Monday, March 10, 2014

Batman's Utility Belt

Apparently this blog is about ethics now. I know, I'm just as surprised as you. If you asked me a year ago what I thought would be the last thing I'd ever blog about, it would probably be women's sexual health. I mean, I felt awkward just typing those words. But ethics would also be up there. I'm writing about ethics once more because I had to write a paper for midterm. It was a response to one of 5 questions about Utilitarianism. The paper was to be 3 pages, and around 900 words long. “Well, shit”, I thought “My blog posts are easily twice as long as that. This should be easy!” So one day, while commuting to school for a busy day of being stood up for group work, I decided to pick a prompt and get cracking. Never had words flowed from my fingertips with such feverish fluidity. My year or so of practicing writing was finally going to pay off! Then, when I got to school, I decided to check the professor's guidelines for writing. The ones he said to look at before we even began thinking about what to write about. They basically said, “You know all those things you're doing? Well stop that. You're embarrassing yourself. Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you?” As it turns out, a philosophy paper probably isn't the best place for making Calvin & Hobbes references. I mean, Hobbes was a philosopher right? He wrote something about the social contract, and Leviathan. You know, the cute widdle dragon monster.
You know what they say: "The Social Contract is a cute widdle dragon monster."

With my mandatory Skullgirls reference out of the way, and my soul still reeling from the terrible images I've seen resulting from what was nominally a "safe" search, I'll cut to the chase: after learning that I'd have to cut so many humorous bits from my paper, I decided that I'd repaste them here. What I have here is very different from what I ended up turning in, but the main points are basically the same. This version's just going to be better. And likely longer. The prompt was something along the lines of “What objections would an extreme utilitarian like J.J.C Smart have to restricted utilitarianism? How would a restricted utilitarian respond? Which do you think is more plausible? Defend your claim.” An interesting fact is that I said "J. C. C. Smart" in my paper, so I'm probably going to get points off for being an outstanding dumbass. The paper that I would have liked to turn in would look a little something like this:

Among the many objections that J.J.C. Smart might have against Utilitarianism, the biggest one might be that he wouldn't consider it real utilitarianism, and he has a solid argument backing him up. I mean, they don't give names like that to just anyone; how do you think I got the name “Havoc”? One can imagine that if Smart were appointed dictator-for-life of the exclusive treehouse club that is utilitarianism, he would commission a banner proclaiming “No Rules Allowed!”. An extreme utilitarian has no need for rules, for he has Principle. The Greatest Happiness Principle, to be precise. The Greatest Happiness states that “Any time a rational agent is in a situation in which he or she must choose to take one of multiple actions, including inaction, he or she ought to choose the one that brings about the greatest amount of pleasure, as well as the least amount of pain.” So basically “Be excellent to one another, and yourself while you're at it.” The Greatest Happiness Principle is the fundamental idea of utilitarianism, and really the only part that matters. To compare it to Christianity, the Greatest Happiness Principle is like the idea that Jesus died for everyone's sins, and everything else is like the weird parts parts of The Bible where it tells you when it's OK to sell your daughter into slavery.
My version of the Bible may have been a bit different.

The “utility” in “utilitarianism” refers to pleasure, and the absence of pain. So the GHP basically says that you should always do the thing that brings about the most utility. It is important to note that it doesn't matter who receives this utility, nor does it matter what the actor's intentions are. To demonstrate the first idea, consider a man who has $20. There are a lot of things he can do with this $20, but it is 100% stone cold fact that his $20 would bring the maximum happiness to everyone if he used it to buy a new machete for the machete-murderer who machete-murdered his entire family. If this man were a utilitarian, he'd get his ass down to the machete store, because of the greatest happiness principle demands it of him. To demonstrate the second idea, that intentions don't matter, suppose that he buys the machete-murderer a machete in an attempt to get him to machete-murder Steve, who is universally recognized as a really cool dude whose machete-murderfication would bring about profound sadness to everyone. According to Utilitarianism, this is irrelevant. Even though the guy intended to bring about sadness, what he did was right because it brought about happiness.

Now, the difference between an extreme utilitarian and a rule utilitarian (also called a restricted utilitarian) is that extreme utilitarians only follow the greatest happiness principle. As long as it brings about the most happiness, anything is justified. Hell, an extreme utilitarian could argue that killing Bruce Wayne's parents was the right thing to do, because it created the Batman, who saved more than two people (I actually argued this in class. Credit to Zach Wienersmith of SMBC for the idea). A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, follows rules of conduct that usually lead to the action that maximizes happiness, and justifies them using the Greatest Happiness Principle. Rules like “Don't machete-murder people” or “Don't give money to people who machete-murder other people.” After explaining the GHP to someone, a rule utilitarian might follow it up by saying something like “If you do these things, it will usually bring about the greatest happiness, so you should do these things.” To which an extreme utilitarian like Smart would throw out a mighty objection. “Following those rules will only usually bring about the greatest happiness. But every rule has exceptions. Invariably, there will be some case in which following a rule will lead to less utility than if the rule had been broken. If you urge people to still follow the rule in this case, then you are advocating a violation of the Greatest Happiness Principle, the very foundation of Utilitarianism, for what amounts to little more than superstitious rule worship! How can you call yourself a utilitarian while contradicting the very essence of Utilitarianism?”
Pictured: J.J.C. Smart

