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PHILOSOPHY – Utilitarianism isn’t as fair as it initially seems

Utilitarianism as an ethical philosophy can simply be defined as a system in which ‘the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all those affected by it.’ (http://plus.aol.com/aol/reference/utilitar/utilitarianism?flv=1&flv=1&icid=algo.encyclopedia.M.xml). There are various versions of utilitarianism. For instance, the original formulation by Jeremy Bentham identified utility in terms of maximising pleasure and minimising pain, whereas Singer’s version identifies the goal as a more general satisfaction of interests, whether they are hedonistic or otherwise. Positive utilitarianism focuses on the maximisation of pleasure and negative utilitarianism on the minimisation of pain. Act utilitarianism is when the effect of each action in turn is calculated in each individual situation, rule utilitarianism is when a general rule for behaviour is decided based upon its effectiveness in most situations. Utilitarianism is allegedly the foundations of our legal system, so it is important to ask ourselves whether it is actually fair or whether some are denied the simple right to have their own interests respected.

All the Yes points:

  1. Tyranny of the Minority
  3. Impossible to apply to non-humans
  4. What is utility?
  5. Morally Troubling Outcomes

All the No points:

  2. draws upon basic human needs

Tyranny of the Minority

Yes because…

A utilitarian calculation is satisfied if there is greater overall gain of utility. Therefore, if the vast majority of people are happy, even at the expense of a small minority, the conditions are satisfied and it is classified as an ethically sound situation. This means that certain minority groups whose interests clash continually with the majority will always be at a disadvantage in a utilitarian calculation. This is unfair to people who are outcasts or who don’t agree with society’s norms but haven’t done anything to justify not being counted as people.

No because…

Your argument is based on a misunderstanding of utilitarianism. There is no allowance for a tyranny of the majority (a situation whereby a simple, numerical majority claims it is justified in enforcing its viewpoints on a minority by right of might – I think you got a bit confused about this when you named your point).

Although utilitarianism seeks to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it recognises that as happiness is a subjective value, it can only be determined by the individual. An individual will discover what makes them happy through a series of learning experiences, a process that can never be properly replicated by the state or wider society.

Once we have learned what makes us happy, utilitarianism fosters this by encouraging a non-interventionist approach to morality. In other words, no one is justified in interfering if a person’s actions are self-regarding. They have no impact on anyone else, so it is up to them to determine their own morality.

Therefore, contrary to the assertion that “this is unfair to people who…don’t agree with society’s norms”, utilitarianism is the perfect system for ensuring the rights of minorities are respected and not left vulnerable to the mob. While I agree with your sentiments on the dangers posed by tyranny, I fear you have misunderstood the nature of utilitarianism.


Yes because…

In a strict hedonistic utilitarian calculation, pleasure is seen as a positive ethical outcome and pain as a negative outcome. While most people might want pleasure, it isn’t necessarily their primary goal in life. For instance, a person who wants to pass their exams, simply for the sake of academic achievement, might study too hard, forgo food and sleep and cause themselves pain, but still consider themselves to have achieved their goal because they performed well in the exam. Even in a system where utility equals satisfaction of interests, some people may not be working towards their own interests –they may have voluntarily subsumed their own interests entirely to someone else, or to a greater cause. Victory conditions are rarely as simple as win or lose. As with the above point, the person in this position is left at a disadvantage in the calculus simply because they are not like the majority of people.

Individuals need to suffer in order to live a full life and there are many circumstances where people should not feel happy, e.g. when grieving the dead.

Utilitarians had never heard of masochists.

No because…

The pleasure from a high score in the exam exceeds the pain/sacrifice/cost (studying hard), for this particular hypothetical person. Overall pleasure is maximized with a cost constraint.For a masochist the pleasure from pain is greater than the grievance or physical damage caused by it. Again his/her utility is maximized/maximised under a cost constraint.This link explains constrained maximisation in economics:[[http://homepage.newschool.edu/~foleyd/GECO6190/MaxNotes.pdf]]

Impossible to apply to non-humans

Yes because…

Utilitarianism cannot be applied to entities that do not have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain or at least to have recognisable goals that they are aware of fulfilling. This debateably does not include some animals, advanced AI, the planet as a whole, a deity or the victory conditions of an overall storyline, game or narrative. Many people will argue that they should be ascribed certain rights or their interests recognised.

No because…

We have the tendency to anthropize everything. Any animal with a nervous system can experience pain , and even though my cat doesn’t laugh or cry, she does have a way of showing that she is happy or sad.

Happiness and sadness are such broad concepts that they can be attributed to anything even the Earth as a whole.

