PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 12

 - Utilitarianism and its Critiques


Professor Gendler begins with a general introduction to moral theories–what are they and what questions do they answer? Three different moral theories are briefly sketched: virtue theories, deontological theories, and consequentialist theories. Professor Gendler introduces at greater length a particular form of consequentialism—utilitarianism—put forward by John Stuart Mill. A dilemma is posed which appears to challenge Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle: is it morally right for many to live happily at the cost of one person’s suffering? This dilemma is illustrated via a short story by Ursula Le Guin, and parallels are drawn between the story and various contemporary scenarios.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 12 - Utilitarianism and its Critiques

Chapter 1. What is a Moral Theory? [00:00:00]

So what I want to do in today’s lecture is to shift gears somewhat from what we’ve been talking about in the first unit of the course. As you know, the first unit of the course was focused on a set of texts that were concerned with what is involved in human flourishing. And though our opening text, Glaucon’s challenge from Plato’s Republic, concerned itself with morality and the way in which morality contributes to human flourishing, we haven’t, up until this point, given much attention to what philosophers have had to say about the nature of morality. And so goal in this unit is, in an incredibly accelerated fashion, to introduce you today and next Tuesday to two of the most prominent moral theories in the Western tradition and then in the remaining sessions before March break to talk to you about some of the empirical research about these questions.

And I know we have a wide range of backgrounds in this class. Some of you are now taking your first philosophy course. Some of you have taken an entire course on ethics. And so I’ve tried to pitch the lecture in such a way that it brings everybody up to speed, but that it does so in a way that I hope won’t bore those of you who have encountered this before. In particular, to make up for the fact that there’s very little empirical psychology in this lecture I have six polling slides. So those will come in in the middle of the lecture right when all of you are zoning out because you got two hours of sleep last night. So even if you don’t pay attention for the first part, you’ll get to vote in the middle.

All right, so what is it that moral philosophy sets out to do? What is it to provide a philosophical account of morality? What moral philosophy is is the systematic endeavor to understand moral concepts and to justify moral principles and theories. That is: moral philosophy, even if it ends up giving a non-systematic answer to how it is that morality works and what it is that morality does, does so within the endeavor of thinking systematically about the nature of morality. What do I mean by morality? I mean that moral theories aim to provide accounts of terms like “right” and “wrong,” “permissible” and “impermissible,” “ought” and “ought not,” “forbidden,” “good,” “bad,” and the like–and to provide an account of the behaviors to which those terms apply. It is fundamentally, to remind you of a terminological distinction that we’ve made before, a normative as opposed to a descriptive enterprise. Philosophical moral theory doesn’t aim to tell us how people act. It aims to tell us how people ought to act if they wish to conform to the constraints that morality places on them.

In particular, moral philosophy is concerned with providing a principled answer to three kind of questions. The first kind of question we encountered already in the context of Glaucon’s Challenge. It’s the question of moral motivation. “Why should we want to act in keeping with what morality demands of us?” And in a minute I’ll give you a sense of the range of answers that have been provided to that question. So the first question that moral philosophy asks is why would we even want to be moral. It then asks the particular question, “What should we do insofar as we seek to act morally?” And about that we’ve had very little to say so far. We know that according to Aristotle, to be brave, one acts as the brave one does. But Aristotle just put forth bravery as a virtue without any explanation of what it was that made bravery fall into the category of virtues and cowardice fall into that category of vices other than the very general analysis of the mean. And we haven’t looked at any specific claims about particular actions being morally acceptable or not.

So the second sort of thing that a moral theory tries to do–and, again, I’ll give some examples in a minute–is give us specific answers to the question “is this act morally OK?”

In addition, what a moral theory aims to do is to tell us why we gave the answers that we did in question two. “In virtue of what common feature are the acts that fall into the category of moral to be distinguished from the acts that fall into the category of immoral?”

So what do answers to these three questions look like? Let’s start since we’ve encountered it already with the question of moral motivation.

