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Utilitarianism, as I understand it, builds on the concept of happiness. So it's basically an ethics machine which takes happiness as some sort of input that's already given to us.

But where does happiness come from? In some ways, it's absolute ("I'm happy that I am not starving right now"), but in other ways, it seems to be affected by underlying ethics ("I'm happy that we live in a world where people don't lie to each other"). In the latter case, does utilitarianism explain what these underlying ethics are? If the underlying ethics are precisely the utilitarian ethics, then isn't the argumentation circular? If the underlying ethics aren't the utilitarian ethics, then isn't the theory incomplete and missing certain key ethical components?

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I've seen two general approaches used:

  1. Each person defines a utility function. Each person, based on personal factors, preferences, psychology, etc., says "When I have this basket of goods, I am this happy." The problem of utilitarianism then is to find a way to maximize everyone's happiness given these different individual preferences.

  2. Someone just knows. Someone who is somehow considered worthy of making these calls decides that people will be X amount well-off with a particular basket of goods.

In a sense, I can see how the argument would go that utilitarian ethics based on the second kind is circular: since the amount-well-off is based on trade-offs, if someone already says how trade-offs are made in order to make utility functions, then the utility functions are not useful for discovering how trade-offs are made.

In the first case though, one just assumes that the curves are somehow discoverable (via data, polling, or by creating incentive structures that reveal them), so in such a case it is pretty clearly not circular.

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Utilitarianism has the unfortunate position of being an excellent example of the Münchhausen trilemma. This is a skeptic's issue with any system where you try to answer "how do I know this is true." It makes the claim that any theory which must prove that it is true will run into one of three patterns:

  • It will enter a circular argument, where the proof supports the theory and the theory supports the proof.
  • It will enter a regressive argument, where the proof involves an ad infinitum argument (such as mathematical induction)
  • It will be axiomatic, requiring an assumption that is not proven.

Hans Albert, the originator of the trilemma argued that every theory which required a proof would have to fall into one of these. This argument stands as a challenge to the concept of justification in the theory of knowledge, and has appeared in many forms since as long ago as the Greeks (Aggripa, from the 1st century BC).

By this argument, we should expect every ethical system which attempts to justify itself to run into one of these three tropes, and indeed we do. As a vague generalization, most ethics systems are rooted in axioms, which generate their own challenges. Utilitarianism does not explicitly stand on the axioms. It, instead, stares the trilemma straight in the face and says "sure, justification may enter one of those three states, but we're not going to be specific about which one!"

Accordingly, some Utilitarian arguments assume there is some axiomatic definition of utility, and go to make claims about what ethics must come from such a definition. Others enter regressive arguments, having utilitarian systems which model other more nuanced utilitarian systems, ad infinitum, with the claim that there is no system of ethics which cannot be modeled as an infinite regression of utilitarian systems. Some Utilitarians, as you mention, embrace a circular argument, where it is argued that the best way to determine what is ethical and what is not is to use a utilitarian ethics system as a tool to learn more about your own ethics.

This refusal to fall into any one easy category puts Utilitarianism in an interesting position. Proponents of it dance around any one trope from the trilemma, demonstrating how it doesn't have to fall into any particular pitfall, while opponents intentionally pigeonhole it into the trope which they find easiest to argue against.

If you wish utlitarianism to be built off of an existing ethics system, you simply need to define a measurable metric to determine the utility of any ethic. On the other hand, if you want it to bootstrap itself, you might use it as a tool alongside Baysean Inferrence to identify arbitrarily better models of your ethics, until one day you find that the results of the model are indistingushable from your system. There are utilitarian systems which assume complex metrics for each individual and super-simple ways to aggregate utility for a group (such as "maximize the average utility"). There are utilitarian systems which assume simple metrics for each individual, but combine them in very nuanced ways to generate gestalt behavior in a group. Its flexibility can be its own undoing.

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This is an interesting question. I think James defines well one area where this comes up.

Stated in slightly different terms, utilitarianism qua calculus (= calculation system) is agnostic as to what constitutes happiness. In Bentham's original version, he thought all pleasures were equal. In Mill's version, there's a distinction draw (around Chapter 2) between base and noble pleasures. It's a shaky argument, but the best sense I can make of it is that humans as the sorts of beings we are cannot be satisfied with merely having our base desires met. Thus, he thinks we can calculate with that in mind. In other words, utilitarianism must be joined to an idea of the good.

(Note that in contemporary usage, sometimes the word "utilitarian" is used as a stand-in for all consequentialist views and not merely those that seek to maximize happiness).


A related objection was raised by Bernard Williams. His objection to utilitarianism is that it's not ethics. His reason is that we don't accept moral judgments from the utilitarian calculus. Instead, we make up utilitarian calculuses and we then check whether they produce morally absurd outcomes. To illustrate, if our happiness calculator says everyone should kill at least 5 people as soon as possible, we would rather than accept this conclusion, decide that the calculation is wrong and has failed to capture what people should do.

In both objections, the basic idea is that the real moral work is happening somewhere other than the calculus. If we're going to accept utilitarianism we need a robust idea of what happiness is and we will need to equate that with the good.

One modern view with close affinity is "desire fulfillment" or "freedom maximization". The former is a view about the nature of happiness. It equates with the idea that happiness happens when you get what you desire and your desires are largely your own. The latter is a type of consequentialism that says the thing we want to maximize is the ability of rational beings to make free choices. If you put these views together, you can have a utilitarianism that's moderately agnostic about what happiness is but thinks we should create a world where people are maximally able to pursue it.

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