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In Defense of Utilitarianism

March 28, 2011

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.

  1. jasonkraman permalink
    March 28, 2011 10:14 PM

    The problems with Utilitarianism outweigh any of the benefits. I myself would never subscribe to such a close minded manner of thinking.
    In someways it is too demanding and in other ways it is not demanding enough. For example, Utilitarians champion constant donation to charity. This is valid in their mind because the 100 dollars I would use on my new ipod has more utility if it is sent to UNICEF and used in third world countries. However, this projects a life where one enjoys nothing and is constantly helping others. Helping other people is noble and virtous but one must always take care for their own being.
    It is also not demanding enough. For example, If you are in a room with one healthy person and 5 sick patients who all need organ transplants, I would argue against your reasoning and say that Utilitarians are too close minded to see the inherent wrong or possible societal impact. They see the utilitarian benefit of saving 5 patients with the organ of one and go about their business.

    Obviously in the case you project, killing the one person seems like a logical choice. After all if you are going to have everyone die, and you can change that to just one death, why not? Why you don’t is because than such actions set precedent and give people justification to act in certain ways. Yes in this case one should probably kill the one to save eleven but what about in a case where the one has 5 years left to live, or just 10? Where is this line drawn? This presents a problem with no solution so I in fact believe from the start you should not kill the innocent person.

    • michaelambler permalink
      March 28, 2011 11:44 PM

      Thank you for your thoughts. Your main critique seems to be similar to that raised in point no. 3; specifically, that “Utilitarians are too close minded to see the inherent wrong or possible societal impact.” The first clause is undoubtedly true; utilitarians would, in fact, deny that there was any such thing as an ‘inherent wrong’ in the first place. The second part really don’t make sense to me, though. Utilitarianism is all about trying to evaluate the possible societal impact of an action, so its contradictory to assert that utilitarians wouldn’t even try. You are correct, however, that utilitarianism would call for spending money on feeding starving people over buying yourself an I-pod (assuming your subjective set of values considers people’s lives more valuable than listening to music!). Don’t forget point no. 3, though; your maxim that people should also care for their own being is entirely valid within a utilitarian framework, since a world in which everyone donated all their money to charity would likely result in economic devastation, reduced distributive efficiency, and ultimately most likely lower total utility. You can read a much more detailed explanation of some of the ways utilitarians consider charity here.

      I’m also curious as to what you mean by ‘close-minded.’ Utilitarianism is simply a method of determining the moral value of an action. Obviously some people think it makes sense, and others don’t, but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that those who agree with it are more close-minded than, say, deontologists.

      Finally, you actually support utilitarian thinking in your last paragraph, when you say “Yes in this case one should probably kill the one to save eleven but what about in a case where the one has 5 years left to live, or just 10?” This is exactly the type of question moral theorists grapple with! I’d reject your argument that there is definitely no solution; any solution will be subjective, but so is all moral philosophy. I think it’s much more ‘close-minded’ to simply declare that nobody can try to come up with an answer than to at least give it a shot.

  2. alex permalink
    April 1, 2011 4:18 AM

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit.

    I think the larger question surrounding utilitarianism is something like: “Should personal happiness be the sum of human existence?” since utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness…

    Examples of problems with utilitarianism can be better found in forms of its implementation: in terms of “Homo Economicus” and “Rational Choice Theory” can be eeked out even further here, although Rational Choice Theory is more limited than utilitiarianism per se:

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