What's Wrong with Utilitarianism?

There are many, many philosophical errors embedded in utilitarianism.  It would take up too much space, time, and effort to exhaustively list them all.  The first thing to point out is that utilitarianism is not scientific.  I will develop that in a separate essay.  But an even deeper and more important problem with utilitarianism is that it is woefully unsophisticated, and indeed naive, about politics.

What is politics?  Go to a few political science departments, and you may find various definitions for what exactly they are studying, but usually they will either say that politics is about decision making, or that it is about power.  

We'll look at both ways of understanding politics.  Let's start with that first understanding of politics, that it is about decision making, and let's get at it by way of our good old friend, the trolley problem.  

Utilitarianism is very clear, here - the correct answer is for the one person on track A to get run over by the trolley, so that the 5 people on track B survive, because this is the way to assure the greatest happiness - or at least, the least suffering - for the greatest number of people.  Shut up and multiply.

For utilitarianism, there is no difference between omission and commission.  Omitting to do something that is good is just as bad, for a utilitarian, as actively doing something bad.  (So for instance, allowing a person to die, by not flipping a switch, is just as bad as actively flipping a switch to kill someone.)  Utilitarianism is consequentialist, meaning that only the consequence matters.  The end justifies the means.

Crucially, for a utilitarian, it does not matter who gets to flip the lever.  The answer is the same, no matter who is making the decision.  This gives an impression of pseudo-objectivity to utilitarian reasoning.  It feels mathematical.

And this is generalizable.  For utilitarianism, it does not matter who makes any decision, or how the decision gets made.  But it does matter who makes the decision, and how it gets made, if we are thinking politically.  The questions "who makes the decision?" and "how does the decision get made?" together are the essence of the politics of the situation.  By ignoring this fundamentally important question, utilitarianism has made itself blind to politics.

Think of it this way - is the trolley problem a different problem, if the person making the decision whether or not to switch the lever is the person who is tied to the track onto which the trolley can be redirected?  In other words, is it a different kind of moral problem if the decision is one of self-sacrifice, to save a greater number of people?  Not to a utilitarian.  For a utilitarian, it makes no difference whatsoever.  Multiply the number of people who will be affected by the pain or pleasure it will cause, and subtract this from the product derived from the alternate choice, and the answer is there, no matter who is doing the calculation.  But in politics, it absolutely matters which person gets to make this decision.  It reminds of the scene from Shrek, in which King Farquad says, "Many of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."

But let's not stop there.  Not only does it not matter for utilitarian ethics whose hand is on the lever, but it doesn't matter whether even that person makes a decision, in a conscious, deliberate act.  If a person passes out, and while collapsing, happens to knock over the lever that switches the points of the trolley track, thus saving the lives of four people (five minus one), this act is just as moral for a utilitarian as if the person made a conscious, well-thought-out decision to switch the points.  For utilitarian morality, the decision-making process simply does not matter at all.  Only the consequence matters.  If the person made the decision to pull the lever because he was mistaken about which setting of the lever corresponded to which setting of the points of the trolley track, that's equally moral.  Even he made the decision for the sole reason that he hates the one person who is getting killed, that's equally moral.

Come to think of it, why should we believe that we should do that which causes the least amount of suffering to the smallest number of people?  Who made that decision?  The pseudo-objectivity of utilitarianism makes it seem as though no one made that decision - as if it were a law built into nature itself, from the creation of the universe - a trans-historic universal verity.  But of course that's not true.  It was decided by human beings that lived at a specific time and place in history and were subject to specific historical conditions and material forces that in part shaped them.

And this how utilitarianism tends to function, in general - as a way to obscure the politics of a given social question, by giving it a pseudo-objective, quack scientific sheen.  

Which brings us to that other way of understanding politics, as the question of power.  Foucault wrote a book entitled "The Use of Pleasure," and right there in the title he subverts utilitarianism.  The root of the word "utilitarianism" is, of course, "utility," which means "use."  Utilitarians tend to measure everything according to how useful it is.  'Useful for what?' you may ask.  Well, for either bringing us pleasure or helping us to avoid pain.  But what is the use of pleasure, itself?  This is a question that utilitarians forbid us to ask, because it opens up the door to the realm beyond utilitarianism, like the door out of a set into the backstage where the reality behind the illusion becomes revealed, and everything that once seemed real turns out to be a mere prop.  For, as it turns out, pleasure does have its uses.  For what?  For power.  (This is incidentally also why Rorty, a utilitarian, could never understand Foucault.)

Utilitarianism is ignorance about politics.  Whether we define politics in terms of decision making or in terms of power, utilitarianism ignores all of the most important political questions.  I would say that utilitarianism constitutes a willful ignorance about politics.  Perhaps utilitarians would deny this, and say they didn't mean it.  But in so doing, aren't they willfully ignoring their own decision-making, namely their decision to ignore questions of decision-making and power?  They pretend a pseudo-objectivity to their decision that we should do that which causes the least amount of suffering to the smallest number of people, and then they pretend they are not pretending.  They assume a pretense of pseudo-objectivity, as if this moral rule, this moral ruling, this decreed and imposed law were simply built into the fabric of the universe.  Or perhaps instead of calling this a willful ignorance, I should call it a feigned ignorance.  Perhaps they know very well what they are doing.  Whether they know it or not ultimately doesn't matter - either way, what they are doing is vile and inexcusable.


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