Tadeusz Kotarbinski : “Utilitarism and Ethics of Pity” (1914)

Edited and translated by Wlodek Rabinowicz.

Polish philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbinski (1896 – 1981), a leading member of the Lvov-Warsaw School, is well-known to the international public. Especially influential have been his reism (a radical form of nominalism) and his logical and semantical contributions. Kotarbinski’s work was an important link in the philosophical line starting with Brentano’s disciple Twardowski, and continuing with Lesniewski, Lukasiewicz, Ajdukiewicz and Tarski. His main writings in this field derive from the period between the two world wars.[i] Somewhat less well-known are his post-war contributions dealing with praxiology, a theory of efficient action[ii], and with independent ethics, a humanistic ethical doctrine that puts forward the conception of a ”reliable guardian” as its central moral ideal.3[iii] That Kotarbinski actually started his intellectual career as a moral philosopher rather than as a logician or a philosopher of science should come as a surprise to many: his doctoral dissertation – a study of utilitarianism in the ethics of Mill and Spencer – was published in Polish at the beginning of the first world war and then remained practically unknown until its re-publication in 1987.[iv]

From that same early period comes the note translated below. Like the dissertation, it remained unknown until its re-publication in the late 1980-s. I have thought it worthwhile to translate it into English because of its surprisingly” modern” approach to its subject. In this short text, Kotarbinski prefigures several trenchant criticisms of utilitarianism that have been made in later years. Thus, utilitarianism is accused by him of of ignoring the difference between promoting happiness and preventing suffering, of not recognizing supererogatory actions, of being an impartial, agent-neutral ethical view, of ignoring genuine moral dilemmas (situations in which we reach an” ethical zero”, as he puts it). The modern reader will find these criticisms quite familiar. But how familiar were the way back in 1914? Or is the history repeating itself and we are simply re-discovering forgotten insights?

Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Pity[v]

Tadeusz Kotarbinski[vi]

