Transcript EECS 690

More objections to
A common objection dismissed:
Objection: If there are 101 people, Util. says
that 51 of them can do whatever they want
to the other 50 as long as that makes them
No it doesn’t. (1) the unhappiness caused by
deprivation must be factored in and (2)
there are actions open that produce more
Some Other common challenges:
• Time (it takes too long to do a utilitarian calculus)
– Util’s Response: Most decisions are easy and obvious. Many
others are quickly enough made with brief thought, still others do
allow time for extended thought. For those issues requiring time
that is not available, we must hope our moral habits are good
• Inconsistency (utilitarianism is too situational)
– Util’s Response: One theory’s inconsistency is another theory’s
flexibility. To some extent we want our moral theories to be able
to consider actions taken in different circumstances in different
• Uncertainty (shouldn’t we know if an action is moral
when we do it?)
– Util’s Response: It is true that some are better at anticipating
consequences than others, however, nobody is excused from
attempting to do so. People are often held responsible for
outcomes they did not intend. The Util. says this is less a
problem with utilitarianism than a problem with reality.
Utilitarianism is too
• According to a strict interpretation of Util.
you must give up any luxury possessions
you have until the point of marginal utility
(that is, give until just before it hurts). It
may well be that morality demands this of
us, but the extremity of this position gives
many pause.
• We will later read “Famine, Affluence, and
Morality” by Peter Singer
Utilitarianism is too impartial
• Imagine a scenario in which a stranger is
drowning, and so is your spouse. You
only have time to reach one of them.
• The solution to this dilemma seems
obvious to most, but Util. provides no
basis for the obvious answer.
• Bernard Williams criticizes the Utilitarian in
this situation for having “One thought too
• In order to get out of objections like the time objection
and the inconsistency objection, some Utilitarians have
proposed that instead of doing only the action which
generates the greatest utility, we ought to set up a
system of rules that most of the time results in the best
• This means that murder, rape, and pillage are always
wrong, and it takes no time at all to be a good
utilitarian—just follow the rules.
• There are two main problems with this line of reasoning,
contained on the next two slides.
Rule-U devolves into Act-U
• It seems that Rule-Utilitarianism best
accomplishes its goals (to maximize
wefare) if there is only one rule: “Maximize
• In that case, rule-U is not even a separate
thing from act-U.
Utilitarianism is a poor basis for
• Consider a person who cheats a bit on their taxes. They
break the rules, and get the benefit of keeping a little
extra money, and nothing bad whatsoever happens to
anyone else (what’s a few hundred bucks to the US
treasury?). This action results in the best consequences.
• It appears that the way to optimize utility is not to have
everybody follow the law, but instead to make sure that
as many people break the law as possible without
collapsing the system.
• All rules appear to have this character in a Utilitarian
system, and that’s really odd.
A problem with aggregating utility
• Utilizing a method of
maximizing total utility
in a fully utilitarian
society leads to what
is called “The
conclusion” which
advocates as many
people as possible
living at the bare
• Utilizing a method of
maximizing average
utility in a fully
utilitarian society
leads to what is called
“The dastardly
conclusion” in which a
number of people
sacrifice themselves
to improve the
The Reprehensible Conclusion:
To maximize total, turn this:
Into this?
The Dastardly Conclusion:
Maximize Average, Turn this:
Into this?
Study Questions
• What is tempting about Rule-utilitarianism,
and why does it ultimately not succeed?
• Which of these objections if any, are
strong enough to warrant abandoning
utilitarianism? Why?
• How might the utilitarian defend
themselves against either the
“reprehensible conclusion” or the
“dastardly conslusion”?