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Old 07-03-2011, 07:44 PM   #1
Ryanb9
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Utilitarian hypothetical

Assume we are talking about Bentham's utilitarianism, and that we are examining utilitarianism in an isolated community the size of Manhattan. Now assume everyone in this community is just like all regular humans except for 1 person. This one person has the capacity to experience pain and pleasure to the extremes, such that if he were to stub his toe the pain he would experience would be equal to the sum of the pain experienced by all those living in Manhattan stubbing their toe -- and the same for pleasure (his pleasure is a normal persons pleasure * the number of people living in his isolated community).

Now I think there are some interesting scenarios. Say this one person gets the most pleasure from having sex. Or say he gets the most pleasure from owning slaves. Or gets pain from people not doing what he tells them to do.

How could Bentham defend his principle of utility under a scenario like this? Does anyone honestly think that in this scenario, a good portion of the people in Manhattan should be forced to have intercourse with this guy (or be his slave / always do what he says) as long as their pain is less than his pleasure?
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Old 07-03-2011, 08:52 PM   #2
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Does the guy work for Goldman Sachs?
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Old 07-04-2011, 12:39 AM   #3
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utility_monster
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Old 07-04-2011, 01:14 AM   #4
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

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Originally Posted by chocaholic View Post
This basically quoted the first paragraph of the OP...
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Old 07-04-2011, 06:37 PM   #5
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

I mean the guy is dead so he cannot defend himself .... anyone willing to defend him / his principle of utility as it relates to this scenario? Even if you are playing devils advocate?

Anyone willing to humor me with their views on these quotes:

1. "utilitarianism seems fine but doesn't work in this scenario"
2. "good thing humans suffer from diminishing returns"
3. "this is one of the reasons utilitarians sucks" etc
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Old 07-04-2011, 10:36 PM   #6
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ryanb9 View Post
I mean the guy is dead so he cannot defend himself .... anyone willing to defend him / his principle of utility as it relates to this scenario? Even if you are playing devils advocate?

Anyone willing to humor me with their views on these quotes:

1. "utilitarianism seems fine but doesn't work in this scenario"
2. "good thing humans suffer from diminishing returns"
3. "this is one of the reasons utilitarians sucks" etc
I'll have a go at defending Bentham from this.

He argued for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
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Old 07-04-2011, 10:44 PM   #7
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Sounds like a jerk.

Last edited by jb9; 07-04-2011 at 10:44 PM. Reason: changed insults
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Old 07-04-2011, 11:21 PM   #8
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

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Originally Posted by chezlaw View Post
I'll have a go at defending Bentham from this.

He argued for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Okay so this seems to be a disagreement about the definition(ish) of Bentham's principle of utility. What I think is meant by greatest good for greatest number is weighing happiness on one side of a scale and the reverse of happiness on the other side (obv). But beyond this, if you have happiness which equals 2 units on one side, which came by 1 unit from 2 people, and 3 units of the reverse of happiness on the other side (which came from 1 person) than the action / decision etc does not promote utility (take for instance 2 people who are on someone's life-insurance policy, they both gain from this guy's death, but killing this guy is worse for him than it is good for the two who would gain the money from his death).

Where would you disagree?
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Old 07-05-2011, 07:08 AM   #9
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

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Originally Posted by Ryanb9 View Post
Okay so this seems to be a disagreement about the definition(ish) of Bentham's principle of utility. What I think is meant by greatest good for greatest number is weighing happiness on one side of a scale and the reverse of happiness on the other side (obv). But beyond this, if you have happiness which equals 2 units on one side, which came by 1 unit from 2 people, and 3 units of the reverse of happiness on the other side (which came from 1 person) than the action / decision etc does not promote utility (take for instance 2 people who are on someone's life-insurance policy, they both gain from this guy's death, but killing this guy is worse for him than it is good for the two who would gain the money from his death).

Where would you disagree?
I'd say that's nothing like what Bentham meant.

As for the OP theory that afaik only Madnak believes (or used to) it sounds like a cunning plan with the one small flaw
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Old 07-05-2011, 10:12 AM   #10
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Solution is to simply kill this guy. Biggest EV.
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Old 07-05-2011, 12:44 PM   #11
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

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Originally Posted by chezlaw View Post
I'd say that's nothing like what Bentham meant.
what did he mean?
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Old 07-05-2011, 12:46 PM   #12
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

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Originally Posted by Ryanb9 View Post
what did he mean?
He argued for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

That was the principle, he then looked for a method. You have described a method. When a conflict is found between a method and the principle then we modify the method.

