Being Reasonable About Utilitarianism

Secularist Students United (an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance, and the group I co-founded and led for two and a half years) brought JT Eberhard to Dickinson College on Sunday to give a talk on atheism and morality. I appreciated hearing JT’s ideas, and the Q&A session was very interesting. Nevertheless, there are many things that JT said that I don’t necessarily agree with.

Half of JT’s ideas seemed pretty valid, particularly that we have a moral obligation to be reasonable and that it is often being unreasonable or ignorant that results in immoral behavior. The other half of what JT said seemed to amount to Utilitarianism. (I admit that there could be miscommunication at work here – perhaps he did not mean to propound similar ideas to Utilitarianism).

Utilitarian ethics, in my opinion, are useful in certain cases, especially those cases that involve economic policy decisions. Even then, though, utilitarian ethics are difficult because it is very difficult to know what actually maximizes happiness. For one thing, happiness is difficult to measure. It is also difficult to measure unhappiness and very hard to know what weight each of these deserves. Utilitarian ethics are a form of consequentialism – in other words the ends justify the means. The funny thing is that this does not mesh with the first part of JT’s ideas (the reason aspect).

The argument against utilitarianism is a bit tired for me because I’ve heard it at least three times over in three different classes. I guess the important thing to take away, in my mind, is that it is not enough to say the best thing for society or the most moral thing is that option that maximizes societal happiness. It is actually a bit too relative because you could, for example, have a society made up of 95% conservative Christians that think homosexuality is wrong with say 5% closeted gay people in which societal happiness is actually higher if gay people are denied all rights or even killed. Yet I do not think that could ever be morally right.

I’m not sure how well I am expressing this. I guess yet another piece of the puzzle is my distaste for moral relativism. At the same time, I do not like moral absolutism. I wonder if being reasonable is a third option or if it has to fall under moral relativism? Or perhaps we need a certain amount of moral absolutism that, instead of falling along the lines of “murder is always wrong” or “stealing is always wrong,” would be based on certain human rights or something of that sort?

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One thought on “Being Reasonable About Utilitarianism

  1. Margaret says:

    Interesting post, I agree with your thoughts about the talk on sunday. I’m glad that you could express my doubts about societal happiness and my example of gay marriage better than I could!

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