A lot of very smart non-philosophers are attracted to some form of utilitarianism. Some of these people, like Ilya Somin and Mike Rappaport are generally sympathetic to the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, but think that utilitarianism does a better job explaining and defending its attractive qualities than do appeals to “social justice.” Actually, even though he sounds less sympathetic, I think this is basically David Friedman’s position too (even though he ultimately rejects utilitarianism as a fully adequate moral theory).
In contrast to these fellow travelers, most philosophers do not believe that utilitarianism is an adequate moral theory. In this post, I want to set out a few reasons why. But first, it’s important to clarify two points that non-philosophers sometimes fail to appreciate about utilitarianism and moral theory.
The first, somewhat pedantic, point is that utilitarianism and consqeuentialism are not the same. Consequentialism is best understood as a family of moral theories, united in the agreement that consqeuences alone determine the rightness or wrongness of actions (or rules, or practices, or motives – see here for discussion of the complications). Utilitarianism is a particular type of consequentialism that specifies the kind of consequence that matters – not wealth, not human achievement, but utility. It follows that utilitarianism is necessarily a more controversial theory than consequentialism.
The second point, and the more important one, is that believing that consqeuences matter for moral assessment is not enough to make you a consequentialist. Any plausible moral theory is going to hold that consqeuences matter at some level. What distinguishes consequentialism from other moral theories is its claim that consequences are the only thing that matter. This is a much stronger and much less plausible claim. Think it’s intrinsically important that people get what they deserve? Think you have some reason to keep your promises simply because you made them (and not because of the good that you expect to produce by keeping them)? Think that it’s better for guilty people to be punished than innocent people (again not just because the consequences are better)? Then you’re not a consequentialist.
So why do most philosophers reject utilitarianism? Here a few (quite non-exhaustive) reasons.
1) The Separateness of Persons - Both Rawls and Nozick claim that utilitarianism does not sufficiently respect the fact that persons are separate. But what does this mean? I’ve written more extensively on this topic elsewhere, but the basic idea is that because utilitarianism focuses exclusively on maximizing total utility, it fails to take into consideration in the right sort of way the way in which utility is distributed among different persons. Most of you are probably familiar with the worry that utilitarianism sanctions injustice – the slavery of the few, for example, so long as it benefits the many. Worries about the separateness of persons are related to this, but more fundamental. The reason utilitarianism allows us (or mandates us!) to commit injustice against the few is that it is a fundamentally collectivistic morality. In focusing exclusively on aggregate happiness, it fails to show proper respect to individuals. As Nozick put it:
To use a person [for another's benefit] does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice (Nozick, ASU, p.33.)
It’s important to realize that the worry here is not simply that utilitarianism sanctions injustice. In response to that objection, utilitarians can respond with a whole host of pragmatic reasons to suggest that injustice won’t really maximize utility in the long run. These responses may or may not ultimately work. But they miss the deeper problem. The deeper problem is that even if utilitarianism gets the right answer about how we should treat one another, it gets that answer for the wrong reason. Surely, the reason it’s wrong for me to kill you is that to do so would be to violate an obligation I have to you. It’s not that the world as a whole will be a somewhat happier place with you in it than without.
2) Utility doesn’t always matter, and isn’t the only thing that matters - Utilitarianism says that utility, or happiness, is intrinsically valuable. It says, in fact, that utility is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. But what does this mean? And how plausible is it? Does utility mean pleasure? Preference-satisfaction? Happiness in some broader, eudaimonistic sense? The more we start to think carefully about how many different things we might mean by “utility,” the less obvious it seems that any one of those things could really be the only thing that has intrinsic value.
And why should we believe that utility has intrinsic value in the exclusive and universal way that utilitarianism suggests? If a child molester derives pleasure from fondling young kids, why on earth should we think that that pleasure has any moral value at all? Why should we think that whether child molesting is wrong or not depends on the empirical question of whether the child’s suffering outweighs the molester’s happiness? Another, related, point: while most of us would agree with utilitarians that the pain and pleasure of animals has some moral relevance, why should we think that it has the same kind of moral relevance as pain and pleasure in human beings? Is a unit of pleasure really always just a unit of pleasure, and that’s all morality has to say?
3) Egalitarianism without foundations – Related to this last point, utilitarianism counsels us to be absolutely impartial in the way we measure the utility effects of our actions. Your own happiness counts for no more and no less than the happiness of any other person. But again, why should we believe this? Don’t we owe something more to our own selves than we do to a complete stranger? Aren’t we entitled to spend the $5 we worked for and earned on a cup of coffee for ourselves, even if that $5 could generate a larger sum of utility if it was spent in some other way? Don’t we owe more to our children than we do to total strangers? Utilitarianism’s egalitarian premise – that all utility everywhere has the same moral value, no matter whose utility it is and no matter what relationship (or non-relationship) you stand in to that person, is not only implausible. It is an almost entirely unargued-for assumption. And it is one that we should reject.
Notice that none of these objections is avoided by moving from act-utilitarianism to rule-utilitarianism (or rule-consequentialism). They are deeper moral problems stemming from the underlying structure of consequentilist or utilitarian theories in general. If it works (and that’s controversial), rule consqeuentialism merely helps the consequentialist avoid some of the more troublingly counterintuitive practical implications of her theory. It does nothing to address the underlying theoretical defects.
Notice also that we haven’t even broached the topic of whether utilitarianism provides a good foundation for libertarian politics. And there are, as Kevin Vallier has suggested in several posts on this blog, good reasons to think that it is not. The problems we have discussed here are simply problems with utilitarianism as an adequate moral theory. Utilitarianism’s problems as an adequate libertarian moral theory seem (especially in virtue of points 1 and 2 above) likely to be even more severe.
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