Aug 15 2013

Utilitarianism and Deontology Part 1: The Subjective Line

Would you kill one person to save five people from dying? Studies (both theoretical and simulated) have shown that around 90% of people would indeed take action to minimize human casualty. That means that 90% of us are, at heart, utilitarians.

A utilitarian is a person who favors the good over the right: a person who believes that the best course of action is the one that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. An absurdly extreme utilitarian would kill a child who is 1,825 days (5 years) old in order to prevent another child who is 1,824 days old from dying since, statistically, the 1,824-day-old has the most time remaining to live. Utilitarianism is generally attributed to British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

The opposite of this viewpoint, attributed to German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), is deontology. The deontologist favors the right over the good, believing that the best course of action is the one that best follows rules and obeys laws no matter what the outcome. An absurdly extreme deontologist could not bring himself or herself to violate the code of ethics of a chess club he or she doesn’t even belong to, even if it meant preventing nuclear fusion from starting in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met any utilitarians or deontologists who take their views to such extremes.

A psychopath deontologist does the right thing, though the world perishes.

A devout deontologist does the right thing, though the world perishes.

Perhaps I’ve just gotten unlucky, but from several conversations I’ve had with deontologists, I’ve reached the conclusion that deontologists don’t respond well to the idea that there is no such thing as “the one correct ethical system.” This would make sense though, since those who have built their lives around following rules with absolute devotion would, almost by definition, be unwilling to entertain the idea that their ethical system is just as arbitrary as anyone else’s. The deontologists I’ve spoken to seem to believe that everyone else who chooses to follow rules more loosely than they do are worse people for it. I am going to show that this is simply not the case. Deontologists become deontologists in the exact same arbitrary and self-serving way that utilitarians become utilitarians.

To begin, take my little quiz:

  1. Would you flick someone else’s forehead if doing so were the only way to prevent the universe from ceasing to exist?
  2. Would you punch someone in the face to prevent the universe from ceasing to exist?
  3. Would you kill someone to prevent the universe from ceasing to exist?
  4. Would you kill someone to prevent the Earth from exploding?
  5. Would you kill someone to save 1 billion people?
  6. Kill someone to save 1 million people?
  7. Kill someone to save 100,000 people?  10,000? 1,000? 100? 10? 5? 3? 2?
  8. Kill a 95-year-old to save a 1-year-old baby?
  9. Kill a 50-year-old to save a 1-year-old baby?
  10. Kill a 20-year-old to do the same? Kill a 10-year-old? A 5-y.o.? 3? 2? 1.1-year-old? 1.01-year-old?

Pictured above: Earth suffers at the hands of a devout utilitarian who is given the choice to kill our planet or an alien planet. He has chosen to kill our planet because its population is 6,974,000,000, one less than the alien planet. He is not swayed by being a member of the planet himself, nor is he swayed by the fact that this population difference is only present for 0.0001 femtoseconds before the two populations return to equal numbers.

One does not simply call themselves a deontologist or a utilitarian, although we all tend to identify with one side more than the other, and so we all adopt these labels (my label is “utilitarian”). In reality, we all find ourselves somewhere on a deontology-utilitarianism spectrum, so it’s just a matter of how much of each we are. The longer it takes you to answer ‘no’ in the quiz above, the more of a utilitarian you are and the less of a deontologist you are. Everyone has their own personal answer to the quiz above that is based on nothing more than what seems to ring most true to one’s own subjective sense of correctness. The deontologist-leaning ethical system satisfies one’s desire to obey, while the utilitarian-leaning system satisfies one’s desire to bring about good.

Deontologists I’ve spoken with hate being told that the only thing that makes them different from a utilitarian is an arbitrary line they draw, and so it makes sense that a deontologist would try to dodge taking this quiz, try to give ‘C’ answers when their only options are A and B, or by saying things that completely miss the point such as, “If I lived in a universe that required me to flick peoples’ foreheads, I would kill myself because I’d hate that universe so much.” This represents a futile effort to avoid facing the fact that their morals are not derived from some kind of universal sense of rightness or goodness that transcends personal preference. They believe that they get their morals from superior inner virtue or from higher powers, while everyone else apparently molds their morals around their selfish desires. According to the deontologist, one always does the right thing, and sometimes the right thing is what produces the most right, while other times the right thing is what produces the most good. The funny thing is, that’s exactly how utilitarians think too.

