Utilitarianism (Part 3–Conclusion)

(continued from yesterday’s post.) (This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 11, 2015. )

  1. The Problem with Consequences

The most important difficulty for utilitarianism is that it emphasizes consequences exclusively. Utilitarians claim that “the ends always justify the means,” and therefore we can do anything to maximize utility as long as the consequences are good. For example, imagine that our neighbor opens our mail every day before we get home and then meticulously closes and replaces it with such skill that we cannot tell it has been opened. He derives great satisfaction from this activity and we never find out about it. When we are out-of-town and give him the key for emergencies, he rummages through our mail and personal effects, carefully replacing them before we return. He finds these activities immensely pleasurable, we never find out, and the net utility increases. An act utilitarian says he acts morally. But isn’t there something wrong here? Should our privacy be sacrificed to the net utility?

Act utilitarians are willing to sacrifice privacy, rights, or even life itself to the net utility. Imagine a country sheriff who has been charged with finding the perpetrator of a recent homicide. The powerful elite of the town inform the sheriff that if he does not find the murderer, they will kill the inhabitants of the local American Indian reservation, since they believe an American Indian committed the crime. The sheriff has no idea who committed the murder, but he does believe that framing some innocent individual will avert the ensuing riot which will almost certainly kill hundreds of innocent people. In other words, the sheriff maximizes utility by framing an innocent victim.

Now according to an act utilitarian, this analysis is certainly correct. Nonetheless, most individuals think something is terribly mistaken with framing innocent persons. But why? If we don’t frame the innocent victim, hundreds of people will die. True, something may foul our plan. For example, someone may find out that the victim has been framed. But this just repeats a critique of utilitarianism that we never know the consequences for certain which we have already answered. All the sheriff can do is the best he can. That is all anybody can do. And remember, if we do not frame the innocent victim, the blood of hundreds of other innocent victims is on our hands.

This is a situation in which a moral theory conflicts with our moral intuition. We ordinarily assume we shouldn’t frame innocent people. But maybe that is just ordinarily? And this is an extraordinary situation. Nevertheless, most of us think something is terribly wrong here. Maybe the theory can be reformulated to handle these cases?  

8. The Problems with Rule Utilitarianism

Problems of this sort are precisely what led to the formulation of rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarians claim that the rules “never violate a person’s privacy” or “never frame innocent persons” maximize utility compared with the rules “sometimes violate a person’s privacy” or “sometimes frame innocent persons.” But rule utilitarianism is beset by its own unique difficulties.

A first problem is whether utilitarian rules allow exceptions. To illustrate, consider that the moral rule “never kill the innocent” maximizes utility compared to the rule “always kill the innocent,” and thus a strict rule utilitarian adopts the former, from these two choices, without exceptions. But the rule “never kill the innocent except to save more innocent lives” might maximize the utility better than either of the other two rules. If it did, a  strict rule utilitarian would adopt it without exceptions. But this is not the best possible rule either. The best possible rule is “never kill innocent people except when it maximizes the utility to do so.” But if that is the best possible rule, how is rule utilitarianism any different from act utilitarianism?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that different interpretations of rule utilitarianism exist. In what we will call a strong rule utilitarianism, moral rules have no exceptions. In what we will call a weak rule utilitarianism, rules have some exceptions. The more exceptions we build into our moral rules, the weaker our version of rule utilitarianism becomes. But if we build enough exceptions into our moral rules, rule utilitarianism becomes indistinguishable from act utilitarianism.

Think about the traffic light again. A strict rule utilitarian says “do not go through traffic lights” because, compared with most other rules, this rule maximizes utility. If we compare it with the rules “go through traffic lights when you want to,” or “go through traffic lights if you’re pretty sure you won’t cause an accident,” it fares well. But compare it with the rule :”do not go through traffic lights except in situations where it maximizes the utility to do so.” A rule utilitarian should find this rule acceptable because it is the best conceivable rule. But if rule utilitarians act according to this rule, then their theory is indistinguishable from act utilitarianism.

Strong rule utilitarians can avoid this problem by not allowing exceptions to rules. They argue that if we make exceptions in individual cases, then the net utility will decrease because individuals naturally tend to be bias because they make exceptions that favor themselves. The act utilitarians counter by calling rule utilitarians superstitious “rule-worshipers.” If it maximizes the utility to do “x,” then why obey a rule that prescribes “y?” This issue could be resolved with some modified rule utilitarianism that would allow exceptions but not collapse into the situational character of act utilitarianism. The attempt to formulate such rules completely has met with mixed success.

A second problem with rule utilitarianism is that it tells us to abide by the rules that maximize the utility if generally accepted. Suppose they aren’t generally accepted? If we still abide by them we make useless sacrifices. Imagine that public television is conducting their annual fundraising campaign. A rule utilitarian reasons that if everyone abides by the rule “give what you can to public television,” the net utility will be increased. But suppose no one else contributes and public television goes broke? Then the individual that contributes has made a useless sacrifice. These objections show that many difficulties plague rule utilitarianism.

  1. Conclusion

The two key concepts in utilitarian thinking—happiness and consequences—are problematic. Whereas deontology places moral value on something intrinsic to the agent his/her intentions utilitarianism places moral value on something extrinsic to the agent the action’s consequences in terms of happiness produced. For deontologists, the end never justifies the means; for utilitarians the end always justifies the means. Note that both theories are based on a principle. For Kant, the principle is the categorical imperative and for Mill it is the principle of utility. The ultimate principle in natural law is to promote the good or natural and in contract theory it is to do what is in our own interest. But maybe all of these theories are too formal and precise. Is there any theory of moral obligation that is less reliant on objective, abstract, moral principles and more contingent upon subjective, concrete, human experience? It is to such a theory that we now turn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *