Act Utilitarianism—Rebuttals

11.10.2017 |

Episode #7 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Today, we are going to learn about a few options Act Utilitarianism has to answer some of its critics. This is a non-exhaustive list, but they give a taste of the back and forth in the ongoing debate.

Our sheriff, who could sacrifice a poor innocent to prevent rioting, is seemingly compelled to do so by Act Utilitarianism. On closer inspection, though, this is not the case. The sheriff has good reason to think they can end the riot. However, they also have a good reason to think that someone will eventually find out about the deception, meaning the community will be devastated by their own actions. Moreover, trust in the sheriff and the rule of law will be undermined. Any supporter of Act Utilitarianism is likely to reason that one should avoid breaching trust except when one is sure one won’t be caught or when it is absolutely necessary, because trust as an institution is very important to utility.

Naturally, you could still not entirely trust the Act Utilitarianism supporter because they could lie. However, most of us think lying is sometimes acceptable, so this loss of trust is relatively minimal. Moreover, there are very few circumstances where one can be sure one won’t be caught. This means we usually can trust the proponent of Act Utilitarianism. Indeed, proponents of Act Utilitarianism would also, recognizing the importance of trust, likely support the idea that children should be taught not to lie, and have an emotional aversion to doing so. This encouragement further decreases the incentives to lie and so, on a societal level, keeps trust alive.

Furthermore, the problem that Act Utilitarianism is too demanding can be answered in multiple ways. Firstly, one could argue that we should aim to get everyone to a certain level of utility, and above that level, it’s every man for himself. It would be wrong, for instance, not to save the starving. It would not be wrong to make my friend’s day marginally worse by giving him only one piece of chocolate when I could add to his utility by giving him two. This would be described as “satisficing” theory: So long as a certain level of utility is satisfied, actions that improve utility to any degree above that line are all morally good, even if they are not the “best” single option.

A second answer to this objection is more simple; just ask, “So what?” It might seem odd to think we’re all doing the “wrong” thing nearly all the time, but no one ever said morality was easy. Indeed, morality being demanding is arguably an important aspect of it. We tend not to give too much credit to people who do the “right” thing only when it is convenient or easy. Maybe Act Utilitarianism asks you to give up all your money (other than that which you need to live) in order to help solve problems like global hunger because that’s exactly what you should do (this writer hasn’t yet and suspects he won’t, but does feel guilty about it).

Various other forms of Act Utilitarianism have been promulgated. Some argue that we shouldn’t aim for greater happiness but for the reduction of suffering (negative utilitarianism). Others suggest we should aim to create an equality of utility, instead of the most utility. While yet others suggest most people should never be taught about Act Utilitarianism and that an elite minority should organize to rule over the rest of the population with the aim of creating the most utility, this avoids problems like the general population not trusting each other (Government House Utilitarianism).

These answers, though, often seem quite ad hoc: plasters on a gaping wound. Tomorrow, we learn about a more radical alternative.


Recommended book

Utilitarianism and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham


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