Utilitarian ethics, accepted by so many, takes it to be the obligation of everyone to act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals. I.e., if someone has to choose between two alternative actions, one with a smaller sum of general happiness and the other with a larger sum, he ought to choose the latter [correcting “the former” in the original].
The ethics of utilitarianism appears to conflict with the spirit of pity that has been crystallized in Christian ethics. It matters less to what extent the latter is primordially Christian, to what extent it is strictly evangelic and how orthodox it is. It is the ethics that culminates in the heroes of self-sacrifice. Its slogan is the obligation to act in such a way as to remove the unhappiness of others as much as possible without thereby causing unhappiness to anybody else.
While seemingly very close, the two routes diverge on cardinal issues – first, in their answers to the question whether moral obligation requires the happiness be maximized or just the unhappiness be eradicated without remainder. Utilitarianism pushes in the former direction, whereas the ethics of pity inclines towards the latter alternative. In this respect, utilitarianism wins the bidding for imposing stricter requirements and has the appearance of a better theoretical construction. The ethics of pity (let us call it Christianism[vii]) has, it seems, truth in its favour. As for the appearance of a better construction, what I mean is that we favour the most far-reaching generalizations – theories that state something about all things to which this something pertains, and not just about a particular subset of the whole set. And it is clear that removing unhappiness is just a particular form of increasing the sum of happiness; for this sum is algebraic, it consists of positive and negative components, and subtracting a negative value weighs just as much as adding a positive one. How strange an economic principle would seem that declared debt reduction to be good for a subject, but not an increase in the net income, which would often require an increase in debts. Surely, it is just as good to strike out a debt as to find a new source of income. Isn’t it the same in moral matters? A classical utilitarian would reason like this,
having before his eyes a financial analogy, on the basis of which this system was in fact modelled (Bentham). It would seem then that limiting obligation to unhappiness would be somewhat like an economic precept that exclusively aims at the removal of debts. Belonging to the sum that ought to be maximized would then characterize only some of the things among all those that [in fact] belong to it. Why make only one form of happiness maximization obligatory, the one that consists in eradication of unhappiness, and not all the forms, including the one that consists in making a happy person even happier? [Why?] – for the same reasons for which it is just to pay everyone his due, neither more nor less, notwithstanding the fact that paying someone means increasing his assets,
and there are other ways of effecting such an increase, for example by giving him more than his due. Why then not require giving him more than his due if justice is to be done? Similarly, someone might judge that in order to transform a kilogram of ice into a liquid state it would be right to add not just 80 calories but a larger amount, as much as one can; for adding exactly 80 calories is just one way of providing sufficient heat; and why should this one alone be appropriate? How cosy it would be at home; why should we heat it only until the temperature rises from ten to 18 degrees; why not continue further until it reaches, say, 25, for this too is just one way of increasing the temperature? But these simple illustrations are more than enough to clarify this over-simple matter. Analogies are not proofs; the utilitarian standpoint has not been justified in this way (nor in other ways), but it still does not follow that its negation is justified, especially that form of its negation that epitomizes the slogan of Christianism. Is truth in the slogan’s favour? For the peculiar feeling of duty, awakened by the sufferings of other people that are under our control, does the slogan point to an action that would be like drinking water for thirst, like an embrace for love? If so, then the slogan is the truth. And it does seem to be so. For whenever I have helped an unhappy person, without injuring anyone, I have always noticed that I have fed
this emotion; but whenever this hasn’t happened, I have not noticed anything of the kind; and whenever I have known that I could have helped but didn’t, I have been clearly aware of having gone against “the voice of conscience “. Nothing similar, however, has occurred when I have seen happiness beside me and withdrawn the hand that could have added something to it, even when I have taken this something for myself instead; and when I have added to someone else’s happiness, I have felt I was doing something supererogatory.
Utilitarianism does not know such deeds: to be consistent, it would have to treat every gratuity as an obligatory payment.
Let us now consider (and this is the second conflict) how the two ethics manage in a dilemma in which things are placed on a knife’s edge. Thus, suppose a decision must be taken as to which road to choose: either the unhappiness of one subject and the happiness of another, or the happiness of both, but smaller. Utilitarianism will here start to to weigh and add. It won’t be much interested in the circumstance that it will weigh the unhappiness of one against the happiness of another; it will determine the excess of pluses over minuses in the first case, it will add the pluses in the second case and it will choose the road for which the calculation shows a higher net result! Here, the ethics of pity has a solution that is as clear as daylight: it always takes the side where there is no unhappiness.
It will not sanction making Peter unhappy for the sake of a full life for John, in whatever degree. If it had power over destinies and two roads to choose between: either a world with great happiness for some and with unhappiness for others or a lifeless world, it would push fortune’s wheel into the latter direction. It has a potential for nihilism! Still, it seems to be true. Utilitarianism has a conqueror’s mark, it strives towards the fullness of life – yet it is a doctrine of falsity.
Third, the two tendencies glaringly contradict each other in the face of the following problem: when confronted with a choice between my own unhappiness and somebody else’s, what is my obligation to choose? Utilitarianism will say: it doesn’t matter! It will add a demand to calculate in each case which unhappiness is greater and to choose independently of whose unhappiness it is. This will be called impartiality and treating oneself and others on a par. As will be observed, even Christianism demands no more than the same consideration for another subject as for oneself. [But interpreted in this way] it will be a pharisaic standard, based more on the letter than on the spirit of the teaching. Christianism has a partial [biased] answer: it wants precisely to be as partial as possible, to protect as violently as possible someone else’s unhappiness. Its principle is always to sacrifice one’s own happiness in order to relieve the unhappiness of another. If it endorses treating another as oneself, then it means: “at least as oneself“. It recommends a miserable minimum to the most tardy agents, but the severe obligation reaches further.
Utilitarianism, when it talks of “equality“, wants to hide behind it and so resist the obligation to make an absolute sacrifice in order to alleviate the unhappiness of another. “Value him at least as yourself“ and “value him as much as yourself“ – that is what can be derived from the maxim: “value him as yourself“. Utilitarianism’s true face has been uncovered by comparison with Christianism: how different is the relationship that obtains in this case from the one uncovered in the first conflict. There, utilitarianism would extend the range of obligation far beyond the limits imposed by the ethics of pity. It appeared to adhere to the principle of limitless sacrifice and, in comparison with this idea, the precept
of Christianity seemed calculating. Someone who sees a mark of truth in the moral doctrine that does not impose limits on obligation, might then feel entitled to acknowledge utilitarianism as the true slogan and to condemn Christianism as the defective principle. If this is to be the mark of truth, then neither doctrine is true. Each imposes some limits, albeit different ones. The limitlessness of utilitarianism is impaired, however, precisely where this matters a lot to the unhappiness of another, whereas for Christianism, only where this would matter to the happiness of another. The former prescribes self-sacrifice, making oneself unhappy, to make up for a larger amount of other people’s happiness, even
where it would only intensify huge pleasures enjoyed by others who were already happy. The latter prescribes self-sacrifice solely to make up for the unhappiness of others, but for this purpose – always. Here, utilitarianism surprises with a pointed combination: sometimes, you should be unhappy in order that others could be even happier; [but] you are allowed to be passive when unhappiness is there beside you, if fighting it would cost you too much.

