Scaffolding: The Utility Template

As previously noted, scaffolding is an important element in problem-based learning:

it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside

For drawing students’ attention to various kinds of basic values, I found the template for utility values the easiest to develop. I don’t want to go too far, just now, in speculating about why that should be the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that utilitarianism is the product of an empiricist outlook, according to which the marks and measures of value are observable and the connections from action to its ethical implications largely a matter of empirical causality.

Here is the basic template:

Utility TemplateFor this template, focus on the action as something that happens in the world that has consequences that ripple out from it, affecting other people. This is largely a matter of material causality: my action causes x, which causes y, which causes z, and so on.

Identify the individuals or groups affected.

Briefly trace the causal path from the option to those individuals or groups.

Note that the causal path is likely to include complex systems of interactions, so some consequences may be surprising or may seem out of proportion because of the emergent behaviors of those systems. (e.g., One message to a social media site on the Internet can set an avalanche of online abuse . . .)

Note also that, because you are looking forward to what will happen or might happen, some accounts of causal paths should be stated in terms of probabilities, and some in terms of uncertainty.

When the causal consequences of an action intersect the lives and projects of others, it can bring about a change in some state of affairs in which they had been living and acting. For example, if the consequence of an action causes illness or injury, that would be a change to the health of an individual: good health or ill health is a state of affairs. Other states of affairs to consider would be happiness or unhappiness, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, contentment, pleasure or pain, wealth or poverty, having opportunities or not having opportunities.

Specifying the state of affairs allows you to say more precisely in what way someone may be better off or worse off as a consequence of the option under consideration.

The next step is precisely to indicate whether the individual or group in question is better off or worse off in regard to that particular state of affairs.

Finally, draw together the elements identified in one line of the template into a brief prose description of the consequence of the option for those particular individuals or groups.

Consider a simple example.

Suppose I know some unfortunate or inconvenient fact that might be important for a friend’s well-being: my friend will find the news very upsetting and yet needs to act in light of the news in order to avoid some terrible loss. One option is to arrange to meet my friend and, as soon as we are face to face, launch into a blunt, factual account of the bad news.

Bad NewsThis is only the beginning of a consideration in terms of utility values, of course, as the causal consequences of the action might ripple out in many different directions.

The template also allows for consideration of risk and uncertainty in the outcome of a particular course of action including, in the example given, the possibility of an adverse and self-destructive reaction from my hypothetical friend:

Bad News - riskI may also consider consequences for myself, others connected to my friend, others implicated in the bad news, the person from whom I learned the bad news, and so on.

I have not yet experimented with using the template in such a way, but it occurs to me that it could also be used in considering the merits of proposed rules and practices in versions of utilitarian thinking that look beyond the moral qualities of particular actions.

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