So one category of answers that one might give to why it is that we would be moral, act in keeping with the constraints of morality, is a self-interest account. So one might give an account which says: when you behave morally, things run smoothly. As Socrates argues in response to Glaucon, when you behave in keeping with the constraints of morality, there is harmony in your soul. And that provides you with the possibility of a certain kind of flourishing. Or you might have what’s implicit in the very first argument that Glaucon gives, a view that morality provides a certain kind of stability in society. Each of us behaving in pro-social ways increases the likelihood of others around us behaving in pro-social ways. And so we reach a kind of equilibrium state whereby things run smoothly if everybody behaves pro-socially. And we’ll talk about that again at the beginning of the political philosophy section. So one kind of self-interest theory is a theory that appeals to a certain kind of coordination, either a coordination among the parts of the soul, or coordination across individuals in a society.

A second kind of self-interest theory is what we might call a “get good stuff” theory. So this lies at the heart on some religious traditions. Here’s what you get if you act in keeping with the constraints of morality: you get eternal life in a really nice place. Here’s what you get if you don’t act in keeping with the constraints of morality: you get eternal continuation in a really unpleasant place. So the notion that there is some reward beyond earth for behaving in moral ways is an example of a self-interested justification of morality. Or one might give the sort of justification that Adeimantus gives in response to Glaucon’s challenge. Adeimantus point out that one of the things morality provides you with is enhanced reputation. So as a result of behaving in keeping with the standards of morality, you come to be perceived as having behaved in that way, and that reputation brings to you some value. Or it might be, as Aristotle discusses at the end of Book 10, that society is structured in some way that motivates people to act in keeping with the constraints of morality because doing so is a way of avoiding punishment. Many of us obey speeding laws for precisely that reason. We obey them most especially when there are flashing lights in our vicinity. But we can have an internalized version of the reduction of punishment as well. Part of the Freudian picture that we heard about in the Divided Soul lecture discussed the development of conscience as an internalization of external rules, whereby the superego gets upset when the id behaves in ways that aren’t in keeping with the constraints of morality. And one can have a non-Freudian version of that as well that appeals to the notion of conscience.

So the idea that what morality brings you is either the possibility of salvation or enhanced reputation or the possibility of not being punished by external laws or the possibility of not being punished by one’s conscience is another version a self-interest theory. So that’s one kind of justification one might provide for behaving in moral ways.

A second very different kind of justification says the reason we act morally is because normative features are fundamental features of the world. There’s a brute “ought” out there. It’s a fact about reality that what we are morally obliged to do is to act in whatever ways it is that morality demands and not out of self-interest, but simply because we are responsive to that feature of the world, we are motivated to act morally.

A third kind of justification, third kind of explanation of more motivation, is what we might call a factive theory that says roughly this is just the way people are. So evolutionary accounts that say pro-social behaviors have been selected for, perhaps because they enable the resolution of coordination problems. But whatever the explanation, pro-social behavior says this theory has been selected for. So it’s a brute fact about the world that we behave in pro-social ways–not a brute normative fact about the world, just a brute descriptive fact about the world that we behave in that way. Or you might have, not an evolutionary based version of this, but a version that says look, this is just the way the human soul expresses itself when it conforms to its natural state.

So you might have a theory of morality that says the reason to behave morally is that of self-interest. You might have a theory of morality that says the reason to behave morally is because of altruism. You might have a theory of morality that says the reason to behave morally is just that’s the way we do behave. Or you might have some sort of combination theory. And we’ve talked already about the first of these, the self-interest theory. And as this section of the course goes on, we’ll talk more about some of the other sorts of explanations. So those are some examples of the kinds of answers that are given to the first question, the question of moral motivation.

