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The poverty of Utilitarianism

A flawed attempt at a rational morality


by Christopher G. D. Tipper <chris.tipper@live.co.uk>
$Date: June 1989$

Abstract: This essay starts by considering the limitations of


Benthams notion of pleasure and pain, and introduces
Mills suggestion that the concept be generalised to a
discussion of happiness. The principle of utility as it applies
to society is introduced and then an alternative known as
Consequentialism is discussed. This is found to be without
any foundation other than conventional Christian morality,
and the Utilitarian enterprise is rendered moot. Finally, an
analogy is drawn with the rational economics of Marx, which
the Soviet experience has shown to be fatally flawed, and it
is asked whether Utilitarianism is likewise now only a
historical curiosity.

The Creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the


Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion
as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the
reverse of happiness.
Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (Mill, 1863)

OR MANY people it is no longer satisfactory to rely on the maxims


of religious philosophy in order to judge what is right or wrong,
and Utilitarianism can be said to have achieved the greatest degree
of progress towards forming a rational system of moral judgement.
Its basic premise is simple. All value judgements should be made on
the basis of maximising the happiness of the majority, and minimising
the unhappiness of the individuals involved. This is the principle of
striving for the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number. It is
hoped that by couching all questions in terms of happiness (or its
absence), and applying some kind of numerical value according to
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The poverty of Utilitarianism


import, that a sort of moral summation operation will yield the best
course of action. This can be pictured as a set of scales on one side of
which is a pan representing happiness. Any value judgement can
then be carried out simply by assigning a weight to each happiness
factor, and counterbalancing it with the opposing misery factors.
The proper course of action can then simply be read from the position
of the needle about the neutral point on the scale. There are quite
clearly considerable difficulties to be overcome if the theory is to be
in any way applicable. For instance, what do we mean by happiness?
Jeremy Bentham, held by many to be the father of Utilitarianism, used
the word pleasure and its antithesis, pain, as the means of comparison. These at least have the merit of being readily understandable
and so, it was hoped, easier to apply in a rigorous fashion. The concept
of happiness was thus tightened up, so as to reduce ambiguity. It did
not solve the problem of assigning weights to different types of happiness, and he sought to alleviate this by including a number of subsidiary factors. The two most important of these were the intensity of
the pleasure and the duration of its experience. These qualities, and
a few other subsidiary factors such as fecundity,1 provide an outline
of a method for evaluating simple moral problems. To illustrate the
point we could consider the question of whether a man should take
exercise. On the negative side it could be argued that the pain involved,
although of short duration, has high intensity. Does this outweigh the
positive aspects of the better fitness that would follow and thus higher
self-esteem? Are the effects of regular exercise more beneficial than
infrequent or sporadic exercise? It is not at all clear whether self-esteem
even counts as a pain in Benthams schema.
In the end though the terms pleasure and pain are very restrictive
and any argument that relies solely on these concepts is bound to
crumble under the weight of its own disingenuousness. Consider for
an instance a Utilitarian argument in favour of abortion:
1

Bentham identified this quality as the tendency of the pleasure to reproduce itself.

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Artificial means of contraception all have physical drawbacks, either
as long term health hazards or because they have pleasure-reducing
effect. Abortion can be executed with no medical complications (executed by a qualified physician), does not usually carry any associated
pain and does no person any injury. It is thus an excellent means of
contraception.2 A Benthamite would not even consider the emotional
trauma that the woman undergoes during the whole process.
What Bentham failed to account for in his definition were so called
intentional pleasures. These encompass the internal realms of the
person, where honesty, love and freedom are important to well-being.
These were alien ideas to Bentham and his disciples and were dealt
with in a summary fashion. They attempted to dismiss such objectives
as old-fashioned or romantic waffle. This is of course reactionary and
anti-intellectual, and as such merits no further discussion.
John Stuart Mills realised that for Utilitarianism to be in any way
credible as a moral system that some adjustment would have to be
made to the definition of pleasure. The main tenet of his position was
that pleasure is the only thing that is desirable, and that the only
measure of what was desirable was the fact that people want it. This
amounts to a definition of something broader that can be likened to
happiness, with its opposite quality being unhappiness. However,
this still leaves us with Benthams original difficulty. Utilitarianisms
legitimacy as a moral system depends on being able to assign a
meaningful value to each factor in the moral calculation. By using a
more abstract concept of pleasure, we are compounding the difficulties
of applying the system. How do you assign a value to the love of a
mother for her son, who is about to be executed for a crime? Is there
any chance that this love and her resulting unhappiness could outweigh the happiness of a society against which the crime was com-

The notion of what constitutes a person must be carefully examined in a full discussion.
For the purposes of the example, it is assumed that the foetus has no consciousness,
and does not therefore justify the label person.

