Friday, December 9, 2011

Utilitarianism: Another form of moral relativism

Utilitarianism proposes the following principle: That an action must be weighed on the amount of happiness that the action will result in.  In other words, a "good" action is an action that will make the most people happy. 

 On the face of it this would appear to provide a stable foundation for evaluating actions.  Actions should strive to attain happiness.  And other people's happiness should also be considered in evaluating my actions.

The problem is how does one evaluate such actions.  As stated before given our own limited experience, how does one go about evaluating another's happiness?  Do we use our own viewpoint?  Do we consider the other person's view?  What if my happiness is in conflict with another's?  Does the other win out simply because the other side has more people, even if it doesn't yield the happiness that they think it will?

The questions do not themselves invalidate the idea, but consider that the whole point of utilitarianism is to maximize happiness.  If we as human beings do such a slipshod job of evaluating what makes us happy (beyond a very shallow notion) then how do we determine what actually makes us happy?  Or worse, what will make others happy?  Indeed if the goal is to maximize happiness but we have great difficulty knowing what that would be for the entire human race, then it seriously brings into the question the (ahem) "utility" of the philosophy.

There is a more serious problem, however.  Utilitarianism is simply another form of relativism.  If the goal is to maximize happiness of the most people, then the right action is based on the viewpoint of the majority who will become happy at the expense of the minority.  In other words, the rightness of an action is relative to the viewpoint of a majority who consider it so. 

Consider the ancient city of Carthage.  One of the rituals of the city was to sacrifice a newborn baby to the god Moloch.  This made the people "happy."  Today we consider this to be barbaric.  So which is true?  Was it right because it made people happy then or is it wrong because we find it disturbing?  Or is it both?

The only difference between moral relativism and utilitarianism is the number of people involved.  The former only considers the individual and the latter simply adds more people.  The problem is still the same, a fluid moral philosophy that really isn't a moral system at all.  It becomes arbitrary and moral principles are meaningless.


Steven Bollinger said...

I think utilitarianism is much more simplistic than moral relativism -- or at least, more simplistic than moral relativism can be:

CatholicGuy said...

Thanks for stopping by!

>It seems obvious to me that morality is always completely subjective.

Is this objective or subjective? I pose that moral relativism simply means that there is no such thing as morality.

>You may well ask: then how can it really be measured at all? Same way as in the previous paragraph: we would tend to agree or disagree about such things

The agreement or disagreement means very little. A measure is either good or bad for society. Reality often intrudes on our attempts to redefine what a human is (evidenced by various ideologies that ultimately collapse).

> and we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that there was a more exact way

Actually there are proposed methods, such as A-T metaphysics. Such philosophies use very basic principles to derive through reason such as the existence of God and various moral norms based on telos.

Where we begin to kid ourselves is to pretend that we can say something is "right" or "wrong" without some objective reality to base such comparisons off of.