According to John Stuart Mill (author of Utilitarianism), utility is happiness, and happiness is pleasure minus pain. Widely known as a universal hedonism, utilitarianism is “an ethical philosophy in which the most ethical acts are those which serve to increase the happiness for the most people or at the very least, decreases the suffering for the most people.” Nonetheless, albeit with the fact that ‘happiness’ is recognized as a universal though objectively valuable ‘goal’ , utilitarianism has been for centuries recognized as the doubt of most moral philosophers, criticized for being impractical, cold and ‘distant’ from individual rights and the real complexities of life. Bernard Williams is one of the critics, who brought about explicit series of objections against utilitarianism in his book, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’ (Williams 1973b). Obviously, it is impossible for me to cover all areas concerning utilitarianism and so concentrating on ‘morality’ objections, I will first of all attempt to present Bernard Williams’ ‘integrity’ objection and the well known counter-examples against utilitarianism. Then, I will try to counter these objections, and rebutted Williams’ argument with ‘stern’ objections as well, with Mill’s Utilitarianism as my reference. At the end of this essay, I hope to show that utilitarianism is indeed right, and likewise, moral intuitions are without a doubt unreliable to be used as a base in criticising utilitarianism.
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From what I can understand, Williams believes that utilitarianism fails to recognise the reality of complexities in life, the value of integrity, and as I mentioned earlier, individual rights. Morality comes with the recognition of individual rights and if decisions or judgments are made based on numerical value of the greatest number of happiness in a situation, the happiness of this lesser number group is ignored. Hence, integrity failed to be satisfied. In order to maximize the number of happiness, simply favour the largest number of members in a group and this irked the mind of Williams.
Moreover, according to Williams, a normal utilitarian man wouldn’t be able to fulfil the demanding ‘ridiculous’ principle of utilitarianism. It is asking too much of an individual person and so because of that the theory must be flawed. From experience itself we can be sure that morality indeed, does not require so much of us. Yet, the latter argument of Williams can still be argued as it is not that the theory is demanding, it is just that people don’t want to fulfil their moral obligations, and that we just don’t like being told to do what we don’t want to do. After all, ‘a moral theory that wouldn’t ask us to do what we don’t want to do would be useless.’
Critics of utilitarianism have never fail to construct hypothetical situations where in each of them is the definite clear expectation of what the utilitarian would say, and it is also clear that the saying of the utilitarian would always be potentially ‘wrong’ in almost all hypothetical cases. These counter-examples against utilitarianism do not conclusively show that utilitarianism is wrong, but indeed they are common reasons why people are rejecting it. And so because of that, I will present two such common counter-examples and the expected utilitarian response for these counter examples.
“Hypothetically speaking, there would be a television show of the future, a show where a person is taken and subjected to tortures on the show. This is a pay-per-view show that costs a good amount of money to get. Only people who want to see the show will ever see it, but there are a large number of people who get a great amount of pleasure from seeing this – plus all the profits go to charity. This isn’t a regular program, it may only happen once. Should this show be made?”
Speaking in a utilitarian manner, it is indeed right to give a green light to this show as even though, it is really sad and bad for this one person, it is however, brings a lot of happiness and pleasure to those who will see it (obviously thousands of watchers). Moreover, all the profits will go to the charity thus benefited a lot more people! Clearly, the benefits outweigh the harms. But obviously, it is indeed still wrong to torture people. This could indeed be the main argument of the opponents. Regardless of the benefits, it is still a violation of that tortured man’s rights. Furthermore, to enjoy watching the torture could indeed be more morally wrong than to be physically involved in the show.
Jim, a botanist travelling in South America, comes upon a public execution in a small town. A military captain has lined up 20 Indians. He explains to Jim that they have been chosen at random from the local population, which has recently been protesting against the government. The captain offers Jim a guest’s privilege. If Jim wishes, he can select one of the Indians and shoot him; the other nineteen will then go free. Otherwise, the execution by the captain’s henchman, Pedro, will go as planned.
