The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education

In my brief response to Community College Dean a few weeks back, I said something that I think is pretty obvious, but that is often ignored:

humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education [because] you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Consider the classic paradox of hedonism articulated by Henry Sedgwick: across a whole range of domains, you cannot maximize utility if you take the maximization of pleasure as the motivation for engaging in activities that tend to be pleasurable. Your motivation matters. Even a hedonist has to have projects, and those projects are only reward to her if she takes them on for their own sake and ignores the utility she will gain.

For instance: being in love increases your utility, but if you approach a potential partner with an offer of mutual hedonism, he will rightly suspect that you are not seeking long-lasting love. “I really want to have a relationship with you, not because I think you’re awesome, but because I think it will make me happy and this seems like a good way to do it” is no way to fall in love; the potential partner will rightly say, “That’s weird, I don’t want to be loved selfishly, I want to be loved for myself.” You might think that you are then lying to your partner when you claim to love him for himself, but in fact we are impressively good at catching such lies. We have to really take that “for-himselfness” of loving seriously, to the extent that we’d even be miserable if our lover dies, in order to garner the hedonistic benefits of loving. The rational hedonist courts just this sacrifice.

You might also go to church to increase utility, but folks would think you were crazy if you went to church and said, “Hi! I’m here not because I have faith in the particular doctrines of this institution, but because I’ve been told that belonging to a community of religious inquiry will increase my utility.” Worse, like a bad Pascalian wager, you’d lose your Sabbath and you wouldn’t get the (mundane) benefits! So it is that the rational hedonist, motivated only by happiness, even courts irrationality!

Now, there’s a similar problem for education: if we instrumentalize education by treating it like a set of skills and practices, or even worse, as the acquisition of discrete knowledge, then the real benefits (especially of college education) will be lost. The real benefits of education are soft skills that are hard to “acquire” in that discrete sense. Habits of mind that enable analytic writing, close reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills cannot be learned unless the student takes a long detour through irrelevant material. So there’s a similar teleological or motivational problem to the one facing the hedonist: you have to read the Classics for their own sake in order to become a better advertising executive, even though reading the Classics isn’t directly relevant to advertising. Following Sedgwick, , T. M. Scanlon calls this the “teleological paradox” in a long footnote to What We Owe to Each Other, which can be described thus:

though the telos in question may depend on factors within an agent’s control, that does not mean that it is rational for the agent to target it and make it in that sense a matter of active demand.

In many areas, you must do things that are only instrumentally-related to your goal in order to accomplish your goal. The risk, however, is that this process of divergence from the goal might actually become counter-productive or self-deceptive: how will we know if the instrumental means supplants the true goal entirely?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In metaethics, there is a response to the teleological paradox and the problem of self-deception: R. M Hare’s “two-stage” or “two-level” utilitarianism. In the first stage, our ordinary lives, we take on ordinary justifications for our projects. But every so often we reflect on the value of particular methods and motivations, and during this reflective second-stage we tweak them from the perspective of the overarching goal. Maybe we only do this at the level of institutions or laws. So, instead of saying “You should have a family because it will bring you pleasure,” we normally just advocate family life for the normal, intuitive reasons that preserve love and loyalty as ultimate ends. But at the level of policy, we still ask questions like, “Should we incentivize large or small households?” or “Should we give tax breaks for children or not?” That second stage allows us to take on the utilitarian perspective for the purposes of improving our projects. So the teleological problem dissolves, so long as we’re able to willfully blind ourselves to our ultimate motivations: we get to be utilitarians some of the time, but when it matters we can be fathers and mothers, lovers and church-goers, citizens and consumers, etc.  Virtue and deontology are then sublimated under a utilitarian perspective, called to bear when they’re best suited to some basically utilitarian goal.

The same solution works for education. In the classroom, the library, and the lab, we can embrace wasteful irrelevance, detours into difficulty, and the rigors of basic research. Then later, at the level of syllabus-construction, course-design, academic policy, project funding, or tenure-line evaluations, we can ask: “What are the instrumental educational goals that we’re trying to accomplish? What is the best (most efficient, most effective) method for achieving those goals?” Yet because we are not fundamentally committed to any particular major or method of instruction, we can also ask: “How many Classics majors do we really need? Can we get the same benefits from Philosophy or Anthropology?” The close, careful reading of abstruse literature, abstract and irrelevant mathematical work, or the cultivation of the jargonistic language of High Theory all become tools, but tools we take up as if they are ends in themselves.

The key to this process is that at the administrative or policy level we have to seriously believe that these projects matter: we have to actually commit ourselves to the claim that studying the Classics (or Philosophy or Anthropology) is more useful than studying Accounting, even if what we want are more accountants! That may seem odd or self-deceptive, but the evidence suggests we have no other choice: when we study the data and look at the Collegiate Learning Assessment, we end up concluding that the most useful education is the one that focuses on the least useful work.

So, even though we’re pure instrumentalists at the policy level, as instrumentalists, we become committed to the rejection of instrumental approaches. Not always, not if better evidence comes along, but for the time being, given our current knowledge, etc. We become instrumentally non-instrumental. When we are in front of the classroom or when we are advising students about majors, we should discourage an instrumental relationship to education. And that means that we have to discourage instrumentalism when we are deciding which programs to fund, too.

9 thoughts on “The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education”

  1. I think I’m missing something in the argument. Wouldn’t the question of which programs to fund be precisely the kind of second-stage question for which instrumentalism is entirely appropriate?

  2. I guess I’m not sure I understand the target, then. Are university administrators saying, “Philosophers, you should teach accounting in your classes?”

      1. Ah, I think I see. I think I was trying to attribute a more complex mistake to the administrators you’re criticizing than the one you are – which is just that they’re instrumentally foolish. Of course, if the administrators aim at accountants, this does not conceptually require that the instructors aim at accountants – from the administrative perspective, whether instructors should aim at accountants is an empirical question.

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