Utilitarianism Strengths Weaknesses Essay

Utilitarianism suffers from two weaknesses:

The first is derived from utilitarianism's greatest strength: It aims directly toward maximizing goodness (or Quality, or whatever you'd like to call it). This is, I think, the secret aim of all other philosophies. Another philosophy might say that "Doing X is the best thing you can do." It makes X the ostensible goal. But it justifies that goal by stating that it is the "best;" i.e., the most good. This unquestioningly implies that whatever action is the most good is what one should do. The proponents of that philosophy may go to great lengths to prove that X is the best action, never noticing that the goal of X, and thus their ultimate goal, has been goodness the whole time.

But in driving right to the heart of the matter, utilitarianism runs into the same difficulty already known to Buddhism (which also acknowledges goodness directly): The Good cannot be defined. This leaves utilitarianism in a seemingly awkward position, compared to most western philosophies. Its primary goal appears nebulous, while the others are fixed upon narrow paths whose goals, while definitively incapable of being as worthy as goodness itself, are frequently better defined and thus more comprehensible.

Many utilitarians circumvent this vagueness by using happiness as a measure of goodness. (That is, the quality of an action can be measured by the happiness it creates or preserves.) This is a generally useful schema, though it does leave them open to attacks (which are weaker than they seem1) based on the imperfect correlation between goodness and happiness. Rather than bow to this imperfection, John Stuart Mill expanded his definition of "happiness" to include other significant results of good actions, such as intellectual satisfaction, pleasure, and freedom from pain. But he got caught up in the problem of how to decide what is best when there is disagreement, because he still hadn't defined "good". So he fell back upon trust in the opinion of the majority, a method that has since been discredited by U.S. elections. No other easy schema could have sufficed: Any that could, would have provided a simple definition for "good" (which we already know to be an NP-hard problem2).

The second weakness of utilitarianism is its lack of guidance. It provides a goal, but no means to achieve that goal. Again, this makes sense, given that goodness itself varies with people's situations (internal and external). Even aside from that, no one lifestyle can maximize goodness for everybody, given that people have differing resources and abilities. Yet, guidance is appealing in a philosophy, and occasionally even useful. It is certainly possible to compile sound philosophical advice, and even to tailor it to the needs of the individual. Such endeavors are utilitarian simply by being worthy of doing. Yet the advisory content of such compilations seems to lay outside of the scope of utilitarianism. (On the positive side, this lack of completeness places it ahead of those philosophies and religions whose advice is useless or harmful. An independent utilitarian is more likely to do good than an organization is.)

[Originally posted on my blog.]

1. For example, there's the "happiness pill" argument. If we had a cheap pill with no harmful side effects, which caused blissful happiness, would a society of people who spent their entire lives experiencing nothing but this drug-induced happiness be the best thing possible? The questioner knows perfectly well that it is not (even if they are unsure as to why), and hopes to lure the utilitarian into admitting that a philosophy of happiness could lead to a result far removed from goodness. The simplest response is that such a society is not the best thing possible, on the absurdly simple grounds that it is not "possible" at all. For one thing, such a society is unsustainable; its populace would have its basic needs unmet. (Every counter to this objection that I have heard involves robots.) For another, such constantly euphoric people would never develop an emotional capacity for happiness; they would never move beyond the capacity for raw pleasure.

2. This is a metaphor, referring to a class of problems that are all difficult (time-consuming) to solve. If a fast solution for one of them is ever found, it will bring about fast solutions for all of them. To show that a problem is in this class implies that a fast solution for it has never been found, and cannot be found any more easily than can a fast solution for any of the others. The problem of finding a simple schema to always determine what is best, and the problem of defining "good," are similarly intertwined. A limit to our ability to define "good" limits how satisfactory any such schema can be.

By: Jacob Mailander 

Written: December 4, 2012


Utilitarianism has been debated for hundreds of years, yet today the theory is still controversial among certain moral philosophers.  Some of the great thinkers of all time, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, believe that utilitarianism is the only way to preserve human dignity.  Other great thinkers, most notably Immanuel Kant, believe that the action of the person is the only important moral issue to consider, and that the consequences of those actions are secondary.  This article will first summarize utilitarianism, then critically analyze the theory by explaining its strengths and weaknesses.  I will also offer my own opinion as to whether utilitarianism is a preferable moral theory.