What kinds of issues arise when we think about the question of moral behavior? Well you saw a number of examples of this in the reading that we did for today. One kind question that moral theories set out to provide answers to is the question of whether it’s either morally required or morally permitted to harm one person in order to help many others. So Bernard Williams’ story of Jim and the Indians, where Jim is presented with a case where if he’s willing to shoot one of 20 prisoners, the other 19 will be set free, whereas if he’s unwilling to shoot that one, all 20 of them will be shot. Or the Omelas story, where we’re told the story of a society whose flourishing depends upon the suffering of a single child. Or the trolley cases that I presented you with in the very first lecture, where a trolley is headed down a track towards five people, and we’re in a position to deflect the trolley in some way so that one ends up being killed instead. Those are examples of schematic representations of the kinds of questions that moral theory confronts all the time. Whenever we think about deferrals of threat–is it right to quarantine a population suffering from a particular illness in a way that will cause harm to them but benefit the rest of society?–we are thinking about these sorts of questions. So one sort of question that moral philosophy aims to answer is the question of whether this sort of trade off is morally required or morally permitted.

A particularly profound version of that question comes out when we think about what our moral duties are to those who are less fortunate. So the philosopher Peter Singer has famously argued that the entire structure of the first world and the third world is a morally illegitimate one because it involves an unwillingness on the part of those in the first world to do what is morally demanded of them, namely to take a large proportion of their resources and redistribute those to people who are suffering from extraordinarily easily curable illnesses. People who don’t have mosquito nets, people who don’t have vaccinations, people who don’t have clean water, people who don’t have access to basic medical care in the first five years that would, for example, prevent lifelong blindness. So another question that moral theory asks–in some ways of version of the earlier question–is in general what our duties are to those who are less fortunate.

It also asks questions like this: Are these sorts of behaviors morally mandatory? Is it morally mandatory for us to behave in ways that help the environment, say by recycling? Is it morally mandatory for us to act in certain ways towards non-human animals, perhaps by being vegetarian? Is it morally required of us to worship a deity in some way? Is religious worship something that’s morally mandatory? Is something like respect for elders, a fundamental part of traditional moral frameworks, morally mandatory?

And moral theories also ask questions like: Are these kinds of things morally permissible? Is abortion morally permissible? Is euthanasia morally permissible? Is capital punishment morally permissible? How about sex before marriage? How about lying for one or another motivation? How about, as Kant’s going to argue in our next reading, failing to cultivate one’s talents, which Kant thinks is a violation of moral mandate?

Chapter 2. Introducing Utilitarianism [00:15:37]

So these are the kinds of questions that moral theories aim to provide answers to. And it might seem like a heterogeneous bunch. But it gives you a sense of the generality of explanation that moral theories seek to provide. So let’s turn to four major moral theories in the western tradition and think about how it is that they could simply categorically provide answers to this wide range of questions.

So the kind of moral theory that we’re going to discuss in today’s lecture primarily is a moral theory known as utilitarianism. It tells us an act is moral insofar as it produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It takes as its fundamental notion the notion of good. And it gives us answers to the questions that we’ve previously asked ourselves as long as we know how goods are distributed in response to them. So if we know what it is that produces happiness in sentient beings, then utilitarianism will give us an answer to the question of whether being vegetarian is morally mandated. It’ll tell us to take the amount of happiness that’s distributed across sentient beings, and look at which distribution is going to maximize the amount of happiness. So utilitarianism gives us one sort of systematic answer to this question.

A second sort of answer to this question, which we’ll discuss in lecture on Tuesday, is the answer given by Kant and the deontological tradition. What Kant says is that an act is moral insofar as it’s performed as the result of acting with the correct sort of motivation. It takes as its primary notion not the notion of goodness, but rather the notion of rightness. And on that basis, Kant is going to give a bunch of answers to our specific questions. In particular, he’s going to argue that it’s not OK to sacrifice the good of the one for the good of the many. And he’s going to argue that lying is morally unacceptable. And we’ll talk next class about how from a very abstract principle like this one one can derive these sorts of particular answers.

We’ve already looked at the ancient traditional answer to this in Aristotle, that an act is moral insofar as it’s performed as the results of having a virtuous character. And so what Aristotle says to us is look and see how the well-raised one would behave. And once you see what is that the virtuous one does, you can learn through his or her example what it is that morality demands of us.

