Act Utilitarianism—Things Get Worse

11.10.2017 |

Episode #6 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Yesterday, we considered objections to Act Utilitarianism, which focused on the things the theory suggested, i.e. answers to moral questions that seem instinctively perverse. Today, we will consider an objection that focuses on the theory itself and its internal workings.

Utilitarianism suffers from a problem of regress.

Let’s consider this step by step. First, you are presented with a non-obvious moral question: Should you put a coin you are holding into the cup of a homeless woman?

Before you do anything, you must work out whether giving the money is right. Perhaps one would do better by donating to a homelessness charity instead.

However, even before you work out what the right thing is, you must work out how long you should spend weighing up your different options (the homeless woman, the homeless charity, etc.). All that time you spend thinking about the dilemma of the homeless woman, you are not spending working out what to do about other moral problems. As Act Utilitarianism tells us to maximize the good results we create, it follows that we must only devote to a moral question the amount of time that maximizes the good we do. Time, like the money we might donate, is just another resource we should be using to create more utility.

Here is where the problem sets in. Before you can work out how much time to devote to the moral question, you must work out how much time you should devote to working out how much time you should spend on the moral question. If you do not know that, then you might devote the wrong amount of time to thinking about how much time to devote to the moral question.

If you managed to follow that tongue twister, you will see that I can keep adding another layer of “working out how much time to devote to” until the question goes on infinitely: It regresses. The power of this objection is the claim that Act Utilitarianism is logically absurd; it can’t tell us how to behave because when we apply it, our thinking should, logically, lead us into a regression. The alternative to the regression is to not think about how long we should consider any given moral problem. If we take this alternative, we will never be able to ensure that we are acting in accordance with what Act Utilitarianism tells us to do. If we can’t act in accordance with what Act Utilitarianism tells us to do, it is not a moral system because it doesn’t give us any moral direction!

So far, we have learned what utilitarianism is, why we might want to believe in the idea, and why we might not. Today, we learned why if we wanted to believe in the theory, we would perhaps be illogical to do so. There have been various attempts to fix these problems. In Lessons 8 and 9, we will cover Rule Utilitarianism, which provides the other side of major utilitarian thinking. Tomorrow, though, we will cover some of the attempts to fix Act Utilitarianism.


Recommended book

Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, Peter Singer


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