There remains, finally, a fourth conflict, when two alternatives oppose each other: either let one person be unhappy and ten others instead enjoy happiness or, on the other hand, free that one person from his unhappiness by making the other ten unhappy. Which course should be chosen? Utilitarianism will ask about the intensity of happinesses and unhapinesses; if the unhappinesses are all equally intense, and the happinesses likewise, it will prescribe the first route. Christianism will hesitate at this juncture: why should it sacrifice one for ten and not the other way round? Both here and there it will have to cause unhappiness to someone, and this is not its obligation, even in order to remove unhappiness. It will conclude that one is worth as much as all, and that all are worth as much as one; it will discern the origin of the violent opposition against such an assumption; it will point to its source lying in our being accustomed to evaluate useful objects, where one gold piece is always worth to sacrifice in order to save ten, and never the other way round; it will renounce the similarity between what is obligatory and what is postulated by a calculus of forces; and it will remain without a criterion: both routes are equally good, both are equally bad, you are allowed to take each, but none of them is obligatory.
This is the ethical zero, which must be reached when the ethics of pity is asked for a life directive; because of the enormous complication of life, in which the happiness of some will probably always look from another side as the unhappiness of others; because of the unfathomable multitude of the effects of each action; because of the fact that to be able to prevent the unhappiness of another, and yet not do so, is the same as to cause unhappiness.
Utlilitarianism will not lead to such a zero, but when it undertakes a calculation in excess of our strength it will not find the way. Christianism leads to a wilderness of obligation, utilitarianism takes us to a place where there is a road but no sign pointing the way. The former [view] appears to be true, but in a fully developed life it lacks room for action, being unable to find the subject for its predicate, [to find] the road that would be obligatory. The latter might find it, but only by accident and without knowing that this is the one. What’s more, it is a falsity.

An academic dispute, then? Without connection with “life“? For so they say. But to them who say so we shall answer, briefly, that theorizing is also a life.

[i] Elementy teorii poznania, logiki formalnej i metodologiis nauk, Ossolineum, Lvov 1929, 3rd ed., PWN, Warszawa 1986; Dziela wszystkie: Ontologia, teoria poznania i metodologia nauk, Ossolineum, Wroclaw 1993. Cf. Jan Wolenski (ed.), Logic, Semantics, Ontology, Kluver, Dordrecht 1990.

[ii] Traktat o dobrej robocie, PWN, Warszawa 1958. Cf. Wojciech Gasparski, A Philosophy of Practicality – A Treatise on the Philosophy of Tadeusz Kotarbinski, Acta Philosophica Fennica, Helsinki 1993.

[iii] Medytacje o zyciu godziwym, Warszawa 1985, re-published in Pisma etyczne, Ossolineum, Wroclaw 1986, pp. 361 – 420.

[iv] Utylitaryzm w etyce Milla i Spencera, Cracow 1915, re-published in Pisma etyczne, Ossolineum, Wroclaw 1986, pp. 25 – 84.

[v] Published in a Polish journal Nowe Tory [New Tracks], 1914, no. 1-2. Re-printed in Kotarbinski’s Pisma Etyczne [Ethical Writings], ed. by Pawel J. Smoczynski, Ossolineum, Wroclaw 1987, pp. 85 – 88.

[vi] I am grateful to Kotarbinski’s family for the permission to publish this translation, and to Paul Needham for checking my English. The remaining linguistic infelicities are my own responsibility; I may have been too anxious to emulate the special style of the original!

[vii] The author here makes use of a neologism, “chrystianizm“, instead of the standard “chrzescijanstwo“ (“Christianity“).

Cite this article as: W.A.Miskiewicz, “Tadeusz Kotarbinski “Utilitarism and the Ethics of Pithy (1914),transl. W.Rabinowicz,” in https://elv.hypotheses.org/, 20/06/2019, https://elv.hypotheses.org/506.




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