Utilitarianism Direct And Indirect

One feature of Utilitarianism that provides its link to rational decision making is that the basic principle of utility demands that one maximize the good. One can disagree about what exactly the good is - perhaps it is pleasure, autonomy, beauty, or some set of items on a list mixing a variety of intrinsic goods. However, whatever the good turns out to be, we ought -morally - to maximize it. A failure to maximize the good is seen as not only a moral failure but also a rational one. So, for example, suppose that a friend of yours offers you a choice between $100 and $10. Most would hold that the rational thing to do is maximize the good and take the $100, all other things being equal. The person who took the $10 option would be considered irrational and imprudent. Maximizing or optimizing one's finances, all other things being equal, would be prudent, but the general point about maximizing carries over to the moral area. What one ought to do, morally, is maximize the good. In the moral area, this means maximizing human well-being, impartially considered. The above illustration is an artificial one, and real life introduces all sorts of complexities such as how to weigh disparate goods and how to deal with risk and uncertainty. However, the basic point that one ought to maximize the good, or do the best one can, stands.

Even though it seems intuitively very plausible, at least in the abstract, Utilitarianism has come under fire in environmental ethics debates since some writers believe that the theory remains indifferent to issues of distributive justice. Donald Brown (2002, p. 53), in American Heat, writes: "Utilitarian theory cannot determine how benefits or costs of subgroups should be distributed among potential winners and losers Utilitarian theory is indifferent in respect to distributions of utility as long as total utility is maximized.'' This criticism has a long history in the theoretical debate over Utilitarianism. Rawls (1971), for example, held that Utilitarianism was inadequate in giving an account of just, fair distributions of benefits and burdens within society. For Rawls, the unfairness had to do with the fact that Utilitarianism seemed committed to inequitable distributions, as long as total utility was maximized. Thus, a utilitarian might well end up endorsing a system in which some members of society live in misery while others flourish at their expense, as long as that society has the best overall utility rating. However, my claim will be that this approach ignores the subtlety of a utilitarian account of obligations regarding the environment. Indeed, this account, I believe, can best account for the fact that the U.S. has failed to live up to obligations with respect to curtailing greenhouse gases.

Utilitarianism in practice can appeal to diminishing marginal utility to support egalitarian intuitions on distribution of resources. This feature helps to deal with some of the criticisms that have been levied against it, like the one made by Brown, detailed above. The basic idea is pretty simple. Suppose I have $100 to distribute. I could give it to (1) a poor, struggling single parent or (2) Bill Gates, one of the richest persons on the planet. Utilitarianism holds that I should give it to (1) because the $100 in that case would make a large positive impact on that person's happiness level; it would mean more to that person and make a larger contribution to that person's well-being. The value to a person of the $100 diminishes as the person's other resources increase (all other things being equal). Since it is also the case that for the utilitarian no one person's utility in principle matters more than any other person's, there is built into Utilitarianism a kind of egalitarianism with respect to distribution. This maneuver will not completely resolve the issue for writers like Brown, but it goes a long way toward making the theory more compatible with our intuitions about just distribution.2 The implication with respect to emissions, then, is that if anyone "should'' cut them it would be the top emitters. The bottom emitters would then have more of what is necessary to improve their standard of living.

Dale Jamieson has also explored this issue of how utilitarian theorizing can be put to use to help address this problem. Jamieson adopts a utilitarian approach to dealing with global environmental change. He argues that we should be trying to minimize our negative impact on the environment, but that we should do so without worrying about how other people are behaving. We instead need to cultivate ''green virtues'' - habits of behavior that, being habits, do not call for the complicated calculation involved in regulating our behavior relative to the behavior of others. Jamieson has argued, specifically with respect to the problem of global environmental change, that "...one feature of a successful response would be Non-Contingency. Non-Contingency requires agents to act in ways that minimize their contributions to Global Environmental Change, and specifies that acting in this way should generally not be contingent on an agent's beliefs about the behavior of others (Jamieson, 2005).'' Given the context of this discussion, I believe he means that agents should not worry about whether or not others will do the same kind of thing when it comes to harming or helping the environment. This non-contingency, he argues, is necessary because contingency requires ''sophisticated calculation.'' My approach differs from his, however, in that I will be rejecting his commitment to non-contingency. His idea seems to be that in order to consider the behavior of others one would need to gather a good deal of evidence about that behavior and then calculate optimal outcomes, before embarking on a plan of improvement. His alternative is to suggest we cultivate virtues that promote our ends - those of minimizing environmental damage.