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The poverty of Utilitarianism


mitted? It seems that the Utilitarian is no nearer a solution than any
other school of moral thought would be.
Certainly, happiness in some guise has to be a concern of any moral
system. Even the most ascetic systems of belief, such as Shiism in the
Islamic world, offer some kind of reward in the afterlife, where a good
Moslem will find paradise beyond his wildest dreams. What is not so
clear is that we should be striving for the Greatest Happiness of the
Greatest Number. Indeed Eudaimonism (known also as Hedonism)
eschews this principle altogether. Mill attempted to justify the principle
from the point of view of the individual, thereby trying to reconcile
self-interest with the interests of society as a whole.3
The argument runs as follows:
The happiness of a person depends on the happiness of the individuals
closest to him. Those individuals will also have the same imperatives
and so, indirectly the whole of societys happiness is the concern of
the individual, in the manner of the ever-expanding web. What the
argument fails to account for is the conflict that will occur between
the interests of the individual and those of society as a whole. The error
is also of the nature of a category mistake: the happiness of the individual is a palpable concept. The happiness of a society can only be
gauged indirectly, by looking at the stability of its institutions, levels
of violence and the general level of wealth. A thief will be happier for
using the proceeds of his crime, but society will be less stable if the
practise were to continue.
Having accepted as a principle that we should be aiming to find the
greatest happiness of the greatest number, it becomes obvious that
this is meaningless of itself. Do we mean attaining the happiness of
the greatest number of people, or achieving the greatest total happiness? Clearly, Mill intended both, but further study shows his slogan
to be Utopian in the extreme. For what this problem highlights is a
conflict fundamental to almost every moral dilemma. For it appears
3

Self-interest and happiness must be intimately connected concepts, once one has
accepted that an individual acts to attain his ultimate happiness.

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that the two aims, while not mutually exclusive, do possess a certain
conceptual polarity. Raphael has called it the 20 problem. (Raphael,
1981) Given 20, he asks, would it be better to give 10 each to two
pensioners so that they may be warm and live throughout the winter,
or would it be better to help out two hundred by giving them each a
cup of tea at 10p each? The problem is one of finite resources. We can
try to make as many people happy as possible (in the socialist mould)
or try to generate new happiness among (inevitably) fewer individuals.
It has been suggested that instead of talking about happiness as a
commodity that can be parcelled up and redistributed, we think in
terms of the consequences of actions. Happiness is after all the result
of a satisfied desire. So called consequentialism states that the moral
value of an action is determined by its consequences. This changes
the viewpoint dramatically and appears to offer a solution to the 20
problem: if all two hundred pensioners were doomed to die, would it
not be better to sponsor two of them, who would be allowed to live
through the winter? But are we not relying on another set of moral
values in making the judgement? Is this not the standard Christian
principle of the sanctity of human life? What we appear to have accomplished, in proposing consequentialism as a viable alternative to
Utilitarianism, is something that, when pursued to its logical conclusion, ceases to be Utilitarianism. Consequentialism replaces Utilitarianism with conventional Christian morality.
Possibly the most interesting evaluation of Utilitarianism that could
be made is one that is very rarely asked by philosophers. What would
it be like if it were applied on a universal scale? Envisioning a society
where Utilitarianism has been applied is not difficult. All that has to
be done is to identify several features that are necessary for the system
to be applied consistently in the manner envisioned by Bentham.
First and foremost, the principle of the Greatest Happiness of the
Greatest Number must be enshrined in the constitution. It must be
at the basis of every decision: legal, political, economic, medical and
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The poverty of Utilitarianism


personal. Any action that cannot be justified by this principle is punishable by imprisonment, where the sentence is determined by the
magnitude of the error. There could even be a situation where judges
run the risk of sentencing themselves to gaol.
In order to ensure consistency of application, a central committee
would be assigned the task of evaluating consequences to a minute
degree, and drawing up detailed tables of happiness values. These
would at least govern every aspect of public life, if not personal life.
Any individual who refused to accept the choice prescribed by applying
the maximisation law to his situation must be punished accordingly.
This could be especially problematical if the solution ran against the
principles of an established religion. And who would enforce decisions?
Why naturally this would require a large, efficient police force, answerable only to the state.
It is becoming apparent that there are close parallels between the
Utilitarian system and the theory of egalitarian economics proposed
by Karl Marx. While the scenario above is slightly ludicrous, it points
out very clearly the flaws inherent in Utilitarianism, which have likewise been exposed in Communism in the Soviet Union over the last
seventy years. Utilitarianism, like Communism, is hopelessly Utopian.
It provides an attractive model for ethical decision making, but turns
out to be totally impractical. It merely shifts the problem of individual
responsibility to one of assessing the relative merits of different consequences. And this points the way to a more sinister implication of
the Utilitarian outlook: as with Communism, unscrupulous individuals
can use its broad principles to justify any means available to achieve
their ends.
I am of the view that Utilitarianism is a brave but failed attempt to
adapt to a secular world. It is hopelessly simplistic, and, by being so,
it is easily abused. I have deliberately avoided discussing in more detail
the internal structure of the theory in the hope of showing that the

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The poverty of Utilitarianism


actual foundations are deeply flawed, and that Utilitarianism is possibly a retrograde step when compared to other ethical systems.

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The poverty of Utilitarianism

Bibliography
J.S. Mill, (1863), Utilitarianism, 1st edition, London: Parker, Son, and
Bourn. vivus 1806-1873.
D.D. Raphael, (1981), Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University
Press.
J.D. Mabbott, (1966), An Introduction to Ethics, London: Hutchison &
Co.
J.J.C. Smart and B. Williams, (1973), Utilitarianism: for and against,
London: Cambridge University Press.
B. Williams, (1972), Morality. An Introduction to Ethics, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 1989 Christopher G. D. Tipper. All rights reserved.

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