Elements of an Ethics Textbook (3.1): Seven Reservations with Utilitarianism

An introduction to the project is here.
An introduction to the utilitarianism chapter is here.

Utilitarianism has a straightforward and immediate appeal to many people; after all, why wouldn’t we wish to reduce suffering and maximise pleasure? In fact, there are a number of reasons to harbor reservations against the utilitarian doctrine. These include, but are not limited to seven of which I will attempt to present below.

First, pace Bentham, an objective hedonistic calculus may be impossible. Psychological states are qualitative realities that cannot be directly translated to quantitative values. How does one measure the quantum of happiness that accompanies the smell of cinnamon? And even were it possible to achieve such a measurement, there is no way to generalize this result because each successive encounter with the same phenomenon will, as a rule, invoke different psychological responses in the same individual according to diverse contexts. This problem is complicated by orders of magnitude when considering more significant experiences like childbirth or marriage. 

Second, even if the first difficulty were adequately resolved, one would, once again, encounter an inherent difficulty if not impossibility in generalizing between individuals. Given that the utilitarian ideal is the augmentation of net happiness, it is necessary to obtain an objective and quantitative measure that is commensurate between various individuals. How can it be established that my capacity for happiness is comparable to that of my fellow? One may attempt to correlate the psychological experiences of pleasure and pain to given brain states, but this is not an adequate solution unless we are prepared to substantially reimagine the fundamental principles of utilitarianism such that it is no longer a question of promoting happiness and mitigating its inverse but rather one of fostering the propagation of specific brain states. What the latter would gain in respect to measurability it would forfeit in respect to intelligibility and intuitive appeal. 

Third, the fundamental precept of utilitarianism is conceptually indeterminate and has no definite denotation. How do we determine that criteria to be included in the utilitarian calculus? How widely do we cast our nets? To the family? The tribe? The nation? The species? The phylum? The kingdom? The planet? The stars? “The greatest happiness for the greatest number” is so vague and abstract as to be almost meaningless in application.

Fourth, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is historically indeterminate and, again, possess an indefinite denotation. Even if it were possible to establish the scope of application of utilitarianism in principle and thereby satisfy the objection above, the scope in time would remain unspecified. Are we to consider the greatest good for the greatest number with an outlook that extends into the next minute? The next hour? The next year? The next generations? 

Fifth, consequentialism might not represent an actionable ethical theory altogether. This objection relates to the difficulty established in the prior one: namely, how are we to establish the rightness or wrongness of a given action on the basis of an outcome that does not yet exist? It seems unreasonable to judge a given deed against a standard that is, at best, conjectural and in many cases even counterfactual. Most theories of ethics do not encounter this difficulty because they do not attempt to conceptualize human actions entirely from the outside, as it were. This is to say that most theories of ethics do not attempt to abstract a given action from the motives, intentions, and character of the agent who is carrying it out. The physics of an acorn falling from a tree can be adequately described without appeal to the internal disposition of the tree. Hence, we do not ordinarily call this an “action” but an “event.” Utilitarianism risks dissolving this distinction with the result that it ceases to be describing a theory of ethics at all.

Sixth, utilitarianism seems to encourage the scapegoat mechanism in which the interests of the minority are sacrificed for the sake of the majority.[1] Utilitarianism, in attempting to subvert individual interests in the pursuit of the ideal of objectivity, risks losing touch with the only experience of reality that actually exists: viz. each of our perspectives. There is no such thing as happiness in the abstract outside of the experience of happiness, which is contingent on the subjectivity of individual beings. A fortiori, to issue ethical judgements on the basis of a “view-from-no-where”—which is a view that nobody inhabits—may represent an impossible notion that people only appear to accomplish through affectation. 

Seventh, and finally, utilitarianism might not be a theory of ethics at all. The combined force of the objections above threaten the conclusion that utilitarianism might fail to represent a bona fide theory of ethics. Naturally, the judgement over this question will hang on what is understood by the term. There is reason, however, to demand from an ethical theory that it supply some guidance to our actions and help us orient our lives towards what is good. Practically, utilitarianism leaves so many elements of its imperatives undefined and indeterminate that it appears to be able to justify almost anything and, insofar as this is true,the guidance that it is capable of providing is worth next to nothing. An ethical theory that can only definitively recommend a course of action after that same action has already been performed and which, moreover, may not even be capable of measuring the worth of this action according to its own criterion, might appear be an ethical theory that is in need of improvement. And even if this difficulty were resolved, one might yet be inclined to demand more of such a theory than an evaluation of specific action according to a standard that that very theory set forth: “Or do you think it is such a small thing to decide on a way of living?”[2]

[1] Cf. René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986).

[2] Plato’s Socrates to Thrasymachus, in Republic, Book 1.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew says:

    I studied ethics in my undergraduate coursework, and I found all the theories from utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics to be lacking. Each has its own flaws, and I think it is hard to apply one universally given the complexity and often messiness of human affairs.

    After reading Haidt’s work on the Righteous Mind, I do find moral pluralism most appealing – the idea that we all have basic moral foundations which as molded by culture. However, it would seem descriptive rather than normative.

    Is there any one ethics theory that appeals to you?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      I follow Steiner, for instance: https://theoriapress.wordpress.com/2020/04/23/on-rudolf-steiners-the-philosophy-of-freedom-3-thinking-freedom-love/

      Also Plato but not “Platonism.” I hope to keep working on this project and maybe I will have more to add. How about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Andrew says:

        I am not sure if I would subscribe to a particular stance per say, I am drawn to moral pluralism but need to look into it further.

        I am not familiar with Steiner, I will definitely check it out!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Does it have to be so complicated or — just perhaps — “complex?”


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