Have we equal worth?

I consider myself a utilitarian, which means that I believe an action is just to the extent it increases happiness in the world. I came across a utilitarian “Frequently Asked Questions” page earlier today that was very good, except for one paragraph. The problem is that the one paragraph contains a significant error, at least to my understanding of utilitarianism.

The FAQ was written by a man named Nigel Phillips, and it can be seen in full here. Phillips tackles the issue of forced organ donation. In short, the ethical dilemma is whether it is justifiable to kill a healthy human being for the purpose of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need his organs to live. Does utilitarianism require us to kill the one healthy person to save the five sick ones?

A common fear about utilitarianism is that the theory would require us to kill the healthy person. Phillips says “not so fast”, explaining that there are all kinds of negative consequences that would result from the murder, in addition to the death we would have caused.

Phillips: How could we pick a victim for our supplies, without generating fear and alarm in the community? If someone who goes to hospital with a minor complaint gets killed for his body parts by the doctors, would this not generate a fear of hospitals in the general populace… who would then refuse to enter one lest a similar situation occur again? And how, if we give doctors the power to decide who should die and who should live, do we stop doctors abusing their powers and becoming, for instance, extortionists?

So good, so far. But the next sentence Phillips writes should leave all utilitarians scratching their head.

There is also the assumption that different people’s lives necessarily have roughly equal worth… which is simply ridiculous from a utilitarian perspective. What if the two recipients are Hitler and Göring, and the forced donor is Martin Luther King?

The idea that people have equal worth is ridiculous? This is certainly not my belief. I believe that a person’s moral worth is a function of their ability to experience happiness in the future. It has nothing to do with their past actions. I feel comfortable with the idea that Hitler, Göring and King all have equal moral worth.

Now, before you leave any nasty comments, I do not believe that we should treat a mass murderer the same as a civil rights leader. How we assess a person’s moral worth and how we treat that person are separate issues. If punishing Hitler and Göring would have eased the pain of the holocaust survivors, or would have discouraged future wars or genocides, then those are good arguments for punishing them. I don’t think punishing King would ease anyone’s pain and it wouldn’t make war less likely, so he should be treated differently. But notice that the difference in treatment is due to a difference in expected consequences and not in the moral worth of the subjects.

As a matter of fact, Phillips embraces this very philosophy later on in the FAQ when discussing the issue of punishment.

Phillips: Utilitarianism does not accept that the “guilty” deserve “punishment” – it views punishment as a prima facie evil since it involves the infliction of harm. This harm can be justified if it has greater benefits in terms of maintaining order in the community, but the utilitarian position is that if punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.

I couldn’t agree more.

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3 Responses to “Have we equal worth?”

  1. JIM Says:

    Point 1: “If punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.”

    What if you punish someone for the sake of making the family(s) of the victim(s) or victim(s) themselves happy, even though there is no utility value?

    On the one hand, you’d be making someone happy, but on the other, inflicting harm on someone else. So the end sum in utilitarian terms would be zero.

    Point 2: What if a person’s personality or genetics predisposes them towards much greater levels of happiness than most other people? Would that give them greater moral worth? Someone that is not only unhappy, but also not really useful to society either.

    So by utilitarian terms you find the moral worth of someone by an equation somewhat like the following: X (Happiness of Individual) + Y (Happiness individual brings to other people) minus Z (Harm this person causes to other people). Y and Z are calculated on a short term as well as long term basis (spanning after a person’s life).

    Imagine a person predisposed towards depression (a lot of those people, actually), then your value X is low. Moreover, depression usually entails poor working habits and making other individuals around you depressed ( negative Z). He/She may be a lot smarter and more interesting than everyone else (so a few oddballs like him/her), and makes a few people in his/her life happy = increase in (Y). However, this person still comes out with a negative utilitarian value.

    Utilitarianism may be a good all-encompassing political philosophy, that’s logically coherent. What else can you draw from that’s logically coherent? Certainly happiness seems like a good benchmark. However, to the person described in the last paragraph, he/she doesn’t care about utilitarianism or pleasing society. Does that matter?

    I think Utilitarianism fails to judge worth in ways beyond happiness. Art. A person’s life, even though by utilitarian terms is meaningless or counterproductive, can still serve as a form of art. Sad and painful art. Sadness is good. Oftentimes it’s hard to be happy without first being sad, or vice versa. Can you imagine a world without famine, earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, or war?

    How can there be “something or meaning” without a benchmark of nothingness or meaningless? Life is a tapestry of happiness, sadness, nothingness, misery, elation, etc to people, in relativistic and incoherent ways. There are other goals to strive for in life, other than happiness.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    What if you punish someone for the sake of making the family(s) of the victim(s) or victim(s) themselves happy, even though there is no utility value?

    If the victim’s family is happier, why does that not count as utility?

    On the one hand, you’d be making someone happy, but on the other, inflicting harm on someone else. So the end sum in utilitarian terms would be zero.

    Just because an action has both positive and negative consequences does not mean that it is a net wash for utility.

    Oftentimes it’s hard to be happy without first being sad, or vice versa.

    I grant that there is something to this, but it is often overblown. I don’t think we have to spend time in a concentration camp before we can appreciate a sunny day.

    Can you imagine a world without famine, earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, or war?

    Yes.

    There are other goals to strive for in life, other than happiness.

    It’s possible that utilitarians have defined happiness so broadly that distinct emotions that make us feel “good” are all slapped with the label of “happiness.” I’m open to that idea, but I’m left wondering how we make sense of someone’s behavior if there isn’t just one thing they’re trying to maximize. For instance, when people say they don’t want to drive an hour to a movie because “it’s not worth it” what could they mean other than the utility derived from the movie is lower than the disutility of driving to see it?

  3. JIM Says:

    What I am trying to say is that some people have value just because they’re interesting to someone. They give no feelings of happiness to anyone or very few people, even themselves. Can you think of people like this in your life? I can think of a couple. They give us something to ponder about, or pass the time, which would otherwise be boring.

    The same holds true for other things, events, etc.

    “Just because an action has both positive and negative consequences does not mean that it is a net wash for utility.”

    There are many possibilities for net wash utility, you must admit.

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