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Posted on June 11, 2020 at 5:12 AM

Written by Stefan Schubert

Utilitarianism is often associated with two psychological features.

First, acceptance of instrumental harm for the greater good. The utilitarian is famously willing to kill one to save five in the trolley problem.

Second, impartial beneficence. The utilitarian is equally concerned with everyone’s well-being, irrespective of their gender, nationality, or species. And they don’t privilege themselves over others.

The recent Oxford Utilitarianism Scale defines utilitarian tendencies in terms of these two features.

On this view, you need to have a somewhat unusual psychology to accept utilitarianism. On the one hand, an unusual level of altruism towards all. On the other hand, a willingness to break taboos against harm for the sake of the greater good. 

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But there’s another question, which is subtly different. What psychological features do we need to be able to apply utilitarianism, and to do it well? That’s not the same question as what features make us inclined to accept utilitarianism. But if you’re not careful, it’s easy to conflate them.

Once we turn to application, truth-seeking looms large. Unlike many other ethical theories, and unlike common sense-morality, utilitarianism requires you maximise positive impact. It requires you to advance the well-being of all as effectively as possible. How to do that best is a complex empirical question. You need to compare actions and causes which are fundamentally different. Investments in education need to be compared with malaria prevention. Voting reform with climate change mitigation. Prioritising between them is a daunting task.

And it’s made even harder by utilitarian impartiality. It’s harder to estimate distant impact than to estimate impact on those close to us. So the utilitarian view that distance is ethically irrelevant makes it even more epistemically challenging. That’s particularly true of temporal impartiality. Estimating the long-run impact of our present actions presents great difficulties.

So utilitarianism entails that we do extensive research, to find out how to maximise well-being. But it’s not enough that we put in the hours. We also need to be guided by the right spirit. There are countless biases that impede our research. We fall in love with our pet hypotheses. We refuse to change our mind. We fail to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. We’re vain, and we’re stubborn. To counter those tendencies, utilitarians need a spirit of honest truth-seeking.

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Truth-seeking shouldn’t be added to the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. It’s not needed to accept utilitarianism. Or at least there’s nothing contradictory about a utilitarian who isn’t a truth-seeker.

But when we’re applying utilitarianism, truth-seeking is very important. In fact, it can be more important than some of the features that we usually associate with utilitarianism. We’re rarely faced with trolley-style problems in real life. By contrast, we need a spirit of honest truth-seeking all the time. Without it, vanity and bias can easily cause us to have but a fraction of the impact we could have had. Or we might even do harm.

So utilitarians need to cultivate truth-seeking among themselves, and to make truth-seekers join them. And indeed, the effective altruism community, which contains many utilitarians, defines effective altruism as “using evidence and careful reasoning to take actions that help others as much as possible”. Truth-seeking is front and centre.

Yet truth-seeking is rarely associated with utilitarianism. The archetype of a utilitarian is some combination of a bullet-biter willing to kill for the greater good and an impartial self-sacrificer. But for those who actually put utilitarianism into action, and who do it effectively, truth-seeking is key. So the utilitarian archetype should be revised. Truth-seeking research should loom larger.

There is of course the old academic ideal that one should ardently seek the truth for its own sake. The utilitarian truth-seeker takes the same view, but for different reasons. For the utilitarian, truth isn’t an intrinsic but an instrumental value. It’s a means in the pursuit of the greater good. But empirically, it just so happens that that value is incredibly great. So the utilitarian’s devotion to the truth should be correspondingly great.

Thanks to Lucius Caviola and John Halstead for comments.

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