The “ethics of advertising wine” is not actually the subject of this post. The web site, Ethics of Advertising Wine, is. I enjoyed the site, an interesting foray into ethics and advertising, and below is the author’s take on utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is split between the works of two famous philosophers: Bentham and Mill. What you have just seen is a very shallow version of Bentham’s philosophy. What Bentham did was provide a moral theory that was supposed to allow people to calculate whether something is morally good dependent on if it brought more overall pleasure than pain. The tricky part of his theory comes when you have to place a numeric value on seemingly immeasurable things. I mean, how exactly do you put a number on how much pleasure eating an entire pizza pie will bring? (one million pleasures, that is how much.) And how many pleasure points are subtracted from how fat and unhealthy you will feel? (seven…the answer is seven. so I’m heading off to Little Caesars.) Not only is it difficult to put a number on your own personal pleasure an pains, but utilitarianism includes the pleasure and pain of anyone that will be affected by your decision, even those that will be effected in the future. Bentham also was a follower of act utilitarianism. This means that he believed that you should deem the moral value of each individual act and follow those calculations.
Mill, who studied Bentham, was a rule utilitarian. He believed that moral citizens should calculate the ethical value of a set of “rules.” They should then never stray from following those rules. For example, he would calculate the pleasures and pains of every person ever in the case of lying. He would possibly find out that lying causes more pain than pleasure, and would deem that, as a rule, lying is immoral. No longer do you have to do individual calculations on each special scenario to see whether lying is okay in this case and bad in another.
From around the web.
From the web site, European Business Ethics Ireland.
Probably the most widely understood and commonly applied ethical theory is utilitarianism. In an organisational context, utilitarianism basically states that a decision concerning business conduct is proper if and only if that decision produces the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals.
“Good” is usually defined as the net benefits that accrue to those parties affected by the choice. Thus, most utilitarians hold the position that moral choices must be evaluated by calculating the net benefits of each available alternative action.
Importantly, all the stakeholders affected by the decision should be given their just consideration.
As mentioned previously, teleological theories deal with outcomes or end goals. The often-stated declaration that “the end justifies the means” is one classic expression of utilitarian thinking. Several formulations of utilitarianism exist. Their differences harken back to the original writers on the topic, the nineteenth-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
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.
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.
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, AlevelRE.com: (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.
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.
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.
Few understand the importance of Kant in business ethics. I appreciate any enlightenment offered.
By the way, this is a beautiful web site. There is also a strong implication of heavy intellectual lifting going on, so be ready for a challenge.
Check out my chum and occasional collaborator Chris Onof’s paper Moral Worth and Inclinations in Kantian Ethics just published at Kant Studies Online. There are few philosophers around today that write with such exacting precision, such intimacy with their topic and with such philosophical breadth that Chris Onof does. … Read More