What is utility?

Yes because…

Probably the most problematic of possible pitfalls in utilitarianism is that of identifying utility itself. Assuming we accept even a minimal degree of (ethical/cultural) pluralism (which we know for a fact exists in modern culture), the question of utility becomes vague.

Why? Because it is unclear whether “utility” refers to:

a) solely to individual (normative) preference, which, especially in aggregate, tends to be rationally inconsistent (see any basic principal of revealed preference economics example). This leads to poor (see confused) decision making long term because the aggregate makes inconsistent choices.

b) some objective list of criterion of which utility is a function (like say education, nutrition, fitness). The trouble is that in an inherently pluralistic world, such an “objective” list is nigh impossible to obtain. It is also difficult to know, objectively, what is good for us. It is folk-knowledge that what we want and what is best for us do not always (or even often) meet.

This confusion over what “utility” means creates a scenario in which whomever holds the reigns of power decides what “utility” means for everyone. It is not much of a stretch to say that this is a sub-optimal situation. By subscribing to a purely utilitarian philosophy, one more or less ensures a sub-optimal outcome in utility due to the practical implications of such calculus.

No because…

Morally Troubling Outcomes

Yes because…

An experienced debater once summarized the problem with utilitarian analysis as such:

Say we have one person strapped to a machine where all we need do is push a button and they will die. The mastermind of this experiment will poke you with a stick if you do not push the button. Do you push the button?

Obviously not. The utility you lose from being poked with a stick does not equal the death of another human being.

But what about 100 people being poked by sticks? A thousand? A million?

At some point, the disutility of the masses being poked will outweigh the utility of keeping the person alive.*

If this conclusion seems absurd, that is because it is. Clearly utility does not “aggregate” in such a manner that a minor inconvenience times a thousand (or a million, or even a billion) can equal the murder of a human being. Yet this is precisely how utilitarian thought functions. Without this additive quality of utility, the theory becomes meaningless. With this quality, it produces absurd conclusions.

*Some would probably like to counter that you can assume that disutility of death is infinite. However is this were true than a utilitarian system would be paralyzed if any decision it made would result in the death or suicide of a person. Clearly this is nonfunctional.

No because…


No because…

One of the main appeals of utilitarianism as an ethical system is that it counts the happiness of each individual person as equal. A ruler’s happiness is not more important than an everyday worker’s happiness, a religious person’s happiness is not more important than an atheist’s.

Yes because…

In theory, Utilitarianism is just. However, in practice it justifies the killing of innocent jews over Nazi régime, for example.

If Utilitarianism in its strictest form were to be applied throughout, Gays, Transgenders, even disabled people would be outcasted or even murdered to keep the “greater good” tothe majority.

I am proud to be in a society which is trying to promote positive attitudes to different ways of life.

draws upon basic human needs

No because…

Unlike many ethical systems, the conditions of utilitarianism are simple concepts – pleasure, freedom from pain, fulfilment of interests – that all humans have the ability to possess and instinctively understand and recognise as positive things. This means that the conditions are something that any human at least has a chance of fulfilling.

Yes because…

Simple concepts are vague and hard to achieve. Pleasure is not achieved by the same means for all people. Freedom from pain is completely unavoidable, how can anybody be free from pain(emotion,psychological and physical) and freedom from physical pain in the extremities is a very dangerous aspect of diabetes that has caused the need for foot amputations for millions of diabetics. Pain is a great teacher, it an indicator of our physical/emotional/psychological bounds. If we did not experience pain, we would die pretty quickly.

Causing pain (via emotional blackmail or wartime torture) is a means of getting what you want(fulfilling interests) from other people. Fulfillment of interests, again this could involve stepping on other people’s interests.

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Homer Edward Price
6 years ago

The argument presented here for the fairness of utilitarianism to minorities is not even a utilitarian argument. It is a libertarian argument. Utilitarianism is not about libertarianism. It is about the best government policy to adopt to promote the sum total of human happiness in society. Minorities can be very unhappy under a libertarian regime that does nothing about social exclusion and discrimination against minority groups in civil society or in the economy. Utilitarianism is concerned about the happiness of the minority as well as of the minority. It argues that invidious distinctions among the members of society create conflicts that harm everyone. Everyone should have an equal portion of happiness, as far as that is possible.

Gyro Zeppelli
3 years ago

Though utilitarianism is concerned with the happiness of both the majority and minority, the happiness of the majority is most sought after according to the greater happiness principle. Put simply, the suffering of few (the minority) is permissible if it maximizes overall happiness in the world. Think of the trolley problem on a grand scale.

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