From the comments, on the inevitability of utilitarian judgments

Mario Rizzo writes:

Tyler, please. You should have taken my course this past semester. Benthamite reasons. Bentham is a total mess. One commentator said that Benthamite utilitarianism is a philosophy that tells you what to do when you have the data that you cannot obtain. This is it in a nutshell.

I very often agree with Mario and even here I think I agree with Mario, though Mario doesn't think he agrees with me.

To be sure, I am not a Benthamite utilitarian, if only because I believe rights should sometimes trump utilitarian recommendations.  Furthermore, schema for making interpersonal comparisons involve value judgments, which means the Benthamite calculation is never purely descriptive but rather contains significant elements of other, non-Benthamite moral theories. 

That said, Benthamite reasoning is hard to escape.  Everyone relies on it when making decisions in everyday life, whether it be voting on a job candidate or buying one car rather than another or putting a bus line on one road rather than another.  Even a lot of the arguments for following rules rely on an ultimate Benthamite judgment about good vs. bad consequences.

The fact that one might be wrong in any particular estimation — always the case — doesn't change the need to make a final judgment.  "Benthamite" makes it sounds more scientistic than it needs to be, since Bentham had some unusual views, but still an assessment needs to be made.

Mario offers an instructive comment: "Bentham is a total mess."  Is this an aesthetic critique, or is the suggestion that following Benthamite maxims won't lead to utility-positive results?  If the latter, which is what I suspect, Mario is himself a Benthamite broadly speaking and in that sense we (at least partially) agree.  

Maybe you're a preference utilitarian, but when it comes to aggregation, or how you interpret "veil of ignorance" results, you're still going to rely on utilitarian constructs to do a lot of the final work in the theory.  If your imaginary people are behind a veil of ignorance, they've got to estimate the cardinal utilities (broadly interpreted) associated with different results.  You're just shifting the cardinal comparison to a different place, away from the theorist (supposedly) and into the hands of the veiled ones.

Benthamite reasoning is inescapable, though it is a big mistake to make cardinal utility the only relevant value.  We're all pluralists now, but cardinal utility should be a major part of the relevant pluralist bundle.


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