Philosophical Friday: A Critique on Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has a great deal of appeal, especially when you consider what most people boil it down to.  The phrase “the greatest benefit for the greatest amount of people” gets thrown around quite easily when the term “utilitarianism” is introduced.  While this may be an incredibly oversimplified version of Mill’s idea, it does have its root in the theory, even if his idea of utilitarianism does not translate directly to this common phrase.  This theory of morality leads individuals to very provocative questions.  Is the sacrifice of one to save the many a just sacrifice? Is one life worth just as much as another?  Utilitarianism, while an excellent basis for a workable moral theory, requires certain adjustments so that it does not endorse morally incorrect courses of action and so that it takes into account the value of one life against another.  Only after such considerations and adjustments can Mill’s theory of utilitarianism truly stand up against scrutiny.

In order to argue against utilitarianism, we must first understand what it stands for.  While the saying presented earlier gives us a vague idea, it does not reach the heart of Mill’s theory.  For Mill, utilitarianism is a code of ethics that seeks to produce the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of individuals while avoiding the greatest amount of pain for the greatest amount of people.  Mill states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”[1]  It is a subtle balance between enhancing pleasure and avoiding pain for the largest amount of individuals.  Essentially, enhancing pleasure or reducing pain for one individual would result in a “+1” and reducing pleasure or enhancing pain would result in a “-1.”  Now, the number may vary, depending on the types of pleasure or pain that is being enhanced or avoided, but the general formula still stands; enhancing pleasure and avoiding pain results in a positive consequence and avoiding pleasure or enhancing pain results in a negative consequence.  By this formula, the greatest happiness does not mean for the individual, but for society as a whole.

I must again repeat what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.  As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.[2]

This leads me to the first critique of utilitarianism.  The theory Mill presents does not address the issue of whether or not one individual is equal to another in terms of value.  For instance, can it be said that a homeless man’s life has as much value as that of a neurosurgeon?  If they were to both be rushed into an emergency room in need of a blood transfusion, and for some reason or another the hospital could only facilitate the needs of one, how would the attending doctor respond?  If he were a utilitarian, he would preserve the life of the one who is most likely to produce the larger amount of pleasure while avoiding the larger amount of pain.  But this distinction does not provide us with an answer.  The neurosurgeon is a known variable, during any given month he saves X amount of lives which produces pleasure in the families associated with his patients.  The homeless man, however, is an unknown variable.  Perhaps he too is producing pleasure in individuals; perhaps he is instructing youths that have fallen on hard times how to survive.  A more likely possibility is that he sees his brush with death as a turning point within his life.  The potential he has to produce pleasure and to prevent pain is unknown.  The issue is not that one life is worth more than another; the issue is that Mill’s theory does not present us with a workable set of criteria for discerning the value of one individual against another.

While this example may seem far-fetched, there are examples that hit a bit close to home that will illustrate the point just as well.  Consider the same neurosurgeon but replace the homeless man with that of a loved one.  “Individuals may be under more obligation to a special set of persons (family or close friends) than to society in general.”[3] Can a legitimate code of ethics endorse letting one’s own family die in sacrifice of another?  A strict utilitarian would save the lives of three unknown individuals over the lives of two close family members.  They would preserve the greater number because they would have a farther reaching network of pleasure and pain than what the lesser number would entail.  I, for one, cannot accept a code of ethics so rigid that it forces me to forsake those close to me merely because there are a greater number of those who are unknown to me that would benefit.

These examples also hold pieces of another objection to utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a consequential theory of ethics, meaning the correctness of any action is judged by its consequences.  In the emergency room cases there isn’t time to weigh the consequences of the decisions.  If the case hasn’t been considered prior to its emergence, the attending physician would be either moved by indecision, putting both lives at risk, or, and this is more likely the case, rushed into a decision that may or may not be morally correct, according to utilitarianism.  “However, discerning the consequences of every possible act could be a horrendous burden, that in many cases, could not be carried out with much certainty.”[4]

Yet another critique is that utilitarianism can be used to endorse unsavory courses of action in order to prevent courses of action much worse.  It can produce a “lesser of two evils” choice.  “The deontologist refuses to approve of committing one act, bad by his lights, to prevent the occurrence of more than one of the same bad acts. Consequentialist theories – whether they value only welfare or things in addition to welfare – do not face this paradox, and so they are, in this respect, attractive.”[5]  It is this “unfaced paradox” that causes many to question utilitarianism.  How great must the difference be?  What despicable things could be “morally just” if faced with the greatest amount of pain imaginable?

One final critique is that utilitarianism simply isn’t always possible, that its demands can be too high to realistically achieve.

As a result of its flawed and shallow moral psychology, the critics claim, utilitarianism makes demands on agents that are too high, and of the wrong kinds, with a range of damaging effects, not just to the well-being of agents, but also to their moral capacities and performance. This line of objection holds that people cannot, need not, or even ought not to try to do what utilitarians say people should do, for reasons that ultimately appeal to some notion of actual or potential human nature.[6]

A code of ethics that forces individuals into unachievable courses of action is not a very good code of ethics.  Another quote from Riette furthers illustrates the point: “Utilitarianism may be taken to be unrealistic in relation to our actual capacities – if we are not able to foresee the future well enough to perform the required calculations, for instance, the limitations on our knowledge, foresight and computational abilities may be psychological obstacles to our meeting the demands made by the principle of utility[7]” With these objections in place, the appeal of utilitarianism is diminished.  The supposed “value of an individual” that Mill fails to address leaves us with questions in desperate need of an answer.  The lack of consideration for ones loved ones leaves us with a theory that forces us to ignore familial and peer relationships.  The need to consider the consequences of an action before engaging in one means in immediate situations the theory may be altogether worthless.  When faced with two unsavory courses of action, utilitarians may be forced to choose the lesser of two evils, despite it still being evil.  Finally, the courses of action endorsed by utilitarianism can sometime be too high to be realistically achieved.

