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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
- It does not respect an individuals rights.
- It can easily be used to oppress minorities.
- It is only concerned with the result of an action, not the intent of an action.
- It asks you to predict the future, which is inherently difficult, and often, out of our full control.
- 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.