Criticising Utilitarianism 101

Utilitarianism initially seems easily applicable to questions of justice. In its broadest sense it seeks to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number in an objective way. There is total impartiality, and no value or preference bias is allowed. Utilitarianism has many flaws to deal with, specifically how demanding it is, this may in fact mean it is a useless theory for helping with questions of justice. If Utilitarianism is to work, redress is needed specifically in the areas that are open to critique about its lack of integrity and its counter-intuitiveness. This essay will demonstrate that the replies to these objections ultimately fail, and so another philosophical approach is needed.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, where good consequences are understood in terms of well-being. Utilitarianism proposes that well-being is intrinsically good for a person, therefore we act to produce consequences which result in state of affairs with the highest amount of well-being as these situations are good in themselves. Utilitarianism entails maximising well-being via aggregation with an impartial view of individuals. It is this impartiality that leads the theory into its many problems.

Utilitarianism argues the right action is the one that will result in the greatest expected well-being rather than actual well-being. The expected value is calculated by multiplying the individual value of possible outcomes by the probability of that outcome occurring. The reason why we should focus on expected value is demonstrated by the case of “the unknown combination” which runs as follows: a person is dying, there is a locked safe containing life saving medicine. The combination is unknown to you. What should you do? The action with the best actual outcome is to go to the safe and guess the combination first time. However, the action with the best expected outcome is different, it wastes time trying to guess the combination when there are other things which are more probable and therefore increase the expected value. This is not the most apt way of being moral, as it has limited practical application. Focusing on expected value only works when making decisions under certainty (when the probabilities are known). is this really practical for questions about justice? – it is impossible to get true expected value without probability, and questions about justice do not work probabilistically. Even if it were possible to apply probability to questions of justice, act utilitarianism can result in counter-intuitive conclusions. We can think of a circumstance where an outcome could have a very low probability of occurring, but the well-being attached to it may be so high that it actually outweighs an event that has a high probability but low well-being attached to that outcome, for example robbing a bank, where the utility of success would be so high even though the probability of success is low. This demonstrates the counter-intuitive moral claim that an act-utilitarian would say that you should in this case rob the bank.

If we claim that it is the consequences which are decisive in determining the right/wrongness of an action then the results are as Williams broadly argues, that it will often be right to do what is prima facie wrong, thus a further reason why the counter-intuitiveness of act- utilitarianism renders it an unviable approach to questions of justice. Williams’ notes that utilitarianism claims only states of affairs have “intrinsic value” (Williams, 1973, p83) and “anything else that has value has it because it contributes to some intrinsically valuable state of affairs.” (ibid p83). Therefore shooting someone can have a positive value. An act-utilitarian cannot claim that some act will always be wrong – this is dubious morally speaking as results in an ends justifies the means type mentality, which often results in treating individuals as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. In addition to this, because utilitarianism focuses upon the consequences irrespective of what actions they are brought about by; utilitarianism therefore is indifferent to an individual’s involvement with the state of affairs produced by the actions. This is different to a deontological perspective where moral acts are agent relative, so it has an emphasis upon moral character of the agent, when it comes to questions of how to act “just” is it not intuitive to take into consideration why and who is acting, not just consequences.

“Negative Responsibility” (ibid pg 95) clearly shows problems with Utilitarianism. Williams explains it as the idea that “if I am ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible for things that I allow or fail to prevent” (ibid pg95). This leads to the problem of Utilitarianism’s lack of integrity, which stems from its extreme impartiality. Utilitarianism holds that deciding how to act based on your point of view cannot be a “morally comprehensible reason” (ibid pg 96). Williams provides examples where on utilitarian grounds it is clear that the agent has to act in a way that violates their moral intuition, because if the agent does not act in such a way, another person will act in a way that has even worse consequences. Thus individuals are forced to abandon common sense morality or key beliefs and strive only to maximise the good for the majority. One such illustration can be paraphrased as thus: A will kill 20 innocent people, unless B kills one of the 20, then A will let the other 19 live. Utilitarianism holds that if B does not kill one, then that is as bad as the positive action of killing 19. Williams argues this shows utilitarianism has confused responsibility and personal integrity. We have to ask the question “what sort of considerations come into when finding the answer…utilitarianism…cuts out a kind of consideration [of] what [the agent] feels about such cases” (ibid pg99). Negative responsibility would result in B being blamed for the death of the 20 if B did not kill the one, is this just? Can B be blamed for actions that came about by not acting? Utilitarianism would argue there is no difference between acts and omissions. Furthermore, because the feelings of the agent are not taken into consideration, it is possible B could kill an innocent person and enjoy killing, but this would make no difference to the moral nature of the act.

