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What is Utilitarianism?

NCH London | July 9, 2018

What is Utilitarianism? Can it be defended?

By Oliver Bater

NCH Essay Competition 2018 First Prize winner


Ethics is dead. Markets are the new morality.

Free market exchange justified by utilitarianism has subtly but incontrovertibly become the ethical basis behind our society. Having discernibly shifted from a market economy to a market society, almost everything now can and should be commodified. Under the notion of an objective system of morality that can be universalised in any context, utilitarian principles (in their purest Benthamite form) now underpin our perception of right and wrong. Any free-market exchange maximises utility because both parties as rational individuals seek to maximise their individual utility through their actions, and thus is increasingly condoned. Regardless of the intrinsic worth of a good, society now is willing to commodify and value monetarily previously sacrosanct or civic goods and positions: such as prison beds, pollution, university places and life insurance. Market thinking is hence the epitome of the pervasiveness of utilitarian thinking in our understanding of ethics.

Utilitarianism’s appeal derives from its ability to shield us from our competing conceptions of morality: subjective ideas around religion, spirituality, sexuality and the natural world – particularly pertinent in an ever more diverse society with multitudes of different interpretations of morality. Utilitarianism is instead grounded in the morality of the value-neutral “principle of utility” proposed by Bentham, or as Joshua Greene simply put it: “the idea that we should try to make things overall better makes moral sense to everyone.” Naturally, a major objection against utilitarianism is, of course, the inability to quantify such elusive concepts as pleasure and pain; however, instead of being reduced to the semantics of what constitutes of utility (or whether even the entire notion of happiness is a flawed idea) this essay will seek to evaluate, under the assumption that utility is quantifiable, is Mill’s dogma “we ought to bring the greatest balance of pleasure over pain” a justifiable ethical position to hold?

Superficially, the utilitarian rationale, celebrated by economists globally seems sound – in a free exchange both parties always benefit (utility is in the short term clearly maximised) and individual rights are maintained. However, in examining each “act” in isolation, economists often fail to recognise the consequences of legitimising the degrading and corruption of certain civic values in the long-term.

An interesting example of such corruption is the selling of the right to shoot Walruses. The Canadian Government permits the native Inuit, original subsistence hunters, to continue to hunt a certain quota of Atlantic walruses as a perseveration of their way of life. However, recently the Inuit have begun to sell their right to kill Walruses as a form of “trophy hunting” to individuals looking to complete the Arctic “Grand Slam.”- the five most-prized Arctic trophy hunting animals. From a consequential perspective, all parties benefit: the Canadian Government maintains the population levels of an animal previously delimitated by over-hunting through their quota; the Inuit gain additional income to supplement their community, and the shooters achieve their own distorted sense of satisfaction from killing the Walrus. Yet, there seems to be something morally disagreeable in treating wildlife as an object of sport- rather than a creature of intrinsic value. Killing a helpless walrus at close range simply to complete a list caters to a perverse desire, where the motive (the deontology) behind the action is wrong- irrespective of the consequences.

This example highlights two clear objections to utilitarian thinking: the theory fails to recognise intrinsic values which do not provide utility, and it disregards the motives of actions. Commercialisation (though backed by utilitarian principles) seems to corrupt and degrade the intrinsic values, which activities, institutions or objects should embody. Many argue that ideals such as honesty, knowledge, or environmental preservation should carry an inherent worth despite the external utility they cause. The commodification of blood donation is an archetypical example of where markets unequivocally change the meaning of social practices crowding out important non-market norms. Although commodifying blood donations many bring positive consequences through the act itself, by twisting donations into an economic transaction and eroding the inherent value of altruism – there will be unquantifiable changes in the general attitude towards charity which are not measured in the consequences of the act itself- shown as the number of free voluntary donations of blood has dramatically decreased in the United States in the years following its commodification.

In response, Joshua Greene defends utilitarianism using the neuroscience of dual-process theory around the traditional trolley dilemma to suggest how our moral values are unreliable. He argues our moral intuitions- which we rationalise to form much of our non-consequentialist moral reasoning – have evolved in circumstances that discredit them as reliable sounds guides to what we ought to do. We should thus reject emotionally based automatic responses because they are contingent on our context, evolution and subjective viewpoints. In contrast, utilitarianism under the principle of “universal benevolence” weighs up our own interests equally against others – a principle which directly contradicts the evolutionary process – meaning it is immune for such evolutionary debunking arguments. Furthermore, the principle of utility ensures a sense of objectivity and universality in ethical thinking, in contrast to categorical thinking which is based on the subjective interpretation of which ideals should carry intrinsic value.