But as stated, this cannot be right. Here is one reason. Minimizing one's contribution to global environmental change is not without costs - otherwise, we would not have this problem in the first place. Buying a more expensive hybrid car means I have less money to spend on other goods; walking to work instead of driving means I have less time to spend on projects I deem very important. Whether or not the cost is worth bearing will depend on the behavior of others; thus, my belief about the behavior of others should be a factor (though certainly not the only factor) in my decision about how or if to modify my behavior. For example, suppose I would like to contribute some money toward a gift for a colleague's baby shower. It makes perfect sense to gage my level of giving by how much others are contributing. My calculation in this case need neither be sophisticated nor be in the global warming case (though perhaps it ought to be). This point is also relevant to the issue of when to internalize costs. Garret Hardin points out that when you are the only person in the middle of the wilderness, dropping a tissue or taking an extravagant shower is not environmentally harmful. But large numbers of people doing that will be harmful. Thus, my behavior does need to take into account others - where they are and what they are doing or not doing.

However, Jamieson does seem to recognize later in his essay that a commitment to non-contingency with its rejection of calculation has its dangers. If people do develop stable habits that lead to positive environmental change - habits intended, for example, to minimize environmental damage -then these habits will have a kind of inertia that makes the agent slow to respond to changing circumstances. Thus, habits of conserving water and living a frugal, low-energy-consumption life may be good for the environment now in ways that pay off for future generations. However, this might not always be the case; indeed, if the environmental prospectus improves dramatically it may be better for future generations if agents engage in more development that could improve their standard of living - but the habits would act as a brake on changing strategies. Or, to use a more dramatic example, and one that Jamieson focuses on, habits may get in the way of being able to deal effectively with emergencies. That is, it may be the case that conservation strategies (and, therefore, the habits based on them) would result in disasters in particular cases - where, for example, one needs to drain a marshland to prevent malaria from wiping out large numbers of people. Thus, Jamieson also discusses the problem of complacency, and allows for escape clauses for 'extreme cases.' For example, one may reject non-contingency if an entire population's existence hangs in the balance. In that case, one may go back to the calculative model rather than rely on the ''green virtues.''3 However, on his view, aside from these sorts of extreme cases the emphasis should be on the 'green virtues.' We should be relying on them, cultivating them, as a means of achieving the very worthy end of emissions reduction. I certainly would not want to argue against this as part of a strategy - developing good habits of conservation is great. But the justification for these habits is defeasible, and defeasible precisely in response to evidence of the behavior of others.

In effect, what Jamieson is offering us is a kind of indirect consequen-tialism. Rule consequentialism is the most familiar variant of this approach. The Rule consequentialist holds that the right action is that action performed in accordance with a rule (or set of rules) that maximizes utility. This is generally contrasted with the Act consequentialist or utilitarian approach that Jamieson's criticisms focus on, which holds that the right action is that action which maximizes (expected) utility. But Jamieson's indirect variety seems to be a form of virtue consequentialism - the right act, what one ought to do, is the act performed in accordance with a virtue, one that expresses a virtue. What counts as a virtue is to be determined by conse-quentialist considerations (e.g., it is a character trait that systematically produces the good).4 But the analogy with Rule consequentialism is instructive, since in my view Jamieson's commitment to non-contingency will mean that his account is at risk for a problem similar to the one faced by Rule consequentialism - the ''absolutist'' objection. This is the criticism made when the rules are simple and straightforward, but then seem to lead us in the wrong direction. For example, ''Don't lie'' is simple and straightforward, but surely it is okay to lie in some circumstances - for example, to save an innocent person from death at the hands of an evil dictator. Yet, if exceptions are allowed, the theory runs the risk of turning into Act con-sequentialism, at least in practical terms.5 For Jamieson's account, the problem, as he notes, will be complacency. As with the Rule consequen-tialist, he will have difficulty distinguishing his virtue consequentialism in a way that makes it plausible as well as practically distinct from Act conse-quentialism.