Williams’ writes that the above example of A and B a Utilitarian would view reluctance as “self-indulgent squeamishness”. (ibid pg 102) a true Utilitarian would not feel squeamish, they would shoot, as that is the morally correct thing to do. However, Williams argues that the conclusion of this is that one would eventually lose moral identity, with their feelings and desires dismissed, William’s writes that we would “lose in the most literal way, our integrity” (ibid pg 104). How can we be expected to fully answer questions of justice if integrity has no place in our moral theory?

“Negative Responsibility” throws up another problem with act-utilitarianism, that it is too demanding. It does not distinguish between bad outcomes that we merely allow to happen and ones that we actively participate in; there may be an obligation to help others at the expense of our own happiness up to the point of marginal utility. Singer in “Famine, Affluence and Utility” argues “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” (Singer, 1972, p230). This seemingly simple claim can lead to very demanding consequences in regards to questions of justice, how can you and I morally account for the time and money we spend on things other than charity? It seems that a true utilitarian should act upon Singers claim, contributions should not only be financial but I should also give my time to where it would do most good. I should therefore, not be in university as this is not the best use of my time or money in regards to alleviating the suffering in the world. This leads to the common objection that consequentialism is unreasonably demanding as it leaves an agent too little room for their own personal projects or interests. The question is, is the demanding nature of act utilitarianism a good reason to reject it?

Initially we could ask, is this really a bad thing, shouldn’t morality be demanding, as for many to get justice involves some sacrifice. Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance seeks to get us to the Original Position, and this requires that we strip ourselves of personal projects and lifestyles and think purely abstractedly. Although it should be noted that Rawls was objecting to Utilitarianism for reasons that will be touched on below, it would be ironic then, if the Original Position would result in individuals picking a society that was a Utilitarian one. It is possible that people would think like a utilitarian, and rationally seek to maximize their well being. The question however, is it fair or even possible to expect normal people to be able to do this? Whether or not acting with integrity is a moral requirement in regards to questions of justice, a life without personal projects seems bleak. A world where everyone was an act consequentialist would at least in some respects be an unhappy place even though it would be a world without starvation, then it seems that the best world in terms of utility would not be one where everyone was an act utilitarian and therefore act-utilitarianism is a self-defeating theory.

An extension to the demandingness objection to Utilitarianism can be found in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice where he writes that it fails to “take seriously the distinction between persons.” (Rawls, 1999 p24). The argument highlights utilitarianism’s failure to sufficiently recognise that each person has a separate and unique way of life this is due to aggregation. Utilitarianism allows for one person to be sacrificed to further the interests of other agents. The Separateness of Persons objection presents a serious blow to Utilitarianism when we are trying to solve questions of justice because often a just solution cannot be found via aggregation. To illustrate we can call upon the “Birmingham Six” (Pallister, 1991). This case has allusions to utilitarian type thinking: there has been a crime and courts are not sure who to convict. The public is on the verge of rioting if someone is not arrested. The judge sentences an innocent person to placate the public and to show they are tough on crime. What has happened as a result is that an individual’s utility is sacrificed for the majority.

A further aspect of the demandingness objection to act utilitarianism is what is known as the “nearest and dearest objection”. Jackson tries to reconcile our nearest and dearest to consequentialist thinking. “Our lives are given shape, meaning” by family, friends and personal projects “this implies that when we act we must give a special place to those…but, according to consequentialism classically conceived” rightness and wrongness must be considered impartially, “without reference to the agent whose actions they are consequences of.” (Jackson, 1991, p461). This is clearly the point that Williams is writing about. Jackson argues that ultimately we can account for our nearest and dearest, and do not need to forfeit impartiality. Jackson argues an epistemological point that means we can use our increased knowledge to inform a more accurate expected value judgement. If this restructuring works, then Jackson will drastically reduce the demandingness of utilitarianism as it shows that things that make our lives worth living have a place in consequentialism.

Jackson provides the following illustration (ibid p462), doctor Jill is looking after patient John, and she has three drugs she could use to treat him. Drug A would provide a partial cure, drug B and C either would totally cure or kill John, but Jill does not know what drug will have either effect. Ranking them in preference we get total cure, partial cure, death. How should Jill act? Decision theory told us how to calculate the best expected value, thus revealing giving John drug A is the best action. Although total cure is the best actual outcome, this is offset by the 50/50 chance that John could die. Thus Jackson is an act utilitarian who emphasises expected value and probability. The next step is to fit this with our “nearest and dearest”. Jackson provides another example (ibid p472) Jill has three patients, and only one drug. Jill knows that patient A has a 100% chance of being cured, but does not know how B and C will respond to the drug. Using decision theory again, we can see it is clear that Jill should give the drug to A. This may look like preference to patient A as the drug could cure B and C too, however, it is not real preference, rather, “Jill is biased toward patient A [because] her actions are directed toward securing his good, but this fact is not preference function” (ibid) rather it is just probability. Consequentialism demands impartial preferences, but we can give actions greater weight when it comes down to probability. Jackson suggests it may be the case that in a small group it is okay to look as if we are favouring our nearest and dearest as we can quite easily assign probability to certain state of affairs occurring. For example, I could help my friend write an essay, who I know will benefit from my assistance or I could help a stranger who I know nothing about, using Jackson’s decision theory approach I can “favour” my friend as I know probabilistically that my help will have high expected value. However, this perhaps does not really fully account for the nearest and dearest objection as Jackson has not provided a reason for valuing friendship and family and our life goals as things in themselves, this devalues those special relationships. Perhaps, then the best thing to do is to reject act-utilitarianism and take up Rule Utilitarianism and avoid these problems.