Henry Sidgwick further criticises the supposed intrinsic nature of certain values through anecdotal examples and “common sense morality”. For example, it is naturally permissible to lie to a small child about who brings their Christmas presents, or about whether an illness they have been diagnosed with is likely to be curable – despite clearly breaking the categorical rule that “one should not lie”? Telling the truth only in certain scenarios means that honesty and veracity are not self-evident moral truths. Furthermore, such an example reflects how honesty like other categorical values only derives its relevance through instrumental rather than intrinsic values. We value honesty because it acts as good, not perfect, guide towards increasing happiness/the greater good – rather than for the value of honesty itself. Such categorical rules are indeed usually derived from the maximisation of utility following utilitarian principles- and hence it is usually the instrumental rather than the intrinsic value of the ideal we value.

 However, there are more fundamental flaws in the hedonic calculus approach to ethics. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ursula K. Le Guin both construct quasi-utopian societies in their books “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in which all individuals experience unlimited utility and pleasure at expense of the complete misery/torture of an individual child. The crude cost-benefit analysis of Act Utilitarian logic would suggest that the existence of such societies would be morally positive, as the pleasure experienced by the majority vastly outweighs the cost to the individual child. However, this directly contradicts the modern notion of undeniable individual rights. Hence, act utilitarianism attempts to extend society into one “super person” (Nagel); however, such collectivist morality doesn’t show sufficient respect for the rights of an individual. The persecution of an innocent for the benefit of the masses is clearly incompatible with a modern sense of justice and hence utilitarianism is too demanding an ethical theory to be able to justify as it requires the condoning of grave injustices.

Thus, Mill’s more sophisticated application of Utilitarianism argues that we should instead focus on rules, which will bring about the best possible consequences in most circumstances – a form of Utilitarianism known as Rule Utilitarian- rather than just individual. This form is divided into Strong and Weak Rule Utilitarianism, in which the former contains rules which have undeniable instrumental value and should always be maintained, while the latter acknowledges that certain rules should have exceptions. Mill’s harm principle “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” is an example of rule, which specifically governs against the abuse of the individual by society – and counters the traditional objection made against Bentham’s theory.

However, there is clearly a paradox in that following strong rule-utilitarianism may lead an individual to follow ultimately rules (categorical principles), which will directly contradict the supposed basis of utilitarian principles (committing actions which indeed reduce utility), epitomised by the Ticking Time Bomb analogy. It thus seems to be counter-intuitive, that Mill and later rule Utilitarians propose an ethical theory based on rules, which its principles fundamentally dictate should be broken.

It thus also ultimately very difficult to differentiate rule utilitarianism from the moral absolutist positions of Kant and Anscombe- particularly given the majority of Kant’s categorical positions do derive from the maximisation of utility. Thus, most of the criticisms of Kantian Ethics are indeed also applicable to Rule Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism in this sense can be viewed as self-effacing, as it directs its adherents to follow other moral theories. Rule utilitarianism has even been labelled as essentially deontological, as it encourages a basis for morality, in which the morality of actions comes from following rules, rather than from of the consequences of the individual actions themselves. The closest Utilitarians have been to reconciling this clear paradox is through Sidgwick’s Method of Ethics, in which he argues that Utilitarians should accept flawed rules in public as the best possible guides for society, but secretly not follow them themselves. However, such “esoteric morality” or “morality for an enlightened” – as labelled by Bernard Williams – greatly limits the ability for such forms of Utilitarianism to be universalised and its use of a viable ethical theory.

In final analysis, although the principles of the act Utilitarianism are extremely intuitive and sound, its inability to guarantee individuals’ rights means that it is too demanding an ethical theory to universalise. While, the failure of Rule Utilitarianism to truly differentiate itself from the Kantian categorical ethical system, ensures that it susceptible to the same objections, and likewise cannot be defended.


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