Mills’ Version of Utilitarianism

In John Stuart Mills’ essay “Utilitarianism,” he establishes the base of his argument by explaining the Greatest Happiness Principle: “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.”[i] Thus, the theory of utilitarianism focuses on the results of actions, not on the actions themselves.

Jeremy Bentham, who promoted the most extreme version of utilitarianism, did not differentiate between the types and quality of pleasure, giving deontological theorists ammo in which to assail the theory.  Mills’ essay rejects the more decadent version of utilitarianism and tries to differentiate between types of pleasures: “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others.” [ii] Mills states that certain gratifications, like the pursuit of knowledge, are more desirable than more basic, beastlike pleasures. Indeed, Mills proposes a choice between higher intellect and carnal gratifications:

“144o intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.”[iii]

This passage tries to explain the difference between pleasures, stating that some of the basic, animal-like pleasures are relatively easy to obtain, while higher pleasures are harder to attain.  It is these higher gratifications that humanity should strive for, according to Mills, so than the greater good can be promoted.  Mills acknowledges that humankind often rejects the greater good in favor of selfish pleasures, but this is only because that portion of humanity does not have access to the higher thought, whatever the reason may be.

After attempting to differentiate between types of pleasures, Mills returns to the subject of happiness.  He states that happiness should not be judged by:

“the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it.”[iv]

In this quote, Mills is saying that all actions do not necessarily have to be selfish, and often times the greater good should be served instead of the individual’s self interest.  For an example, let’s say that there are two men on a lifeboat, and the lifeboat has supplies for only one person.  One of the people on the boat is a scientist who will cure AIDS if he survives, while the other person is a violent racist.  According to Mills’ theory, the racist should die so that humankind will enjoy the results of the doctor’s work.  Thus, while individualism and free will are important to utilitarianism, they do not take priority over the happiness of strangers, as well as the greater good.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Utilitarian Theory

The strengths of the utilitarian theory are several.  First, the theory can be applied to everyday life.  Just take a brief look at normal conversation. Say you’re at a networking type event, conference, whatever.

You: How you doing Bill? (you don’t care)

Bill: Good. (he’s lying) How are you? (he doesn’t care)

You: Good. (you’re lying) It was nice to run into you (you’re lying)

Bill: Yeah (he’s lying).

It could be said that the dishonesty of this conversation constitutes a white lie. Some would go farther saying that this lie is inherently wrong, but the fact remains that greater happiness is produced by the deception. Both people in the conversation lie and maybe even smile because the politics of their area of employment likely dictate so. Also, these people are striving to keep the peace, an important and fragile situation to keep. As a matter of basic survival, one does not typically get into frequent arguments and confrontations if they want to get ahead in their profession. Of course, the nature of the dislike between people may affect how they act, but that is a different discussion. In the end, most people in today’s society would have handled the unpleasant conversation similarly.

Another strength of utilitarianism is that the theory rejects absolutes.  Despite the world’s complexity, a flexible theory like utilitarianism is one that could be embraced by many cultures.  An example of universal application of the utilitarian principle deals with the issue of murder.  While most cultures in the world do not believe in taking the lives of innocent people, they often do believe in the right to defend themselves and their ideologies.  No one can convincingly say that all killing is wrong because the statement implies that the right to defend oneself from violence is an inherently immoral idea.

Another positive attribute of utilitarianism is that the theory contains a concern for the general good.  For an example, we will turn back to the lifeboat. Deontological theorists would say that the men should share the food, even if both men will both eventually die from doing so.  By ignoring the consequences of such a situation, deontologists would rather have millions die instead of tolerating one “unfair” death. The ends do not justify the means, they would probably say.

