Argumentative Essay: Is Utilitarianism a ‘universalist’ and ‘impartialist’ theory?

Length: 1118 words

While Utilitarianism as a practical philosophy can find application in affairs of democratic policy making and economics, its stature are a satisfactory system of morality is contested. The scholarly consensus as of date is that Utilitarianism is a partial system of morality and is somewhat inadequate on account of its authors’ reluctance to front up to complexities of ethics. Utilitarianism asserts that ‘It is morally good to act for the general happiness.’ As this assessment is taken at face value by most, the salient critical question is ‘What is it that is morally not good, which stands in opposition to this?’ In answering this question proponents say, ‘acting for unhappiness’. (Grote 123) Utilitarian moral philosophy thus has for its subject the ascertaining of what happiness is, which is placed in polar opposition to unhappiness. Having found what constitutes happiness, the philosophy strives to device methods to achieve that end. But real life experiences and events are not strictly broken into these clear-cut dichotomies and therein lie the major objection to Utilitarianism’s veracity as a ethical theory. The following passages will explain the two central concepts of ‘impartiality’ and ‘universality’ and identify their shortcomings for application in practical ethics.

The founding texts of

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Utilitarianism think of it as inherently ethical. For example, deriving from post-revolutionary French thought, especially that of Helvetius, Godwin asserted that “Morality is that system of conduct which is determined by a consideration of the greatest general good.” (Godwin, as quoted in Scarre 67) The founding doctrine also makes it clear that the two pillars of ‘impartiality’ and ‘universality’ especially add to its ethical soundness. Utilitarianism espouses the principle of impartiality, to the extent that it places the happiness of all individuals in the community on par with each other. Moreover, it encourages constituent individuals in a group to see the virtue of valuing the happiness of others as much as theirs own. In other words, the expectation is to rise above the consideration of one’s own individual interests. Put as such, this principle sounds laudable. But as critics point out, there is plenty of scope for incorrect application of this principle, which could lead to adverse outcomes. For example,

“In an action then which, in the truest and widest sense, we should call right or good, there is more than one sort of goodness. And unless we treat rightly this variety of rightness or goodness, our moral philosophy, whatever side we take, must be partial: and we shall not be able to argue against opponents of it without being in danger of arguing against something which, it is probable, an impartial and practical reader will consider morally proper.” (Grote 124)

Even actions by individuals are mediated by this consideration for the greatest common good. The agent’s actions are never to enhance his/her own happiness, but that of all concerned. As John Stuart Mill himself clarifies in his treaties,

“As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” (Mill, as quoted by Grote 86)

One of Utilitarianism’s notable critics is the famous legal theoretician, John Rawls. Rawls’ objection to the notion of impartiality arises from the philosophical system’s blanket application of its principles to the entire social plane. For example, just as an individual weighs the gains and losses in the preset against that estimated in the future, so a society could measure satisfactions and dissatisfactions between different individuals. And through this endeavor the principle of utility is applied in a natural way: “a society is properly arranged when its institutions maximize the net [or average] balance of satisfaction.” ((Rawls 1971:24), as quoted in Scarre 21).

Universalism has been a historically significant feature in Utilitarian discourse. Of the central maxim of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, universalism concerns with the latter half, namely, ‘the greatest number’. As universalism seeks to promote the distribution of happiness as widely as possible, it can be deemed as an extension of the Enlightenment project, which too purports to expand the boundaries of moral concern. Utilitarians underscore the moral weight of this principle through this explication:

“Any person, no matter how poor, or powerless, or socially marginal, no matter how remote from the centers of influence and privilege, may, by invoking moral principles, assert a claim or express a grievance in the language of a system to which nobody, however rich, powerful, or well-bred, may claim immunity” (Scheffler 1992:12, as quoted in Scarre 23).

This rationale had such an intuitive appeal that universalism had become a pillar of Utilitarian philosophy by the middle of18th century. Such prominent intellectuals as Helvetius, had called on the government of France to create legislation that would “produce a happiness which was universelle as well as egale.” (Helvetius, as quoted in Crisp 13) Across the English channel, in Scotland, philosopher Francis Hutcheson proclaimed that “‘that action is best which secures the greatest happiness of the greatest number’” (Selby-Bigge, as quoted in (Crisp 14). The list of supporters also included criminal law thinker Cesare Beccaria. Jeremy Bentham spoke eloquently of how it is the duty of the government to “create a fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law” (Bentham, as quoted in Crisp 14). John Stuart Mill even took the Biblical analogy in his defense of the ethical fortitude of universalism and by extension utilitarianism. (Scarre 23) In short, universalism states that each individual’s interests count equally, and thus in moral terms there is no segregation among the citizens.

While universalism sounds self-evidently correct and beyond scrutiny, a rigorous analysis of all its implications will question this status. There is a simple technical reason why it is flawed, namely, we cannot logically pursue the double maximand of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, for we mostly confront situations where the choices are between “one action which will provide a lesser utility for a larger population and another which will produce a larger utility for a smaller number. In such circumstances it is not possible simultaneously to produce the greatest happiness and to benefit the greatest number.” (Crisp 18) Even Jeremy Bentham, one of the founding fathers of Utilitariansm, retrospectively acknowledged this problem and hence moderated the core principle to simply that of ‘greatest happiness’, forgoing the insistence on the ‘greatest number’.

Works Cited

• Crisp, Roger. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1997.
• Grote, John. An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy. Bristol, England: Thoemmes, 1990.
• Scarre, Geoffrey. Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1996. .

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