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Problems with Utilitarianism as an Ethical Theory

Updated on July 16, 2011

I think that the most powerful objection to Utilitarianism is the idea that as a theory it doesn’t look at individual people as being unique or take into account personal feelings, for example, that our love for a certain thing might prevent us from acting in a way that would achieve the greatest overall happiness. The best summation of Utilitarianism is that it looks for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” This quote is commonly thought to have come from Jeremy Bentham (although he attributed it to Joseph Priestly).


On the face of it, it would seem that this principle must be the best solution to solving moral dilemmas because you are looking to maximise happiness (or pleasure). However it does not take into account the weighting of happiness. For example, do you make one group of people extremely happy or should you make several groups of people only moderately happy? The overall amount of happiness (if it could be measured) would be the same, but with different spreads. The principle also does not acknowledge the fact that human beings are naturally selfish and generally only look to maximise their own happiness and the happiness of those closest to them. A good example of this is the thought experiment where a woman has to choose whether to save her husband or a doctor who is about to find a cure for AIDS. Using the Hedonic Calculus and the Utilitarian way of thinking, the answer would surely be that she should sacrifice her husband so that endless numbers of people can have a cure for AIDS.

From an objective standpoint one may also agree that they think this woman should save the doctor. However if we were to put ourselves in her shoes it’s doubtless that we would not find it as easy to arrive at the same decision. This is not only because human beings are self-interested, but also because our emotions play a big part in our decision making and obviously in our happiness. Utilitarianism does not take into account that our emotions will not allow us to easily make an unbiased decision that is going to have such a heavy effect on our life and the lives of those close to us (the husband).  Bernard Williams writes about this problem, saying that utilitarianism fails to take into account the “integrity” of humans and that we can't just commit (or not commit) acts that go against our principles, beliefs, or even emotions, even if they are for the ultimate good.

This argument seems like a fairly strong criticism of Utilitarianism. As well as Bernard Williams, John Rawls also sites this criticism, referring to it as “the separateness of persons”. He talks about it in terms of justice, claiming that “utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.” He argues that applying utilitarianism to a society as a whole to try to achieve the maximum happiness, could lead to slavery, for example, being endorsed because it could, in theory, make the majority happy and only a small group of people suffer. This is obviously not the sort of society we would want to promote in the world.

Many though, would say that this criticism is flawed and therefore cannot be a suitable argument against Utilitarianism. It falls down firstly if we take a closer look at the example say of slavery. Although it is true that it may make the majority happy, it is also possible that owning slaves would not make the majority happy. The fact that we can look at slavery and see that it is wrong and that it should not go on in any society must mean that we would not be happy endorsing it and consequently utilitarianism would then say that slavery is not good. Another reason why this criticism could be said to be flawed is that it could actually be taken to be a positive thing that Utilitarianism doesn’t take into account individual feelings. So although our emotions make it harder to come to a decision, our decisions should in fact be unbiased. This means that the whole utilitarian process, the hedonic calculus etc lead us to an answer that really is going to benefit a greater number of people. Therefore maybe it is a good thing that it is completely unbiased and that human feelings get in the way of us making the best possible decision. In the example of the woman in the boat, saving the doctor would most likely create the greatest possible happiness for the world in general, saving countless lives everywhere on an unprecedented scale.

To summarize: I think that the biggest objection to Utilitarianism is on the grounds that it just gives a set of rules that we should follow in order to achieve the maximum happiness out of any given situation. It fails to see that human beings are primarily concerned with their own self interest and their own happiness in life, and less for the happiness around them. This does not mean to say that we do not care about others, it’s just that when it comes down to it, as a rule, we tend to value our own happiness over the happiness of those who we barely know, if at all.  This argument could be claimed to be weak because human beings should care about others and Utilitarianism provides a way for us to make an unbiased decision. However, it could be argued that the criticism is a strong because we are never going to live in a world where we are all impartial and it would be impossible to always make decisions that disregard our feelings. So, in reality, Utilitarianism could never work.


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      3 years ago

      Textbook appeal to nature.

