Answer by James Fisher:
How about this little thought experiment? I am a sadist and you are a masochist. If I agree to torture you this afternoon, then it seems that we're both the better for it. You and I are maximizing our pleasure.
So would not utilitarianism endorse our perverse pact according to its vaunted pleasure principle?
But that's not right, you say? Exactly.
Something about utilitarianism that seems ethically tone deaf.
So let's spell out some of these problems:
- It lacks ethical depth. It reduces values to facts. You should behave in a way that contributes to the greatest good – maximize utility, pleasure, happiness. Okay, but what about humans rights, justice, truth telling. Utilitarianism (a theory of the good) often collides with deontology (a theory of the right).
- It's subjective. Happiness can be a slippery concept. What causes, say, authentic happiness versus false happiness. Might self-sacrifice, pain and suffering ultimately contribute to happiness.
- It's too simplistic. We're driven by more than the pursuit of happiness or pleasure — we're psychologically more complex. We admire heroism, we value the well-being of posterity.
- It can't account for evil. Utilitarian does not scratch the surface of human intention very deeply. It hardly seems plausible that evil is simply the wrong calculation of consequences.
- It presumes we are more prescient than we in fact are. Who can really know the consequences of particular acts? What behavior now brings happiness in the future? Our track record in this respect is abysmal.
- It lacks a religious sensibility (of course, a plus for many). What about God, the soul, life after death, sin? Utilitarian pushes all these off the table, insisting they're largely irrelevant a a guide to behavior.
Of course all this said, let's give credit where credit's due. Utilitarians have often been right about some of the big issues: women's right and slavery come to mind.
Maybe we should be listening closer to's arguments about animal rights. What do you think?