Some Opinions on Preference Utilitarianism!


John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

Some Opinions on Preference Utilitarianism!

A Basic Justification for Preference Utilitarianism | Life, philosophy, and a whole lot else

Preference utilitarianism bases itself on the idea used in classical utilitarianism, that the principle of utility is the most important basis of moral decision-making. This principle is about maximising pleasure/happiness or preventing pain/suffering, as Bentham says. Preference utilitarianism retains this but simply modifies it to be subjective, that people’s preferences should be maximised, not pleasure over pain. This is a simple way to be personal, allowing everyone their own say rather than simply assuming pleasure is always desirable (since it is not, e.g. eating a bar of chocolate when morbidly obese, as a simple example), or that pain is not (common in religious life, or secularly the opposite of before – exercising). So this is a simple upgrade of utilitarianism.

It could be argued that people are irrational, they do not always have the right preferences or are not in a position to have one. But we can surely not assume that people are alwyas irrational. If we were to do so, then the ethical system could simply not be applied since people would use it illogically or misinterpret it. For classical utilitarianism, we would be saying that pleasure is desirable but some people (since they are irrational) would not desire it. It is similar in economics – we have to assume people act rationally, even if in practice it is unlikely to always be the case.

A Basic Justification for Preference Utilitarianism | Life, philosophy, and a whole lot else

This is the first statement of preference utilitarianism I found with a web search. I thought I would look around the web and see what other web sites had on the issues. This is an important concept in business ethics. People choose their greatest happiness by making decisions based on their preferences. It’s very free market. Milton Friedman would find a lot in this to like.

James Pilant

From around the web –

From the web site, Mike Vernon: Philosophy and Life Blog:

However, it was on the last issue that the conference demonstrated real philosophical interest too. Singer admitted that his brand of utilitarianism – preference utilitarianism – struggles to get to grips with the vastness of the problem of climate change. Further, there is an element that comes naturally to Christian ethics which his ethics might need in order to do so. It has to do with whether there are moral imperatives that can be held as objectively true.

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: “I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.”

Second, preference utilitarianism also runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

From the web site, (This is a teaching site with a great deal of useful and well-written content on Utilitarianism. I strongly recommend it. You should go to the site and read more of the content.)

Preference Utilitarianism
This form of Utilitarianism is most commonly associated with Australian philosopher, Peter Singer.
His modern take on the greatest happiness principle focuses on the impact an action will have on
the preferences of those directly affected. In achieving the greatest happiness, Singer argues that
we should act in a way that satisfies people´s preferences—in other words, what people prefer or
would most like to happen.
Like Utilitarians before him, Singer emphasises that peoples’ preferences count equally—my
preference for something is no more important simply because it is my preference. This requires an
impartial perspective is taken when considering the correct moral action. In identifying the right
thing to do, we must consider all those affected by an action and aim to act in accordance with
the majority´s preferences.
This is different from the hedonism of Jeremy Benthem since Singer is considering a more
sophisticated view of what maximises happiness. Where for Benthem, actions are considered in
terms of pleasure and pain, Singer recognises that different people have different preferences and
it is best to act in the best interests of those concerned. Take the story of the Blacksmith & the
Baker—Bentham would argue that the execution of the innocent baker maximises the happiness of
the community, despite his protestations. However, Singer would not allow this as the action goes
directly against the preferences of the person most affected, ie the Baker´s preference for
continued existence.

From the web site, Philosopher in a Phonebox:

I am slightly puzzled by Preference Utilitarianism. This post is an attempt to tease out that puzzlement as much as anything else.

Preference Utilitarianism is a form ofConsequentialism, a moral system in which the rightness of an action is judged based on its consequences. The original form ofutilitarianism put forward by Bentham argued that whatever increased pleasure and minimised pain was right. Preference Utilitarianism instead says that whatever satifies preferences is right.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophygives a few problematic preferences in criticism of Preference Utilitarianism but it seems to me some miss the mark. A preference to torture children would be counterbalanced by the children’s preference to not be tortured which is likely to be stronger. A preference to drink acid in mistake for a cool beer is not really a preference to drink acid but a preference for beer directed in error at the acid (being told the drink is acid will not remove the desire for beer, merely change the person’s belief that the drink is beer). Preferring to write very small may seem trivial – but to some, so might ivory carving, or discovering the Higgs Bosom.

From the pdf file:

Peter Singer (b. 1946)

The work of Peter Singer spans the entirety of major applied ethics topics. It is no coincidence that the development of Singer’s career runs parallel to the development and growing prominence of the aforementioned discipline. Singer’s work both helped to define the range of concerns in applied ethics, as well as to elevate the standard of intellectual rigor in the field. Singer has made major and lasting contributions on issues of bioethics, environmental ethics, and global poverty. Part of Singer’s effectiveness as a philosopher, as well as his influence outside of the academy, rests on the fact that his most powerful arguments require only that one accept a seemingly innocuous set of premises, most of which his readers are likely to hold implicitly (e.g. suffering and death from lack of proper nutrition and medical care is bad; if one can prevent something bad from happening without compromising something of similar moral significance, then one ought to do so). Following from these established premises, Singer then leads his readers through their logical and practical implications, to a conclusion he hopes will impact their behavior. All of Singer’s principal insights are consistently grounded in utilitarian considerations.



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