read these works of ancient philosophy to realize just how compelling they are, to anyone with a shred of intelligence. (That may be bias!)

The foundation of Greek thinking was faith in reason. Talk of ‘faith’ isn’t just word play. At the time of Thales, the idea that you could discover truths through the use of reason was a breathtaking discovery. It was also controversial. ‘Theory’ was a novel concept, the notion that by means of reasoning, one could achieve a reliable view of the cosmos and our place in it which was not derived from religious tradition.

Even then, and despite their evident enthusiasm, the Greeks knew that their hold on reason and theory was fragile. The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes argued for a sceptical approach: even the most strongly supported theory cannot claim to be indubitable truth. Only God knows the truth about the cosmos while mere humans can only make their most reasonable guess.

Possibly the best, and also most moving, defence of reason is in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, which recounts the last day of Socrates’ life. Socrates puts forward arguments for the existence of the soul, while his friends raise various objections. If the existence of the soul could be rationally proved, you wouldn’t need more than one argument! But as Socrates makes clear, this is a topic where certainty is not to be had. He had proved his own faith by refusing the opportunity to escape execution (see the dialogue Crito) and drinking the hemlock without a word of protest.

All the Presocratics, barring the atomists, held that the most reasonable theory of the cosmos was one which hypothesised an intelligent principle (‘Nous’). Plato in the Republic argued that the Forms are arranged hierarchically under the Form of the Good. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argued for an Unmoved Mover. However, as you will rightly point out, none of these god-like principles were conceived as a personal deity: a God who speaks to Moses from a burning bush, or who takes up human form and calls out from the cross, ‘Oh God! Why have you forsaken me?’

What about the atomists? Atomism was based on a metaphysical principle of the unchangeability of Being, derived from Parmenides. So it is a very different thing from contemporary physics and chemistry. However, what the atomists discovered was that there is, in principle, a way to derive order from random motion of atoms — as counterintuitive as this might first have seemed. A simple example would be an avalanche, where smaller rocks fall into a crevice and larger rocks reach the bottom of the mountain. Or panning for gold, where the heavier particles naturally gravitate towards the centre of the dish.

A contemporary version of this is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The only difference (really!) is in the degree of sophistication. What is required in both cases, the Ancient and contemporary, is a willingness to take a leap — I won’t call it a ‘leap of faith’ — the determined view that, barring any other explanation, this must be the correct model for the way our ordered universe, our human world, arose through a series of stages from disordered chaos.

I am an atheist, and I hold to that view as a matter of philosophical faith. If a ‘God’ does exist, then He ought not to. The notion that the ultimate explanation of everything is some ‘family story’ about a ‘loving father’ strikes me as bizarre and offensive. (See my 2014 article, Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue.) In my recent book Philosophizer, I compare ‘true believers’ to a zombie plague. It makes me angry that so-called ‘religious’ people think they have a monopoly on faith. Read the ancient philosophers, study them, and you will come to a very different conclusion.

Is having lots of money wrong?

Nigel asked:

What’s so wrong about having lots of money?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Depending upon which philosopher you ask, having ‘lots’ of money may not necessarily be a bad thing. That said, it is argued here that current liberal societies should be wary of too few people having enormous amounts of money.

For libertarians, one should ideally be able to own all of ones produce without interference from anybody, and if this includes lots of money, then being wealthy represents a natural state for some (and for more detail, the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership).

The libertarian position may expect to be opposed by various factions, and this would include communitarians. They may argue that a person is not an entity that can be separated from their surrounding society, and for this reason, an individual cannot expect sole control over wealth, which is in fact society’s wealth. They may further elaborate this argument by noting that individuals learn their skills from society and owe society a debt for their enrichment; additionally persons are dependent upon society in which to exercise and benefit from their skills (and for more discussion, the reader may like to visit one of my older articles on this site, entitled Man is semi-autonomous). Hence, the individual may be considered to be enmeshed within society.

That said, most societies in practice, such as liberal and socialist ones, occupy a position in between these two extremes. In order to prevent suffering within their populaces, or because they feel society would benefit if money was redistributed, most societies value some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

However, the modern age may have brought a new phenomenon. It would appear that with the advent of globalisation and the free movement of capital, greater and greater amounts of money are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In 2017, the following statement came to light:

‘…the world’s richest one per cent […] own more than the other 99 per cent combined’

This was published by Oxfam (Oxfam. 2017. ‘Press Releases’. https://www.oxfam.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2017/01/eight-people-own-same-wealth-as-half-the-world), and admittedly, there have been those who query its accuracy. Nevertheless, if we accept for the purposes of argument, that it is roughly correct, then it may contain the seeds of problems for some societies.

This may be particularly true of liberal societies, which generally exalt the freedom of the individual and encourage personal aggrandisement (and a definition of liberalism may be found here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism). To explain, if a few people own enough money to control manufacturing, then they may limit the goods a person may buy, and if a few people own the media, then they may attempt to dictate how people should think. Hence, a paradoxical situation may be arising: although liberalism extols individualism, there may actually be less individualism in practice where a mere handful of individuals dominate the resources.  Liberal societies may be inadvertently limiting liberalism, and when this is realised, they may decide to take remedying action. Hence, from a liberal viewpoint, if too few persons have so much money that they confine liberalism, then it may be considered ‘wrong’ for these individuals to have too much money.