Rule Utilitarianism decrees that an action is morally correct if and only if it is called for by a set of rules, the following of which by everyone would result in good consequences; therefore rule-utilitarianism is not as open to the demandingness objection. Rule-utilitarianism easily dismisses the Birmingham Six style scenario, we can conceive of a rule to not scapegoat the innocent. Initially rule-utilitarianism has strengths, it is still an impartial theory, but it also has the benefit of allowing the rules to fit in with our general moral compass, and this would help with questions of justice.

Opponents of rule-utilitarianism have argued that the theory is absurdly unrealistic in practice and collapse back in act-utilitarianism making it useless as a theory. The first initial objection is the notion of partial compliance, because it chooses moral rules on the basis of what would happen if everyone complied with them. Rule-utilitarianism provides undesirable results in situations of partial compliance, therefore to avoid this objection rule-utilitarianism usually has to have rules with clauses attached, such as “do X unless doing X will lead to disaster because everyone else is not doing X, in which case do Y, where Y avoids disaster”. This clearly collapses back into act utilitarianism as there is no limit to the complexity of the added clauses with the aim to maximize utility in specific cases. So, what new benefits do we get out of rule-utilitarianism with its considerably amended rules if act-consequentialism gives us the same result in a simple and effective way?

The collapse objection has a further manifestation, the Rule-Worship objection. J.J.C Smart is defending act-utilitarianism, whilst rejecting rule-utilitarianism citing rule-worship: if he is successful then we have no option but to opt for “extreme utilitarianism”. Rule-utilitarianism dutifully followed means we act on a rule even in cases where doing so would result in sub-optimific circumstances. It is part of the dilemma a rule-utilitarian faces, either they accept collapse back to standard utilitarianism, or adherence to the rules results in what Smart calls “rule worship”, so called, because consequentialists should only care about the best outcomes not if they are following rules. If Smart is successful we are back to act-utilitarianism and its problems. Saying this, Smart provides ways to defend act-utilitarianism too. A common objection to extreme utilitarianism is that it leads to the breaking of commonplace morality. Smart proposes that looking at what we are referring to when we say “action”, if “action” is performed by an individual on an individual basis, we get a Benthamite theory, but one which allows for “general rules, like ‘keep promises’,” treated as “mere rules of thumb” (Smart, 1956, p344). Rules of thumb demonstrate that “in practice the extreme [act] utilitarian will mostly guide his conduct by appealing to the rules…of common sense morality” (ibid, p346) in addition past experience lets us know that keeping promises in general produces well-being. Therefore we get the benefits of rule-utilitarianism without rule worship.

Another way out of the dilemma is to make a distinction between following and accepting a rule. Simply mindlessly following results in collapse, to avoid collapse rules should be internalised, thus providing moral motivation, and a “disposition to comply with them” (Hooker, 2012, p432). If Acceptance Rule Utilitarianism avoids collapsing into act-utilitarianism then perhaps it is robust enough an approach to help with questions of justice. Although, this is still open to the demandingness objection, the need for all rules being internalised, is demanding. Individuals have to care about each rule before accepting it, this is a very time consuming task. It also seems that the only rules that every individual could internalise would be so general it does not really seem to offer practical guidance. Saying this, acceptance rule utilitarianism is in tune with broad questions of justice and morality, but why not reject consequentialism due to all the objections it is exposed to and go for a deontological approach?

A deontological approach to justice is perhaps a much more viable one. Acting out of a sense of duty, and aiming to never violate certain restrictions, such as to not kill or lie or break promises ensures treating others as ends in themselves, rather than as means. This in turn involves common sense morality seen as the rules of thumb for the act-utilitarians yet, as agents act out of a sense of duty, they are internalised and are not merely rules that can be broken – but rather moral absolutes that we must never violate. If we act in this way, taking the motivations of the agent, how others are treated and the nature of the act itself into consideration we get a robust theory which is far better suited to questions of justice.

In conclusion, Utilitarianism in all its manifestations is not a viable approach to questions of justice, it is simply too demanding and this makes it counter intuitive. It seems that a philosophical theory which allows for violations of common sense morality has to be rejected, especially when its defenses fall back to the original theory. I propose, that a deontological theory, with an agent relative position will avoid the problems that the consequentialist face and will be much better suited to help with questions of justice.


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