Objections to Utilitarianism (FoE ch 10)


How do we measure and compare happiness or preferences


The epistemological problem:

There is an epistemological problem regarding the fact that utilitarianism tells us we can never really know what the right action is, but that isn’t such a big deal because we can evaluate a person’s intentions based on expected consequences.


The Deeper Problem: How do we compare preferences? If we accept a non-hedonistic view then it becomes much much harder to compare and utilitarianism loses much of its attractiveness due to simplicity.


Utilitarianism is too demanding


Three areas:

  1. deliberation
  2. motivation
  3. action



–       we discussed this in the previous section regarding our epistemological limitations


–       on a utilitarian account the right motivations are the ones that produce the most happiness

–       the author suggests that utilitarianism doesn’t imply that the right motivation is purely selfless as that would make society worse off

  • imagine a society in which no one ever tried to make themselves happy but only tried to make other people happy
  • this is supposed to not have the best consequences so it is not considered the right motivation


–       utilitarianism implies that we are always doing the wrong thing because its standard of right action is so high

–       utilitarianism seems to imply that the right life is a life of extreme and constant self sacrifice

–       in our ordinary way of thinking about actions we tend to think of some actions as superogatory, admirable and praiseworthy but not required, but according to utilitarianism all right actions are required


Utilitarianism seems to violate a principle that is generally accepted in moral reasoning, that “ought is implies can.”


The Impartiality objection

–       Utilitarianism seems to require one to be completely impartial, however many people feel they have special duties to certain people (children, parents, spouses, countrymen, humans, etc).

–       SL suggests that caring for one’s family is generally optifimic if we consider all the consequences and therefore according to utilitarianism caring for one’s family is generally the right thing to do


No Intrinsic Wrongness

Nothing is absolutely and always wrong, including rape, torture, murder, genocide, slavery, etc.


More about this later in the “Injustice Objection.”


The Integrity Objection


1)   If utilitarianism is correct then acting with integrity is not morally relevant to the morality of an action.

2)   Acting with integrity is morally relevant to the morality of an action.

3)   So, Utilitarianism is not correct.


Two examples from Bernard Williams’ Critique of Utilitarianism:

1)   A man is told by an evil dictator that if executes one innocent people then the lives of nine others will be spared and if he refuses all ten will be executed.

2)   A poor scientist who is having trouble supporting himself and his family is offered a lucrative job to make chemical weapons, and the weapons will be made with or without his participation.


In both cases utitlitarianism tells us it is wrong to act with integrity and refuse to kill an innocent person/make chemical weapons.


Another classic example is that of the Gestapo and the crying baby. Is it right to kill a baby to save your life and the life of your family members?


The Injustice Objection


The case of the lonesome stranger – framing a lonesome stranger for a crime to prevent some harm:


Imagine a doctor goes around harvesting the organs of homeless people to save the lives of well-loved important people in society.


SL’s example of the United States allowing many nazi scientists to escape punishment as long as they agreed to share their weapons intelligence

This objection has a lot to do with rights. Utilitarianism has no real way to account for rights. This is largely by design, Bentham said that rights were non-sense on stilts.


SL’s Injustice argument against Utilitarianism:

1)   The correct moral theory will never require us to commit serious injustices.

2)    Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.

3)    Therefore, utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.


How might a utilitarian respond to this argument?


Since the argument is valid so there are really only two options, the utilitarian must either deny that the first premise is true or deny that the second premise is true.


Deny Premise 2

A utilitarian can try to argue that injustice is never optimific. This will usually involve some long-term consequences.


Exercise: Discuss with your partner how a utilitarian might argue that it was wrong for the US pardon nazi scientists.


Do your answers seem plausible?


For this to it must be true not only that there never has been a case where injustice was optimific but that it is not even logically conceivable that injustice could ever be optimific.


This is pretty implausible.


Deny Premise 1

This is what we call “biting the bullet” in philosophy jargon.


The diehard utilitarian will have to bite the bullet on this one and admit that sometimes it is not only permissible but morally required to infringe on someone’s or a group of individual’s rights and perform and injustice upon them.


They can however extol the importance of rights as being generally and almost always optimific.


Mill was an important proponent of certain rights that laid the foundation of the liberal democracy in England and America. (Read Mill’s On Liberty for more on this.)


A note about Utilitarianism and Political Philosophy

Because utilitarianism does not countenance individual rights it is impossible to form a stable society based on utilitarian principles.


Individual rights are the most basic foundation of society. Until you have rights you don’t really have a society.


No political philosopher has ever accepted utilitarianism. This includes but John Rawls and Robert Nozick, the two most famous political philosophers of the 20th century, despite their widely diverging approaches to political philosophy. Both Rawls and Nozick drew inspiration from Kant and the social contract tradition.




The final two objections, the integrity objection and the injustice objection, are the most challenging for the utilitarian to address. There are utilitarian answers to meet both objections but what they highlight is that utilitarianism, despite its many attractions, fails to adequately capture the spirit of our moral thinking.


Oftentimes in philosophy there are no conclusive objections to a position but the objections serve to highlight what a person who takes that position is really committed to and help us to see if we want to be committed to that position.


