Utilitarianism Is A Scourge
I’ve written about this before, and I’ve also tried to illustrate it via parable in “The Simulator.” I even devoted most of a podcast episode to it. But I thought it might be useful just to cut to the chase in written form, give the tldr version.
Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number. That is, we calculate the prospective net benefits or harms from a course of action to guide our policies and behaviors. This moral framework deserves scrutiny because it (unfortunately) appears to be the paradigm under which most of our governments, institutions and even educated individuals operate.
The philosophy is commonly illustrated by hypotheticals such as “the trolley problem” wherein a person has the choice whether to divert a runaway trolley (via switch) from its current track with five people in its path to it to an alternate one where only one person would be killed. In short, do you intervene to save five by killing one? The premise of utilitarianism is that, yes, you would because it’s a net positive.
Keep in mind in these hypotheticals these are your only choices, and not only are you certain about the results of your prospective actions, but those are the only results to consider, i.e., the hypothetical does not specify or speculate as to second or third order effects far into the future. For example, what could go wrong once people get comfortable intervening to kill an innocent person for the greater good!
And yet this simplified model, kill one to save five, is then transposed onto real-world scenarios, e.g., mandate an emergency-use vaccine that might have rare side effects because it will save more lives than it costs. The credulous go along, and then reality turns out to be more complex than the hypothetical — as it always is.
The vaccine doesn’t actually stop the spread, it turns out, and the adverse effects are far more common and serious than people were led to believe. Moreover, the mandates destroyed livelihoods, ran roughshod over civil liberties, divided families and destroyed trust in public health.
Some might argue it’s true the mandates were wrong because the vaccine wasn’t sufficiently safe or effective, but we didn’t know that at the time! That we should judge decisions based on the knowledge we had during a deadly pandemic, not after the fact.
But what we did know at the time was that real life is always more complex than the hypothetical, that nth-order effects are always impossible to predict. The lie wasn’t only about the safety and efficacy of this vaccine, though they absolutely did lie about that, it was that we could know something like this with any degree of certainty at all.
The problem with utilitarianism, then, is the harms and benefits it’s tasked with weighing necessarily occur in the future. And what distinguishes the future from the past is that it’s unknown. The save one vs five hypothetical is deceptive because it posits all the relevant consequences as known. It imagines future results laid out before us as if they were past. But in real life we deal with unknowns, and it is therefore impossible do a rigorous accounting of harms and benefits as imagined by the hypotheticals. The “five vs one,” stated as though the event had already happened, is a conceit conjured from an overly simplistic model.
In short, in modeling the future and weighing those projected fictions the same way one would historic facts, they are simply making it up. And once he grants himself license to make things up, the utilitarian can create the moral imperative to do what coincidentally benefits him, e.g, Pfizer profited to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, for the greater good!, which turned out not to be so good. Once you make the specious leap of purporting to know the future, why not go all the way, and make it a future where the greatest good coincides with enriching yourself to the greatest extent possible?
So in summary, as this has gone on longer than I intended, utilitarianism is moral bankruptcy because the “greater good” on which it relies is necessarily in the future, and we cannot predict the future with enough accuracy, especially over the medium and longer term, to do a proper moral accounting.
As a result, whoever has power is likely to cook the books in whatever way he sees fit, and this moral philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number paradoxically tends toward a monstrous outcome — temporary benefits for the short-sighted few and the greatest misery for most.