25 April 2013
Utilitarianism is a way of thinking. According to the consequentialist principle, no action is right in itself, but, rather, an action becomes right based on its results. This is, in essence, is the principle from which utilitarianism is formed. Utilitarianism is based on the idea that an action is good as long as the result of that action is more good than bad. Although John Stuart Mill considers utilitarianism the “greatest happiness principle,” (What Utilitarianism Is 7) it has been discounted by numerous thinkers and philosophers. Within this paper, these criticisms will be discussed, and the argument will be made that utilitarianism is a sub-optimal way of determining what actions are goo and what actions are bad.
To understand utilitarianism, one must first ask the question: What makes something (e.g. an action) good? The utilitarian response to this question would fall somewhere along the lines of, “Something is good if the end benefits outweigh the negative costs.” Although at first this view may seem reasonable, one should consider, for example, the subjective view of hedonism before declaring utilitarianism the ideal ethical philosophy. Looking through a hedonistic lens, an action is considered good/bas if an individual experiences the action as pleasurable/ unpleasurable.
Unfortunately, for both utilitarianism and hedonism, good does not necessarily mean right. For example, hedonism taken literally, could suggest that false friendships is good for us if it brings pleasure. We may view an individual as a friend when they are actually just wearing the cloak of friendship. Generally, we would view this act as “bad” and, perhaps even immoral, however, under hedonism, this practice would be justifiable as long as it brings pleasure to the participants. This same principle can essentially be applied to almost all deceptions including false pleasures, false flattery, false familiarity and false fidelity.
Although the distinction between good and right may seem risky within hedonism, it appears to be borderline dangerous in utilitarianism. In utilitarianism, if the ends justify the means, then the action will be considered good. Essentially, this is saying that as long as the positive effects, that action will be considered good. This type of thinking has been using by dictators and revolutionists time and time again who argue that the greater good of all is the same no matter the person and, so, attaining good is worth all costs.
In the end, the assumptions utilitarianism makes contain an underlying flaw which is described by Mill in the Quote: “For if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the attainment of it cannot be the end of morality or of any rational conduct” (What Utilitarianism Is 12). This raises the question which utilitarianists despise: How can happiness be the net goal of every person if every person does not have the same desires?
We cannot even truly know these desires because it not something we can see (or hear). “The only proof capable of being that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it” (Mill, Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible 35). With this said; the only true thing that could prove that an individual desires something is that they actually do desire it. It should not just be assumed that everyone desires the same thing, because that seems to be absurd.
Hedonism is also rejected by what is called the rainy day argument. This simply states that if you are having a bad day and you nothing is going your way, in the view of a utilitarian, your life is bad for you. You are not feeling pleasure during this time, so you must be in displeasure. In this view, suicide would be the result of bad days like this. This doesn’t seem right because it is just one day, or could be a few days. But it seems like a person should consider more than just their immediate pleasures or displeasures when it comes to the success of their life.
“Let us grant to utilitarianism that all worthwhile human projects must conduce, one way or another, to happiness” (Williams 113). This does not mean that every project is done with the purpose of happiness in mind. It does not seem reasonable to say that every project is meant to pursue happiness. “People have to be pursuing other things” (Williams 113). In the end, it may result in happiness, but it isn’t necessarily the starting goal.
Hedonistic utilitarianism also does not take into account the feelings of ones actions. “For a utilitarian, some confusion must be involved, namely that in which the agent feels bad, his subsequent conduct and relations are crippled and so on, because he thinks that he has done the wrong thing- for if the balance of the outcomes was as it appeared to be before invoking this effect, then he has not (from the utilitarian point of view) done the wrong thing” (Williams 101). This does not seem right that our feelings toward an action have really no matter in deciding whether an action is right or wrong.
For example, if there are several people dying in a hospital in need of organs, should we kill another healthy person to save all the people in the hospital? A utilitarian would say killing this person would be the good thing to do because it results in the most overall pleasure because the sick people would recover and get to live. But it does not seem right to take an innocent individual and kill them. So even if the person doing the killing felt it was wrong, if they were a utilitarian, they would be very unjustified for not killing this person. In fact, it would be looked down upon if they did go through with it.
In her story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula Le Guin raises another very strong argument against utilitarianism. In a very brief summary, the story revolved around Omelas, a utopian city full of success and joy. The people enjoy the town and everyone is happy; with the exception of one child. This child is kept in the cellar of one of the homes. The child is left down in the cellar with little food and water. Omelas will stay in this condition as long as the townspeople occasionally kick or harm this child “They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 282).
The story highlights, very emotionally, the flaws of utilitarianism in that, the good of the majority comes at the cost of the good of the minority, This is to say that the thing which brings the highest net pleasure to Omelas’ society is, in fact, the abuse of a single child. Because this results in net pleasure, and not net pain, for the majority of people, utilitarianists would argue that this is not only acceptable, but preferable above all other options. Almost any human being, however, can look at this situation and see the biggest problem of utilitarianism which is that the good of the majority will almost always come at the expense of the minority and this this “good” is not necessarily moral or right.
Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. (Haroer Perennial, 2004), p. 276-284
Mill, John Stuart. “Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible,” Utilitarianism. George Sher (ed.) 2nd Edition. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), p.35-41
Mill, John Stuart. From “What Utilitarianism Is,” Utilitarianism. George Sher (ed.) 2nd Edition. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), p.6-19
Williams, Bernard. “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in Smart, J.J.C. and Williams, Bernard. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 96-99,101-104,108-109,112-117.