Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

A table on the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism
Rationality and practicality

Utilitarian ethics rests on a rational calculation of numbers of people whose pleasure or happiness is maximised. There is a clarity and simplicity to this.

“By sticking firmly to the Principle of Utility as the only standard for judging right and wrong, it avoids all danger of incorporating into moral theory prejudices, feelings and intuitions with no rational basis.” James Rachels (2007:115)

This principle of rational calculation is also practical. For example, the 1967 Abortion Act focuses on the happiness of mother and potential happiness of the child (but not fathers!). The mother’s mental and physical health, the child’s disability and whether it’s wanted are all added to the utility calculation.

Problem with motive

There are two difficulties in answering the question, “why should I maximise pleasure or happiness?”

  1. The difficulty defining the idea of pleasure or happiness. “Bentham and Mill don’t notice the difficulty of the concept of “pleasure”…a fatal objection at the outset”. Anscombe (1958:2)
  2. The difficulty in making me think of the interests (happiness) of others. Mill tries to bring “sympathy” in as a kind of virtue or psychological motive, but it’s not convincing.

“The principle of the greatest happiness, fine though it is as an ideal, does not identify a motive.” Scruton

A Short History of Moral Philosophy p 239

Equality is central

Bentham wrote “everyone is to count as one, and no-one as more than one”. This radical idea implies that everyone has equal weight in the utility calculation, although the issue of rights remains a problem. Suppose, on an equal vote, you all vote for my dismissal (or even death) in line with maximising general happiness?

“The utilitarian emphasis on impartiality must be a part of any defensible moral theory.” Rachels (2006:114)

For an interesting treatment of whether utilitarianism can handle the issue of animal rights, see Rachels (2006: 96-100).

Integrity is lost

Bernard Williams’ famous example has Jim arrive as a guest, to be invited to shoot one Indian in order to save 19. He argues that to be a utilitarian is to deny me moral integrity: there are some things I cannot do, because of my moral feelings about it.

“Our relation to the world is partly given by moral feelings; to regard those feelings as happening outside our moral self is to lose our identity”. Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against p 104

Takes account of the future

Issues of climate change, potential future wars and famines all suggest we need an ethical theory that takes into account those yet unborn.

“Utilitarians seen to provide a very strong philosophical justification for the notion that we have obligations to future does not matter that we cannot identify these people..we have an obligation to leave as good a world as we can.” Pojman (2006:123, 125)

Justice is flouted

Louis Pojman asks us to imagine a utilitarian physician who has five patients needing different organs. A healthy bachelor comes in needing immunisation and “you judge he would make a perfect sacrifice for your five patients..this cavalier attitude to justice offends us.” (2006:118)

“Utilitarianism is at odds with the idea that people have rights that may not be trampled on merely because one anticipates good results.” Rachels (2006:108)

Arthur Koestler reminds us how in Stalin’s Russia , torture, confession and execution were routinely used to serve “the general good.”

NB Rule-utilitarians like Mill try to overcome this problem by enshrining rights as rules of justice serving total utility.







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