The disutility of utilitarianism

September 15, 2015 • 11:00 am

From Zach Weinersmith’s strip SMBC, via Matthew Cobb:

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Matthew is of course a Brit, and his email of this link to me was headed “Ouch!” But of course one problem with this argument is that by voicing your own views on morality, you might improve society. That, after all, is the reason why civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights have become the norm. They were not promulgated by “silent judgement.” But maybe I’m making too much out of a humorous and clever strip.

48 thoughts on “The disutility of utilitarianism

        1. Or was, since they close down totally in 2016 or 2017! Great impact in Adelaide since in the Northern Suburbs, Holden (GM) was the main employer.

    1. It’s Ford. They are hoping to expand on their Explorer, Expedition, Excursion line, with a supermassive SUV capable of 82 cup holders in a single vehicle.

      1. On one of the freezers in my lab I have a picture from an article in The Onion: “New Toyota SUV Holds 8 Passengers and Their SUVs.”

        I think of it often, here in Texas. :-/

    1. Illustrates the absurdity of the idea rather well.

      You could use other measures than an absolute maximum, of course — maximizing median happiness, maximizing minimum happiness, and so on. But those can easily have their own race to the bottom, of ensuring a very low level of happiness for a large number of people.

      Which is just another way of demonstrating that any such top-down skyhook approach is doomed to failure.

      Once you give up your philosopher king hat, and realize that morality is instead about individuals maximizing their chances for success within a cooperative society, then you start to move away from these sorts of absurdities. The mutually attractive antagonism between the individual and the collective becomes obvious, as do the ways to balance the two.

      If your society’s goal is to maximize every individual’s opportunity for success, trivialities like maximizing total pleasure become irrelevant.

      b&

      1. “Illustrates the absurdity of the idea rather well.”

        Seriously? This was literally a cartoon version of utilitarianism.

        And then later you endorse what is basically a utilitarian idea.

        “morality is instead about individuals maximizing their chances for success within a cooperative society”

        Your objections to utilitarianism are strange. And I don’t quite understand WHY you have them, but it seems to be some sort of totalitarian fear of wellbeing, which makes no sense because wellbeing would necessarily include things that make people happy like freedom.

        1. I thought I made it pretty claim. Utilitarianism, in my experience, comes down to “Pick such-and-such a happy happy feelgood term and have the philosopher-king impose it somehow on as many as possible.” It’s never a two-way street; it never addresses what’s in it for me, and simply blindly assumes that maximal [happy happy feelgood term] is naturally what I myself most want out of life and I must be a defective idiot if I don’t want the most [happy happy feelgood term] for myself and everybody else.

          Why can’t I be left to choose for myself what I want? Why can’t I ask others to help me achieve my goals, and leave it up to them to decide if they want to help me or not? Why can’t others ask for my help in return in achieving their own goals? And, while we’re at it, why can’t we agree to not try to forcefully impose our desires on each other, save through rhetorical persuasion?

          And if you’ve got that in place…what point utilitarianism?

          b&

          1. Hi Ben,

            I thought you would reply pretty much as you did. Again you seem deeply concerned that utilitarianism is totalitarian. My reading of the utilitarian literature is the opposite of this (Mill wrote a book titled on liberty) they tend to be for freedom.

            So let me just ask you a question,

            Would a a decrease in liberty decrease your happiness?
            or conversely
            Would an increase in liberty increase your happiness? (especially if you were coming from a totalitarian regime?)

      2. ‘Illustrates the absurdity of the idea rather well.’
        What idea? Utilitarian ethics? No it does not.

        Telling people to judge other people says only one thing and that thing is that the person who came up with this idea is a judgmental oaf.

        It may come as a surprise to you and the originator of this cartoon but not all people enjoy judging others. Harshly or otherwise. Certain evaluations may be hard to avoids but mental states that fit the label as judgmental have been cogitated upon and found wanting in any number of different areas.

        The absurdity here is the poor understanding of utilitarian ethics or any ethics for that matter.

        And it is, if looked at in depth inconsistent and incoherent anyway.

  1. “When you judge other people in your mind, you feel better…”

    I’m not sure that’s a sentiment I agree with.

      1. I was just thinking about how I would feel if I applied this as a general rule.

        If I looked at my fellow students at the fencing club with contempt, I would surely feel a sense of alienation and unease. It would be even worse when I’m at home with my parents. I wouldn’t even feel at home if I loathed them.

        Humans are social animals and we need a social group or ‘clan’. Very few people want to live in solitude, but even these hermits don’t loathe other people.

