J.J.C. Smart in Utilitarianism: for and against

J.J.C. Smart in Utilitarianism: for and against       I read the first forty-two pages of Utilitarianism: for and against (which were authored, as is the whole first half, by J.C.C. Smart). The selection was divided into 5 parts, excluding the introduction: act- vs. rule-utilitarianism, hedonistic vs. non-hedonistic utilitarianism, average vs. total happiness, negative utilitarianism, and rightness/wrongness of actions. Each of these sections seemed to be treated in an incomplete manner; ignoring the tendency of Smart to delay his explanations to later pages in the text, it is evident that Smart cannot attend all the questions before utilitarianism in the space provided (although that seems desirable). And, in fact, it was not his intention to battle with critics of the system, unfortunately for us. He aimed this book at convincing those who are so inclined to adopt utilitarianism that their choice is a valid one. Unfortunately, Smart did not convince me; rather, he left me with some questions. Addressing each section in turn, my queries should make evident a general question of what utilitarianism, according to Smart, can really say to guide man’s moral behavior.      For instance, in the section on act- vs. rule-utilitarianism, Smart claims that rule-utilitarianism ends in ‘rule-worship,’ and so asserts act-utilitarianism to be the best form of utilitarianism.1 However, he later argues against his own objections to rule- utilitarianism when he agrees with David Lyons that rule- and act-utilitarianism could effect the same things when rule-utilitarianism continually modifies itself to allow for situational exceptions.2 Smart even carries it further to assert that this modified rule- utilitarianism would be identical with act-utilitarianism, for it would have only one rule: the act-utilitarian principle.3 So, it seems that Smart wants to hold an act-utilitarian position while being as inclusive as possible; in doing this, he seems to ignore the original ‘rule-worship’ accusations of the section’s beginning.       As an aside, Smart refers to Kant as a rule-utilitarian; he is stretching the boundaries of utilitarianism on this, is he not?4 I thought Kant was the stereotypical deontologist against whom many utilitarians were working; if this is the case, it seems that Smart himself falls into the trap of which he warns the reader. After all, it is possible to define utilitarianism so broadly that even deontology and other ethical systems are included that must be excluded in order to establish utilitarianism as a viable system.5       Smart next addresses some more easily understood distinctions between hedonistic and non-hedonistic utilitarianism. He claims that there are two sets of evaluations within utilitarianism: a question of whether the total consequences of situation A or B are better, and a discussion of whether act A or B is better. For example, Bentham, Moore, and Mill disagree on the first evaluation. Bentham declares reading and playing a game equal pleasures.
Moore, on the other hand, gives a value to something outside of its pleasure-giving ability (e.g., knowledge). Finally, Mill holds that there are higher and lower pleasures, but pleasure is a necessity for something to have value. These differences have real effect on utilitarianism’s practical application, but Smart claims that although they disagree on the first evaluation, it is more important that they agree on the second (the evaluation of acts).6 But my question arises when he delves into examples. Smart describes a set of brothers, one of whom is ambitious and attains wealth, knowledge, and the good of society by means of hard and often unpleasant work (although rewarding in the end). The other brother has little ambition, and is content his whole life to remain where he is and enjoy life. Smart obviously grants that the first brother has the better part; but what about the unsuccessful brother? What would he say about someone who has the same ambitions as the first brother and works toward his goals his whole life but, instead of being rewarded with success, for one reason or another finds failure? Smart generally veers away from such difficult questions in this selection, instead deferring to later pages a discussion of the situations where the end cannot be known, or the total consequences foreseen.
      However, he does comment on the need for a utilitarian calculus.7 There would be no such need if it were possible to quantify total consequences in the sense that whole situations might be understood and weighed against one another to determine the best situation. But since the total consequences cannot be known (or are not known), utilitarianism must resort to probability in assessing whether an action should be completed or not. Many critics of utilitarianism refer to this need for a calculus of probability negatively; however, Smart rebukes them by proving that other ethical systems, and indeed common sense itself, use this idea as well. For instance, he claims that a common sense decision often involves weighing two situations without numbers based on the available knowledge of that situation. This too, Smart contends, is calculus; and since it is ubiquitous where any ethical system assigns weight to beneficence, this calculus must be accepted and used. However, he allows that until a theory of objective probability is formulated, utilitarianism is not secure theoretically.       So utilitarianism seems to hold within it many different branches; if utilitarianism cannot agree within itself what the ‘best consequences’ are, it seems to be in trouble. After all, the system’s whole basis rests on evaluating good and bad actions (or rather, actions one should and should not do) by evaluating the consequences of that action: “one ought to do that which will produce the best consequences.”8 To evade this, Smart focuses his argument on the ‘ought’ evaluation, instead of the evaluation of what the best consequences are. In this attempt, Smart opens his arms to include all utilitarians in embrace, but has perhaps opened his arms too wide in including Kant in the utilitarian circle. Also, despite evading conversation of the best consequences, Smart must confront the problem of not knowing the total consequences of an action in order to best judge its goodness. His act-utilitarian axiom ‘maximize probable benefit’ reveals the need for a system of probability for evaluating consequences; given that no objective probability theory exists, utilitarianism seems to be in trouble. Pointing out, as Smart does, that other systems are in the same boat does not keep it from sinking; what can utilitarianism really tell us, after all? 

Published in: on September 15, 2006 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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