What is the Opposition to Utilitarianism?
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.
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.
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.