(urth) Utilitarians, Severian, and Consequences

maru marudubshinki at gmail.com
Thu Apr 7 19:32:10 PDT 2005

Chris wrote:

> Maru said:
>> I do find that ghoulish: what if you are *wrong*?
> Well isn't that just it? In any moral system where you're supposed to 
> be guided by consequences (which you can't know in advance) you 
> *always* be wrong. And since results aren't to be judged just on their 
> immediate effects but also on indirect consequences extending 
> indefinitely into the future, when can you finally settle and say 
> "that was good" or "that was bad"? 

Never: but again is this really unique to utilitarianism?  Can't you be 
uncertain as to whether you have really fulfilled your duty in a 
duty-based system, or whether you fell into a fiendish trap whose 
appearances tricked you?

> G.E. Moore, a rather tough-minded utilitarian, took the logical 
> consequences of this and simply extended them - perhaps there never 
> had been, or will be, an action which can be effectively evaluated in 
> terms of its true utility. In the presence of doubt, he said, the 
> utilitarian will simply "do the done thing", that is, follow the same 
> customary rules of thumb that non-utilitarians use.
Sounds like a cop-out: Because you can't be perfect and 100%, just do 
what everybody else does.
As the saying goes, 'No one was ever fired for buying IBM.'

> This isn't exactly satisfactory, because at that point there's no 
> point to being a "utilitarian". What seems to be needed is some form 
> of justification for doing what you *think* will produce the most 
> utility, but this is hard for a traditional act utilitarian to accept 
> because it seems to be rule-based rather than consequence-based. (ie, 
> in any given case it's always better to *actually* produce more 
> utility than it is to, by rule-following, just *try* to produce more 
> utility). It's not impossible to build a system that deals with it, 
> but you would probably find such systems a little more arcane than 
> what you're thinking of.
If your 'trying' does not do as well as 'actually producing', there is 
something more than a little screwed up about your efforts,  And how can 
you 'actually produce' more utility without previously having decided to 
do what you 'thought' would produce the most utility? Accident?

>> Think of all the people you just brutally slaughtered,
> This isn't an objection that's really open to the utilitarian, because 
> while it's true that if you're wrong you've just caused a great deal 
> of harm, on the other hand if you abstain from acting and you're wrong 
> about that, you have just condemned an even larger number of people 
> who need transplants to death.
> There is no inherent virtue in refusing to act for a utilitarian; the 
> results of inaction are just as substantial as the results of action. 

Again, not unique. 'Sins of omission' &etc

> But the next one you mention *is* commonly used:
>> and of the breakdown in public order that engenders and all the other 
>> side effects of it...  I think it tips the scale towards, y'know, not 
>> doing that in real life
> This is a reasonable objection, although I'd note that if you really 
> start applying this standard, then the utilitarian starts "doing the 
> done thing" more and more... utilitarianism becomes less distinct 
> because its proponent is constrained from actually acting according to 
> its dictates.

I've held that in practice we use triage- like governments prioritizing 
aid, seeking the maximum utility for buck.  So it is little surprise if 
in our everyday life  it changes the actual actions only a little, and 
is more a paradigm shift.  It is like replacing Newton's physics with 
Einsteins'- the edge cases vary considerably, but in more mundane 
realms, they accord pretty closely.

> Also, it is a bit disconcerting to try and advance any ethic which, if 
> it were followed, would cause widespread breakdown of laws and 
> considerable social harm. Side question: if you could create an 
> entirely utilitarian society, what would be its laws? How would 
> punishments and rewards be allotted? [I don't think the list would 
> appreciate an actual exploration of this question, though.]
But what ethical system in its gross and naive formulations wouldn't 
cause all that?

>> yeah. But of course, such an ideal universe we do not live in, and is 
>> but an academic point.
> If it requires an ideal universe for you to act according to your 
> ethic, then it's not a very practical ethic.
> Severian's case is interesting in that we're stipulating that he knows 
> with 100% certainty the *immediate* results of his action, and some of 
> the secondary/indirect results. We have somewhat discussed what 
> conclusions a person who tried to judge consequences would reach in 
> his position. You have an immediate loss of almost all animal life

Are we defining animals like God & Noah did?

> on the planet, with a later rebirth (and future generations that seem 
> to turn out pretty well). If he fails to act then people live out 
> their lives for generations, eventually most of those remaining get 
> evacuated to other worlds which may or may not be just as good as 
> Ushas (no basis for comparison here). This calculus, I think, tends to 
> weigh heavily against Sev's action *unless* you attach some very heavy 
> importance to "human life on Ushas" as opposed to "human life on any 
> other planet". I think it's reasonable to say that Severian, in some 
> slightly confusing way, does count life on Ushas to be somehow more 
> significant... but I also have the general feeling that Sev *didn't* 
> think it out and weigh the consequences, he just acted decisively.
Well, I've argued elsewhere that a major factor is the loss of Urth as a 
habitat, which all things equal (and it appears they are; no one says 
that Ice Urthians will be brought to a new, just as good planet, which 
isn't already colonized.) means a drastic reduction in future numbers of 

>> We strive for plans maximizing good. Severian's actions, while having 
>> horrible intermediate results, results in greater good, both in theory
>> and in practice (the Green man remember); we applaude.
> The Green man, or something as good as the Green Man, could have 
> arisen elsewhere in one of the other worlds humanity was spread 
> across. But this is pretty much implicit in the above.


More information about the Urth mailing list