(urgent) For the philosophers: utilitarianism

I have a paper that’s due; and am still unable to decide between the two moral systems I must choose between (teoleogical/utilitarianism v.s. deontological/categorical imperative). I was leaning towards the first one, but someone proposed this example of why utilitarianism is an inferior moral system;
(just know that utilitarianism cares about total happiness for the majority)

If a teacher who graded on a curve decided to lower a student’s grade on an exam (even if he had earned his high grade), so that all the other lower-ranking students will also pass the exam, would this be considered a moral act? I may be wrong, but Utilitarianists would say this is moral, as the majority are satisfied; however, the deontologists would say that it was an immoral and unjust act; they would just ignore the consequences (the end DOES NOT justify the means). I’m thinking there is more to it; could any utilitarinists defend their own position? If not, I think I’m going to have to argue for the deontological perspective.

I’m a utilitarian, and I can justify it either way. I could believe happiness over the short term is going to be larger than any later causal happiness, and so marking that student down is a moral act, since the larger amount of students are happier in the short term.

On the other hand, if I think that by getting a lower grade, students may become motivated to work harder (and therefore get higher grades in the future, leading to more happiness) I could justify not altering the grade as being moral, too.

Just as an aside, I myself would consider the second option more moral.

But we don’t have grades to please students, we have grades to measure them, so society can make better judgements about who gets to do what. Anyway, a classic view on who gets to pass might be in order (passing them because you think they deserve it, not to please them).
By the way, I do think that ends justify the means. Only I think “good” means far more often than not lead to “good” ends. And vice versa. But morals are for cowards and cheats. Read some Nietzsche.

Quite so. But we’re talking about the *moral * choice, not the simple “best” choice to make. The purely moral choice may depend on your own beliefs, and as you point out a choice dependent on the rules of exams and grade curves would be not to change the grade.

There are plenty of times the moral choice and the choice we make don’t coincide. This is a question purely about morality, though, not any other qualities of the situation.

Changing the grade to help an underconfident student can be morally positive, if not done constantly.

Changing a grade to harm a child, based solely on hatred of that child, is morally negative.

But grading a student on the work accomplished is an accurate description of that work, & therefore morally neutral.

But the moral choice for an utilitarian would be the “best” choice in regards to the greater good. And pursuing the greater good doesn’t end with pleasing the students. And like Bosda Di’Chi of Tricor points out, passing a student who according to his test results shouldn’t, might be a good choice if it helps him build enough confidence to excell.
The problem with utilitarianism, of course, is that whenever you have found something that leads to a greater good, that greater good again might very well lead to an even greater evil. But, it seems, good actions often have good results. I’d go for passing the ones who seemed to deserve it.

Not to a utilitarian, it isn’t.

The discussion has already hit on the primary utilitarian defense – by increasing the poorer students’ immediate happiness by a small amount, you are also lessening their long-term prospects for happiness by lowering the standards of the education they’re going to receive and by enforcing a view that hard work isn’t necessary to get aheaad. Which, if we assume that hard work really is necessary to get ahead (not a safe assumption, but that’s another issue), then over time the students who benefit from this kind of grade inflation are not going to be as successful or happy as they would have had you taught them to actually put their nose to the grindstone when they have to.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a great defense, because it assumes either a disproportionate effect of a very small beneficial effect (the single grade change), OR it assumes that throughout the students’ lives their teachers are all going to be doing this same thing, instead of the arbitrary and unpredictable series of contradictory messages that their teachers really would be sending over a period of years.

The other big objecton, which I think you’re focusing on, is that it simply seems wrong to deny one guy the benefit of his hard work because of the shitty performance of his peers. And the utilitarian offers a similar defense – it’s not that big a deal compared to the happiness the other students will receive. But more importantly, the utilitarian says that, if, in fact, that is the proper act, and it is optimific to punish the innocent student, then it is the morally correct thing to do (and failing to do it is morally wrong).

That should get under your skin, but it’s really not a factor in whether you should be following Kant or Mill. Because the deontologicists say the exact same thing. They just say it about different situations.

This is one serious and, to my mind, unresolved issues about having a moral theory at all – everyone who follows such a theory will make a decision in some cases that our native, innate moral sense will find abhorrent. And they say that’s OK; our innate moral sense is just instinct, and it pales in the light of the superior reason needed to craft the theory. But that assumes that the theory is in fact morally right. And how can we assume this? There are lots of smart dudes with their own moral philosophies that suggest different results to the same dilemmas, so there’s no way on that score to choose one over the other. in fact that primary way that moral philsopohers try to get people to adopt their philosophy is by appealing to the innate moral sense! Certainly that’s the ultimate idea behind utilitarianism – it assumes that the alleviation of suffering is a good, and so seeks it optimifically. Well, I happen to agree with the notion that the alleviation of suffering is good. But there’s no bedrock to that belief beyond my already extant innate moral sense. Of course, there are times when the theory conflicts with innate morality. But when it does, it’s biting the hand that feeds it – like I said already, the only reason to accept a moral philosophy with rules is because you think those rules will deliver a result that you innate think is moral and good. Ergo, a moral philosophy which tells you to ignore the innate moral sense is useless, because it gives you no reason to accept it.

But if the moral theory does parrot the innate moral sense, then what’s the point? Having a moral theory which says “Do what you think is right” is the same thing as having no moral theory at all. And in the efforts to make their theories consonant with the innate moral sense, moral philosophers following Mill and Kant (even Mill himself compared to Bentham) have tried to sublimate the masters’ teachings – the creation of Rule utilitarianism being the most successful example. But it’s the same problem on another level of abstraction – if Rule utilitarianism or any derivative theory still confounds the innate moral sense on occasion, then the above problem remains. And if it doen’t, then why have the theory at all instead of just relying on good ol’ instinct.

Anyway, that has little to do with your question, except (in summary) in this way – you shouldn’t back Kant over utilitarianism because you’ve got a hypo where the utlis would tell you to do something unpleasant. Because 1) there are situations where Kant will tell you the same thing, and 2) if your accepted theory never tells you to do something unpleasant, then you’ve really got no theory at all – you’ve just got excuses that let you act the same way your innate moral sense would tell you to act without any theory to guide it.


It’s a matter of who makes the rules in agriculture. The landowner says, “You till, I tarry. Any questions?”

The problem with most hypothetical “gotchas” posed against utilitarianism (and this one is no exception) is that they have an excessively narrow focus. The question for the utilitarian isn’t what grading policy will make the students happiest in the long run. The question is what grading policy will make everyone happiest in the long run. Not just the students, but anyone who will interact with them based on their grades. So, just to make a hypothetical in the other direction, if we pass the incompetent medical students in order to make them happier, we’re overlooking the dire consequences of producing lousy doctors who’ll harm instead of help their patients. If we pass the engineering student who can’t master calculus, we’re overlooking the people who will be killed when the bridge collapses due to his error. Etc. The purpose of grades are to provide an accurate evaluation of people. Insofar as they are they are fluffed up to preen the egos of the evaluees, they fail to be useful in their primary role, with negative consequences that must be weighed against the rather superficial ego-preening. So, maybe you could make a case that all the English Lit majors should get As, but it won’t work in any field where competence and ability matter. :wink: