In Defense of Utilitarianism
For this post, I wanted to respond to some of the criticisms of utilitarianism I’ve heard from my peers. Clearly, the central idea of utilitarianism- that it is the net effect of actions that determines their morality- is highly controversial, and for good reason. As someone who finds utilitarianism pretty persuasive myself, however, I thought I should present my response to the most common critiques I’ve heard. Most of these points are quotes from conversations I’ve had; others, I paraphrased.
1) “Utilitarianism has no regard for morals and ethics.”
On the contrary, utilitarianism is an idea about what is moral, and is a type of ethics. Utilitarians argue that the morality of an action is determined by the total amount of good it creates, as measured against the total amount of harm. Saying that utilitarianism has no regard for morals is self-contradictory; what utilitarianism has no regard for is deontology, which is a specific type of moral philosophy (more on that later).
2) “Utilitarians believe ‘As long as it’s good for the majority, who cares about the minority?'”
Utilitarianism is about more than simply helping out the numerically greater number of people. For example, giving $1 to a hundred people by stealing $100 from one person would, assuming there were no other consequences of that action and that everyone valued money equally, be considered a neutral action, not a positive action. However, in reality, allowing that type of behavior would have many more consequences than simply enriching some people and impoverishing others; see the next point.
3) “Utilitarians believe that it’s moral to kill one person in order to save two people.”
This argument is overly simple. At face value, yes, a utilitarian would place the lives of two people over the life of one person, and thus agree that it was moral to kill one person to save two others (perhaps by transplanting his organs). However, many utilitarians would also take into account the long run consequences of creating a society in which it was acceptable to kill someone for their organs. Would violence become common as people fought to protect their kidneys? Would people become to afraid to even leave home? No action takes place in a vacuum, and utilitarianism is fully capable of taking this into account.
4) Utilitarianism is a flawed way of calculating the total benefit to society.
Utilitarianism isn’t a way of calculating the total benefit to society at all. Utilitarianism is simply an argument that we should calculate the total benefit of an action to society in order to determine whether that action is morally correct. This brings us to the final argument…
5) It is impossible to correctly determine the total harms and benefits of an action.
This is undoubtedly true. No one person, even with the most powerful computer, could ever accurately predict all of the outcomes of every action; in this sense, utilitarianism can be said to be ‘flawed.’ Unfortunately, that same ‘flaw’ applies to literally every decision people make. I don’t know if deciding to walk to class will result in me finding a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk or getting hit by a bus; when Congress passes a law raising the jail time for drug trafficking, it doesn’t know for sure whether this will lower prison populations by deterring drug dealers or raise them by lengthening the individual periods of incarceration. In all these scenarios, we have to use the best information we can, and the same applies to utilitarian philosophers.
Utilitarianism is simply an argument that we should attempt to consider the net effect of any outcome. We make similar calculations every day with limited information; will my total benefit from walking to class be higher than the total harm, or lower? Utilitarians simply want to expand that process to actions concerning society as a whole.
Now, we can all hopefully agree that killing innocent people is wrong. This is a deontological argument; in other words, an argument that the morality of an action is determined by it’s relationship to certain values or precepts.
However, imagine that you now stand in front of eleven innocent people. You’re told that all eleven people will die in exactly one minute. The only way to avoid this is to personally kill person number eleven (who, let’s remember, is going to die anyways if you do nothing). Faced with this decision, and (if you voted yes) remembering your deontological belief that it is wrong to kill innocent people, what do you do?
If you voted to kill one person to save the other ten, congratulations- you’re probably a utilitarian! Either way, it’d be interesting to hear your reasoning in the comments below.