Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Arguments Against Utilitarianism | October 5, 2008

The argument against utilitarianism, on pages 326-327, is essentially that utilitarianism requires too much of people, that it is too difficult for the average person to go around thinking about the numerical consequences of every single action, and it expects people to act as disinterested and unbiased judges when the average person never does this.

Mill’s argument starts with a very basic rebuttal: that the factual morality of someone’s action is independent of why they do it, whether it be through unbiased judgment, or emotional compulsion. The detractors are trying to bring a non-utilitarian argument against Mill, not seeming to realize that utilitarianism takes only consequences into account, and so motivation is irrelevant. Morality and motivation are therefor separate. Mill puts it well: “He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble”.

Mill then goes on to say that the action of the average person is too inconsequential to mandate that we go around weighing the utility of every single action we take. Generally then, if we just consider the local effect our actions have on us and those around us, he says, then we will do what is generally right, and if everybody does this then the totality of consequences will be happiness. On those occassions when an idividual has enough power to sway the fate of many, such as in voting, public office, or in use of large funds, then total utility should be used as much as possible. Mill says: “The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but … that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not … travel beyond the particular persons concerned …”.

The problem with the first part of Mill’s argument is that he glosses over the fact that in order for people to truly act morally, they must be disinterested judges of their own actions. True, a man who saves another person from drowning because of money saves that person, but if you leave motivation out of it you essentially remove justification for action (‘sure, you should do the right thing, but whether you want to do it or not is not important’). If people were inherently predisposed to act in a utilitarian manner, then it would be fine, but I think we can agree that people aren’t, and that they can be taught to do things that are decidedly un-utilitarian. Take discrimination for example: a person discriminates against another because they were brought up to do so, and so it seems perfectly right to them. In order to counteract this, they need to desire to be just, to be good. If no one acts out of “a feeling of duty”, or a desire to be moral, why would they ever act moral?

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1 Comment »

  1. I think that Mill will agree with your last paragraph insofar as he’s a pragmatic, practical guy. What really matters, he’ll say, is that the right things are done (as judged by the utilitarian standard). If, as a matter of psychological fact, the only way for people to produce these right things is the “desire to be just, to be good”, then so be it – Mill is all for the encouragement and cultivation of such desires. But that doesn’t make the desires or motives themselves moral, just a convenient (or even necessary) means to a morally valuable end.

    Comment by Boone B. Gorges — October 6, 2008 @ 8:48 am


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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