Further, Jamieson's account needs some clarification as to how we judge the consequentialist account - as a decision procedure or as a criterion for rightness.6 If the Act consequentialist view is interpreted simply as a criterion of rightness, then Jamieson's criticism misses the mark. On this interpretation of consequentialism, we evaluate actions by looking at whether or not the good has been maximized. A calculation at the time of a particular choice is not even required.7

However, I do not think the consequentialist needs to reject a conse-quentialist decision procedure. That is far too radical. And Jamieson's portrayal of the Act utilitarian as one who recommends a constant use of such a decision procedure is inaccurate. One should not give up on calculation even if it is true that one should not use it constantly, since that would be counterproductive. So Jamieson seems to be presenting a false dichotomy.

However, the concern that prompts Jamieson here is a serious one for an Act consequentialist, and the general point that Jamieson makes may be correct in that Act consequentialism - though not as deficient as Jamieson maintains - will still have a problem when it comes to getting the agent to do something that only produces a greater good collectively.

But the Act consequentialist has responses. Consider the example of policies geared toward minimizing casualties in World War II during the blitz. No one was allowed outside the bomb shelters during a bombing raid. Note that the probability of any particular single individual being harmed by a bomb was astronomically small. Thus, Alice, as an individual, should not be too worried that she will be hit by a bomb. It might well be rational for her (in the absence of laws preventing it) to go out and about during a bombing raid. However, the probability that some people will be killed and/or harmed if people are allowed to be outside the bomb shelters is quite high, indeed, a virtual certainty. Thus, from the point of view of the policy maker it does maximize the good to prohibit people from being outside the shelters during bombing raids. And governments are in the position of the policy makers. They make and enforce laws and policies. This difference between ordinary individual rational decision making and the appropriate decision procedures for policy makers helps explain a recent disagreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding travel to Toronto in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. The CDC (as of April 26,2003) has not issued a travel advisory for Toronto; the WHO has. My view is that the CDC is thinking in terms of risk to the individual, whereas the WHO is thinking in terms of risk to individuals, understood collectively. The risk to a particular individual of contracting SARS while in Toronto may be quite small, but the risk that someone will contract it while visiting if people are not discouraged from traveling there may be quite high indeed, and this could lead to additional outbreaks of the disease throughout the world.

This example explains why Jamieson also seems to be relying on an approach that is geared toward individuals, and prompting them to take the initiative in acting on environmental change. While this vision is important, effective change will require government action, realistically. Broome (1992, p. 17) writes: "... national governments must take some action It must be governments that take action, because the greenhouse gases are public bads par excellence."

The point that Broome is making is that one cannot rely simply on individuals since individuals, acting on rational self-interest, will not be able to coordinate behavior efficiently so as to avoid a "tragedy of the commons'' scenario for the atmosphere. No one would deny that individuals acting collectively could create enormous positive environmental change. Of course, however, coordination is crucial, and this is where the role of government is so important. Government regulation is necessary to enforce compliance with a norm. One cannot rely on conscience, particularly in a competitive environment. Those without a conscience would exploit the competitive disadvantages of others.8 If some individuals internalize the costs of reducing emissions while others do not, and then flourish by comparison, then the conscientious are in effect penalized. Other writers disagree because they believe that government regulation is coercive and that the best strategy involves an appeal to our better nature. However, I think that this approach involves the trap of thinking along idealized lines. One cannot rely on voluntary compliance at the individual level, particularly in communities where informed agreements do not seem to have much binding influence. This is not to reject the workings of conscience, either. It is just to note that government regulation is also needed, and that for many problems this regulation must be very aggressive. Of course, this problem at the international level has led some to expand the government model and hold out the hope that bodies such as the United Nations can enforce norms at the international level.9

Jamieson could always argue that governments could, in some derivative sense, cultivate the 'green' virtues. We often speak of "honest" governments, so why not "frugal" ones as well? Governments engage in aid campaigns and public education programs intended to address social problems. And this supplement to calculation is fine, but calculative decision making on the part of governments is still necessary.

But the problem Jamieson points to is certainly a real and serious one. Even people who want to help sometimes feel completely helpless. He points out that they feel this way because they view their own individual contribution as insignificant. Note that one way to solve the collective action problem is, well, collectively - measures such as the Kyoto Protocol help to do this.

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