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Are emotional aspects considered in the utilitarian model of morality?

We know the utilitarian model of morality proposes a standard based on the calculated value of how much an action contributes to overall improvement/worsening to label that action as moral or immoral.

Now we also know that it is very difficult to measure the total value accurately due to technical limitations and lack of knowledge. Now my question is while measuring the total overall impact value do utilitarian models consider emotional aspects or not?

Let me give a hypothetical situation as an example:

An only son of a father (his only family member) was murdered and the jury wants to calculate how much harm has been done to the father based on a utilitarian model.

Now there can be two possibilities:

The jury can measure the harm value using his total investment in the son, his future expected value from the son based on education, qualifications and so on, but

  1. without taking the father’s emotional loss value into consideration and only considering the material value of the loss
  2. with taking the father’s emotional loss value into consideration and putting a reasonable amount for it

My question is, even though it's difficult to measure the emotional loss value, does the utilitarian model propose a framework that considers it (or propose a model that will consider when the emotional loss value calculation is possible in the future)?

3 Answers 3

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According to Wikipedia:

For instance, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as "that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness...[or] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered."

So pain/unhappiness/pleasure/happiness is considered by some authors as part of utility. Those are emotional states.

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  • Thanks but I am still confused if emotion is considered an element of pain/pleasure or not in that regards. Feb 7 at 1:20
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    How could there be pleasure or unhappiness without emotion? It seems to me that yes, emotion is an element of that.
    – tkruse
    Feb 7 at 1:23
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    @SazzadHissainKhan Do notice, that by the mentioned definition, utility is primarily tied to emotion, or happiness. Feb 7 at 15:21
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We know the utilitarian model of morality proposes a standard based on the calculated value of how much an action contributes to overall improvement/worsening to label that action as moral or immoral.

That “improvement/worsening” is called the utility function. Utilitarianism itself does not tell you what your utility function should be; emotional aspects may or may not be considered, depending on whether you care about that.¹ In this instance, it might be better to consider whether the father cares about that…

But if the father genuinely wouldn't trade his son's life for all the money in the world, would the court award “all the money in the world, plus a bit” as damages? Since utilitarianism admits any utility function that gives a total ordering over all realistically-possible scenarios, that means it admits lexicographic utility functions such as: (alive son, €0) > (dead son, €x) for all x.

Utility calculations aren't suitable for directly deciding the amount of damages somebody should pay, except in cases where the genuine utility function happens to be reasonable for that purpose (e.g. if assigning a monetary value to a QALY is ethically meaningful). However, they can be used to determine what amount of damages is the best amount to be paid, by considering the overall utility of the different possibilities and picking whichever is best. (This decision-making process has all the usual pitfalls of consequentialism: notably, that humans often make large mistakes when trying to judge the consequences of their decisions. However, it is the right way to do utilitarianism.)


Corollary of ¹: all moral dilemmas can be rephrased as evil-maximization problems.

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Judges often consider emotions when rewarding damages etc.. Your example isn't great, because it blurs legality* with morality, as well as seemingly being unaware that the utility in "utilitarianism" means we would sentence the criminal according to the "utility" involved in doing so (which is, incidentally, a fine argument against utilitarianism).

As pointed out, on one of the highest rated answers on this side, "utility" is usually thought of as pleasure, even-though I would argue (with Anscombe, whom I was just reading) that it isn't an internal state, but about finding pleasure in things (the distinction may seem neurotic, but equally, it is very psychologically plausible).

*the law - of any state - isn't a "natural law", not only because it cannot cover every immorality without unacceptable loss of liberty, but arguably also because in some cases what is 'just' - even in our current state quo - is even profoundly unlawful (I believe diverting the run away trolley is legally murder, though I'm not an expert in law, and anyway more obvious cases can be multiplied).

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  • The example as mentioned is purely a hypothetical situation just to let audiences understand my actual question which may not be applicable in real world. For the time being let’s assume the jury wants to apply utilitarian model to measure loss. Feb 7 at 19:02
  • ok cool. maybe my answer is redundant then @SazzadHissainKhan I'm not sure what you mean by emotion, and it may be even reasonable to think everyone means different things by it (I'm only happy when it rains). do you want me to delete my sprawl?
    – user57755
    Feb 7 at 19:03

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