The principle of Utility is true
Debate Rounds (4)
The principle of utility refers to the ethical principle that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness," with happiness understood as "pleasure and the absence of pain". The principle of utility is a main tenet of utilitarianism as forwarded by Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill.
The definition of true will be pretty straightforward and will refer to the common sense definition of the word. I want this debate to focus on ethics, not epistemology.
===Resolution and BoP===
The burden for this debate will be for the Pro to provide and defend a case in favor of the validity of the principle of utility, whereas Con's burden will be to refute Pro's case. I will ask that Pro provide their argument in R1, but that they refrain from posting in the last round so as to provide equality of case length.
1. Drops will count as concessions.
2. Semantic or abusive arguments will not be counted.
3. New arguments brought in the last round will not be counted.
4. R1 is for acceptance or, if they choose, my opponent may introduce a preliminary argument here.
It's a delight to have the opportunity to debate an opponent who clearly has a masterful grasp on the subject matter at hand and on philosophy in general. I hope to make this a fruitful and edifying exchange.
Contention 1: The principle of utility is what we actually mean when we talk about morality.
Suppose you meet a man and upon encountering him you are forced to make a choice between two options:
Option 0: You are to cause his life to become a nightmare of despair, taking from him everything he loves and forcing him to live out the remainder of his existence in agony deprived of all human contact.
Option 1: You are to reveal to him a fast-track path to nirvana which he can use to obtain everlasting bliss for himself and everyone he loves.
Is there any doubt as to which of these is the morally correct option? Of course not.
Here, we are clear on which option is the morally correct option simply because the word "moral" could only possibly refer to Option 1. When people invoke the term "moral" in everyday, non-philosophical language, their meaning conforms to the PoU.
Contention 2: The principle of utility is the only logical and coherent explanation of morality.
The other ethical theories on offer simply aren't able to provide explanations of moral behavior that are sufficiently logical or coherent. For example, deontology assumes the existence of "duty"  (identified as an anti-concept by Ayn Rand) which somehow binds agents to certain moral actions. Nonexistent entities such as intrinsic "goodness" and "badness" are also invented to justify deontological theories.
Because of these baseless assumptions, deontologist will argue, for example, that the morally correct course of action is to tell the truth even if it were to lead to terrible suffering and death because lying, deontologist maintain, is intrinsically bad. Were a serial killer to come to your home and ask for the whereabouts of you family so he could kill them, the deontologist would recommend against lying to your family's would-be murderer on the grounds that lying is intrinsically bad. Tipping off your family's murder is clearly an immoral act yet deontology only offers incoherence on this point.
Natural law theories, generally speaking, find morality in a "normative natural order". These theories tend to blatantly rest on the appeal to nature fallacy (i.e., x is natural thus x is justified). If moral actions were to be found in emulating nature, Option 0 could arguable be the morally correct option for humans as we are a species of apes that evolved violent and sadistic behaviour as survival strategies.
So the PoU is the only coherent way of explaining what humans mean when they invoke the notion of morality.
Contention 3: The principle of utility properly explains what is morally correct behavior.
But what makes the PoU valid? How does the PoU correctly explain that Option 0 is morally "wrong" and Option 1 is morally "right"?
In our thought experiment above, let's say the tables have been turned. You are the one on the receiving end of Option 0 or (hopefully) Option 1. Let's assume that the immoral option has been chosen for you and you are cast into a nightmare of despair. Does anything in your soul agree with this unfortunate turn of events. No. Your entire being rejects this assault that has been made on your well-being by another person.
Considering you current state, what would it mean to say "It is morally correct to inflict Option 0 onto another sentient creature". If you said this, you would be contradicting yourself. Your entire being rejects Option 0 when it is applied to you. You would be guilty of a double standard if you said Option 0 is justifiable to another sentient creature because there is no relevant difference between you and another sentient being. In other words you would literally be incorrect. And since this is a moral context, you would be morally incorrect.
To summarize, it has been shown that the PoU corresponds to what people actually mean when they distinguish between moral and immoral acts. This is important as it proves their isn't a semantic issue with the PoU; it means what it says it means.
It has also been shown that the moral correctness that the PoU references deals with the actual validity of moral action. This is why the PoU is true.
First off I'd like to return the compliments to my opponent as well. I'm certain this debate will prove to be both challenging and thought provoking.
C1. Morality and Meaning.
Observation. Even if conceded, my opponent's C1 wouldn't actually appear to justify the PoU, just the existence of a possible natural mode of thinking. But even in my opponent's C2 he argued that the existence of natural traits or conditions does not satisfy the conditions necessary for that trait or condition being justified or ethical.
