On Utilitarianism

Most people are probably familiar with the idea of Utilitarianism. I have recently started to read about various moral theories, and I wanted to write down some of my thoughts about Utilitarianism in particular. You can read more about Utilitarianism here on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and decide for yourself. What follows is a simplified definition of Utilitarianism.


  1. A moral theory with the core belief that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).
  2. The theory is based on consequentialism, meaning that an action is considered to be morally right or wrong depending solely on the effects of the action.

There are two distinct forms of Utilitarianism, there is Act Utilitarianism, and Rule Utilitarianism. An Act Utilitarian, takes the core ideas of Utilitarianism, and applies them directly to individual actions. This means that for an Act Utilitarian, an action is morally correct if it creates the most overall well-being (utility) compared to other potential actions. The Rule Utilitarian, instead, tries to create general rules that, when followed by everyone in society, create the largest amount of overall utility.

It might surprise you to learn that, for the most part, I reject Utilitarianism as a valid moral theory in both of these forms. I will now try to explain why.

Feeding People to the Lions

Lets say that we have a society, that contains some racial minority group. They make up 10% of the population. This minority group is frequently rounded up by the majority, thrown into a coliseum, and fed to hungry lions for their entertainment. In addition, the majority group in this society feels immense pleasure when they see somebody in the minority group being eaten by the lions. They also feel no remorse for the people being killed, for them this activity is no different than going to the movies to watch an entertaining summer blockbuster.

If we follow the core ideas of Utilitarianism here, they would say that this is situation is morally correct. The suffering of the minority group pales in comparison to the amount of pleasure and happiness that the majority receives.

Now at this point, some Utilitarians might object to this scenario, saying that these action do not in-fact benefit the society in the long run, as the majority will become desensitized to violence, leading them to commit atrocities against each other, decreasing overall happiness, or that the minority at some point could revolt, start a  war, and again, decrease overall utility.

Sure, that is possible and a potentially a realistic scenario, but lets say the the Government in this imaginary society has strict laws and programs in place, to the effect that such events would never unfold. The imaginary society can exist this way forever without any threat of collapse from within or without. In this situation, is it morally correct for them to continue to persecute this minority, simply because it produces the greatest amount of pleasure and utility? Most of us would say no, this is not correct, a society should not function this way.

Runaway Trolley

That example was a little extreme, let us try a simpler example. Imagine that there is a runaway trolley, barreling towards 4 people who are stuck on the track. You and another bystander, are observing the potential disaster from a bridge, overlooking the track that the train will pass through. They bystander is a rather large individual, and if you push him off the bridge, he will be hit by the trolley first, get caught between the trolley and the tracks, and stop it from running over the 4 other people, at the expense of the bystander’s life. You just saved 4 lives at the cost of one, was this the morally correct action?

Most people again, would say no here. The Utilitarian could say that, this action would not increase overall utility, because if it became the norm, then people would frequently fear for their lives when they are nearby strangers and runaway trolleys, decreasing overall happiness. Again, if we put ourselves in the idealized scenario where this decrease in utility does not occur, most people will agree that the of pushing the bystander off the bridge is not a morally correct action.


The main issue with the above examples, is that Utilitarianism completely ignores an individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as we would say in the United States. Utilitarian does not care about individual rights at all. It only cares about the benefit to society as a whole, at the expense of the individual. In a pure Utilitarian framework, you have a right to nothing.

Malicious Intent

Now imagine that you have a co-worker, Bob, and he has really been getting on your nerves lately. He works very hard, and takes all the promotions and raises that you feel belong to you, even though you have not worked nearly as hard or as competently as Bob. You finally snap in a fit of jealousy at Bob and decide to kill him by pushing him off the top of your office building.

The next day, it is discovered that Bob had plans the blow up the entire office building with everyone in it, essentially killing thousands of people. Was it morally correct for you to kill Bob, even though you had no clue about his plans? Are you a hero now?

Again most people are going to say no here. You had no clue about Bob’s plans, it was completely accidental that you ended up killing him before he could enact his plans. As far as you are concerned, it didn’t matter what he was going to do the next day, you just wanted him dead.

Utilitarianism does not care about your intent at all. If you accidentally end up increasing the overall utility for society out of malice or greed, great! Keep up the good work! In the same vein, if you accidentally ended up injuring your child, you are just as guilty as a potential criminal who would injure your child out of a sense of maliciousness. The only factor that matters, is the consequence of your action. Your intent does not factor into the equation.