And a final tradition about which we won’t have much to say in this lecture is, of course, a basis for morality which has stood at the center of western culture for at least 2,000 years, which is the idea that an act is moral insofar as it conforms to what the divinity demands of us.

So one can provide an explanation, as the utilitarian does, that makes appeal to the notion of goodness. One can provide a justification that makes appeal, as deontology does, to the notion of rightness. One can provide a justification that makes appeal, as virtue ethics does, to the notion of virtuousness. Or one can provide an account that makes appeal, as religious ethics does, to the notion of divine mandate. So let’s think a little more about the relation among these three particular theories, the ones on which we’re going to focus in the context of this class, as a way of coming to understand the particular theory that we’re thinking about today, namely utilitarianism.

So virtue ethics focuses its attention on the actor, not the person who stands up on the stage and recites lines from Hamlet, but rather the actor who performs an act that will be moral or not. Deontology focuses its attention on the act. It looks not at who’s doing it, but rather at what act is done and under what description. Consequentialism, by contrast, looks not at who does the act and looks not at the description under which the act is done, but looks rather at the consequences that the act brings about. And we’ve encountered virtue theory in the voice of– see if you recognize this gentleman– in the voice of Aristotle. We will encounter deontology in the voice of Immanuel Kant. And what we’re going to discuss today is consequentialism and, in particular, utilitarianism in the voice of John Stuart Mill. So let’s look now at what it is that Mill has to say about the fundamental nature of morality.

So what Mill contends– and let me say we’re coming up on the clicker slide, so if you’re zoning out, it’s time to pull out your clicker. And in about four or five minutes, we’ll be doing some polls. So Mill contends that the right kind of framework for thinking about moral theories is a consequentialist framework, so not one that looks at the actor as virtue theory does, not one that looks at the act as deontology does, but rather one that looks at the consequences in the way that consequentialism does. The degree of moral rightness of an act is determined by its consequences. And Mill provides a particular version of this. He says the degree of moral rightness of an act is determined by a particular kind of consequence, namely the utility that the act produces. So you might have a consequentialist theory that says the degree of moral rightness of an act is determined by its consequences, namely, for example, the amount of bananas that it produces. It would be an odd moral theory, but it would be a consequentialist theory that says the degree of moral rightness of an act is determined by its consequences, in particular by its degree of banana production. So that would be a very general kind of consequentialist theory.

Utilitarian theories are a particular kind of consequentialist theory that says the degree of moral rightness of an act is determined by its consequences, in particular by the amount of utility–usefulness, happiness in Mill’s account of what kind of utility we’re concerned with–by the amount of utility that it produces. That means, to remind you of the handouts that you got in section this week, that to be utilitarian is a sufficient condition to be consequentialist, but not a necessary one. And to be a consequentialist is a necessary condition on being a utilitarian, but not a sufficient one. And if what I just said isn’t completely obvious to you, take a look at the second side of the handout that you got in section this week.

So Mill not only makes a utilitarian commitment, he actually in the course of making that commitment makes two very particular claims that I now want ask you to think about in light of some particular cases. The first is the famous formulation of the greatest happiness principle, which in your text appears right at the beginning on page 77 in the reprint. Mill says famously, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness.” And he continues a few pages later to clarify that what he means is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. And in a minute we’ll think through what that implies.

The second commitment of Mill’s that I want you to think about is one runs straight on in opposition to what we talked about in Aristotle last week. Mill says the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action. “He who saves another creature from drowning does what is morally right whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble.” The motivation with which an act is performed, says Mill, tells us nothing about the morality of the act. He doesn’t deny that it tells us something about the actor. He’s perfectly happy to say that somebody who does the act out of the hope of being paid is in some way different from the person who does act out of a sense of duty or moral obligation. But as far as the moral value of the act itself is concerned, Mill thinks there is no difference.

