Monday, 19 May 2008

The Problem with Utilitarianism

The ethical natural approach being developed here falls within the scope of the dominant view within modern moral philosophy, namely that of Preference Satisfaction. However this approach is not just a particular species of Preference Satisfaction but makes a specific substantive distinction, which solves one of the key issues, largely unacknowledged, underlying Preference Satisfaction, which is in the application of utilitarian reasoning. That is Desire Fulfillment whilst has, in common with other Preference Satisfaction theories, the key concept of utility, it uses it in a non-standard way, that solves the problems of utilitarian reasoning we will now discuss.

Preference Satisfaction
The simplest statement of this is that everyone has preferences, preference satisfaction is the utility to maximize and that utililitairanism is the technique to maximize this utility. What this means is that utilitarian maximizing of preferences satisfaction is "good" and its opposite is "bad", however there are some problems with this approach, three are highlighted here and, it is argued, that Desire Fulfillment resolves.
Differential Preferences
A bias is introduced due the fact that different agents, due to differing circumstances in terms of health, nutrition, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, influence and expectation and so on, have quantitatively, as well as qualitatively, different preference sets. Stated in a simplistic fashion poorer people have fewer preferences that need to be satisfied (unless they are not a realist about their situation) and that richer people can afford to and can have more preferences to satisfy. Given the Pareto distribution of rich and poor, there are fewer rich agents with more preferences and a larger amount of poor agents with fewer preferences. There are then two ways to maximize preferences: on a per agent basis one would choose to maximize the preferences of as many agents as possible which would bias satisfying the poorer agents over the richer agents. Another way to maximize preferences would be on a per preference basis which would tend to maximize the preferences of richer agents - having proportionately more preferences over those poorer agents with the fewest preferences. Of course, depending on the mix of "rich" and "poor" and the average amount of preferences of these two groups, what preferences are satisfied or not will also change and this leads to the next point.

Demographic Bias
If one takes the challenge to maximise preferences on a local or societal basis - on the basis that the only preferences to be satisfied must be those within the scope of the society that is capable of doing so, then this becomes sensitive to the demographic distribution of preferences. Whilst religion and ethnicity are only two of the causal factors that contribute to such demographics, they are very illustrative of the problem. Change the demographic mix and what preferences to satisfy change. This looks like cultural relativism of a sort but I am not trying to make that specific point here. Since the problem still occurs if one takes a humanist spin and so includes all the preferences of all the people on the planet at one time. It is still the case that the demographic mix of the planet changes through time and so the preference to satisfy can change. This analysis still applies even if one normalizes out resources and other non-demographic factors.

One answer, obliquely related to both points made here, is to exclude external preferences from what is to be maximized:

External Preferences
Many if not most people have preferences that can only be satisfied based on their effects on other's preferences. The recognition of this and the exclusion of external preferences is an ad hoc means to dealing with this problem . This is of a majority biased against a minority having external preferences that whose satisfaction ensures this bias. Examples includes social, economic, religious, political, sexual and gender discrimination, apartheid, bigotry and so on. It is as ad hoc method and it also removes any preferences that people might have to help fulfill other's preferences such as charity and so on..

Conclusion - Desire Fulfillment resolves these biases
What is being proposed here Desire Fulfillment, what Alonzo Fyfe calls Desire Utilitarianism and I have long windedly called Desire Fulfillment Virtue Consequentialism deals with these three objections and problems in, let us call it, naive Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism.I am not saying that sophisticated versions cannot deal with this, indeed Desire Fulfillment could considered as such. I am saying that to deal with this something like Desire Fulfillment, if presenting an alternative, needs to be done.

For the points here one needs to consider desire fulfillment as dealing with desire qua desires, this is what is primary not the agents. (This is analogous to methods that are used in evolutionary biology where instead of looking at individuals in populations, one looks at distributions of genes in populations). Given the challenge of maximizing desire fulfillment one compares the effects of the desire(s) under consideration - the relevant desire(s) - versus it's (their) absence, and see how both instances have material effects on all other desires' fulfillments - the significant desires. (If a desire is not affected by a relevant desire, it is not significant in the analysis). It does not matter how many agents have the relevant desire(s) nor how many agents have the significant desire(s) the same analysis applies - that is what I meant by desire qua desire. This resolves the differential distribution of preferences and the demographic accidents that can bias naive preference satisfaction utilitarianism. Finally this does not need any ad hoc filtering of desires (preferences) in terms of external preferences, all are already included and so makes the analysis more coherent and consistent. Desire Fulfillment Virtue Consequentialism or what I will now call Desire Consequentialism for short (to avoid some of the confusions that calling this Desire Utilitarianism causes, still it is pretty much the same thing) deals with and overcomes all these three biases.

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The Barefoot Bum said...

It seems to me you've taken almost a thousand words to say, "People pretty much do what they want to do."

martino said...

Well yet another post to revise! :-)

For sure that is an accusation against naive Preference Satisfaction. However I think you are entirely missing the point here, but then if you, critically analyzing this miss it, I should expect others without such a critical eye to do the same.

The point here was the confusion of utilitarian reasoning which is aggregative and majoritarian in one form or another and so misleadingly (IMHO) sensistive to the actual demographic and differential distribution of preferences versus the use of utility in what I am now calling Desire Consequentialism (DC).

Put simply a DC analysis shows descriptively whether a relevant desires is desire thwarting or desire fulfilling regardless of how many or few hold the relevant desire and regardless of how many or few have affected significant desires.

I am now beginning to see why Alonzo so careful expounds the details of his analysis at the cost of significant repetition across posts - to the degree I skip much of what he says since it is often verbatim to what I have read before (I re-read only if I am puzzled, since maybe I missed something then). Clearly each post has to stand on its own, I will be more careful and hopefully will not bore you if I do (please tell me if that is the case!).

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