Understanding utilitarianism

I want to share a thought/question I have about applying and understanding utilitarianism. A few days ago, someone posed me this question:

Utilitarianism judges the ‘goodness’ of an action based on its consequences, right? But imagine two scenarios involving a driver who knowingly drove under the heavy influence of drugs. In one scenario, they got home safely. In another, they hit and killed someone. By utilitarianism, the latter seems to be more bad than the first. But they both made the same choice, one just got lucky. So do we say they made equally bad choices?

I think the answer should be that the goodness of an act shouldn’t be its actual outcome, but its expected value. In other words, the average outcome. In that sense, both drivers in the above scenarios made equally bad choices.

But what about people who made a bad choice without realising? For example. Paula donates $100 to X charity. She did a bit of research and thinks its a good charity. Unfortunately, it turns out the charity actually made things a lot worse, and so the effect of her donating was bad. Since it was a bad charity before she donated, the real expected value of her action was negative. But Paula didn’t know this – do we say she did something wrong?

I would get around this by proposing that the goodness of an action should be based on what the actor thought the expected value would be. Paula thought that the expected value of donating to that charity was positive. Surely we can’t hold it against her?

This is where I’m up to, but I still have some concerns about this that I’m not sure how to address. What about someone who is either wilfully ignorant, or is otherwise unwilling to do research to find out the effects of their actions. Do we excuse them for their actions?

Take someone who consumes meat but doesn’t know the reality of factory farming. Say someone approaches and tries to inform them, but they don’t want to hear it. They don’t know what the impacts of them eating a steak are, but they aren’t interested in knowing. Are they therefore bad people for eating steak? Or does it not affect how we might see their moral character from a utilitarian framework?

As often happens, I find my philosophical questions have already been answered, sometimes hundreds of years ago. If you know this has been answered, or you have an answer, or you think I’m talking nonsense, let me know by leaving a comment.

6 thoughts on “Understanding utilitarianism”

    1. Total classical utilitarian, with some uncertainty about how to weigh pain vs pleasure, and leaning to some form of moral realism but with some uncertainty about that too.

  1. I’d say the goodness of an action is determined by its actual consequences; people ought to act in whichever way has the highest expected utility (to their knowledge).

    >They don’t know what the impacts of them eating a steak are, but they aren’t interested in knowing.

    Deliberately refusing to learn or act on new information/possibilities has low expected utility.

    1. I agree. I guess my question was more around whether we can say an individual person is ethical, not so much whether the action produced utility. If utility-minimiser kept accidentally producing a large amount of utility, we wouldn’t say they are ethical people.

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