So that’s the first question that I wanted to ask you. Take the case that Mill described. You see somebody drowning in a lake. And the question is this, is your act of saving that person morally right, morally virtuous, moral only if it’s done out of duty? I want to save that person because it’s the right thing to do or some other sort of pro-social motive. If you think that, push one. Or is the act morally right regardless of its motive even if you do it because there’s a big sign up on the trees that say “save a drowning person: $10,000 reward.” And so you think: “$10,000, that’s good money.” And in you jump into the water. All right, I’ll push the ten second timer. We have roughly 50 of you, 70 of you. Good, numbers are jumping up. Let’s just see whether instinctively this room is filled with Kantians or filled with consequentialists.

So, interestingly, there’s a pretty close to even split. Most of you seem to side with Mill on the question that an act is morally right regardless of the motive. But a sizable portion of you are going to be pleased when we read Kant, who gives the answer that you offer. And one of the things that we want to do in section next week is to have those of you who fall on one or the other side of this question talk through with others around you why it is that you either fell into this group or you felt into this one.

So, so far Mill’s doing pretty well. He has a slight majority of you on his side. I now want to present you with a series of cases to ask what you think about the greatest happiness principle. Remember, Mill says that an act is moral insofar as it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number, where we’re not concerned with how that happiness is distributed across individuals.

So let’s start with a following case. There’s an act which you can perform which will give you 100 units of happiness. Each of those colorful smiley faces–aren’t you all feeling pro-social in their light? Each of those smiley faces represents 10 units of happiness. So suppose you have a fan. It’s a very hot day, and you have a fan that blows upon you. And the coolness of that fan just provides you with 100 units of happiness. Or suppose you have some delicious cookies, and eating those cookies provides you with 100 units of happiness. In addition, performing that act provides 100 other people with one unit of happiness each. Suppose your fan blows a little bit outside of your room so that in addition to cooling you off 100 units, it cools the people in the next room off one unit apiece. Or suppose that when you finish eating your 100 cookies, there are 100 cookies left over, and each of 100 people get to have one cookie, and it brings them one unit of happiness. OK. So that’s act one. It has a total of two hundred units of happiness. You get 100 units, and each of 100 other people get one unit. So your choice is between performing that act and performing an act which I’m going to call act two, which has exactly the same effects for you, right? It brings you 100 units of happiness. So here you are with your 100 units of happiness. But in this case, if you made a slight change in the angle of your fan, for example, you would be just as cool as you were in the first case. But it would double the amount of happiness of the people on the outside, right? You angle this fan slightly differently. And instead of being cooled one unit, the people are cooled two units. Or instead of throwing out your trash at the end of eating your cookies so that people only get one unit of happiness, you leave the other cookies around so that everybody else gets two units of happiness.

In this case, by performing an act which has no different consequences for you as far as happiness is concerned, you double the happiness of a hundred other people with respect to the act. So the question is simply this. Given the choice between act one, which brings a total of 200 units of happiness, 100 units for you and one unit for each of 100 other people, or act two, which brings the same amount of happiness to you, but 200 units of happiness to others and hence a total of three hundred, do you think– push one if you think only act one is moral. That is only the one where you get 100 units, and everybody else gets one. Push two if you think only act two is moral, the one where you redirect your fan slightly or whatever it is that you do to double the happiness of those around you, or three, that either one of those is a moral act. OK. And I’m going the turn our timer on so that we have 10 seconds to see how it is that your first take on Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle goes. And let’s see how the numbers come out.

OK. So very few of you think that the moral act as the one whereby you get 100 units of happiness, and the 100 others get one unit. But you’re roughly equally divided on the question of whether morality mandates that you redistribute your resources in such a way that they go also to others. So most of our discussion in the remaining slides will be concerned with when this 44 percent moves over to another place. But I’ll be interested to see how all of this plays out.