Utilitarianism seems to claim that it is obvious that the right thing to do is for Jim to just select one of these Indians to be shot at, so that another 20 lives could be spared. To not choose, or refusing to choose could lead to unhappiness of 20 persons, whereas to choose could only cause unhappiness of one. And so as we are referring to the theory of maximizing utility, to lose one is better than to lose 20. However, the objector will claim that it is just obvious that this is the wrong thing to do. Killing a person’s life is still wrong for whatever the reason is.
From what that I can deduce, the two counter-examples have one thing in common that is our sense of Morality or our moral intuitions clashes with the principles that utilitarianism hold. Indeed, opposite ‘commands’. Nevertheless, it does not mean that utilitarianism must be wrong or flawed.
First of all, the arguments made by these counter-examples can only be conclusive if only our moral intuitions are correct. However, as we all know, our moral intuitions are volatile due to the ‘complexities’ of life and due to the significant numbers of ‘gray’ areas that could result in confusion, according to Mill, that is why we refer to moral theories in the first place. Since it is unclear to us of the universal ‘approval’ for moral intuitions, the critics cannot use their moral intuitions as the base for rejecting a moral theory which is in this case, the moral theory of utilitarianism. Indeed, of course, for example, stealing is a disgrace yet to think of it now, maybe our other supposed to be ‘right’ moral beliefs might be wrong. Yet, is stealing really wrong? What about Robin Hood? Is he a hero or just a plain mere thief? The point that I’m trying to state here is that we don’t really know which are right and which are wrong. Our moral beliefs are inconsistent. Some may perceived certain things are right. Some may not. And so, we cannot know that our common sense moral intuitions about The Torture Show or Jim and The 21 Indians are right mainly because we don’t really know which of our moral beliefs to trust.
Second of all, the counter-examples are based on complicated moral situations; and truth to be told, biased as have they are design in such a way that the morally right answer seem obvious. In reference to Jim and the 21 Indians, let me re-describe the situation to highlight the utilitarian benefit. Indeed, it is hard to overlook how terrible the consequences would be if 20 Indians are to be killed, when Jim has the ‘power’ to prevent that. We must acknowledge the fact that, yes, although it is easy to sympathize with one innocent unfortunate person, we must also sympathize with the other 20 people, each of whom will suffer greatly if they are to be killed. In this case, the morally right action is not obvious. The situations presented are almost always unusual and extraordinary – they are situations that one is unlikely to come across, much less to be prepared for when one does come across it. And so conclusively, we based our moral intuitions on our moral educations. Moral education is applicable to our daily lives and if it was to be applied in ‘aggravating’ counter-examples and in every possible situation, it is indeed impossible. And so because of that, moral intuitions are not valid and any objections based on them are flawed and can be disregarded. Conclusively, these could somehow rebut the arguments made by William on the basis of ‘integrity’ and morality.
Conclusively, we can actually deduce that things that are morally wrong usually involve the harming of people and things that are of high moral values such as charity work, heroic deeds all contribute to the welfare of the people. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that wrong actions harm people and right action help people. Indeed, utilitarianism claimed that the reason that right actions are right is that they help people, and the reason that wrong actions are wrong is because they harm people. The basis of morality is ‘inside’ the principle of utilitarianism. You make people happy when you help them and you make them unhappy when you harm them. And so, conclusively, as long as a person accepts that it is best to help people as much as possible and hurt them as little as possible, he or she must accept that utilitarianism is right!
Crisp, Roger 1997: Routledge Philosophy Guide Book to Mill on Utilitarianism.
E. Goodin, Robert 1995: Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy.
Mill, John Stuart (Reprinted in Penguin Classics 1985, first published in 1859): On Liberty.
Would you kill someone to save one hundred people? CreateDebate. Retrieved on 15th November 2009, from http://www.createdebate.com/debate/show/ould_you_kill_ someone_to_save_one_hundred_people
Utilitarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Retrieved on 12th November 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism
Bernard Williams – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Retrieved on 12th November 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Williams
Introduction to utilitarianism. Retrieved on 16th November 2009 from http://www.utilitarian.org/utility.html
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill Retrieved on 18th November 2009 from http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm
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