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I know that utilitarianism does not take time into account when determining which course of action provides the most utility.

Going to a classic utilitarian example, if I kill one person now to save 10 people a year from now, that's no different from killing one person now to save 10 people now (in a vacuum, of course).

However, I'm having some trouble making sense of that. Specifically, I don't understand a temporary condition would affect utility.

For example, lets say I get a cut. It's not debilitating and it doesn't have any lasting effects, but it hurt like hell to get. In a week or two the cut heals. There's no scar, no effects; it's like the cut never happened. In other words, from that point in time onward, there is no difference in my utility for having been cut.

Does utilitarianism really weigh these outcomes (being cut or not) as equal?

It seems pretty obvious to me that being hurt would be treated as a negative, so I assume I either understand wrong, or utilitarianism simply isn't the correct tool for this example.

  • I don’t know what you mean in remarking that you know that utilitarians don’t take time into consideration? Time affects every aspect of utilitarian deliberation I can think of. – ChristopherE Jan 24 '18 at 2:10
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Going to a classic utilitarian example, if I kill one person now to save 10 people a year from now, that's no different from killing one person now to save 10 people now (in a vacuum, of course).

No, there's a clear difference for an utilitarian viewpoint. In the first case the person killed will live for a year whereas in the second he or she won't.

edit: Misread the example. Will leave the rest anyway because it may give information for the headline question in case someone searches for it. Formatting the answer differently for clarity.

According to utilitarianism, do temporary conditions affect utility?

Yes. Take for example such a case: we have the option to give enough money and opportunity to one poor person (out of two) to rebuild their life. One person is sick and will (quickly and without much pain) die in a year. The other person is not sick and will live a long time. An utilitarian might argue that because the second person lives longer they ought to get the gift. Because over time it will have a bigger effect on overall happiness.

One example: Bentham uses the Felicific calculus to determine utility. There, duration is specified as one factor.

This depends on the particular framework however. It is discussed but there are more critical problems like for example how to deal with the implicit demand of increasing population which leads to undesired conclusions.

On the time delay example: there's is no difference in utility assuming it's in a vacuum. It's only delayed when there will be a benefit but the amount stays the same.

On the cut example: I don't see why this, in general, would be an issue for utilitarianism. Even though there are no long lasting effects, getting the cut will decrease welfare for a bit. So avoiding the cut is better for us.

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    "In the first case the person killed will live for a year whereas in the second he or she won't." → I think you misread. In both cases the person is killed immediately. – Veedrac Mar 24 '18 at 23:33
  • Oh you're absolutely right. Editing. – Marc H. Mar 25 '18 at 2:46
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Wouldn't it depend on what you mean specifcally with

doesn't have any lasting effects

You obviously have the feeling of Pain that you are refering to. However there might also be effects during the duration of healing. For example you being limited in doing certain actions. Imagine following thought experiment: You and and idealized you are running on a track and the only difference is that you have a minor incident where you have to tie your shoes during the race. This limits your ability to run during this time. You will therefore be behind the idealized you for the rest of the race. Despite the effects not being directly in place.

  • In this example there's literally no effects outside of the ones described. No lessons learned, no inhibitions during healing, no setbacks from idealized you. It just hurts a lot one time. – Lord Farquaad Dec 21 '17 at 21:26
  • It's questionable to me that if an event has no effect at all (understood as influencing you in relation to an idealize you) it can be understood as event at all. Consider that even the realization of pain, requires a directing of a certain degree of your connscious activity torwards the pain itself or the event that caused it. Therefore already realizing pain has effects. One more point if you imagine a 3D Spacetime whith event = (individual, time, pain) the importance/utility of event1 you described would go torwards 0 Because pain goes torward 0. E1 = (A,t,z->0) – CaZaNOx Dec 24 '17 at 5:49
  • To spell it out in short you seem to undermine the corelation between strength of pain and effects on the being in pain. Which seems to be an idealized notion. – CaZaNOx Dec 24 '17 at 5:53

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