The solution to these objections is not to abandon utilitarianism, but to shift it away from a personal code of ethics.  A single utilitarian faces too many challenges for it to be a realistic code to guide their actions.  They simply don’t have the resources to take into consideration all of the variables that exist.  Nor can they maintain the objectivity needed to follow as a true utilitarian.  That’s not to say that utilitarianism is useless, it would serve its purpose, while maintaining its rigidness, in another sector.  Utilitarianism would provide governments with an excellent framework for taking action.

By shifting utilitarianism from the private sector to the public sector you immediately eliminate one of the objections.  Governments hold no family or peer relationships, while they may value the lives of their constituents over the lives of those out of their reach, those out of their reach have their own governments with their interests in mind.  They are not forced into weighing the value of one person against another because they rarely deal with one individual.  The choices and decisions they make are far reaching and are not limited to the individual.  This helps to combat the objection that one soul may be more “valuable” than another.  Simply by being widespread, governments eliminate two of the previous objections.  The fact that utilitarianism offers no way of measuring the potential pleasure or pain in a given individual becomes irrelevant because governments do not deal with people on an individual basis.  Also, the fact that governments hold no individual allegiances, only an allegiance to their constituents, eliminates the need for them to consider peer or family relationships.  Upon further consideration, more of the objections previously raised are eliminated.

Governments have the necessary resources needed to consider the consequences of the actions they may take.  By their very nature, they are slow and deliberate entities that weigh the pros and cons of the actions they may take.  Under the guidance of utilitarianism, governments would consider the consequences of their actions.  A consequentialist theory of ethics fits perfectly within the public sector.  It forces the powers at be to consider what would produce the greatest amount of pleasure while reducing or preventing the greatest amount of pain.

Governments are also more readily equipped to deal with the “lesser of two evils” types of situations.  Sometimes it becomes necessary for governments to commit acts that would otherwise be considered unethical.  Such a case would be WWII.  The United States went to war to stop the atrocities Nazi Germany was committing and to prevent further horrors of the holocaust.  While not readily accepted, under extreme circumstances, war can become an essential course of action.  Under the guidance of utilitarianism, the justness of such a course of action can be measured and the correct decision can be made.

Finally, the scope of influence of any individual government is much larger than that of an individual.  While not entirely impossible, the likelihood that a government would encounter a problem beyond their influence is greatly diminished.  This, while not eliminating it, helps to reduce the complaint that utilitarianism may endorse courses of action that are beyond the grasp of realistic options.  While not sufficiently dispelling the complaint that utilitarianism can endorse actions that are not realistically possible, shifting utilitarianism from an individual code of ethics to the public sector, along with the expulsion of the other objections raised, allows us to recategorize utilitarianism as a viable code of ethics.

Utilitarianism is an incredibly enticing code of ethics.  Producing pleasure and reducing pain is something everyone can be on board with.  When considering utilitarianism as an individual code of ethics, however, objections arise that not only make utilitarianism a complicated code of ethics to endorse, but a code that may be downright impossible.  By shifting the reach of utilitarianism from the individual to the collective, in this case the government, all but one of the objections raised in this essay can be dispelled, with the remaining objection being diminished to such a small complaint that it may be swept under the rug.

It is through this shift, the shift from the private sector to the public sector, that the objections raised can be eliminated.  The question of the “value of an individual” becomes irrelevant because governments do not deal with their constituents on an individual basis.  The question of relationships too becomes irrelevant because governments do not hold individual biases; they are loyal to those under their influence as a whole, not any single individual.  The question of consequences and their calculation is no longer relevant because governments, by their very nature, are slow and contemplative; they do not rush into courses of action before thoroughly considering the fallout of those actions.  The objection of choosing between two undesirable courses of action is eliminated due to the acceptance of governments engaging in activities “for the greater good” such as war.  The final objection that utilitarianism may demand courses of action beyond the realm of possibility can be reduced to such a small chance that it is realistically irrelevant.

The objections to utilitarianism do not call for it to be cast aside, but for it to be moved.  The objections that were brought to light in this essay show that utilitarianism is poorly suited for the individual, but that it fits perfectly in the public sector, particularly within government.  While individuals may be poorly equipped to follow utilitarianism, governments, with their far reaching hands and broad spanning influence, are much better prepared to follow the demanding, unbiased guidelines of utilitarianism.  They can do what no individual can.  They can adopt the harshest, most rigid theory of ethics, and they can thrive while doing so.


[1]John Stuart Mill, 1861 “Utilitarianism”

[2]John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism”

[3] Samuel Knapp. 1999, “Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Professional Psychologists.” Ethics And Behavior 9, no. 4: 383-392. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[4] Samuel Knapp, “Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Professional Psychologists.”

[5] Robert Shaver, 2004. “The Appeal of Utilitarianism.” Utilitas: A Journal Of Utilitarian Studies 16, no. 3: 235-250. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[6] Sophie Riette, 2009. “Utilitarianism and Psychological Realism.” Utilitas: A Journal Of Utilitarian Studies 21, no. 3: 347-367. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[7] Sophie Riette, “Utilitarianism and Psychological Realism”

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2 thoughts on “Philosophical Friday: A Critique on Utilitarianism”

  1. Your analysis of the utilitarian principle in the public sector makes a very interesting reading. Of course the principle is well loved in the public sector as it helps to explain away issues that have to do with fund diversions- greatest benefit for the greater number…I however appreciate the positives you have highlighted, only that it encourages corruption…

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