The most powerful objection to Utilitarianism as a moral theory Essay

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As far as consequentialist theories go, utilitarianism is probably the most well known, yet I find it quite unconvincing myself. The theory itself requires people acting for the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and involves calculating the overall effect of an act on happiness/unhappiness of people. The act that produces the most overall happiness should obviously, be pursued. The essence of utilitarianism is summarised in the principle of utility-‘Acts are right in proportion as they tend to promote pleasure or happiness.

Already we question the theory as it seems quite ambiguous and unclear as to whether we should work towards the greatest happiness overall or the happiness for greatest number of people. 18th century philanthropist John Stuart Mill considers happiness to be the only intrinsically good and therefore suffering to be the only intrinsically wrong. ‘One should always act so as to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. 1 Such theorists believe that everyone should work towards achieving happiness and alleviate suffering.

Surprisingly, utilitarianism on the one hand gives value to evil as well as happiness pleasures and believes this to be democratic, as they do not cast judgement on preference. However, it fails to go beyond this and take any account of factors/emotions that may have more, or simply, a different value than happiness. In other words, it only makes a quantitative distinction of pleasure between acts rather than make any reference to qualitative distinction and is unable to articulate any fundamental decisions in value.

One of the main objections to utilitarianism among critics is the way that it takes no account of the distribution of satisfaction. The individuality of people is crucial and morally relevant, our own experiences are what give us a separate psychological locus and personal identity, therefore when you are forced to suffer under utilitarianism, it does not really bring you any happiness to know that others are happy. ‘Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.

Linked to this is the criticism that utilitarianism is unjust, as in some situations, it may not be obvious who should suffer and who should be happy-how are we supposed to calculate this? In this way, utilitarianism seems irrational and this argument is very powerful as the world is becoming more diverse, and retaining a sense of individuality for many people is very important. Justice and other civil and human rights are fundamental to a society, yet by following utilitarianism, we may find ourselves compromising those values which we not only hold dear to our existence but have been accustomed to for thousands of years.

Bernard William uses the example of ‘Jim and the Indians’3 to show us how utilitarianism has the ability to ‘bring us out of ourselves’ becoming a calculating machine that will then act upon these calculations rather than instinct or basic human emotions. The utilitarian calculation is used to investigate how to get the most happiness or pleasure by doing the thought experiment; use of past experience to decide which course of action will produce most happiness. Utilitarians believe their moral theory provides ‘determinate decision procedure,’ the calculation gives you what they believe to be an obvious answer to a situation.

The values that come into play in a certain situation are all the same and therefore commensurable. However, I believe different as experiences are subjective also, and have more accordance with personal tastes- if you like Brad Pitt, the pleasure you will get from watching his new film will be more than that of someone watching it that does not like Brad. In addition, because experiences are subjective and the effects complicated, future judgement in similar situations is likely to be different.

Although I would endorse most criticisms of utilitarianism, this idea is the one I found most powerful, you do not need calculations to know what is the right thing to do, you do not depend merely on past experience but most times people will find themselves acting upon instinct, which is personal to you and derives from your personality. If you know someone quite well, you would be likely to predict what they would do in certain situations because you know what they are like rather than calculating what they should do based on simply past experience.

In response to this, Utilitarians are likely to argue that in most cases, the course of action causing most happiness/suffering will be obvious. By accounting for the extraneous effects of an act, they come to this conclusion. They would condemn the shooting of an innocent man because it deprives the victim of future happiness not because the act is considered near-universally to be intrinsically wrong. Their condemnation is ‘wrong for the wrong reasons. ‘ Utilitarianism ignores the fact that there are certain acts which may be intrinsically wrong or unjust, and people may be forced to accept and do what they believe is prima facie wrong. You may have to act in a way that violates your intuitive moral feelings. An example of this is the murdering of one person to save fifty others from the same fate. A utilitarian will believe this to be ‘right’ as it brings about the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’ yet it does not compensate for the fact that murder is still intrinsically wrong Utilitarianism has an anti-elitist element and takes into account the emotional welfare of all, valuing everyone equally.

This would be very discouraging as people would have nothing to strive/work for as they are likely to get it anyway and will not be singled out if they don’t get it, as no-one else will have it either. Most people pursue their own, and the happiness of those close to them but utilitarianism requires us to treat our own happiness as ‘one among many’ thus taking a disinterested perspective of our own happiness causing a complete transformation of priorities. This is very similar to a communist system whereby everyone is equal and is unlikely to work in the real world.

Another criticism of this point is how utilitarianism takes no account of ‘desert’ i. e. the rewards that people deserve for what they do in the same way, as it requires us to be unfair to people when doing nasty things to them. It is indiscriminate. Having assessed the arguments that supporters and critics have put forward, I find the arguments against utilitarianism more convincing mainly due to the theory’s ignorance to the ‘separateness of persons’ and their individuality, it seems to have a ‘one size fits all’ attitude to the dilemmas of life which is too simplistic and impractical.

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