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Utilitarianism Notes

Philosophy Notes > Ethics Essays

This is an extract of our Utilitarianism document, which we sell as part of our Ethics Essays collection written by the top tier of Cambridge students.

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Can we defend Utilitarianism?
In this essay I am going to argue that utilitarianism cannot be defended. I will argue that the theory is wholly unworkable, that the concepts of 'utility' or 'any individual affect by an action' are subject only to arbitrary judgements, and that there is simply no logical reason to take either as goods in the first place. I will start with the very broadest characterisation, that is to say act utilitarianism, and move on to more specific definitions as we close off more branches along the way. Firstly, we will provisionally characterise utilitarianism as the view that in instances where one has a choice of actions/inaction, the morally 'right' choice is simply that which does most to promote overall happiness i.e. the happiness of anyone affected by the results of the decision. The typical interpretation of happiness here is a hedonistic balance of pleasure over pain. Each decision, therefore, is morally subject to a costbenefit analysis of all of its possible consequences. For this reason utilitarianism is a consequentialist, that is to say forward-looking, theory. There are clearly some difficulties, if not necessarily criticisms, facing act utilitarianism. I think the most troublesome part of its characterisation is what utilitarians actually mean by 'all who are in any way affected' by an action. If we are taking, as it seems we are, good to be happiness and evil to be pain, then anything capable of either ought to be considered. It might be that the lonely spinster next door has a house morally more worth saving than my own three-family apartment block, purely in virtue of her having an insect infestation! In instances of variable populations, too, there are difficulties. Furthermore, supposing I have to choose between a country of a million mildly happy people and a thousand ecstatics, I don't think our present definition of utilitarianism is sufficiently clear to help me decide. We would need a way of deciding whether the total happiness criterion is affected by the way that that happiness is distributed. It is important to note, however, that these difficulties are not refutations of act utilitarianism, but rather criticisms of its pretended status as a unitary moral theory. More qualifications can simply be selected, quite arbitrarily, to complete the theory. Nevertheless, I think there is a criticism we might level against any of these characterisations. It seems that they are, to quote Mackie, "wholly impracticable". It is, I think, a highly unrealistic expectation of people that they might consider the happiness of society as a whole in their every action. Most real-world groups consist of individuals who each have their own separate, and often conflicting, agendas. As such, their actions are rarely motivated by a desire for maximal utility. They will also generally fail to achieve that maximal utility. Simple biology dictates that animals will, in most cases1, put their own genes before any others. While humans have (arguably) much more scope in defying the 'will' of their genes it is perhaps an unfortunate fact of human nature that they remain one of, if not, the most deciding forces in our lives. Some have argued that this can be changed. However, even were we to accept this, of which I am severely dubious, then, as Bernard Williams 1

Arguably all cases.

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