G: It is morally right (required) to give 10% of your income to people who are less fortunate than yourselves (because doing so would maximize utility).I’m not interested in whether G is true. Let’s assume it is. I’m interested in how Utilitarians understand G.
One way they might understand G is to say, well, G is a moral judgment. Moral judgments are (by definition) normative. They are claims or directives asserting that there are quite strong reasons for acting. G, then, can be roughly translated as
G1 “You have significantly weighty reason to give 10% of your income to the less fortunate.” Or,
G2 (“You must) give 10% of your income to the less fortunate.”More: if these claims are genuinely moral, truly justified, then they can’t legitimately be simply shrugged off. So you can add to the translation above by saying
G3 “If you don’t give 10% of your income to the less fortunate, then you’re blameworthy.” And,
G4 “If you don’t give 10% of your income to the less fortunate, then you should feel guilty.”What if I don’t agree that I have this significantly weighty reason? (I reflect and introspect about my reasons, and that one just ain’t there. How does the Utilitarian know better than me what reasons for action I have?) What if rather I think it would be really nice for me to do it, but it isn’t required and so guilt and blame would be inappropriate. I can understand how nice it would be, but I don’t understand anyone getting angry at me if I don’t. I mean I know (we’re supposing) that doing this will maximize utility, but why must I do that?
But on this first way of understanding G for a Utilitarian (where G implies G1-G4), my view about what reasons I have don’t matter. Only the Utilitarian calculus does (or the Utilitarian’s calculation of net aggregate happiness does). Utilitarians don’t care about my view about what I have reason to do. They don’t care about whether G1-G4 make sense from my considered point of view. But that seems oppressive. It seems less like a justified pronouncement of moral authority and more like authoritarianism – Utilitarians just bossing me around or using moral language to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do.
I have Utilitarian friends (well, can Utilitarians actually be friends?) who will deny that G means G1-G4. Instead they say nothing practical straightforwardly follows from G. It’s good, in some sense, when it happens that utility is maximized, but it turns out that moral judgments aren’t actually judgments about what people have reason to do. “Giving 10% of your income to the less fortunate is ‘right’” these Utilitarians would be saying, “but I don’t know what to tell you to do.” So, people who fail to give 10% of their income to the less fortunate would be failing to maximize utility, but that doesn’t mean they’re blameworthy or that they acted against really strong reasons for action. Therefore, the judgment isn’t authoritative; G is just a claim about what would maximize utility and so, according to Utilitarianism, the “right” action. But you might not have particularly strong reason to do the “right” action.
But if G is understood in this way, instead of being oppressive, it’s simply inert. These ‘moral’ judgments seem like abstract theoretical claims and don’t even claim normativity for themselves. This option is at least odd because morality is typically thought to be normative, playing an important practical role in human relations.
Either way, Utilitarianism seems like a pretty revisionist view, and not in a good way.