In fact, while deontology and utilitarianism are opposites of each other, strangely, deontology is rooted in utilitarianism. Even the strongest deontologist’s sense of right is still ultimately based on what is good, because rules and laws are not drawn up in the first place unless there is an interest to maximize good in society. If this weren’t true, we’d have stupid laws for the sake of laws. Hard-core deontologists tend to think that our own rules and laws (and systems in place for enforcing, changing and repealing them) is sufficient to justify blindly following rules and laws, and this blind faith in rules and laws automatically guarantees the best possible outcome in the long run. But the fact is that this doesn’t leave nearly enough room for common sense to prevail in situations when following rules and laws doesn’t do anybody any actual good. Examples of this ought to be obvious, but to name a few:

  • It is legal for Monsanto to place patents on their GMO seeds, which means our idiotic patent system allows for life itself to be patented.
  • It is legal for Monsanto to sue farmers if their unwanted GMO plants are found to be growing on farmers’ land without the farmers’ consent.
  • It was once law that blacks could be slaves, having the civil rights of human property. Did congress correct this? No – instead, congress passed the fugitive slave law. Meanwhile, law-breaking utilitarians formed the underground railroad.
  • It is legal for the movie industry to use Cinavia to fight movie piracy even though it prevents people from making legitimate copies of their own purchased movies (i.e. for backup or streaming over a home network). The same can be said about HDCP in that it prevents people from watching their own movie backups on certain devices.
  • It is legal today to be a patent troll.
  • In some places around the world, it is still legal and moral to “honor kill” a woman who was raped.

Violet Miller (Suffragette, 2015) says it best: “You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable.” There is no system of rules and laws on Earth (nor will there ever be) that always guarantees the best possible outcomes for all scenarios when nobody ever deviates from them.

The truth is, we each tend to be disgusted by those who take longer than we do to say ‘no’ in the quiz above. There’s nothing wrong with thinking of our own line as our favorite line, but there is something very wrong when we believe that our own lines are objectively “better” than everyone else’s lines. In reality, we are all somewhere very close to the center of this spectrum.

Also, it’s easy to confuse our quiz results with what we have the stomach to do. If you can’t actually pull the trigger in order to save the lives of five people, that doesn’t mean that you don’t still believe that pulling the trigger would be the correct thing to do. I have to wonder how many people who think of themselves as deontologists are perhaps utilitarians without the courage to follow their conscience. Similarly, if you could kill one random person to save 10 people, but you couldn’t kill your own mother, sibling or child to save 10 people, this again does not change how much of a utilitarian you are. Whether your inability to follow your principles comes from a general intolerance for violence or an intolerance for personal grief, this boils down to selfishness – an aversion to personal pain – and should not be confused with core principles.

The Wrongness-to-Goodness Ratio

With deontology and utilitarianism being the extremes of a morality spectrum, everyone inevitably falls somewhere within this scale according to the subjective line they draw within the spectrum. I’m going to express this grayness using a Wrongness-Goodness Ratio. This is a ratio that every one of us sets up for ourselves when we must “calculate” our answer to various moral dilemmas.

A strong utilitarian (or weak deontologist) will have a ratio close to one, while a strong deontologist (or weak utilitarian) will have a ratio close to zero. To make this easy to understand, let’s explore the two extremes with examples. Assuming wrongness and goodness can all be measured from 0 (neutral) to 100 (very wrong or very good), we have:

  • Strong Utilitarian:  Supposing that the killing of an 1,825-day-old child were a 29.99 on the wrongness scale of 0 to 100 (where making the universe cease to exist is 100) and saving a 1,824-day-old child from death is a 30 on the goodness scale of 0 to 100 (where allowing everyone everywhere to be maximally happy for all eternity is a 100), we have that the extreme utilitarian (one who would kill the 1,825-day-old child to save the 1,824-day-old child) demonstrates a wrongness-to-goodness ratio of (29.99 / 30), or nearly one. This person isn’t bothered at all by the personal responsibility of taking a life – it seems to be a completely null factor, which is why this utilitarian can still take action even with such a small margin of gain. It is not possible for a utilitarian’s wrongness-to-goodness ratio to be exactly 1, because that would mean they’re killing even when there is nothing to be gained by the act. By definition, a utilitarian only does wrong when the good that comes from it is perceived to exceed the good that would come from not doing wrong.
  • Strong Deontologist – Supposing that allowing a friend to play a pirated copy of a Beatles song were a 0.1 on the wrongness scale, while preventing the universe from ceasing to exist were a 100 on the goodness scale, the person who is only barely able to cope with the guilt of listening once to the pirated copy of the Beatles song in order to prevent the destruction of the universe demonstrates a wrongness-to-goodness ratio of (0.1 / 100), or almost zero. It is not possible for a deontologist’s wrongness-to-goodness ratio to be exactly 0, because that would mean there is no trade-off in doing good. In a scenario that produces a ratio of zero, a neutral action produces a good result – no wrong is committed.

It would be very difficult to pick numbers in the above examples or in any other examples that everyone would agree are truly accurate. But the exact way in which the numbers are scaled (linearly or exponentially like the Richter scale) doesn’t matter. Perhaps an even better way to represent the numbers would be to always define the good result to be a value of 1 and then scale the wrong action accordingly. The point here is to show more clearly how people determine where they are on the sliding deontology-utilitarianism scale.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on utilitarianism and deontology in film (part 2).

(c) 2013 Read Twedt

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