The Future

Utilitarianism also asks, that you make predictions about the future. Since your intent to do good does not matter, and only the consequences of your action matter, you better hope that you are real good at predicting which actions will produce the greatest amount of utility for everyone.

I don’t know if you noticed, but it is really difficult to predict the future. I cannot even predict at what time I will wake up the next morning, let alone predict the consequences of my actions. I am not saying here that we should not try to predict the consequences of our actions at all. I am saying however, the it is inherently difficult to do such a thing, as often, the final results of our actions are out of our hands. We can try our best with the information that we have, but due to circumstances outside of our control, we may fail, or we may end up hurting people more than helping him, even though that was not our intent.


Determining whether an action will produce greater overall utility is also a very subjective matter. It could be that right now, the action you took produced greater utility, but in the long run, it will produce greater overall suffering. The reverse is also true. Utilitarians themselves also often disagree about whether certain actions would indeed increase overall utility or not.

This is mainly true for act utilitarianism, but what about rule utilitarianism? I think that rule utilitarianism is essentially not much different than act utilitarianism, and that in the end, it crumbles back into the very subjective act utilitarianism. You could have a rule saying, always do x except when x does not provide maximum overall utility. To determine when x does not provide maximum overall utility however, you have to fall back on act utilitarianism. In the end, the two are not very different at all.


To summarize, my issues with Utilitarianism are as follows:

  1. It does not respect an individuals rights.
  2. It can easily be used to oppress minorities.
  3. It is only concerned with the result of an action, not the intent of an action.
  4. It asks you to predict the future, which is inherently difficult, and often, out of our full control.
  5. There is subjective disagreement over whether certain actions do indeed provide maximum utility or not, even among Utilitarians.

If you do consider yourself to be a Utilitarian, you could take the stance that feeding minorities to the Lions, and pushing people off bridges into runaway trolleys is the correct moral action, and that our common sense morality is simply misguided, that we are just being squeamish, and cannot face up to the reality of what the situation demands.

I disagree, I think that there are more competent moral theories out there that can free us from many of the problems that Utilitarianism has. However, I will save those ideas, for another time.



On the Political Divide

I would like to remind the political right, that making fun of someone who is physically ill, is one of the scummiest things you can do.

And I would like to remind the political left, that making fun of how somebody looks, is one of the many intolerances that you have been fighting against this whole time.

Please try to think with just a little more compassion, before you like some random meme style image on Facebook.

The vast majority of Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, are genuinely pushing for what they believe to be right. They do however, have different perspectives on what this may mean, and how it is best accomplished.

I believe that this is true for the majority of our Politicians as well. However, it can be very easy for them to get lost in the means of winning, and forget for what end they decided to pursue these ideals in the first place.

Please remember that we are not enemies of each other, but fellow citizens, and fellow human beings. Thanks.

General Thoughts

The above is from a post that I made on Facebook just yesterday. I was scrolling through my feed and saw that some of my Facebook friends had liked various meme style images and cartoons that made fun of Hillary Clinton, after a video of her nearly collapsing due to exhaustion from campaigning and fighting off pneumonia had surfaced on the Internet. Recently I had also seen people making fun of Donald Trump, saying fairly unkind things about the color of his skin and the authenticity of his hair.

I did not like what I was seeing on my Facebook feed related to politics at the time, with how both Democrats and Republicans seemed to be constantly at each others throats, making fun of and demeaning each other.

To be honest I lean more Democrat than Republican, however I am a registered independent, and I am currently in the process of re-evaluating my political beliefs to make sure that they are in  line with everything else I claim to believe and stand for.

With the amount of information overload we receive from the media about politics, I think that it is easy for us to forget that we are all really on the same side here, and that we should not forget to care for each other as fellow humans first and foremost.

On Mental Health

Whenever somebody says, “I am struggling in my attempts to be physically healthy”, most of us are more than happy to tell the person how they should exercise or what they should eat.

But when somebody says, “I am struggling in my attempts to be mentally healthy”, we fall silent. What does it even mean to be mentally healthy?

As we grow up, we are frequently taught that we should eat well, exercise often, and that we must look after our physical well-being, especially when we hurt ourselves or become ill. Very rarely are we taught what to do when our mental well-being is challenged in the same way.