More substantially, the main problem with this argument makes the unjustified assumption that whatever our intuitions point to is justified. But there are several problems with ethical intuitionism, chief among them being that it provides no meaningful method of resolving incompatible or mutually incompatible intuitive claims. For instance, say you intuit that lying is wrong in all instances while I intuit that lying is right in some instances. The specific fact that these were merely intuited and not actually reasoned out using sound logical analysis means that there is no justifiable way to resolve such disputes. And since we certainly do not all agree on the principle of utility (by the mere fact there is disagreement here in this debate), the point fails to adequately justify its validity.
C2. Coherent Explanations.
While an interesting critique of deontology and natural law, I'm afraid my opponent's C2 doesn't actually support the soundness of the PoU in that he has presupposed the existence of an actual objective morality. Now if we were to take the existence of objective morality as a starting point than my opponent's argument would be perfectly valid since the PoU could be justified by simply refuting all other options. But since this is not the case, my opponent is tasked with showing the existence of objective morality to start with. Otherwise the argument wouldn't stand on its own even if every other ethical theory were refuted (my opponent only attempted to refute two, ignoring virtue ethics, egoism, altruism, discourse ethics, Rawlsian ethics, rights theory, etc.) since there still wouldn't be any reason to suppose that any ethical theory at all is true. In short, disproving other ethical theories is a necessary though not sufficient condition for justifying the PoE.
C3. Moral Behavior.
My opponent's contention employs my favorite method of ethical analysis, consistency and performative contradiction. He argues that one would be inconsistent to argue that it is morally permissible to harm another being but that it would be wrong to inflict it upon themselves. Now while I wholly agree with this point, it is open to two primary criticisms, the fact that one would necessarily be intellectually against such treatment of themselves and the fact that my opponent has placed the scenario in a vacuum thus ignoring any other possible ethical approaches.
(A) My opponent's criticism makes the presupposition that the person who claims that inflicting pain is morally acceptable would be against such pain being inflicted on themselves. But this presupposition is in no way logically necessary. We can easily conceive of a person who believes that pain is a moral good in itself, regardless of the possible physical implications on themselves. Not only is this not a logically contradictory thought experiment, but people like this actually exist (though in a consensual manner, the principle of taking and inflicting pain still remains). So in order for my opponent's theory to work, masochists and sado-masochists would necessarily be immune to the implications of the PoU since they don't fit the conditions necessary for my opponent extrapolating his conclusion from.
Well socialpinko has gotten us off to a good start and in a good direction. Let's see where it takes us.
C1 Morality and Meaning
Ethical theories are basically attempts to define the word "morality". All human societies have this word "morality" but we aren't always clear on what to make of it. If moral language isn't complete gibberish then "morality" must have a clear definition. If a definition is proposed that is incoherent or illogical then we can be sure that definition is invalid. Deontology and natural law theory, as I show, fail to give logically sufficient, coherent explanation of morality. There are several others, as my opponent has pointed out. Can he demonstrate that any of of these offer logical, coherent and complete explanations of morality? This is what I have done for the PoU.
It's true that people can intuit any number of competing conceptions of morality. And by definition only one, if any, can be right. I don't argue for intuitionism however. I'm simply pointed out the word "morality" has a meaning and that the only logical, coherent definition it has is the PoU.
C4 Morality is objective (new)
As my opponent points out, if the PoU is true then morality must be objective. So the burden is on me to prove morality exists objectively.
The substrate of normative morality is the set of moral impulse that biologist study in all social animals. ("Moral impulses" here refers to such things as aversions to harming others and the innate desire to be helpful - the conscience, in other words). The substrate is also composed of moral axioms which I will discuss later. Thinking animals (mainly humans at this point in evolutionary history) inevitably render these impulses into logical systems of thought. This system of thought is what is properly referred to by the phrase "normative morality". All people develop this system of thought as they mature (unless they have an empathy disorder such a sociopathy). In any given person, the system is roughly the same. In a sense, it can be considered an organ. Consider that not all kidneys, for example, are exactly the same but, if they develop correctly, they are indeed roughly the same, having the same behaviors, attributes, etc. The fact that virtually all people have this same cognitive organ and that it is roughly the same in all people justifies viewing it as a thing it itself. Throughout the rest of this debate, I will call this system of beliefs the "normative organ".
