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What is the Opposition to Utilitarianism?

Updated on April 30, 2012

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism, is a moral theory invented by Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832). It is the concept of maximising happiness or pleasure for the most amount of people. Within this view, sacrificing a minority’s happiness to improve that of the majority is acceptable.

It can be summed up with “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The Famous Case

For a famous example, the case of “The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens” often arises. In it, a cabin boy is eaten out of necessity by the 3 other crew members of his ship whilst stranded out at sea.

The utilitarian view is that what the 3 men did was morally justifiable as it was more than certain that they would not survive long enough to be rescued if they didn’t.

3 men’s lives were spared at the price of one. The 3 men were given one of the greatest pleasures of living at the expense of somebody experiencing one of the greatest displeasures that is death. Thus as a result of their decision, the happiness was maximised.

Most people would agree that what the 3 men did was correct as at the end of the events, the world saw 3 men happy and one unhappy instead of 4 dead men. Also, those 3 men were able to go back to work and contribute back to society, resulting in overall benefit for the world too.

Measuring Happiness

Jeremy Bentham uses the "hedonic calculus" when measuring happiness and this is basically ensuring that the most amount of happiness is attained from a decision, regardless of the type of happiness. For Bentham, quantity is most important.

John Stuart Mill states that there are different levels of happiness, and some types of happiness are "higher pleasures" such as reading a challenging book or writing poetry whilst others are more basic and lower, like watching non stimulating television or taking recreational drugs. Although happiness is attained in both types of action, Mill argues that they are a different quality of happiness. Mill incorporates quality of happiness in with his decisions.

Who's to say?
Who's to say?

Opposition to Utilitarianism - Human Bias

In a given hypothetical situation, it is more moral to sacrifice one life for 5 lives instead of the other way around. This is given that the worth of the lives is indeed the same. If the worth of the lives are not the same, then maybe the one life should be saved. Some would argue for example that 5 criminals are not worth one rocket scientist.

In a real world situation however, many complications arise. When the person making the decision has some sort of sentiment, for example, the mother of the 5 criminals, she is likely to choose to save her children regardless of their contribution to society. Sentiment then can be said to ruin the argument for utilitarianism because it will always play a part in decision making, subconsciously or consciously.

Opposition to Utilitarianism - Evaluation

Furthermore, it is very difficult to determine the value of a person’s life in relation to another, if any comparison can be made at all.
Some argue that a person’s life is valued by the contribution he has made or possibly could make to society whilst others argue that all life is equal. Thus, if you believe that it is impossible to compare the value of people’s lives accurately, or that all life is equal, you could say that utilitarianism is once against not practical in real life.

Opposition to Utilitarianism - Measuring

Another argument against utilitarianism is that happiness cannot be measured accurately enough to be used practically and so the very concept is flawed from the start. Who is to say that the displeasure caused by the death of one man is equivalent to the quantity of pleasure felt by one man living?

Counter Argument for Utilitarianism

You could argue that although killing 5 people to save just one seems initially wrong in the utilitarian mindset, (as 5 people feel the displeasure of death and only one feels pleasure), that one person could end up contributing more back to society and make up for and exceed the displeasure initially caused by the action resulting in more happiness.

For example, saving one medicinal scientist instead of 5 builders could result in that one scientist inventing a medicine that saves millions of lives. Thus you can argue that utilitarianism can in fact to some degree be used practically, and that there are cases where at the expense of a minority, a majority can benefit significantly.

On a side note..
It is noteworthy to mention that weighing up the value of one person’s potential to contribute against that of another’s is not always so easy as with the scientist and builders and some would argue is impossible or immoral to do so. Some would argue that individual rights do not coincide with utilitarianism decisions.

Sorry Bob
Sorry Bob


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    • cbl2988 profile image


      7 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      *subjective (not objective; oh boy, lol)

    • cbl2988 profile image


      7 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      But why is that? What makes human utility infinitely more important than that of any possible entity? Isn't that a little bit arbitrary? And why is it happiness that is the standard? How is one supposed to measure something that is an objective experience in individuals and project it across time and to all individuals over all? How could one reasonably measure that in all cases? As far as I understand, the utility monster does not have the diminishing

      utility effect like humans do. So for every human sacrificed it increases in utility. Therefore, to be consistent with utilitarianism, we would have to sacrifice all of humanity to a single entity in order to maximize utility.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Hey CBL thanks a lot for the references, though I do not fully understand this monster argument.

      Utilitarianism is built on the premise of human's happiness as far as I know. I'm sure there are other variants that include animals and other organisms too, but as a rule, it applies only to humans?

      Utilitarianism is founded on the principle that humans have similar needs and desires, and that catering for more of those identical (or at least very similar) desires is the most moral thing to do.

      Humans are born the same with the same needs, give or take.

      To include such a 'monster' to me seems fallacious and contradictory to Utilitarianism.

      This is because this monster clearly has different needs and desires and so could not be put on par with humans and their needs. Given that it is hypothetical and you then could do such a thing, it is nevertheless against the spirit of utilitarianism because the concept is based on people's needs from people's perspectives. Therefore, there would never be a case where humans would make a decision that would extinct themselves instead of another race or another being.

      In terms of numbers, on a scale of importance from 1 to infinite, humanities survival would be infinite according to utilitarianism.

      That's how I see it anyway.

    • cbl2988 profile image


      7 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      Have you read Nozick's "utility monster" and "experience machine" arguments against utilitarianism? They are some of the most famous philosophical arguments against utilitarianism.

      His utility monster presents a case such that if utilitarianism is correct, we could hypothetically imagine a world where we have a monster that could theoretically gain in utility with each unit that it consumes (e.g., a human life)and is not subject to diminishing marginal returns. Since ordinary people receive less utility with each additional unit consumed, if the utility monster existed, it would justify the mistreatment and perhaps annihilation of everyone else, according to the doctrine of utilitarianism.

      "Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility."--Nozick

      I am not totally downplaying Utilitarianism here. In some instances, a deontologist, such as myself, would have to choose an alternative that minimizes loss and maximizes utility. For example: if I were in a situation where I had to choose between 5 innocent people on one hand, and 10 on the other (barring any other possible alternatives), I would be forced to save the 10 rather than the five since I could not save all of them. This kind of blend, or gray area perhaps allows for the best kind of ethics. It honors individual rights.

      To me, deciding that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain seems rather arbitrary and not as rational as deontological ethics.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Thank you :) for the moment, I have found no better way of living my life ^^

    • profile image

      Website Examiner 

      7 years ago

      I have always admired the utilitarian philosophy, which I consider to be founded in a type of reason and logic that makes a lot of sense. I believe it produces sound results in many cases, especially when viewed from a political vantage point.

      I just sent you an email. Welcome to HubPages, and good luck!

    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Thank you :)

      The alternative is "deontology" which states that certain actions are always morally incorrect. :)

      I'll add a section on that soon I think.

    • Tamarajo profile image


      7 years ago

      interesting article. I'm definitely not a Utilitarianist.


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