        1. Well, I probably do both; feel good about doing it sometimes and feel bad about doing it other times.

          Having said that, regardless of the comic’s veracity I find it a pretty funny joke.

    1. Yes. It’s one thing to look down on a few people. But looking down on everybody makes one a misanthropic pessimist. In my experience, that’s doesn’t seem to be a particularly happy group.

      From what I can tell.

      Which is another thing. The utilitatarian philosopher in the cartoon goes on and expects human beings to be AMAZING actors. Our true opinions never ever spill over into our behaviors.

      Sorry, but that’s just comical.

      1. “The utilitarian philosopher in the cartoon” is a kid. That’s the joke. He’s just learned about utilitarianism for the first time, and thinks he’s come up with a wrinkle the philosophers have missed.

    2. It is illogical, to me. Utilitarianism can be very personal, like the happiness factor I get slinging a yo-yo. Clearly, if it makes me happy it should make others happy too…right?

      (Mill is a good guy, but the best ideas from Utilitarianism are not at all easily generalized like SMBC makes them out to be.)

  2. And the strip specifies a loathing that is “deep seated.” Aren’t other people’s tastes and habits often just minor annoyances? On rare occasions, such things can be admired and copied.

  3. There’s long been known a “paradox” of utilitarianism (and other consequentialist) views – namely that it might be for the best to actively promote other views. I personally do not buy this, but it is in a way a factual question.

  4. It is humorous, of course, and not to be taken too seriously.

    We sometimes make an argument against religion that no matter how good it feels, ultimately it works against one’s self interest to invest in a delusion. The logic displayed here falls to the same argument. If utility is about welfare (not just feeling good, but actually being in a “better” state)it is clearly anti-utilitarian to invest in feeling superior to other people who are in reality pretty much your equal.

  5. OK, it’s a comic… a joke. It’s less about utilitarianism than the perceived mores of the Brits.

    Let’s not get overly academic about a witty comic, shall we? It’s a little too judgmental.

    Professor Ceiling Cat excluded, of course.

  6. On second thought, maybe I’m now too judgmental. Not an academic myself, I do enjoy the academic arguments on this site.
    They have a clarity, rigor and lack of obfustication that is a testament to the Professor and his readership.

    Shite… did I just say “testament”?

      1. ha! it feels good to say it, the alliterative percussive “t”… but the implications, not so much. way too dogmatic for my taste.

    1. I was happy with your first take. Although I agree with a lot of what the others have said, it is just a joke about the stereotypical Brit.

  7. Nooooo…. not SMBC! Now I am gonna click on the link, then hit the back button to catch up on all the old cartoons. I won’t get any work done!
    [shakes fist]
    Curse you, SMBC!

  8. I doubt that John Stuart Mill would have been a utilitarian himself if he had lived a little later and had more time to grasp the significance of Darwin’s theory. He was too smart for that. He knew that there is no such thing as objective morality, which he referred to as “transcendental” morality, and that therefore some version of the Blank Slate was a necessary precondition for utilitarianism to work. Among others, the Scottish philosopher Sir James MacKintosh pointed out early in Mill’s career that utilitarianism wouldn’t work because of human nature, referring to the demonstrations that it must exist by Hume and his forerunners such as Francis Hutcheson. However, Mill was never a “Blank Slater” in the same sense as the fanatical and dogmatic versions that appeared in the mid to late 20th century. If he had read Darwin’s “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” he might well have dropped the whole idea.

    Of course, that begs the question of why modern thinkers who should know better, like Joshua Greene, still think utilitarianism is such a great idea.

        1. You a fan of Haidt then? I agree… There is No doubt a great many (most?) of our opinions are post-hoc justifications. However im curious is general relativity a tool of justifying your own preferences? Feminists have argued along similar lines for newtonian physics.

    1. JS Mill did not think there was no such thing as objective morality. He made a famous (and famously bad) argument for it.

      I have no idea why you think knowing more about human behavior disfavors utilitarianism. It actually FAVORS utilitarianism, because it takes what humans care most about and makes it into an ethical system. If there actually is a blank slate then there would be no reason to favor any morality AT ALL, subjectivism, relativism or any form of nonsense would be far more likely.

    2. J.S. Mill did not think there was no such thing as objective morality. He made a famous (and famously bad) argument for it.

      I have no idea why you think knowing more about human behavior disfavors utilitarianism. It actually FAVORS utilitarianism, because it takes what humans care most about and makes it into an ethical system. If there actually is a blank slate then there would be no reason to favor any morality AT ALL, subjectivism, relativism or any form of nonsense would be far more likely.

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