The normative organ is the source of normative morality. It is composed of beliefs about what actions ought to be done. Almost all these beliefs are internally consistent and they are all concerned with well-being. Any belief one holds which is not concerned with well-being isn't a part of the normative organ because its substrate of moral impulse and moral axioms are only concerned with well-being. This is why the PoU is true. It maps perfectly onto the normative organ because the normative organ can only be concerned with the happiness and suffering of conscious system.
So what is happening when someone makes a claim which he or she calls moral but has nothing to do with well-being. It might be that the person has a mistaken understanding of the definition. Perhaps, "morality" has been mistaken for "obedience" as in divine command theory. Or a person could be motivated to justify a social system such as when Aristotle said that slavery was right because it is natural for some types people to be slave. Does it make sense to call divinely commanded genocide (as in the Bible) or slavery "moral". Why do these claims so clearly fail to make sense. Because they are wholly inconsistent with the beliefs contained in the normative organ.
The normative organ is an entirely objective entity. This may seem counteractive since it is a subset of beliefs and beliefs are typically experienced subjectively. But remember, a belief is a thought and a thought is a neural process. It's true that thoughts depend on a human's anatomy for their existence but so does any biological process. Would we ever dispute the objectivity of blood circulation, metabolism, biosynthesis or any of the other processes that depends on an organism for it's existence. Of course not. Likewise, we can't dispute the objectivity of the normative organ.
In round 1 C3, I asked the reader to consider the state of someone who had been cast into utter deprivation and misery by a fellow human being. He doesn't simply believe he has been wrong and that the person who caused his ruin was immoral, he can't help but to believe it. There is no way for him to see this any other way. Moral logic rests on axioms like this. He can't help but believe the statement "It is immoral for others to treat me this way". Therefore, because of the law of noncontridiction, with regard to others, he can only say, "It is immoral to treat others this way as well".
All people have things they value. Most people have families and friends whose well-being they value. Even if a person has none of these, they still value their own well-being. Because of this, every one is capable of being subjected to arguments like "Why is it wrong for X to be done to you but not wrong for you to do X to someone else?". Therefore, the moral axiom explained above is applicable to everyone. The development of the normative organ is the natural process virtually all people go through when they reflect on questions like this. So the normative system of logic that is encapsulated by the normative organ not only rest on a substrate of moral impulses but also on moral axioms. Morality, therefore, objectively exists, is a complete logical system which rests on its own axioms and is subject to the laws of logic.
Moral axioms and the very nature of objective morality (as I show above) deal strictly with the well-being of conscious systems. This is precisely why the principle of utility is true. Nothing other than happiness and suffering could possibly matter in a moral system.
Self-Defeating Personality Disorder (SDPD), Sadomasochism, etc.
My opponent points out that "We can easily conceive of a person who believes that pain is a moral good in itself". I readily concede this but one can conceive of a person who believes literally anything. Obviously, it doesn't make it true. If there is a person out there that thinks suffering is the goal of morality then we've simply found somebody who is not familiar with the concept.
My opponent adduces self-defeating personality disorder and sadomasochists as examples of people who see pain as a moral good. All the definitions I can find on sadomasochists agree that sadomasochist seek sexual pleasure from the act of receiving pain. What is being sough here is pleasure. Pain is just an expedient to pleasure like food is.
People with SDPD act in self defeating ways. People with this disorder don't see pain as a moral good. What seems to be happening with this disorder is that victims of it feel guilt and act on that guilt in excess. Though the guilt is perhaps irrational, the logic is consistent with the PoU.
Consider that in modern, civilized cultures, people who exhibit antisocial behavior (criminals) are punished in order to deter that behavior. This is done to promote the greatest amount of pleasure for the most people. Some people deem themselves to be guilty and deserving of punishment for the same reason. Though people with SDPD are probably wrong about their personal guilt, their moral compass is consistent with the PoU.
In the end, normative morality, as I have stated, is similar to an organ. And like an organ, it can be underdeveloped or malformed in some people (particularly sociopaths and the like).
Morality and Meaning.
Con begins by mischaracterizing what the aim of an ethical theory (in the scope of this debate) is. The aim will always depend on what field of ethics one is regarding. For instance, normative ethics will apply to the ought factor of ethics, what one ought to do in a given situation or what is the correct standard of action. What my opponent is describing however is what the goal of meta-ethics is. The PoU does not deal with the meaning of moral language. Moreover, even if we normally mean the opposite of what the PoU states, that would not be an argument against it since the PoU deals with what is ACTUALLY good or moral. Any attempt to ground morality in the conventional meaning of common language is at best an appeal to popularity (at worst an attempt to extrapolate real world conditions solely from beliefs) and thus by definition not " logical, coherent and complete explanations of morality" as my opponent argues.
