Whenever I look at a definition of utilitarianism, what I see is that it only seems to prescribe actions that maximize utility.

Suppose that, for a given junction, you have a set of possible actions available to you, and an associated change in utility of the world that each action will cause. According to utilitarianism, is it immoral to do any action except for the one that increases utility the most out of all your possible choices? What if you choose an action that greatly increases utility, but not by as much as another action that was available to you? Is what you did immoral in that case?

Just for illustration purposes, suppose you have five actions available to you: A, B, C, D, and E, which change the utility of the world by -10, -5, 0, +5, and +10 respectively. Is E the only moral action you can take according to utilitarianism? Is it immoral to do action D?

  • 2
    There is such a thing as "satisficient" consequentialism, according to which there is a nonmaximal threshold of "satisficing" value-increase. See e.g. this essay. May 5 at 23:16

Well, the question is flawed because it assumes a binary distinction between "moral" and "immoral" acts. In utilitarianism, actions are more moral, or less moral, not completely moral or completely immoral in absolute terms. Morality is identified by utility, and falls on a continuum.

Just for illustration purposes, suppose you have five actions available to you: A, B, C, D, and E, which change the utility of the world by -10, -5, 0, +5, and +10 respectively. Is E the only moral action you can take according to utilitarianism? Is it immoral to do action D?

E is the most moral action you can take, D is less moral than E, C is less moral than D, B is less moral than C, A is less moral than B. If you want to draw the line somewhere and say, "actions beneath this line are immoral, and actions above it are moral," you may do so, but utilitarianism says nothing about this line or where to draw it.

You might think - "let's draw the line at 0. Actions that improve the world overall are moral, actions that harm it overall are immoral. So A and B are immoral, C is neutrally moral, and D and E are moral." This is tempting. But the problem is that you are measuring each action by a change in utility relative to a baseline level of utility. Where is the baseline? You can draw the baseline wherever you like.

The truth is that A is not -10, B is not -5, C is not 0, etc. A results in some amount of utility in the whole world - perhaps A results in 12349087578 total utility, B is 12349087583, C is 12349087588, D is 12349087593, E is 12349087598. If we draw the baseline at 12349087598, then relative to this baseline, A is -20, B is -15, C is -10, D is -5, E is 0. If we draw the baseline at 12349087578, then A is 0, B is 5, C is 10, D is 15, E is 20. So it is not so simple as saying that actions above 0 relative to a baseline are moral. We can draw the baseline wherever we like, but wherever we draw it, it will be arbitrary.

  • I don't understand the point in your last paragraph, since I already specified that the actions change the utility of the world by the amount given, they don't set the utility to the amount given. So the utility of the world won't change if you do action C, etc. That doesn't put the burden on anyone to set a baseline. Oct 7 at 20:50
  • As for the rest of your answer, that all seems very reasonable, and I'm happy to not have to define a baseline by which things are "moral" and "immoral", but rather, treat it as a spectrum. But is that what utilitarians actually do? That's what I'm asking. I ask because most common definitions of utilitarianism tend to say that they only advocate for actions that maximize utility. For example, from first sentence of the wiki: "Utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals." Oct 7 at 20:52
  • @Bridgeburners What does it mean for the action to change the utility of the world? My point is that to change the utility by a certain amount is a poorly defined concept, and depending on where we set the baseline, the change relative to that baseline is different. The world has a certain utility, as a function of its state, which is a function of all the actions everybody takes. if the world has four people, where a1, a2, a3, and a4 are the actions they take, the utility as a result of these actions is given by f(a1, a2, a3, a4). How do you say which person "changed" it or by how much?
    – causative
    Oct 7 at 23:26
  • @Bridgeburners To specify more of the example, say that each of the four people may take an action that is a real number between 0 and 1. And suppose the utility f(a1, a2, a3, a4) = a1 + 2*a2 +0.5 * a3 + 3*a4 + 500. In this example, each person's influence on the utility is independent of each other person's influence. But how do we say how much a4 increased the utility if he chose 1? or if he chose 0? It depends on where we set the baseline. It's equally possible to say that by choosing 1, a4 increased utility by 3 (if a1=0 is baseline), or a4 made no change to utility (if a1=1 is baseline).
    – causative
    Oct 7 at 23:32
  • I see what you mean. That's a much better explanation than your last paragraph. My intuition is to say that "do nothing" is the baseline, but I can see that there's no obvious way to say what that even means, and if there was, it would still be arbitrary because it's just one of your possible choices. And, because all utility outcomes are a result of one of your choices, there's no unambiguous way to say that you "added 0 utility". It's hard to swallow, because it goes against intuition, which says that you can do actions that clearly make the world a worse place. Oct 8 at 16:59

If u maxim utility, u aren't being immoral. This would be akin to St Agustines idea that sinning happens even when u dont do what is maximally good. So if u do action D, it is a sin since there is action that is greater or better, namely E. So this will depend on your definition of good and evil. however, no matter how you define your terms, what matters is if u are "obligated" by what is good and what is evil. If u are obligated by egoism (the action u should take is the one in your interest), u should do E but D would still be in ur interest so both are permissible, but E encouraged. If u define immorality as what is not the best action, u are sinning when u do D and so it would be strange to say u are obligated by sin (since its still in ur interest). So those ideas of immorality and obligation arent compatible (since we should do what we should and not do sin). Hope that helps. If you find obligation in a different sense, it will change ability to use good and evil differently.

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