Epistemic Circles: Squaring up with Utilitarian Ethics

Warning: A winding tale. Read only if you are very bored, or find circles particularly fascinating.

At first glance, utilitarian ethics offers the attractive proposals of common good, society, inalienable rights, and the desirable ultimate goal of ensuring greatest human happiness. The utilitarian ethic is grounded in an empirical understanding of the world: things result in other things; we know this thing causes that; and we know this is better than that; so we must choose to do the thing that will birth the best other, and the best other must be best in a way that is best for all. Undoubtedly a noble pursuit.

My first instinct, when met with such a proposed ethic was to turn to the epistemic assumptions that underpin the validity of such a proposal for morality: can we know, in a way that is necessarily more concrete than belief, that which is best not just for us, but for existence? I would expect the utilitarian to say with certainty that we can. But his answer, it turns out, is that we mostly can, and that that should be enough. 

Say you find a lost wallet stuffed with $100 dollar bills and an ID card with an address two blocks down the street. You don’t really need the cash because your allowance comes in Fridays, and you’re on your Saturday morning walk to the coffee shop for the ritual chocolate croissant. The shop will probably close by the time you take the detour to drop off the wallet, but from the looks of it, this guy will be super thankful to have his wallet back. A quick google search suggests he is a grad student in theology. He probably needs his wallet, and I’m not suggesting this because of the theology degree, but the first result when you googled him was a go fund me page raising money towards his tuition payments. He writes for Christianity Today, and there’s an article about how oil is a gift from god, but the world another too; deserving of our care. At this point, you’re not really going to spend that much more time thinking about what to do. You have an address, a wallet, and a fine-seeming gentleman who profusely thanks you and invites you in for tea when you stop by his house. You spend your afternoon in the afterglow of the warmth you have brought into the world and soon forget about this happenstance crossing of paths.

The dude reads the WSJ though, and he knows oil prices are about to spike because of a confluence of decisions halfway across the world. He spends the cash you returned buying a ton of Exxon stock, and makes a handsome return. He is happy, and so are you. All is well, as far as you know. What you do not know is that on that same Saturday, a bunch of other guys also lost their wallets stuffed with cash, and a bunch of other super nice strangers took them back. All these wallet-loose guys, thrilled to have gotten back a bunch of cash they’d written off, all go and buy Exonn stock because they all read the WSJ and they all make a handsome return off their purchases. Exxon takes this guys $2000 and puts it together with a bunch of the other guys’ $2000 and destroys an ecological haven in the Amazon that, together with the stuff Shell is doing, causes an irreversible shift in climate that causes the whole world to flood in a decade. If you hadn’t returned the wallet, you would have met your friend with 3M twitter followers at the cafe who also picked up one of the other wallets and they would have told you that they actually knew this guy and that he was kinda terrible: he’d just mentioned his lost wallet and swore to buy a ton of oil stock if he did get it back, and only wrote the stuff on the magazine for a class he took with an environmentalist professor for a good grade. You would have cursed in disgust and walked over to a local animal shelter to make a donation. The friend would have tweeted about your decision, and somehow all the other wallet finders would have googled all the wallet losers and found a few old filings for oil stock trades(the other guys weren’t theology grad students–they were all Republican senators) and a bunch of money would have gone to great causes. But you didn’t. You believed what you were doing was best, even though it was not. So you returned the wallet and went on your way. Cafe trip skipped. Chocolate croissants can wait another week.

The utilitarian would say that because you did it seeking to make the most happiness for all (and yourself, but this is specifically not included in the utilitarian argument separately from the common utility of one’s actions), this choice must have been right.

This sort of thing, where we have a justified true belief (JTB) [that theology grad students with tuition go fund me’s and articles about climate change are not furtively reading the WSJ to buy the dip in oil stocks] that is based on mistaken premises(that they must have a set of values that suggest destroying the earth for their immediate benefit is wrong) is much better presented in the epistemic challenge of Gettier problems. Justified true belief(JTB), according to Gettier, may not count as knowledge if their justification, while thought to be true, is not.

The implication is that we may not always know the result of our actions. The utilitarian though, will counter that we can reasonably expect something. That the situation I describe(maybe poorly) is so highly improbable that we should still choose to do the thing we believe will result in greatest good. We should return the wallet, reasonably believing that the theology grad will not buy a bunch of Exxon stock(which to be clear, in this hypothetical, if I were to be the wallet finder, would believe too). To the utilitarian, the epistemic uncertainty of his actions and their resulting consequences, in the unlikeliness of the particular chain of events described here to occur, are a non-issue. We must act believing that things will reasonably follow. The goodness of our actions is to be measured in the rationality of the good we expect to follow from them. 

The epistemic rescue for the utilitarian might be found in the ancient Socratic dialogue: Meno. Gail Fine, a professor emeritus of Philosophy at Cornell University, discusses the Meno, asking “whether the Meno holds that knowledge must be based on knowledge” and, if it does, whether its account of knowledge is circular.

In an analysis of Plato’s work, she argues that “epistêmê [intellectually certain knowledge] is a species of true belief: one has epistêmê that p [is true] when one has the true belief [emphasis added] that p [is true] and can explain [emphasis added] why p is so.”1 Gail “also argues that this is an account of knowledge, [one] that is not vulnerable to Gettier-style counterexamples.”2 Why is this?

To grossly oversimplify a rather winding argument, she explains that “[o]ne might argue that it is one thing to say that one can know whether virtue is teachable only if one knows what virtue is”3 (the circular argument) “and quite another thing to say that one does not have the sort of justification that is necessary for knowledge unless one can explain why virtue is teachable”4(the ‘straight forward’ argument). Plato, to many, is accepted to suggest the former5: that one can only teach good if they know it. He goes on, in a series of questions, to conclude that virtue cannot be knowledge because we fail to teach it. How is a thing so surely present but not known? In answering this, Socrates tells Meno that opinions become knowledge through thought and recollection of what is true. Thus, opinion is unjustified belief while knowledge is a justified belief. Virtue can be believed in, but it is our reflection on its ‘truthfulness’ that makes it truth. By this, in my understanding, he would lend the utilitarian a hand in further asking us to consider knowledge and belief two versions of the same thing, one justified and one not. The utilitarian could therefore argue that coherent justification is enough to guide our morality because it allows us to differentiate between that which we merely believe, and that which we surely know. They would argue that it is right to do that which we can justify as right because then we know that it is.

In a world where the latter is more true(in that I, an individual, find it more justifiable that we cannot find justification necessary to ever justify knowing what is good), what is left of the utilitarian ethic? How are we to decide what is right if we we believe that right, virtue, good, is unteachable? Put simply, if one believes that the point of morality is meant to be the discovery of good, rather than its execution, how can we be utilitarian? I would think we cannot. If we reject the circle, do we curse ourselves with winding through life untethered? Do we choose an amoral life?

My senses(thinking, not feeling—if that matters) tell me that cannot be true, and I would beg the utilitarian to understand that I only do what he does: trust that what I believe and find justified is just as good as that thing that I know. The justification for the belief that good is unknowable, a necessary corollary to my opposition to utilitarianism, is the complex emptiness I sense in the unending pursuit to find the thing that defines good. I realize that this too, is a circle of its own. Do our circles intersect? Are they inscribed in each other? Which is bigger?

If you have an answer, I would enjoy nothing more than hearing it.

1Fine, G. (2022, February 25). Essays in ancient epistemology. Gail Fine – Oxford University Press. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://global.oup.com/academic/product/essays-in-ancient-epistemology-9780198746768?cc=us&lang=en 


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