Morality and Objectivity.
(A) The "Moral Organ"
The defense which my opponent brings for the objectivity of morality is interesting. Con argues that the source of our moral convictions originate in some "moral organ". However, he was extremely ambiguous in explaining how this arose. I feel as though it has great significance with regards to whether those convictions can be regarded as moral or not. For instance, if this organ arose by purely natural processes (as I'm guessing my opponent believes) then his argument is nothing but an appeal to nature. In doing so Con would be making the same mistake which he identified in natural law theory. Nothing about nature necessarily translates to what is moral.
(B) Begging the Question
A minor though important observation; in attempting to show the "moral organ" to be universal to humanity, my opponent has attempted to simply define non-conformers out of existence (morally speaking). For instance, in dealing with psychopaths or anyone who would have different moral convictions than what my opponent is attempting to universalize, Con merely chalks it up to "mistaken understanding". But the entire point of this argument is to define what the "moral organ" states in the first place. Just defining anyone who doesn't agree as mistaken is simply begging the question in this instance since we haven't properly defined what is moral yet. My opponent is basically taking the PoU as a premise in justifying the PoU.
(C) "Moral Organs" and Objectivity
Now obviously the main contention in my opponent's point is to prove the objectivity of morality. Unfortunately for Con, this is where his point is most lacking. In order to defend the supposed objectivity of these "moral axioms", my opponent argues that they are objective in that they have their root in neuronal processes. Con likens moral beliefs to bodily processes like blood circulation in that even though they exist contingently (on the existence of the body), we would still not be able to deny that they have actual objective existence.
I would agree with this last point, but would reject the conclusion which it predicates. Just because we might be able to measure things like beliefs objectively with the advancement of neuro-science does not actually prove the content of those beliefs to be objectively true. Con's point in actuality actually proves too much. For instance, take an indisputably subjective belief like the proposition, "Blue is the best color." We know that it's purely subjective but under my opponent's conception it would be rendered objective since the belief has objective base in neuronal processes in the brain.
But this entirely misses the point! Con's argument deals only with physical objectivity and ignores completely the concept of content objectivity. All beliefs and valuations (depending on whether the mind has materialistic basis) have physical objectivity, even purely subjective valuations. However, this is a wholly different characteristic then content objectivity such as the proposition that 2+2 is 4 or that the Sun is roughly 93 million miles away from the Earth. In failing to recognize this distinction, my opponent has failed to justify the content objectivity of the covinctions and beliefs arising out of our "moral organ".
Self Defeating Personalities.
In the last round, Con made the argument that it would be illogical to argue that it is bad to inflict pain on one's self but permissible to inflict it on others. I conceded this point. However, I showed that it doesn't prove my opponent's case by showing that this contradiction is definitely not a necessary truth in regards to reality. That is, there are instances where someone could defend the first part but not the second. One can defend pain on ethical grounds without denying it on personal ones. Con's case is based on a possible instance of illogical thought, not based off of any necessary truths. Therefore, my opponent's argument would be contingent on the actual argument being put forth by the arguer.
Since this argument is contingent, it cannot actually be objective. It's merely an if-then type of prescription. This can be distinguished from a non-conditional prescription, such as the prescription to act rationally. It could be argued that to act rationally is a universal prescription since one cannot possibly argue against such a proposition. For in doing so one is in effect admitting the truth of that which they attempt to defeat. Denial is therefore self-refuting. The way this plays into the debate at hand is that my opponent has argued that denial of the PoU is self-defeating. But as I have shown, it can only be really self defeating if it is self refuting in every instance. But since my opponent's argument rests on a non-necessary characteristic (in fact, it only deals with one instance) of denial of the PoU, it is not universally self-defeating as my opponent attempts to argue.
This criticism strikes at the heart of my opponent's contention. His rebuttal though lies simply in arguing that even sadomasochists (or people with SDPD) are actually acting according to a PoU framework by seeking pleasure in their sexual acts. The problem with this defense is that Con has misinterpreted my point. Instead of going after the crucual refutation which I re-outlined above, Con has latched on to a flawed example of my point which I apologize for making.
