Mistaken Moral Logic

Scott Sumner is a committed utilitarian. In a recent post, he quotes at length an argument by Cass Sunstein that goes something like this:

Moral intuitions can lead us astray in just the same way that the biases literature tells us we can be led astray in making financial decisions.

On this view, Foot, Thomson, and Edmonds go wrong by treating our moral intuitions about exotic dilemmas not as questionable byproducts of a generally desirable moral rule, but as carrying independent authority and as worthy of independent respect. And on this view, the enterprise of doing philosophy by reference to such dilemmas is inadvertently replicating the early work of Kahneman and Tversky, by uncovering unfamiliar situations in which our intuitions, normally quite sensible, turn out to misfire. The irony is that where Kahneman and Tversky meant to devise problems that would demonstrate the misfiring, some philosophers have developed their cases with the conviction that the intuitions are entitled to a great deal of weight, and should inform our judgments about what morality requires.

Oh, the irony! Except for the fact that other researchers in Kahneman and Tversky’s own field have a position that roughly mirrors that of the philosophers who “go wrong” in Sunstein’s estimation.

This all makes utilitarianism seem oh-so-scientific, but of course, there is an obvious problem: why should we accept that maximizing welfare or happiness (by some agreed upon specification of either) is the telos of moral philosophy (or moral science, if Sunstein is to be taken literally)?

Perhaps it rests on intuitions such as “happiness (or welfare) are good, and happiness (or welfare) for more people is better than happiness (or welfare) for fewer people.”

It’s hard to understand why (scientifically speaking) this should be treated as somehow more special or more objective than the moral intuitions emphasized by the virtue ethicists and others.

Of course Sunstein admits that we’re in murky waters here, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But it seems to me that implying that violating consequentialist logic is similar to the logical errors found by Kahneman seems to me to be rather…reaching.

4 thoughts on “Mistaken Moral Logic

  1. Jessica

    Utilitarianism seems more fair and objective, to me at least, because of its democratic nature. I see an implicit assumption that, under utilitarianism, each stakeholder is given the same weight in decision-making. Obvious exceptions include situations where, say, multiple secret service agents would be expected to sacrifice their lives for a single person. This might be the greatest good for the number, depending on where you stand (politically, etc.). Personally, I would refuse secret service and would instead try to prepare others to take my place if need be, but that’s tangential and/or irrelevant. What about a combination approach? Some utilitarianism, some virtue ethics, some Agape/Metta, using the mirror test sometimes, and perhaps adding in some of one’s own (such as “Do good, feel good.”) When it comes to maximizing joy and minimizing suffering, I think that’s a framework we’re compelled to use, with experience being perhaps the only real thing in existence. Descartes. Is there an inherent conflict between these notions? For most people, the biggest hurdle seems to be recognizing situations that require an ethical approach in the first place.

    Tried to stay on-topic; apologies if I didn’t. I at least managed to avoid throwing in a bunch of stuff about the universal nature of intuition, and my thoughts on the pre-Big-Bang singularity from which matter originated. I do feel I understand your point, and I appreciate your making it. 🙂

    1. Oh totally on topic!

      The problem is figuring out fair and objective. According to Sunstein, our notions of those that we get from our instincts may be wrong. The only argument I want to make is, if that’s true, it’s just as true about the intuitions (like being more democratic) that are used to support utilitarianism.

      Incidentally, if you like the democratic aspects of utilitarianism, you might find Stoicism interesting. They are very strict about arguing that everyone matters as much as everyone else. They were the ones who originally came up with the term “the brotherhood of mankind.”

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