While the strengths of utilitarianism are intriguing and relevant, the weaknesses of the argument are glaring and obvious.  First of all, the utilitarian theory presupposes that the consequences of a certain act will be good.  How can anyone be sure of the consequences of an action? For example, the uncomfortable conversation at the conference is positive in the short term because peace is continued. But let’s say the dislike between the people eventually worsens, leading to some sort of inappropriate fight later on, with bigger consequences. It is plain to see that the well-intentioned act of lying has backfired and the situation could have been addressed much early on, with perhaps less fallout.  Thus, the long-term effects of the lie are negative, and the lie itself is an immoral act. Same with the lifeboat example: what if the scientist murders the violent racist and cures AIDS? A couple of years later, a Super-AIDS strain develops in response to the cure, and Super-AIDS is spread through air, killing of ninety percent of the planet. The “necessary” act of evil leads to short-term and unimaginable success, yet in the end it dooms society for years to come.

Another obvious weakness of utilitarianism is in its potential rejection of basic human rights.  Opponents of utility say that the theory justifies murder, lies, and so on.  If the greater good is always promoted, then individualism disappears, along with privacy, civil rights, and truth itself.  For example, if lying is held to be a legitimate way of achieving maximum happiness, then the concept of truth becomes worthless.  Trust would disappear, and human relations would suffer and likely disintegrate.  Similar with thieving and murder: if such actions were tolerated by a society, then personal protection would be worthless, and the rights of the individual would become nonexistent. In other words, utilitarianism can be construed to argue that it is better to avert war in favor of a harsh and oppressive peace, simply because a lesser amount of lives would be taken.

Deontologists further critique utilitarianism asserting that is wrongly based on happiness.  The question is: why should we conduct our lives on happiness?  The human condition requires that we have to do things that we don’t want to do.  Whether it’s going to work, or exercising, or paying taxes, human beings have to put aside pleasure to continue to function within society.  Further, if the pursuit of happiness should dictate one’s life, what about people who thrive off of others’ misery? Indeed, how can anyone say with certainty that there is only one way to conduct one’s life?

It should be noted that a new form of utilitarianism has risen to confront the previously mentioned weaknesses.  Rule utilitarianism, as it is called, holds that an action should only be carried out in accordance with the rule that brings the most happiness.  For example, most cultures believe that it is wrong to persecute innocent people.  Thus, the persecution of innocent people does not result in the best happiness for society.  Therefore, a rule utilitarian would say that it is always wrong to persecute innocent people.  Critics of this theory ask: where do the rules come from, and who decides? Is this just an arbitrary classification?

The Author’s Opinion on the Subject

After exploring the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism, I can now offer my own opinion of the subject.  As a believer of moderation, each opposing argument seems rather extreme to me.  Utilitarianism allows the violation of human rights, while deontoloical theories have no flexibility.  Thus, I gravitate towards a more moderate view, that of rule utilitarianism.

Rule utility retains the day-to-day flexibility of utilitarianism while acknowledging that certain acts are inherently wrong.  One may ask: but how should the rules be decided?  In my opinion, I feel the Golden Rule is a good place to start.  When a person thinks about how they would like to be treated, most of the time his or her views will correspond with a majority of other people.  There are many good examples.  Most people do not want to be wrongfully arrested, do not want to be murdered, and so on.  Another question one may ask: who makes the rules?  The answer is rather simple: a group of elected people that represent the varied interests of the populace.

It is important to address the issue of the “slippery slope” theory, which asks where the line is drawn in regard to lying, stealing, and so forth.  In response to such concerns, I refer again to the Golden Rule.  Most people would agree that in order to prevent great injury, lying or stealing or worse may be necessary.  A large majority would believe that stealing milk to put out a fire is okay.  What about a slight injury?  I return to the Golden Rule: treat others how you would like to be treated.  If someone stole medicine to cure another’s ailment, the action would likely be appreciated, and the person would absolve the thief of wrongdoing.  On the other hand, the person may believe that the thief’s action was excessive and will hold the thief responsible.  Subtle situations like these are often grey areas, so it is usually up to society to decide whether the act is good or not.

[i] Mill, J.S. Utilitarianism, fourth edition. Longmans, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green: London, 1871. pgs 9-10.

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