Act Utilitarianism Defeated—“Philosophy Fit Only for Pigs”

11.10.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


The quote here is a from a famous attack on utilitarianism, which J. S. Mill confronts in his work, Utilitarianism. The last two lessons have taught us that utilitarianism has some intuitive appeal: It bases morality in making things “better” for ourselves and others. They’ve also made it clear that the central aim, utility, is hard to pin down. Imagine today that you agree with utilitarianism and don’t mind that utility is still a “work in progress.” Are there other problems? Yes.

In Lesson 1, we touched upon a key objection to utilitarianism: It gives us wrong answers to moral questions. Imagine you are a sheriff in a small desert town. You have in custody a young man who is accused of murder. The townsfolk begin to riot and demand you give them the innocent man. They intend to kill him. If you don’t hand him over, the rioting will get worse, and you happen to know several other people will die. Act Utilitarianism suggests we should hand the young innocent over. This seems obviously immoral to most people because the young man is innocent.

There’s a further problem. Imagine now that you are a townsperson, watching the sheriff bring out the young man. You were never convinced that he was guilty, and you happen to know that the sheriff is an Act Utilitarian, leading you to the conclusion that the sheriff is sacrificing the young man for the greater good. This is a devastating conclusion because now you know that in the future, it could be you who is sacrificed. Your ability to trust the sheriff is reduced to zero because you know that the Sheriff would lie, kill, and break the law if he thought it would have the best outcome.

The sheriff would happily punish innocent people and indeed, neglect to punish guilty people if the outcome was better. Act Utilitarianism, if we all followed it, would destroy our ability to trust each other and would also break the link between doing the right/wrong thing and being rewarded/punished. Act Utilitarianism does not care for truth, and it does not care for just deserts, except where those things are useful.

Finally, consider the problem of how much Act Utilitarianism demands of us. Act Utilitarianism suggests that we should always do that which has the best outcomes. When I spend money on an avocado instead of buying a cheaper alternative and giving the difference to a charity, I am doing the morally wrong thing. Indeed, each moment I happily spend reading novels is time I do not spend trying to improve the lives of others. Act Utilitarianism suggests we are all moral failures.

Given how bad the world is for many and how good it is (comparatively) for this writer and the lucky people with the time to read this, we’re horrible, horrible monsters, falling impossibly short of doing the right thing essentially all the time. A utilitarian is likely to just accept this as a sad truth; it is not the only belief system to accept that we are all sinners. However, some might argue, would it not be better to find a system that tells us what to do, instead of a system that tells us we are all failing to do enough and are probably too limited to ever know for sure what would be the best thing to do, anyway?

Tomorrow, we will consider a couple of further objections to Act Utilitarianism before turning to possible solutions.


Recommended book

Practical Ethics by Peter Singer


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