Problems with utilitarianism


1. The nature of intrinsic goods is ambiguous.

a. Can a non-moral good be quantified? Suppose I went into a bar and ordered 10 units of pleasure. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? What would be 10 units of pleasure as opposed to 11? In fact, how can pleasure be measured in any save a very “more or less” way. For example, were I asked to say whether a banana-split was better than a chocolate soda, I may reply, “Well, overall I like banana-splits better; I get more pleasure from them.” But, if you were to ask me to rank all my tastes according to how much pleasure they gave, it would be very difficult. The problem is that with tastes, it doesn’t matter. But, with ethics, one unit of good could make the difference between calling an action right or wrong. Non-moral goods don’t look like things that can be quantified easily. And, if that is the case, then much of the precision of utilitarianism goes down the drain. In which case, utilitarianism may not be a good theory of moral obligation if its prescriptions may be contaminated by improper or unreliable assessments of the non-moral goods in the consequences.

b. Does a non-moral good admit of qualitative aspects? Consider two persons, John and Ed. They both have dogs. John gets 100 units of pleasure by walking his dog to a field and playing Frisbee with it. Ed gets 100 units of pleasure by sitting on his back porch and shooting his dog with a BB gun. Both get equal amounts of pleasure from their activities. Both get more good out of doing what they are doing than any other action. But wait. Isn’t there something that is wrong with Ed’s behavior? Even though it is quantitatively the same as John’s (both actions produce 100 units of pleasure), there is a qualitative difference which should be brought into play to say that Ed’s action is wrong. But what could that qualitative aspect be, and how could it be measured? The utilitarian has problems here.

c. Over what time period is the intrinsic good required to materialize; when is the good to be produced? What if I were to say to you that, “You should do that action, with respect to your driving and using gasoline, that produces the most amount of good.” You say, “OK, I’ll drive a bit slower.” I respond and say, “You do not get my meaning. Do that action which produces the most amount of good in the long run.” You then ask me, “Well, what is the long run; how long a time do you mean?” And, that leads to a problem. If I were to respond that the “long run” meant 1 month, then you would probably say that just driving slowly is enough. One year may mean leaving out a trip to the beach. Two years may mean car pooling. Fifty years may mean using the car only for emergencies. Five hundred years may mean selling your car and riding a bicycle. But, the important question is, which of these time limits is correct? When a utilitarian says to do that action which produces the most amount of good, he should specify when that good is to be actualized. However, in specifying when the good is to be actualized, the action dictated is changed, sometimes radically. Not only is it hard to tell what will be the consequences in the “long run,” but it is hard to define the time period of the “long run” to begin with. More problems for the utilitarian.

2. Utilitarianism may be incompatible with a principle of justice.

A serious problem for utilitarianism comes in trying to respond to the following question. “Utilitarianism requires that we do that action which produces the most amount of good (in the proper time period). But, for whom is the good produced?” For oneself; egoism? For everyone else’s benefit but oneself; altruism? For everyone’s benefit, one’s own benefit being calculated equally among all other recipients; universalism? Different answers to these questions produce radically different obligations. Actions which produce the most amount of good for myself are obviously not always in other person’s interest. An egoist will sacrifice the welfare of others at the drop of a hat if it is in his/her best interest (and he/she can get away with it).

Most utilitarians are universalists and regard egoism as a perverted form of utilitarianism. Why? Well, for one, any moral theory which is worth its salt should be able to be acknowledged to be promoted by all persons. But, an egoist is certainly not going to go around and talk everyone into being an egoist. Why? Because if they became egoists, they may sacrifice his interests to improve theirs. So, the full-blown egoist will proclaim universalism or altruism to be the theory to follow, all the time waiting for the chance to take advantage of those who follow his advice. But, a viablle moral theory should not have such problematic and inconsistent prescriptions.

The hard problem comes in the following form. It could be the case that utilitarianism demands an action which is incompatible with fair play or fairness. In the early !800’s down South, slave labor produced the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Slavery was an efficient way for Southern farmers to produce goods at a cheap price. These goods brought a lot of pleasure to a great amount of people. No doubt, the slaves suffered terribly. But, the most amount of good was produced and enjoyed by the most amount of people through slavery.

But, slavery is just unfair. Slaves are denied autonomy and a consideration of enjoyment of a fair share of the goods produced. Granted slavery produced the most amount of good for the most amount of people, but that consideration of efficiency is not strong enough to override a principle of fairness.

3. Utilitarianism may be incompatible with a principle which emphasizes rights over duties.

You have a right to privacy. However, suppose I know something about you which would make for a good laugh in class. No doubt, you will be terribly embarrassed were I to reveal the information, but everyone will have a real good laugh. In fact, though you will be very distressed, the most amount of good will be produced by my making fun of you in a ridiculing way.

But wait a minute. You have a right to privacy and it would appear that I have an obligation to respect that right. Rights impose duties. If you have a right to free-speech, then I have a duty to be quite when you are exercising that right. If I have a right to my own personal property, then you have a duty to respect that property and not to trespass. Unfortunately, the utilitarian would have to say that producing the most amount of good is primary. If it produces the most amount of good to heckle you when you are speaking, then I ought to do it. If it produces the most amount of good for you and your friends to crash my party at my house, then you ought to do it. But, something is wrong here. Rights are made to delineate precisely where your actions become incompatible with my livelihood. Rights seem to be primary, yet utilitarianism tends to discount them.

Utilitarianism is a widely used moral theory, but it has its problems as we can see.

Let me introduce another theory of moral obligation, deontology, by setting up a moral situation for you to contemplate.

Suppose I tell you that Martians exist. You check my claim out and find that, indeed, Martians exist, though it is a well kept secret. Martians, you discover, are highly intelligent beings who visit the earth now and then to perform experiments on people. (You see, Martians have no emotions and they are highly interested in trying to find out what emotions are. They are also interested in the way humans solve moral problems.) What Martians do is that they come to earth and offer a small group of persons a large reward to do something out of the ordinary. They watch the way the people contemplate what they ought to do and what emotions the persons go through during the whole experiment.

As I said, I am a Martian. I will offer you (the class) a reward if you will do something for me. The reward is that I will give you a cure for cancer for all persons for all times. Incidentally, Martians always tell the truth and always deliver what they promise.

I ask you, “Do we have a deal? Will you do what I want? If you do, I will give you a cure for cancer for all persons for all times.”

What’s on your mind is, “What is it that you want us to do?”

My reply. “You, as a group, must leave the classroom. The first four-year old child you come across, you must secretly kidnap and torture unto death. There can be no volunteers; no one can take the place of the child. Everyone has to participate in the torture or at least watch. And, the torture cannot be easy; you must really torture the innocent child. Is it a deal?”

What ought you to do? There is no doubt about what a utilitarian would say. But, would you reach a different decision for action?

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