Utilitarianism

Introduction

In a discussion some concluded that technology X is ‘more tied to GNOME’ than technology Y because ‘more [GNOME] people are helped by X’ due to dependencies for Y. Dependencies that might be unacceptable for some people.

This smells like utilitarianism and therefore it’s subject to criticism.

Utilitarianism is probably best described by Jeremy Bentham as:

Ethics at large may be defined, the art of directing men’s actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness.

– Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

A situational example that, in my opinion, falsifies this:

You are standing near the handle of a railroad switch. Six people are attached to the rails. Five of them at one side of the switch, one at the other side of the switch. Currently the handle is set in such a way that five people will be killed. A train is coming. There’s no time to get help.

  • Is it immoral to use the handle and kill one person but save five others?
  • Is it immoral not to use the handle and let five people get killed?

The utilitarianist chooses the first option, right? He must direct his actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness.

Body of the discussion

Now imagine that you have to throw a person on the rails to save the lives of five others. The person would instantly get killed but the five others would be saved by you sacrificing one other.

A true utilitarianist would pick the first option in both exercises; he would use the handle and he would throw a person on the rails. In both cases he believes his total value of produced happiness is (+3) and he believes that in both situations picking the second option means his total value of produced happiness is (-4) + (+1) = (-3). The person who picks the second option is therefore considered ethically immoral by a true utilitarianist.

For most people that’s not what they meant the first time. Apparently ethics don’t allow you to always say (+4) + (-1) = (+3) about happiness. I’ll explain.

The essence of the discussion

Psychologically, less people will believe that throwing a person on the rails is morally the right thing to do. When we can impersonificate we make it more easy for our brains to handle such a decision. Ethically and morally the situation is the same. People feel filthy when they need to physically touch a person in a way that’ll get him killed. A handle makes it more easy to kill him.

Let’s get back to the Gnome technology discussion … If you consider pure utilitarianism as most ethical, then you should immediately stop developing for GNOME and start working at Microsoft: writing good Windows software at Microsoft would produce a greater possible quantity of happiness.

Please also consider reading criticism and defence of utilitarianism at wikipedia. Wikipedia is not necessarily a good source, but do click on some links on the page and you’ll find some reliable information.

Some scientists claim that we have a moral instinct, which is apparently programmed by our genes into our brains. I too believe that genetics probably explain why we have a moral system.

The developer of X built his case as following: My technology only promotes happiness. The technology doesn’t promote unhappiness.

It was a good attempt but there are multiple fallacies in his defense.

Firstly, in a similar way doesn’t technology Y promote unhappiness either. If this is assumed about X, neither promote unhappiness.

Secondly, how does the developer of X know that his technology promotes no unhappiness at all? Y also promotes some unhappiness and I don’t have to claim that it doesn’t. That’s a silly assumption.

Thirdly, let’s learn by example: downplaying the amount of unhappiness happens to be the exact same thing regimes having control over their media also did whenever they executed military action. The act of downplaying the amount of unhappiness should create a reason for the spectator to question it.

Finally, my opinion is that the very act of claiming that ‘X is more tied to GNOME’, will create unhappiness among the supporters of Y. Making the railroad example applicable anyway.

My conclusion and the reason for writing this

‘More’ and ‘less’ happiness doesn’t mean a lot if both are incommensurable. Valuations like “more tied to GNOME” and “less tied to GNOME” aren’t meaningful to me. That’s because I’m not a utilitarianist. I even believe that pure utilitarianism is dangerous for our species.

To conclude I think we should prevent that the GNOME philosophy is damaged by too much utilitarianism.