OK. So that was our first case, the case where at no cost to yourself you can bring happiness to others. Let’s now contrast exactly the same first case. You get 100 units of happiness; 100 others get one unit each. So there’s a total of 200 units, with the second case, we’ll call this act three, where in order to redirect the goods, you bring your own happiness down to 50 units. So in order to redirect your fan in such a way that the other people get two units each, you have a slight reduction in the amount of utility for you. But it’s still the case that this is more beneficial overall. So act one you get 100 unit of happiness, other people get one. Act two, you’ve reduced your happiness, you’ve redirected the fan, you’re eating fewer of the cookies, but you’ve distributed it in such a way that others get their two units. OK. So the question is only act one, where you get 100 units, and everybody else gets one, only act two, where you get 50 units, and everybody else gets two, but the total is higher, or either one? And, again, we’ll open polling with the ten second timer. And let’s see how the numbers go.

All right. So little bit of change over to either act being moral. More of you think that it is morally required to increase the happiness of those around you when there’s no harm to yourself than you think is required when there is some cost to yourself. Notice that Mill is very clear that what is morally required is number two here, that only the act which brings the greater amount of utility to the community as a whole is morally required.

Let’s turn to a third case. The first version is the same as before. You get 100 units. Everybody else gets one. Now, in order to do the good for others you have to experience some kind of disutility. You turn your fan totally away from yourself. But the result of that is that 100 others get three units each. So now the question is this. Is the act that is morally permitted of you, or is the act, that is a moral act, the one that we’ve initially presented, the one where you have some disutility, but other people get utility? Or are these of equal value? Notice the total of 200 units, 250 units. So the first case, our classic case, the second case one where you experience some discomfort. But in exchange for that discomfort, other people, not you, experience some good. OK. Let’s turn on the 10 second timer and see how this comes out.

OK. So in this case, it appears that very few of you are siding with Mill. A certain number of you are here, saying that what we need to do is to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. And a sizable percentage of you is growing to think that perhaps morality doesn’t demand any sacrifices of you.

Let’s go on. Next case exactly like the last one, except it’s somebody else who has 50 units of disutility in order to distribute three units of utility to others. So here’s the case. Either you get 100 units of happiness, and others get one unit each for a total of 200 units. Or let’s assume you preserve your 100 units of happiness here. We’re leaving you out of the equation. And the question is this. Suppose you are distributing resources for society as a whole. There’s a case where actually, this act one ought to also be someone else, so the case where someone else gets 100 units of happiness, and 100 others get one unit each, or a case where somebody else loses 50 units of happiness, but 100 others get three units each. OK, so let’s replace this you in act one with someone else and as the question of whether a distribution of resources across society, which produces 200 units of good in this form or a distribution of resources across society, which produces 250 units of good in this form, a minor 50 units of suffering by one for three hundred units of benefits by another. Which one of those do you take to be what morality demands? And five, four, three, two, one. And let’s see if there’s any change from the previous case.

OK. All of a sudden, here we get a radical shifting of the graphs. Almost 50 percent of you are clear that the act that requires bringing suffering to one person, a reduction of utility is not morally mandated. Later in the section that we are encountering in the class right now, we will consider the question of whether there’s actually a fixed matter of where the baseline is and whether in fact this radical shift that we get when we moved from increasing utility to decreasing utility in people’s psychology about what morality demands is in fact picking up on an artificial difference. Let’s move to our final case.

Chapter 3. The Omelas Story [00:37:34]

So our final case is one where either someone gets 100 units of happiness, and 100 others get one unit each. So there’s 200 units of happiness, or a case– hmm– where someone gets 5,000 units of happiness taken away, but 100 other people get five hundred units each so that there are 45,000 units of happiness produced by the performance of act six. So the case here is either a place where nobody has anything bad going on, but the total units of happiness are only 200, or one person has a lot of suffering going on, but the total units of happiness are 45,000. OK. And let’s put the poll on with our 10, nine, eight, seven, six seconds and see how it is that you come out on this question.