Last edited by chezlaw; 07-05-2011 at 12:54 PM.
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Old 07-05-2011, 01:33 PM   #13
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Preference utilitarianism seems like a better approach to achieve greatest happiness for greatest number of people than this sort of hedonistic addition scheme.
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Old 07-05-2011, 05:22 PM   #14
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Quote:
Originally Posted by chezlaw View Post
He argued for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

That was the principle, he then looked for a method. You have described a method. When a conflict is found between a method and the principle then we modify the method.
So he would say that if a guy was to do labor for free to help people, he would do more good by working for 3 hours--1 hour for 3 people-- than he would by working for 10,000 hours for just 2 of those people?
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Old 07-05-2011, 05:38 PM   #15
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ryanb9 View Post
Okay so this seems to be a disagreement about the definition(ish) of Bentham's principle of utility. What I think is meant by greatest good for greatest number is weighing happiness on one side of a scale and the reverse of happiness on the other side (obv). But beyond this, if you have happiness which equals 2 units on one side, which came by 1 unit from 2 people, and 3 units of the reverse of happiness on the other side (which came from 1 person) than the action / decision etc does not promote utility (take for instance 2 people who are on someone's life-insurance policy, they both gain from this guy's death, but killing this guy is worse for him than it is good for the two who would gain the money from his death).
It isn't at all clear how to measure "units" of happiness.

Definitely there are some cases in which many interpretations of utilitarianism would favor helping this guy out.

I'd rather see one anthill destroyed than one human killed. All I have to do is imagine a being such that this being : humans :: humans : ants, and then killing a bunch of people for the sake of this being seems just fine by me.

Of course, said being probably doesn't exist, and if it did exist the likelihood of it getting pleasure from torturing people or whatever is unlikely.

But if there is a being such as that, then who am I to complain? I'm an ant, that's who. You might as well ask "what if God wants to torture people?" I mean, the answer is "that would suck." Bearing on utilitarianism? None, really.
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Old 07-05-2011, 08:43 PM   #16
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Quote:
Originally Posted by madnak View Post
It isn't at all clear how to measure "units" of happiness.
.
Yes I agree, and the details of what I said in the OP can be torn apart, I understand that. But I'm more interested in the general things I am saying in op... all the hypotheticals and assumptions I made were for the purpose of only laying a ground work to expose something (namely, what to do / how utilitarianism looks in the event of someone who does not suffer from diminishing marginal utility) which I think utilitarians might have a hard time explaining / defending.

Don't get me wrong I would consider myself a millian utilitarian, so I mean I'm coming at this from the stance of "help me" rather than "im attacking bentham"

But here is what I have so far in defense of Bentham...

First, it might be that utilitarianism only functions on top of a basis of rights. This would mean that if a girl gets less pain from being raped than a guy gets from raping her, this does not mean he should rape here as it violates her rights which are more fundamental than utilitarianism (like a hierarchy of needs sort of speak).

I think this is okay however it has a weak spot which is in those scenarios which are so often discussed in philosophical circles that deal with violating the rights of a few to benefit many. Common scenarios are the hypothetical bomb at the super bowl and the guy who may have planted the bomb but wont speak unless we torture him, as well as the workers on the train track and the guy in the hospital who is healthy but we want to harvest his organs to save 5 people who each need a different organ.

The second thing I can think of is basically this... "utilitarianism works because it was created out of observation of humans etc. it is not dogmatic in the sense of "this is what we want, humanity must conform" but rather "this is the way humanity is, so we created utilitarianism because of that" ..."

And one of the things humans suffer from is in fact diminishing marginal utility. The reason this "utility monster" makes utilitarianism seem appalling is because utilitarianism was created for humans the way they are, and they are not "utility monsters."

Quote:
Originally Posted by madnak View Post
Definitely there are some cases in which many interpretations of utilitarianism would favor helping this guy out.
What are these cases and do you know the arguments for / against helping this guy out?

Quote:
Originally Posted by madnak View Post

Of course, said being probably doesn't exist, and if it did exist the likelihood of it getting pleasure from torturing people or whatever is unlikely.

But if there is a being such as that, then who am I to complain? I'm an ant, that's who. You might as well ask "what if God wants to torture people?" I mean, the answer is "that would suck." Bearing on utilitarianism? None, really.
Yeah he probably doesn't exist and probably never will, so I mean I guess this makes the discussion (all things being equal) less relevant, however I still think discussions / arguments for and against things like this are beneficial in understanding a viewpoint / principle / etc if only for the limits of it.

I do like what a Yale professor said on one of the lectures about Bentham which was something about Bentham pushes utilitarianism to the extreme and goes all the way with it, which to us is absurd, however it helps us because we can see it from start to finish and decide where to draw the line.

edit: so it might be that utilitarianism seems fine regardless of utility monsters, or it could be the case that utilitarianism works only with humans who suffer from diminishing marginal utility.

Last edited by Ryanb9; 07-05-2011 at 08:53 PM.
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Old 07-05-2011, 09:23 PM   #17
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

I am not sure if you can find an amount of hamburger eating pleasure that is equal to pleasure from romantic love. We obviously have a hierarchy of preferences, but whether satisfaction of eating hamburgers can be meaningfully compared to satisfaction from having a great wife in a single unit of cardinal utility seems bit unclear.
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Old 07-05-2011, 09:32 PM   #18
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Re: Utilitarian hypothetical

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ryanb9 View Post
First, it might be that utilitarianism only functions on top of a basis of rights. This would mean that if a girl gets less pain from being raped than a guy gets from raping her, this does not mean he should rape here as it violates her rights which are more fundamental than utilitarianism (like a hierarchy of needs sort of speak).
Issues like this are primarily why my ethical/moral code is a combination of respect for persons and utilitarianism.
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