Recommended reading

Utilitarianism: For and Against
Utilitarianism: For and Against

by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams.

Utilitarianism and Beyond
Utilitarianism and Beyond

by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Ed.).

Well-being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance
Well-being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance

by James Griffin.

On Liberty and Utilitarianism
On Liberty and Utilitarianism

by John Stuart Mill.

Creative Potential Ethics

Arguments against Utilitarianism

This is the second part in a five part series on **Creative Potential Ethics*, a development of utilitarianism where the sum of individuals’ capacities to create is used as the utility function. We previously looked at the *history of utilitarianism*. Here we will look at objections against utilitarianism. In the next part, we will look at our *emotions* as a built-in sense that measures this potential. This is a work in progress. If you have comments or suggestions, please e-mail me.*

Over the years, several serious objections have been put forward against utilitarianism. We will examine these objections here in some detail. Later, we will see how Creative Potential Ethics addresses these objections.

Impersonal nature

Utilitarianism is not concerned with persons. It only considers the sum of pleasure and pain in the world. It therefore treats persons as replaceable. One person’s increased pleasure is worth another’s increased pain.

In policy decisions, which affect a large number of people, this may not be too much of a problem. It is usually clear that a certain action will benefit a large number of people. When considering the morality of war, for instance, the justification of military action is that overall, the quality of life for the local population or the world as a whole will improve enough to offset the pain, death, and destruction. This argument is widely accepted.

However, in specific cases dealing with specific individuals, the situation is often not as clear. In this setting, utilitarianism appears cold, insensitive and calculated. Ridiculing a person in front of a crowd that is laughing histerically would be justified. Obtaining pleasure at the expense of others is generally considered wrong.

As a practical example, police have been under intense pressure from the public to find the perpetrators of acts of terrorism or brutal crimes. From a utilitarian point of view, it may be beneficial to the community as a whole to convict an innocent person, even if it requires planting evidence and other illegal acts. There have been several cases in the UK where people convicted of IRA bombings were cleared after spending many years in prison.

A variation of this argument centers around the deterrence theory. From a utilitarian point of view, it would be desirable to punish innocent people in order to deter possible future crimes. There are many other reasons why deterrents like this are not effective. At its core, this theory clashes with our sense of justice.

Rigid hierarchy of pleasures

Pleasure means different things to different people. For some, eating caviar is an exquisite joy. Others will find it disgusting. Pleasure is a personal matter, as is pain. Any absolute scale going from deepest pain to highest pleasure would necessarily violate certain individuals’ personal scales.

People have a natural tendency to project their own values on others and society as a whole. Mill’s preference of mental pleasures over bodily pleasures is an example of a thinker transforming his love of mental activity into a universal desire. The truth is that philosophers love thought, athletes love physical activity and artists love physical creation. There is no universal scale of pleasures, and therefore there are no universal rules as to which actions will lead to the greatest pleasure for all.

Eliminate pain by elimiminating the person?

Since pain is undesirable, eliminating this pain in whichever way possible without causing additional hardship is highly desirable from a utilitarian point of view. Killing a lonely person who feels miserable appears to be more desirable than doing nothing.

Imagine a person with a miserable life who meets a large group of people who delight in eating human meat. In all his interactions with the group, this person is treated with great respect. Once it is established that his life is so miserable, the depressed man is killed painlessly, and served to the members of the group. This causes the members a great deal of pleasure.

Even though this course of action is clearly desirable by utilitarian standards, it equally clearly goes against our feelings.

Practical assessment

For utilitarianism to be useful, we must be able to apply it in practical situations where we are faced with ethical dilemmas. Because of its impersonal nature, utilitarianism requires us to know the consequences of actions for every person who is in any way affected by the route taken. We meed to assess how these consequences will change the pleasure and pain of everyone.

Even if it were possible in principle to determine the effects on any specific individual, it is impossible in practice to trace every possible effect. When a decision has to be taken quickly, there may not be enough time to make even a limited assessment. One way to overcome this has been to base decisions on rules derived from past experience. Unfortunately, rules can’t capture all specific circumstances of a situation, and therefore their use is limited.

To be continued…

Contents | Back to History of Utilitarianism | Forward to Emotions and Creative Potential