Classical Utilitarianism

Attacks on CU

ATTACK 1: Happiness is NOT the only intrinsic good

In Sara’s example, utilitarianisms may say that the happiness is the maximum, but according to the “moral intuition”, “common beliefs” and “common sense”, we may find that it’s an improper action. Thus, we can conclude that the classical utilitarian is incorrect.

Conflict: different understandings towards conceptions of the good

– Intrinsic good:

 – Classical Utilitarianisms: pleasure, happiness is the highest good

 – Common sense: art, creativity, knowledge, family, friends (many things are valuable)

– Instrumental good (extrinsic good). “Good in itself”, “Good for its own sake”

Consider: Because friendship is an intrinsic good, it makes us happy? OR: because it makes us happy, friendship is important and valuable.

Defend for ATTACK 1:

ATTACK 2: CU is only forward-looking

If someone thinks if break the promise is happier, then utilitarianisms will suggest him to be a promise-breaker. However, our common sense says that if someone makes a promise, he should not break it. Thus, we can conclude that the classical utilitarian is incorrect.


– Promising = creation of a moral obligation  cannot easily break

– Promising is backward-looking: whether an act counts as breaking or fulfilling a promise depends on a past fact (i.e., the promise itself)

However, the utilitarianisms are always focusing on the consequences, thus they are forward-looking. They don’t really mind whether they need to fulfill the promise.

Consider: Do past fact determine whether your act now is morally right or wrong? Or: only future consequences can determine moral right or wrong?

Defend for ATTACK 2:

ATTACK 3: Justice and Right (a Big One)

For justice and right, not about the future consequences, but about the fairness and desert, but they still matter for right or wrong. However, for CU, the only thing that determines whether an act is right or wrong. For example, we should never torture and innocent person, but for CU, it’s okay if it brings lots of happiness. Therefore, we conclude that CU is fundamentally wrong.

Basic ideas of human rights (nobody can take it from any human being): freedom of speech, right to property, religion, political, life, privacy, … (inviolable)

– Justice: Notions of fairness and desert, equal treatment at the heart of this concept

– Individual rights: Notions of basic ideas of human rights.

Example – nude pics. CU’s response vs. our common sense response.

Notion of inviolability (with exceptions) essential to every person qua personal, un-overridable

Defend for ATTACK 3: respecting these rights will tend to create more happiness.

Reply to the defense: There exists a basic problem: CU can respect rights, but cannot fundamentally respect the rights. (Not always respect the rights, even if there is one percent possibility, it will be dangerous)

How to define justice, there is not always absolute justice, take an example of the torture, if a person is tortured will make most of people happy, then he should think about whether he did something wrong. It just like voting. According to ATTACK 4, utilitarian requires we treat everybody the same, we will absolutely don’t want ourselves to be tortured, then it can be proved that tortured an innocent person will not make people happy.

ATTACK 4: The Impartiality Problem

CU requires we treat EVERYONE’S happiness (pleasure) as equally important (impartiality). This may be very unrealistic and sometimes even impossible, given human psychology. Then we get the conclusion that CU is unrealistic, and thus wrong.

– Example: baby daughter and baby Theresa.

– Human psychology = fundamentally partial

Does CU make us destroy and undermine our friendship?

– Furthermore: not giving preference to yourself is violating your own personal dignity and integrity.

Defend 1: prefer our own projects and those we love and care for – the path to greater overall happiness, more effective.

Defend 2: giving yourself dignity and self-worth will maximize happiness for yourself and society as a whole.

Reply to Defense: cannot fundamentally respect human psychology; does not fundamentally respect your dignity.

Treat equally doesn’t have conflict with have preference. Two dogs in our home, I treat them equally, I feed with the same meal, spend same time with them, buy same shampoo for them, but it doesn’t matter that I love the yellow one more than the black one. Go back to the example of Teresa, if my neighbor stands in my stage, she will save Teresa rather than my daughter. So actually, the probability that both Teresa and my daughter is 50%, so we should still consider that they are treated equally.

The example should be changed to be three people to make sure that possibility will be persuadable.

ATTACK 5: The Calculation Problem

CU cannot give us practical guidance oftentimes. If a moral theory cannot give us practical guidance, it’s not a good moral theory.

Defend: Usually, we don’t need to consider all the variables, only the relevant ones. Even though CU cannot help us to make better choices in our lives.

ATTACK 6: The Application Problem

200 happiness for a guy or 50 happiness each to three girls.

The Utilitarian Defense – Rule Utilitarianism

individual acts vs. rules for acts

The RU question: what general rules in society maximize overall happiness?

– Actions = right/wrong depending on whether they conform to the rules we have chosen for society.

Example: “Don’t easily break promises” OR “Break promises whenever it benefits you!”

– Others:

 – “Don’t lie to others,” OR…

 – “Don’t violate others’ rights,’’ OR…

 – “Be just to others,” OR…

 – “Be loyal to your friends.” OR…

Smart’s Alternative Approach: reject common sense, and embrace the CU position

CU does NOT go against common sense values, it JUSTIFIES them.

(The essence of the common sense is actually all about the happiness. In some situation, we should even break the common sense because of the unhappiness)

Summary: For utilitarianisms, they are not selfish. For example, in the question of prisoner’s dilemma, in order to maximize the happiness of all, utilitarian will choose to deny while ordinary people will choose to confess.

Kathleen Li
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