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Utilitarianism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1
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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/utilitarianism/v-1

5. Problems for utilitarianism

There are many technical problems with the various forms of utilitarianism. How are pleasure and pain to be measured? Which desires are to count? Is knowledge a good in itself? Should we take into account actual or probable effects on happiness? How do we characterize the possible world which is to guide us in our selection of rules? These are problems for the theorists themselves, and there has been a great deal said in attempts to resolve them.

More foundational, however, is a set of problems for any kind of utilitarian theory, emerging out of utilitarianism’s peculiarly strict conception of impartiality. A famous utilitarian tag, from Bentham, is, ‘Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one’. This, however, as Mill implies (1861: ch. 5, para. 36), is slightly misleading. In a sense, according to utilitarianism, no one matters; all that matters is the level of utility. What are counted equally are not persons but pleasures or utilities.

This conception of impartiality has made it easy for opponents of utilitarianism to dream up examples in which utilitarianism seems to require something appalling. A famous such example requires a utilitarian sheriff to hang an innocent man, so as to prevent a riot and bring about the greatest overall happiness possible in the circumstances (see Crime and punishment §2).

Utilitarians can here respond that, in practice, they believe that people should abide by common sense morality, that people should accept practical principles of rights for utilitarian reasons (see §2). But this misses the serious point in many of these objections: that it matters not just how much utility there is, but how it is shared around. Imagine, for example, a case in which you can give a bundle of resources either to someone who is well-off and rich through no fault of their own, or to someone who is poor through no fault of their own. If the utility of giving the bundle to the rich person is only slightly higher than that of giving it to the poor person, utilitarianism dictates giving it to the rich person. But many (including some consequentialists) would argue that it is reasonable to give some priority to the worse-off.

These are problems at the level of the social distribution of utility. But difficulties arise also because of the fact that human agents each have their own lives to live, and engage in their practical reasoning from their own personal point of view rather than from the imaginary point of view of an ‘impartial spectator’. These problems have been stated influentially in recent years by Bernard Williams (Smart and Williams 1973), who puts them under the heading of what he calls ‘integrity’ (see INTEGRITY §1; Williams, B.A.O. §4).

In a famous example, Williams asks us to imagine the case of Jim, who is travelling in a South American jungle. He comes across a military firing squad, about to shoot twenty Indians from a nearby village where some insurrection has occurred. The captain in charge offers Jim a guest’s privilege. Either Jim can choose to shoot one of the Indians himself, and the others will go free, or all twenty will be shot by the firing squad.

Williams’ point here is not that utilitarianism gives the wrong answer; indeed he himself thinks that Jim should shoot. Rather, it is that utilitarianism reaches its answer too quickly, and cannot account for many of the thoughts we know that we should have ourselves in Jim’s situation, such as, ‘It is I who will be the killer’. Practical reasoning is not concerned only with arranging things so that the greatest utility is produced. Rather it matters to each agent what role they will be playing in the situation, and where the goods and bads occur. This point emerges even more starkly if we imagine a variation on the story about Jim, in which the captain asks Jim to commit suicide so as to set an example of courage and nobility to the local populace, on the condition that if he does so the twenty Indians will go free. The utility calculations are as clear, perhaps clearer, than in the original story. But it is only reasonable that Jim in this story should think it relevant that it is he who is going to die. To any individual, it matters not only how much happiness there is in the world, but who gets it.

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Citing this article:
Chappell, Tim and Roger Crisp. Problems for utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/utilitarianism/v-1/sections/problems-for-utilitarianism.
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