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From what I can tell, the conclusive problems that normal utilitarianism faces are (A) the knowability problem, which is whether we could really know the total future impact of our actions, or (B) "infinitarian paralysis". These problems are sort of duals of each other in that (B) involves fixing an answer to (A) by setting the knowable limit of cardinal utility at infinity.

But so what about a version of utilitarianism where the only balance we have to deal with is the one for our present options? For example, if we kill the one person-with-healthy-organs, then at that moment by itself, the five recipients are not saved. Perhaps we might say that the killing by itself was actually wrong, but it is "atoned for" if the harvester does go on to save the five. (That might sound like gruesome reasoning, but I don't know if it's ultimately any worse, at least by normal utilitarian lights, than the mere recommendation of the harvest.)

This doesn't sound like it would solve trolley problems. But are trolley problems really solvable? If an agent is under such pressures, then based on their prior ethical beliefs, we should expect them to choose whatever they think their beliefs at least might recommend. The idea that people should spend time in their lives preparing themselves for what they might need to do if they came upon a runaway trolley and a conveniently situated other possible victim, is not practical almost at all. Granted, we might criticize utilitarianism or Kantianism (or whatever) for failing to deliver an "acceptable"/persuasive verdict in trolley cases, but I will waive that for now.

But so my question is: I have read about e.g. satisficient variants of utilitarianism that compress the maximization factor in the general direction, but are there versions of utilitarianism that have been proposed in the literature where only the immediate effects of one's actions should be evaluated, and if possible compared beforehand? Some sense of what actually counts as "immediate" would have to be developed, I realize, and maybe vagueness would creep into the picture (or potentially convoluted temporal logic), but at least the end-of-the-line default of normal utilitarianism might be avoided?


Sidebar: I don't know how to look this question up on Google directly. Bard claimed that what I am looking for is act-utilitarianism, which roughly flies in the face of everything I have ever known about act-utilitarianism. Maybe I don't know what I thought I knew, then, or maybe Bard doesn't understand my question well enough to make the relevant distinctions. I can see act-utilitarian proposals in history as having been bounded by cause-and-effect sequences with only a few relevant stages, but not compressed into one stage. For the example that most preoccupies me, if I'm not mistaken, the common utilitarian (or at least consequentialist) defense of the Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki incidents is that in a short but not immediate period of time, the attacks motivated Japan to surrender, which saved some net number of lives, etc. But since this happened in multiple stages, even if in a few days, yet since it involved two air raids that were already separated in time, this kind of argument wouldn't be licensed by the version of utilitarianism I'm asking about.

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  • By "compress the maximization factor in the general direction" I assume you mean discounting consequences based on how far removed they are from the proximate cause?
    – g s
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 23:05
  • @gs yes. For satisficiency(?) theories, I see the urge-to-maximize as suppressed directly but not necessarily over a shorter or longer period of time, whereas my boundary would be precisely "in time" while still permitting us to aim for maximization within the bounded interval. Commented May 30, 2023 at 23:48
  • I do not follow. The key difference between consequentialism, utilitarianism in particular, and alternatives is in whether only the "intrinsic value" of the action is taken into account or also its consequences. There is built-in vagueness here already. "The action" is not a momentary event and there is no severing it from its "immediate consequences". Arguably, in most cases, it is not even the "action itself" that is evaluated "intrinsically" (pressing the trigger as such, say), but its "immediate consequences" (killing the victim). "Right-now utilitarianism" is not utilitarianism at all.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 5:25
  • @Conifold I'm following Korsgaard's account of utilitarianism as a theory where production-of-good is the primary/only moral action-type, so where productivity-as-a-type is fundamentally/importantly different than the type(s) she says her theory of practical reasoning (her "first-person-perspective" theory) deals with. Maximizing production across only present or also future times both fit the theme of aggregationism in general, although identifying "the present" is an issue (I don't mean to agree with the theory I'm describing, I just wonder if someone else has already proposed it). Commented May 31, 2023 at 7:10
  • I don't see anything that would stop you from doing utility calculus with an arbitrary time horizon, but it seems so arbitrary and immoral that I'd be surprised if it has a name. There's also no name for utilitarianism that only tracks consequences on Tuesdays, or only consequences for people whose names start with vowels...
    – g s
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 16:43

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