Chapter 6. Teleological Theories : Utilitarianism
Section 4. Objectivity in Calculations

Objectivity in ethics

Objectivity and subjectivity of utilitarian ethics
Utilitarianism suggests that ethics is subjective inasmuch as its foundation is human happiness and pleasure. This seems to be the heart of human subjectivity, human consciousness, so in that way it ethics is, according to utilitarianism, very subjective.

But it is objective in two senses: first, it takes into consideration the real, empirical effects of one's actions. It asks such questions as:

And the answers to such questions have very definite, objective answers. Now we may not be able to know ahead of time what the answers are, but we need to use all of our scientific and intellectual tools to make the best predictions that we can.

And we can do this. We do it all the time. It is precisely what we do when we take into consideration the effects or consequences that our actions will have on other people. What becomes difficult is prediction of effects of actions that by nature effect lots and lots of people, in many different areas. In other words -- social, political, and economic policies. At this point we need get help from economists, sociologists, politicians, physicians, judges. etc.

And this is precisely the sort of debate and research that you see on C-Span!

Second, there does seem to be a degree of objectivity in pleasures we can tell what gives pleasure and pain by folks saying what gives them pleasure and pain. It is pretty easy to figure out what brings pleasure to people -- you ask them! But there are other ways of knowing about what brings people pleasure and pain. We can tell by watching people's behaviors. If a certain type of food is more popular in a restaurant, we can safely say that that gives more people more pleasure than other items on the menu. This, again, is important information to have when setting public policies, for enacting laws, for establishing taxes, for providing social benefits to different segments of the population, etc.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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