All right. On this question, which I know already for many of your reading responses to the Omelas case, on which this is modeled, it seems clear to a lot of you that suffering of one is not something that morality demands of us even if the result is an increase in general utility. Now, as you know, the Omelas story tells the story of a society where there is a community of people, each of whom has thousands and thousands of units of utility. They’re incredibly happy in how they live. But that society exists as it does only because there is a child locked away whose suffering permits the society’s joy. And as you know in the story, when children reach adulthood, they are brought to see the suffering child. And most of them return to the community of which they were a part aware of this, shaped by this, but willing to tolerate it. A smaller number of them, upon seeing this, leave the society altogether.

Now, the question that I want you to think about in light of your answer a few minutes ago about what is demanded by morality is some things that seem to have the structure of the Omelas story. I take it that at some point in the last 18 years or so, someone has let you in on the secret that the pleasure that comes from eating meat depends, as does the joy of Omelas, upon the suffering of a large number of non-human animals. I take it that you noticed last week and the week before, when the snow was falling on Yale’s campus, and the routes were made clear for you to get to classes, that the possibility of you walking across campus depended upon a large number of people whose lives are already difficult getting up very early in the morning and doing back-breaking shoveling work in the ice cold. I trust that somebody has let you in on the secret that the clothes that you wear and from which you take a certain amount of pleasure are in a great number of cases produced as the result of something quite close to the Omelas story, namely child labor. Indeed I take it that most of you are aware that the structure of the modern world bears a rather shocking similarity to the Omelas story. The possibility of flourishing in the first world is in many ways a consequence of an inequitable structure with regard to the third world.

Now, almost all of you gave an answer that said this sort of structure is at least schematically morally acceptable. And the question is what is going on there. Le Guin in her story suggested you as college students are at exactly the age where the salience of this may affect you most profoundly. So she writes–after being exposed to these sorts of facts–she says “often the young people go home in tears or in a tearless rage when they’ve seen the child on whose suffering the fate of their society depends and face this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes by,” she says, “they begin to realize that even if the child could be released it would not that much good if its freedom, a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more.”

Now one of the interesting things about literature in contrast to philosophy is that it leaves it to you to interpret what’s going on. And the fundamental question, I think, of the Omelas story is whether this sentence, “They begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good if its freedom, a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more,” is in fact true–or whether it is the sort of rationalization that recognition of one’s comfort brings with it. She goes on perhaps explaining, perhaps protesting too much, to say the following, “It’s too degraded and imbeciled to know any real joy. It has been afraid for too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment.” Indeed think about arguments about bringing democracies to countries with no tradition of democracy. “After so long, it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it and darkness for its eyes, its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter justice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality and to accept it.”

Now, I don’t have an answer to which of the two readings that I proposed is the right one to make of the Le Guin case. Is she contending there or helping you to recognize there that that early feeling of rage at the fact that your well-being depends upon the suffering of others is, in fact, an immature response to an inevitable structure of inequity in the world? Or is she suggesting that in coming to think that way you are letting go of your only chance for moral behavior, that it’s at the moment when you are profoundly exposed to injustice, and it hits you in the form of tears or rage that you are in a position to bring that into your life? She suggests regardless that living your life with your eyes open to the fact that your well-being depends upon the suffering of others is morally mandatory. “It is their tears and anger,” she continues, “the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which is perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. They know that they, like the child, are not free,” that they live in a world of mutual interdependence. “They know compassion. It is because of their awareness of suffering in the world,” she writes, “It is because of that child that they are so gentle with their children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark,” if we were not provided with the resources that let the first world thrive as it does, “the other one, the flute player would make no joyful music.” All of the things that we benefit from, the greatness of this university, wouldn’t be here. “No joyful music as a young writers line up for their beauty of the race in the sunlight on the first morning of summer.”

So I want to leave you with that as one of the many things which we can take from the Omelas story and as an introduction to what really goes into making a claim like the one Mill does. And what we’ll talk about next class in the context of Kant are some systematic critiques which are offered of the utilitarian framework from the writings of Bernard Williams and our alternative which is offered in the writings of Immanuel Kant. So I’ll see you on Tuesday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]