And then, before the judge has the time to make a ruling on whether the objection was overruled or sustained, the attorney for rule utilitarianism counters with an objection of his own. Let's suppose that it's noted utilitarian John Stuart Mill. Actually, scratch that. There aren't a lot of things I find too distasteful for this blog, (mostly uteruses and stuff)  but I think that putting words in the mouths of dead men is one of them. These are now generic lawyers who are arguing about utilitarianism for some reason. Please forget that I ever compared renowned philosopher J. J. C. Smart to Prosecutor Dreamboat Miles Edgeworth.
Not Pictured: John Stuart Mill

Anyway. The attorney's objection. “I concede, Mr. Prosecutor, that there is a set of circumstances under which your argument is unassailable. For an omniscient actor who knows the consequences of all actions available to him, choosing the one that maximizes utility is trivial. Unfortunately, not a one of us on this Earth is omniscient; Not you, nor I, nor even the Judge. And while there is nothing whose outcome we can know for certain, there are rules, whether based on experience or reason alone, that will usually guide us to the optimal outcome." To this, the prosecutor would likely respond with some kind of zany quirk, like maybe one of those high pitched sounds that only young people can hear. So the attorney's all asking the judge to do something about the prosecutor disrespecting the court, and the judge has no idea what's going on, because he's so old. The attorney's spunky female sidekick (I think the technical term might be "paralegal"?) says something sassy, and shenanigans are had by all. Something like that.
Since this isn't an actual paper that I'm turning it, I don't have to give a shit about transitions. With that in mind, we're now talking about hypothetical situations in which these two philosophies might disagree. First, suppose that you are in Nazi Germany, and you are hiding Jews. Then, one day, while you are eating dinner or whatever it is that they do in Germany, you hear a knock on your door. You open your door to find that it is a German. A NAZI German. He asks you if you are hiding any Jews. For the sake of argument, let us assume that you are supremely confident in your ability to hide Jews. You are an Olympic medalist Jew-hider, and there is a 0.00% chance that your Jews will be found if you don't turn them in yourself. So, what should you do? Well, obviously, you shouldn't tell the Nazi that you're doing very un-Nazi things, for reasons that I hope are self evident. You might also want to get your head checked out, since you seem to think that Jew-hiding is an Olympic event. An extreme utilitarian would quickly come to this conclusion. But a pure rule utilitarian might subscribe to the rule that lying is wrong. Should he tell the truth? While you're thinking about that, consider another hypothetical situation. Suppose you're a doctor, and your patient has a terminal case of butthurt. You have a friend, whom we'll call Shadi Smith. Now, Shadi's a good friend of yours; he's been around the block, and you trust his judgement. He says that he knows a black market hook up who can get you a butthurt drug on the European black market that's banned in America. This situation's a bit different. If you break the rules by using your illicit connections, you might save your patient. But it's also possible that the drug will do more harm. I mean, it's probably banned in the US for a reason. A rule utilitarian would likely reject this proposal out of hand, as it goes against the rules. An extreme utilitarian's decision would be based on how confident he is that the drug will help, rather than hurt. Note that I said it's based on his confidence, not the actual probability of it working. And since people are often much more confident in their own judgement than they ought to be, they often take more risks than they should.
So I eventually came down in favor of restricted utilitarianism. Extreme Utilitarianism is a high-risk, high-reward morality system. An extreme utilitarian is like a loose cannon cop. Their ability to break the rules can sometimes allow them to do things that due process can't do, to take on criminals who think they're above the law. But it also allows them to sometimes shoot people who have no business getting shot. Extreme utilitarianism is great in theory, like how we all love the Hollywood vision of a loose-cannon cop. But in reality, breaking the rules has more chance of causing harm than good. That's why they became rules in the first place. There are some cases in which breaking the rules results in a better outcome, but it can be difficult to be sure when this is. Sometimes there is wisdom in knowing that you might be wrong.
In some ways, Utilitarianism is like improv comedy. The goal is to bring about the greatest amount of happiness, and it sometimes involves hammer murder. There are some people who follow rules, like "Don't say no" and "Don't talk about sex with birds, living or dead". Then there are people like me, who don't follow the rules, and hide behind the justification that anything is permissible, as long as the audience thinks it's funny. Though it's not really out of choice. I just don't really think when I'm doing improv. As you can probably tell, thinking is not something that I do when trying to be funny. Man, it's a good thing I cut this from my actual paper.
As a final remark, I'd like to include a quote from The Doctor that I find relevant. An extreme Utilitarian might defend his position by saying that "Good men don't need rules..." A restricted utilitarian might then follow those ellipses to the rest of the quote, where he menacingly says "... now is not a good time to find out why I have so many." While it might be true that good men don't need rules, sometimes one must ask themselves if they are indeed a good man, (or woman, I suppose) or if such a thing as a good man can even exist.

Please take to the comments to tell me how terribly edgy my argument is, as it basically boils down to "People are too stupid to make their own decisions."

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