      People's personalities, their genetic make-up, their biology doesn't matter in their morality. You might be a masochist who enjoys seeing other people suffer, and still make utilitarian decisions because you recognise that your happiness is far from the greater good.

      I find it funny we humans look down on animals as driven by instincts, yet it is instinct many cite when they discuss morality. The idea of morality is "Screw instinct. Use the smarter parts of your brain."

      Perhaps rape and murder are "natural" to humans - does this mean we should endorse them? Perhaps tribalistic fighting for ridiculous things are "natural" to humans - does this mean we should endorse them? The computer you wrote this from is probably not "natural" - so will you discard it?

      Why's a dung beetle's home a beauty of nature, and a human's home called "man-made". Why is something man-made not natural?

      Getting back to the point, utilitarianism is man-made just like any other system of morality, and is "natural", even if it defies instinct.

      I'm not sure what you mean by "Utilitarianism could never work". "Utilitarianism could never take over society" might be true, but this doesn't mean anything as a rebuttal to utilitarianism - it's a major appeal to majority.

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      Paul Hield 

      6 years ago

      This analysis is missing some important points about Utilitarianism which undermine its conclusions. It is important to note here that I am taking Utilitarianism as being the moral philosophy and not just the single sentence tag line “The greatest Good to the Greatest Number” which it is possible to misinterpret in any number of ways, Rawls for instance.

      Taking them as they appear through the article.

      “However it does not take into account the weighting of happiness. For example, do you make one group of people extremely happy or should you make several groups of people only moderately happy?”

      This is interesting because most people understand that Utilitarianism, in the absence of considerations of the motivation for generating the resources to be distributed, would conclude that the best outcome would be for an equal distribution rather than an unequal one. But this cannot be deduced from the headline definition of Utilitarianism, it is a consequence of an understanding of the law of diminishing returns, i.e. the smaller marginal benefit from each unit of consumption compared to the previous unit. Provided resources are distributed with this in mind, an unequal distribution would not occur in the absence of any other consideration.

      “The principle also does not acknowledge the fact that human beings are naturally selfish and generally only look to maximise their own happiness and the happiness of those closest to them.”

      In fact Utilitarianism readily acknowledges that people are selfish, and following Adam Smith assumes that individuals are the only ones equipped to perform the calculus of their own utility or happiness and must be free to make their own choices in a perfect free market, provided it does not violate another individual’s free choice. Thus in a perfect Smithian Free Market with individuals pursuing their own self interest, the maximum good for society as a whole is achieved. The very important point here in the market is that it is perfect, with individuals free to enter or leave as they wish with no barriers to entry. In the peculiar contrived instance of the woman in the boat, a Utilitarian regime is unlikely to need to consider such instances or legislate for them, there would be a great deal of sympathy for anyone found in that predicament though nonetheless the rest of us, Utilitarian or not, would regret the outcome whilst understanding the woman’s difficulty. I think the problem here is trying to use an ethical code, intended to inform public policy design, to make judgements at an individual level, to determine whether or not the woman’s decision was “good” or “bad”. The purpose of Utilitarianism is not to pass judgement on individuals; they would simply say that the way the woman acted was not in the best interests of us all but understandable. By the way, use a cure for breast cancer rather than AIDS as there are some who might believe that AIDS is sent as a judgement for immoral behaviour, so use a more neutral disease in your thought experiment.

      The argument of Rawls you stated “He argues that applying utilitarianism to a society as a whole to try to achieve the maximum happiness, could lead to slavery, for example, being endorsed because it could, in theory, make the majority happy and only a small group of people suffer.” is invalid because of the law of diminishing returns. All other things being equal, the law of diminishing returns would require that resources were distributed equally. In the instance of the slaves, they would enjoy a greater increase in utility from a small transfer from the owners than the owners would loose. You do not need to appeal to a disgust at slavery to reject Rawls’ argument. This disgust is not innate in any case, as only for a short period of human history has slavery been rejected.

      In summary, it would be wrong to conclude that Utilitarianism should be rejected as a means of public policy design, because you have doubts that it works at a private individual level.


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