How Aggregation Can Fail Utilitarianism in the Most Important Ways [Presentation Video]

Author’s note: this introduction repeated at the beginning of video

This video is the talk I gave for RIT’s 2019 Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. The topic was why Utilitarians should feel free to ditch aggregation in some cases. Many of the points in it show up later in my article on objections to Utilitarianism, where I also expand on some of the conceptual elements of aggregation that concern/interest me. As with much of my writing on this site, it owes a good deal to William MacAskill’s first 80,000 Hours interview and Reasons and Persons. I currently have mixed feelings on this presentation, I even had mixed feelings on it when I was giving it, but I’ve only drifted farther from it since then.

The broader point about Utilitarianism being a product of “reasons” rather than “axioms” was fairly ad hoc even at the time, a framing for situating my main interest in the thought experiments I discuss. On the one hand, it feels like something of a cop-out, I could have said that these cases presented forceful objections to Utilitarianism, but would rather say that Utilitarianism could be separated from the problems by separating Utilitarianism from these axioms. While I agree that in a conflict between the reasons for a theory and the axioms of it, the reasons are the clear winners, you could also say that a theory is just its axioms, and that if the axioms conflict with the reasons, you need a new “theory”. On the other hand, as I bring up in both the video and my post on Utilitarianism, there are many strains of consequentialism that are called “Utilitarian”, so the idea that Utilitarianism is a cluster of specific axioms bonded by similar reasons remains somewhat appealing, even if it makes “Utilitarianism” pretty vague.

I have also more or less completely rejected the way I was thinking about imperceptible harm for the “Harmless Torturers” thought experiment. While I am still troubled with what to do about “imperceptible harms” in theory, my solution here was based on the assumption that perception had to have certain comparative properties. That is, two states are the same if, when comparing them from the inside, you can’t seem to tell them apart. The issue is more or less the transitivity issue I talk about in my objections to Utilitarianism article. It seems that intrinsic values can’t depend on what they are being compared to, and my framing makes perception dependent on comparisons. Though I’m not sure what I do believe, I am now more willing to believe in degrees of perception than in what I describe here.

The part of this presentation that still feels most significant to me is the second thought experiment about aggregation I bring up, the one about slowed perception. This one still raises devastatingly intractable questions about perception and value for me, and seems like a neglected topic (or at least one I haven’t seen discussed in these terms), perhaps because it is such a weird objection to take seriously. It has this really noteworthy property however, of many really important questions, that however obvious it seems that we should dismiss it, it seems impossible to put into solid arguments what’s going wrong with it. Anyway, enjoy my awkward script reading and hopefully fun doodles!

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