Ultimately, as the great 20th century philosopher Quine said, we can hold on to any belief, come what may, if we are willing to make the appropriate adjustments to our web of beliefs.


Rule vs Act Utilitarianism

  • Rule Utilitarianism has been suggested as a solution to various problems
    • Organ harvesting doctor
    • The rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance
    • The correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when followed
    • JJC Smart argues for act utilitarianism
      • Example of donating money to hospital
      • Rule Utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism


JJC Smart – Extreme (Act) and Restricted (Rule) Utilitarianism


Rule Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is required iff it is dictated by a rule that if followed by everyone would maximize utitlity

Act Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is morally required if and only if it maximizes utility


Motivations for Rule Utilitarianism

  • Gets the right answer in certain cases that act utilitarianism seems to get wrong
  • Examples:
    • Lonesome stranger
    • Preferential treatment to family members
    • And more generally any case involving individual rights, civil liberties, etc


Exercise: With your partner come up with an example  that we have not discussed in class in which rule utilitiarianism seems to be a better guide to moral judgments than act utilitarianism.



Examples Smart Uses

  • Drowning man example (94)
    • Although saving the man (who happens to be Hitler) would not be optimific it is nevertheless praiseworthy because the motivation of action is an optimific motivation because the action follows a generally optimific rule
    • “It can be expedient to praise an inexpedient action and inexpedient to praise an expedient one.”
    • With this example Smart begins to build his case that motivations should be judged in a rule utilitarian way while actions should be judged in an act utilitarian way
    • The divorce example (95)
      • This example is supposed to show that rules are important because we tend to underestimate the bad consequences of our actions due to our personal biases
      • In the case of divorce we may underestimate the effect divorce will have on our children and the harm done by the general weakening of the institution of marriage
      • Rule R (96)
        • Maximizes utility 99% of the time
        • Fails to maximize utility 1% of the time
        • If we don’t know for certain the consequences of our action we should do R
        • But if we know for certain that a specific instance of Ring will not maximize utility how could it be rational to R is such a circumstance
        • “But is it not monstrous to suppose  that if we have worked out the consequences and if we have perfect faith in the impartiality of our calculations, and if we know that in this instance to break R will have better results than to keep it, we should nevertheless obey this rule? It is not to erect R into a sort of idol if we keep it when breaking it will prevent, say, some avoidable misery?”
        • The dying promise
          • The dying promise is supposed to show that there really are instances where it makes sense to break rules that generally optimific
          • Written as an argument
            • If there are such examples then rule utilitarianism is false.
            • There are such examples.
            • So, rule utilitarianism is false.
  • Exercise: Smart says that he would be right to give the money to the hospital but that if someone found out they would be right to try to punish him for his actions. Does this make sense? Why or why not?



“I conclude that in every case if there is a rule R the keeping of which is in general optimific, but such that in a special sort of circumstances the optimific behavior is to break R, then in these circumstances we should break R.” (100)


with a caveat

“Of course we must consider all the less obvious  effects of breaking R, such as reducing people’s faith in the moral order, before coming to the conclusion that to break R is right: in fact we shall rarely come to such a conclusion. Moral rules, on the extreme utilitarian view, are rules of thumb only, but they are not bad rules of thumb. But if we do come to the conclusion that we should break the rule and if we have weighed in the balance of our own fallibility and liability to personal bias, what good reason remains for keeping the rule. I can understand “it is optimific” as a reason for action but why should “it is a member of a class of actions which are usually optimific than any alternative class” be a good reason?” (100)


Two other side issues in the paper

  • Is utilitarianism self-effacing (95)
    • A utilitarian might on utilitarian grounds promote a different ethical theory
    • i.e. it might be the case that another theory has better consequences than utilitarianism even though utilitarianism is the correct moral theory.
    • Sidgwick first raised this question and thought that it probably was; Smart thinks utilitarianism is not due to the threat of atomic warefare and the complex nature of international relations
      • But he provides no reason to think that utilitarianism would promote peace better than other competing ethical theories.
      • In point of fact the universal declaration of human rights which is supposed to guide international relations and policies is very un-utilitarian
      • Was Mill a Rule Utilitarian? (96)
        • This is the type of question that people who study the history of philosophy write about
        • The quote which has lead some to think Mill was a rule utilitarian
          • “Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the nautical almanac. Being rational creatures, they go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right an wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions.
          • Mill is making an analogy between the Nautical Almanac and moral rules.
            • Just as we don’t need to make all our own calculations while at sea we don’t need to try to calculate all the consequences of our actions when they fall under clear instances of certain moral rules
            • Smart argues that this does not make Mill a rule utilitarian because there is a big difference between moral rules and the Nautical Almanac
              • The Almanac is right one hundred percent of the time and by doing calculations we would never get any different information
              • Rules are only correct a certain percentage of the time
              • It would be crazy to follow an almanac if you knew it was wrong for some reason or another



Looking Ahead: Consequential vs. Deontological Approaches

  • Exactly opposite types of theories
  • Consequences vs. Motives
  • Focus on personal integrity
  • Focus on individual rights
    • Useful for political philosophy
    • (Rawl’s Neo-Kantianism)



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