Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

The Conflict between Rights and Utilities

See more posts in the Principles series.

Much ink and server space has been dedicated to the issue of how morality is constructed. My view is that the two prevailing ethical theories, deontology and utilitarianism, are both necessary for a healthy moral perspective. Further, many political conversations can be lubricated by explicit understandings as to what morality or moral ends comprise. I will explain my views here in order to provide lubrication for future reference.

Deontology

Deontological ethics stress the importance of rules and authority in determining moral behavior. Abrahamic and Judeo-Christian ethics are quintessentially deontological. These are the morals delineated by the thou shalts and the thou shalt nots. I’d like to frame deontology as a prescription of the rights one has and does not have. Rights can be described as either positive rights—rights allowing the exercise of a behavior—or negative rights—rights allowing the non-exercise of a behavior. With this terminology, a duty or obligation can be described as the absence of the right to not perform the obligation—the absence of a negative right. A prohibition can be described as the absence of the right to perform the prohibited act—the absence of a positive right. Deontologically, actors cannot be held morally accountable for actions or inactions that they had the right to execute.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism stresses the importance of using the pursuit of terminal values as the guide towards moral behavior. Utilitarian thought patterns are ordinary in such disciplines as engineering or public policy, where many different variables, resources, and interests must be weighed in order to accomplish something. Utilitarian ethics are not concerned with the propriety of specific choices, but rather with whether these choices maximize “utility,” an abstract quantity that is generally associated with human and/or animal “happiness” or “well-being.” Utilitarianly, actors cannot be held accountable for choices that increase/maximize utility, may be held accountable for choices that maintain or increase but do not maximize utility, and should be held accountable for choices that decrease utility.

When they agree

Deontology and utilitarianism often agree and dictate the same behavior. A child who breaks a vase has the choice to lie. By deontology, he shouldn’t lie. By utilitarianism, he knows if he lies he will probably be caught and punished (which reduces his utility more than confessing), so he shouldn’t lie. Utilitarianism and deontology most often agree when there is social accountability (rewards and punishments) or material consequences for specific actions.

When they don’t agree

But they don’t always agree. A child instructed to report his parents for the possession of a Bible, for instance, has the choice to lie. By deontology, he shouldn’t lie. By utilitarianism, he knows everyone will be made least happy if his parents are taken away and punished, so he should lie. Utilitarianism and deontology most often conflict when actors are subject to authority that doesn’t care about welfare or in fringe cases when the utility of a small group is weighed against that of an enormously bigger one.

How agreement changes

Whether they agree can change over time, particularly if the consequences of an action are dynamic. For instance, before effective birth control and STI management, promiscuity was proscribed by both deontology and utilitarianism. Upon medical advance, promiscuity stopped being proscribed by utilitarianism.

Types of behavior

Behavior can be classified by who it benefits:

Prosocial behavior benefits the group at large, regardless of whether it benefits oneself.
Antisocial behavior harms the group at large, regardless of whether it benefits oneself.
Unselfish behavior benefits others at the expense of oneself.
Selfish behavior benefits oneself, regardless of whether it benefits others.

Antisocial behavior is almost always a subset of selfish behavior.
Unselfish behavior is almost always a subset of prosocial behavior.
Behavior can be simultaneously prosocial and selfish.

Note that policies themselves cannot be selfish or unselfish, but they can be prosocial or antisocial, depending on whether they advance or regress the common good.

The foundations

The foundations of deontology and utilitarianism are what gives them their bite, so they are extremely important to make clear. The foundation of deontology is an authority. This authority can be a person, an organization, or a document, and is often a combination of these. Enduring authorities abide by dictating prosocial behaviors in the subordinated.

The foundation of utilitarianism is utility. The notion of utility requires definition by any utilitarian (but though definitions vary, they overlap considerably), and is generally identified as aggregate happiness or the greatest good for the greatest number.

Resolving conflict

The resolution to a conflict between the two can take many forms, although sometimes a resolution cannot be found, and a choice to ignore one or the other ethical system must simply be made:

1) One can ascertain the goals that guided the creation of the deontological rules, find that “welfare” or “happiness” or something similar was one of the goals, surmise that this interdicted action is thus actually what the authority would want, and ignore the deontological rule or alter it in some way. For instance, the speed limit is 60 mph, but you’re rushing your wife, in labor, to the hospital 20 minutes away, so you’re going 78mph instead. Another instance, you’re gay, but God is love, so God wants you to find your soulmate. (See also: Euthyphro dilemma)

2) One can choose to follow a different authority. For instance, you want to smoke marijuana which gives you utility, so you move to Colorado.

3) One can decide that the authority is deranged, irrational, or evil, and need not be heeded. For instance, you’re harboring Jews during WWII.

4) One can decide that some class of rights are unbreachable regardless of the effect of breaching those rights on another or many others. For instance, in the perennial objection to utilitarianism, what if the disutility resulting from torturing, maiming, or killing one or a few people is more than offset by the resulting smaller utilities spread out over thousands or millions of others? One can decide that everyone has the right to life and limb, and cannot have that right abrogated for any reason.

Case studies

1) You pass a person filling a parking meter and they are a quarter short. They ask you for a quarter, which you in fact possess and do not immediately need. Deontologically, you have the right to keep your possessions, and cannot be faulted for being selfish and keeping the quarter. Utilitarianly, you can be faulted for selfishness because you have decreased the net utility while you could have greatly increased it.

2) You are gay man “happily married” to a woman. You seek out discreet opportunities for sex with men, and are about to follow through with one. Deontologically, you do not have the right to cheat on your wife. Utilitarianly, the net utility of the situation (utility(sex) – risk × utility(consequences)) is positive, so you cannot be faulted for increasing utility.

3) You are a President confronted with the possibility of a drawn out Pacific military conflict that will result in the deaths of millions of armed personnel and civilians. You have the opportunity to use a weapon of mass destruction that would cease the military conflict in short order because of the threat it poses to your opposition’s civilization. Deontologically, you do not have the right to commit the war crimes involved in targetedly massacring civilians thousands of miles from the zones of conflict. Utilitarianly, you cannot be faulted for pursuing the course of action that maximizes utility.

4) You are a President confronted with the possibility of future terrorist attacks. You have some terrorists in custody who know information crucial to the success of current and future missions. You can only extract this information with torture. Deontologically, you do not have the right to commit the war crimes involved in torture. Utilitarianly, you cannot be faulted for pursuing the course of action that maximizes utility.

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One response to “The Conflict between Rights and Utilities

  1. Pingback: Should | The Rational Queer

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