In the previous round I argued that people who do accept pain as universally permissible could logically exist and could make internally coherent arguments for such a position that do not entail denying the permissibility of violence against themselves. Sadomasochists were merely a real life example. Now I concede my opponent's point that they might just be seeking pleasure in a different form but conceding this does nothing to refute my case. Remember that my opponent's point rests on the very act of denying the immorality of pain to be contradictory. This would mean that the actual content of the denial would have to be incompatible with either the presuppositions of speech acts or one could not logically offer an internally coherent argument for such denial. This would mean that one could not POSSIBLY logically accept that pain is permissible. But as I have shown, the irrationality my opponent points out is not a logically necessary condition of denial.
My opponent's point that people can believe anything and that the act of believing does not refute the truth misses the point entirely. Con's argument itself rests on the inherent irrationality of thinking that pain is morally permissible. My argument shows that this is not in fact the case. My argument is in now way geared towards extrapolating empirical conditions of reality based purely off of opinions. It is merely based on the fact that my opponent is misrepresenting a single case of irrationality and using it to generalize against anyone who dismisses pain as inherently immoral.
We know that moral behavior starts in the brain and we know that that behavior is determined by logical processes in the brain. These processes are real. The truth claims that these processes make are based on axioms and intuitions unique to morality but are nevertheless morally true. Immoral beliefs are those that contradict the logic of this system.
The principle of utility is the only theory that accounts sufficiently for the logic of moral thinking. I demonstrated that the other theories on offer, such as deontology, natural law theory and divine command theory fail terribly when compared to the elegant explanatory power of the PoU.
As I pointed out, when other theories declare slavery, genocide, etc. to be morally good, we know there is something wrong with these theories. This is because we see clearly that such evils decrease the well-being of sentient beings, i.e., they don't conform the very definition of morality and therefore don't conform to the PoU. When an action violates the PoU, it is instantly
recognized as immoral and when an action conforms to the PoU it is instantly recognizable as a moral.
Thanks to socialpinko for an awesome debate!
===Summary and Conclusion===
Morality and Meaning.
Con's argument began by positing that when we speak of morality in everyday use, we really mean to refer to actions which inhibit or cause suffering on sentient beings. But as I pointed out, all this proves is that our thinking is either naturally biased to this type (which doesn't justify the existence of any actual moral properties in reference) or it appeals to a majoritarian line of thinking and thus commits the fallacy of appeal to the majority. Obviously not everyone adheres to this line of thinking proposed by my opponent, even if he could prove most people do. The very existence of deontologists, nihilists, etc. disproves this point. Furthermore, extrapolating actual conditions of the external world (like what is moral) from mere beliefs held by most people is intellectually irresponsible and is unacceptable in virtually every other field of inquiry.
Morality and Objectivity.
As I pointed out in the last round, my opponent's argument from the objective, physical neuronal basis of moral beliefs in the brain failed to take into account the different types of objectivity: physical and content. I conceded that all of our beliefs are objective in the physical sense since beliefs originate in the mind and the mind is a physical entity (thus providing an objective basis in the sense that blood is objectively real). However, my opponent's argument failed to actually justify the content objectivity of these moral axioms. According to my opponent's conception of what constitutes objectivity, even the most subjective beliefs (like those regarding a favorite color for example) would count as objective since they technically have an objective neuronal basis. The objectivity which my opponent defended is categorically different from objectivity in the relevant sense in regard to this debate. My opponent never responded to this point, therefore it is a concession as per the rules agreed to at the beginning of this debate it is a drop and thus a concession.
Besides that Con never responded to my argument that if his "moral organ" developed naturally through evolution (and was not implanted supernaturally or exists simply metaphysically) then it is merely a natural organ and to extrapolate moral conclusions from it would make the same mistake which my opponent accused natural law theory of doing. Con also never responded to my point that he simply defined non-conformists (in regards to his conception of morality) out when defining morality in the first place, thus begging the question in his argument.
Self Defeating Personalities.
In his initial argument, Con argued that it would be contradictory to argue that pain is wrong when inflicted on one's self but permissible to inflict on others. Therefore, he argued, denial of the PoU is contradictory. As I showed though, this point only takes one possible example of how one would deny PoU and then generalizes it on to all possible PoU denial. But clearly we can conceive of a person who doesn't make this mistake in reasoning and either argues for the universal permissibility of pain or denies morality entirely. The denial of PoU CAN be contradictory. That is all this point argued. It didn't sufficiently show that it was inherently contradictory (i.e. in all possible conditions of denial) to deny the PoU, thus the argument fails.
I'd like to thank vbaculum for putting up an interesting case for the principle of utility and for making this a certainly interesting and challenging debate. I wish him the best of luck in the voting period but will of course argue for a Pro vote.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by phantom 10 months ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Comment #11