What should I do when things don’t go my way? How should I react to and cope with disheartening news? How should I treat difficult obstacles in my path? You will have to answer these questions repeatedly throughout your entire life. We often stumble around, trying to figure out these answers for ourselves as we move forward.

The answers to these questions are far more important than the answers to “How can I gain more muscle?” or “How can I lose more weight?”. That is not to say that physical health is not important, it should simply take a back seat to our mental well-being.

We often have many answers on hand for the questions related to physical health, but very few answers prepared for our mental health, for our overall well-being.

Physical health has undergone an awareness explosion in the past few years. More and more people are focusing on how to eat and exercise properly. I feel that we also need an awareness explosion in the realm of mental health.

These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, and find real answers to, if we are ever to truly understand how we can live well.

We need a philosophy of life to guide us, otherwise we risk losing our way.

General Thoughts

The above is taken from a post that I made on Facebook a few months ago. During that time, I had been noticing a trend among  my Facebook friends, that many of them were posting about physical fitness, and how it is very important to eat right and exercise.

At the time, I was looking into what it meant to be mentally healthy with a little help from The School of Life, and I wondered why we are often so quick to talk about physical health in a social settings, but very reluctant to talk about mental health.

The obvious answer is that it is much easier for us to gauge somebody’s overall physical health at a glance, as opposed to their mental health. I also think that modern day society has made it taboo to an extent, to talk about mental health. Talking about such things is often seen as a weaknesses.

Because we do not talk about these issues much, people often struggle in dealing with mental and emotional problems. They do not have strategies on hand that will tell them how to process these problems when they arise. We know of so many different strategies that can tell us how to lose fat and gain muscle, but we are often left wanting when mental issues arise.

Philosophy can help us with this problem. I have found that philosophy, specifically ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, to be very helpful for me in this regard. We must share these ideas  on how to handle these problems with each other and not be afraid to talk about these issues if we are to benefit from them, together.

Would you have known the most efficient way for you to strengthen your abs if nobody had told you how? Sure, you might have been able to figure it out on your own after some trial and error, but why not ask in the first place?

We can all learn from each other, why not share what we know?

What is a Prokopton?

Hey, so you found my blog! Great! Your first question is probably “What the heck is a Prokopton? Is that a new Pokemon or something?” Well…uh…no. It is not a new Pokemon, at least not yet? I think?

Prokopton – One who is making moral progress.

Prokopton is a word that was used by the ancient Greek Stoic Philosophers to describe an individual that has accepted the claim that ‘Virtue is the Sole Good’, and has decided to apply this to their daily life.

What did the Stoics mean by virtue? Well, when they said virtue what they really meant ‘excellence of character’. They thought that one who seeks to have an excellent character would intentionally act according to the virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance.

The prokopton seeks that all of his actions align with these virtues. However, one of the key aspect of being a prokopton is that his (or her) actions are not always perfect. He will sometimes become angry with others due to minor grievances. He may become bitter because things did not turn out exactly the way he wished. He may even wrong another for his own benefit at times.

But the prokopton tries to learn from each of these mistakes, and attempts in earnest to not repeat them. He makes it his goal to improve his behavior, his character, and he takes steps towards this goal every day. This is what a prokopton is, one who is making moral progress.

And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.

– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35

I think that we should all strive to be a prokopton in our daily lives, in the sense that we should all strive towards an ‘excellence of character’. Too often do we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of every day life. We need to take time to reflect on our actions, and check on ourselves to make sure that we are behaving in a way that is consistent with our morals and our beliefs.

We should also examine what we believe, and why we believe it. We often go through life, picking up unintentional baggage along the way, without realizing what exactly we have picked up, or why we even decided to pick it up in the first place.

Philosophy can help us to examine ourselves and our beliefs, as well as guide us on how we should live our lives.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

I will primarily be using this blog as a notebook for myself, but also as a sounding board for my own beliefs on what I think it might mean to live a good life, along with other Philosophical ideas. You may disagree with me at times, and that is ok. I am by no means an expert on any of this. Feel free to voice your opinion respectfully in the comments. We cannot discover the best way to live through introspection alone, a discourse with others, especially those of differing opinions, is often required for us to truly examine ourselves.

The topics I post on may jump around from time to time, but the goal of this blog, and Philosophy, is to explore what we believe, why we believe it, and how we can ask the right questions that will lead us on a journey towards a good life, whatever that may entail.