Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hedonistic utilitarianism

George is 20 years old and Jake is 50. Neither has friends, or is very likely to make a significant contribution to the pleasure of others, in George's case because of anti-social tendencies, and in Jake's because of severe disability. George hates Jake and pushes him overboard. As Jake flies overboard, George loses his balance and falls in, too. Both call to us for help. We can only pull out one. What should be done?

Here is a hedonist utilitarian answer (it makes a lot of assumptions, but the assumptions are not crazy). We should pull out George, and have him tried and convicted of murder. Then we should publicly sentence him to a lifetime of pain. We then need to hook him to electrodes in a cell, for the rest of his life. But unbeknownst to the public, the electrodes will deliver intense pleasure for the rest of his life. George will never tell anyone this, because he will be enjoying the pleasure too much. We need to tell George about this before he is sentenced to the lifetime of pain, so that he doesn't get too scared of the sentence.

On hedonist utilitarian grounds shouldn't pull out Jake, because (a) Jake is probably not going to agree to being hooked up to the pleasure-machine, and (b) even if he did, he wouldn't have as long left to live, and hence as much pleasure to experience, as George would, since George is younger. To satisfy the public, we might need to lie that we couldn't pull out Jake. George will support us in that lie. Since contortions of pleasure don't look too different from contortions of pain, we can exhibit George to the public, and this will have a significant deterrent effect on murder.

Yes, I know that hedonist utilitarians will cavil at this and at that in the story. But of course the real reason the story is all wrong is that it is surely wrong to save the life of the murderer while letting his victim drown (unless maybe the victim requests that we save the life of the murderer instead—for instance, if the victim is the murderer's parent).


Charel Weng said...

ARP's analysis has a fundamental flaw. To the extent to which hedonistic utilitarianism inclines public officials to engage in the deception in order to deter is the extent to which the public would be able to assume confidently that a deception is occurring and is thus the extent to which any intended deterrent effect would be negated. Public officials, aware of this, would thus realize that the deterrent effect would be so minimized, contradicting ARP's counterexample.

Some related material by me begins here

Alexander R Pruss said...

Public officials would have utilitarian reason to lie to people and say that they're not hedonistic utilitarians, then, no?

Charel Weng said...

What you say may be true, but then to the extent to which hedonistic utilitarianism inclines public officials to so lie is the extent to which the lie would have no evidential value for the public.

The hedonistic utilitarianism of public officials would also be able to be discerned by the pattern of their lives, past and future.

In any event, even if the result is accurate, I don't find it morally counterintuitive. I see no reason to prefer in an overriding way, excepting the victim's own preference, the saving of the perpetrator of a crime versus the victim. If the perpetrator of a crime happened to have discovered the secret to cold fusion and that secret we knew would have died with him, then it seems to me a no-brainer, morally, that we should save the perpetrator of the crime instead of the victim -- without even having to posit pleasure machines etc.

Some more related material by me here