Calculating Consequences: A Student Refutation of Utilitarianism
Erik Z. Hallworth
San Francisco State University
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory holding that moral actions are based on the maximization of overall happiness, defined as the Utility Principle. Mill and Bentham's utilitarianism makes a plausible and convincing argument, though not everyone agrees with it. Bernard Williams writes Utilitarianism: For and Against the theory. In agreement with Williams, I have formed my own thought experiment to refute utilitarianism and will be taking an analytic approach to the utility principle. By these two, I will show that utilitarianism is an incoherent doctrine failing to consider the value of an individual and guilty of inappropriately attributing calculation to moral actions.
Before I began, I would like define two popular forms of utilitarianism: Act-utilitarianism and Rule-Utilitarianism. Rule-Utilitarianism is a view held by philosopher John-Stuart Mill, which is the view that the utility principle is applied to a certain set of rules. For example, consider you are a leader of a new nation. In establishing this nation, you want to make sure your citizens are happy throughout time. Thus, the question becomes: what set of rules would you adopt to make this possible? Now, the problem with rule-utilitarianism is that it calls into question how effective it is to follow a particular rule in general. As we can see, rule-utilitarianism runs into some problems itself; unfortunately, the exploration of its problems does not fit the scope of the paper. I will spend the remainder of the paper critiquing Act-Utilitarianism: the view that what determines a moral action is the outcome, that is, the single action only. To bring out the force of my claim, I must admit, utilitarianism gets a few things right. Utilitarianism succeeds in:
(1) Consideration of the pleasure and pain of individuals
(2) Not allowing individuals to put their personal feelings or relationships ahead of others (3)Attempting to provide an objective and quantitative method for making moral decisions.
It is important to consider the pleasure and pain of every individual in that it causes us to reflect our moral intuitions. It forces us to examine each person and ask: is what I am doing morally right? Further, not allowing personal feelings or relationships in decision making shows the importance of impartiality in decision making. By doing that, you are forced to look at the objective facts or situation, whereas a personal bias could cause a skewed decision making which may not be the best decision in hindsight. Finally, by applying a quantitative method for making moral decisions, Utilitarianism revives the general attitude towards ethics. It is too often, that in philosophy and in other disciplines, ethics is simply casted out as being just one’s personal feelings. With using mathematical calculation in decision making, utilitarianism fosters rational decision making in that it is impossible for you to put your own bias forth and creates an objective account of ethics. To illustrate the effectiveness of utilitarianism: Suppose your best friend and coworker, Erin, is broke and teals some money from your boss in order to buy food. Later, your boss finds out that he has a significant amount of money missing from his wallet. Knowing he certainly did not spend the money, he then realizes that the only plausible explanation of his missing money is theft. He then asks five of his employees (yourself included) if they had taken or heard some money missing. Naturally, the employees say no, though we know Erin took it. In his rage, he threatens to fire three of the employees at random if somebody does not confess. The three coworkers who did not take anything are fighting amongst themselves, blaming each other on stealing money, even though, they did not do it. You know Erin took it, though she...
References: Gendler, Tamar, Susanna Siegel, and Steven M. Cahn. “Selections From Utilitarianism” by
John-Stuart Mill. The Elements of Philosophy: Readings from past and Present. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008. 498-511. Print
J.J. C. Smart, Bernard Williams Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Print
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