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Criticisms of utilitarianism

Criticisms of utilitarianism come from different authors, from various currents of anti-utilitarian thought as well as from various social movements such as environmental movements and alter-globalist movements.

Indifference to inequality

In its cardinal versions, total or average utilitarianism, utilitarianism does not care about the distribution of well-being among individuals. This social inequality would be compensated by the fact that more egalitarian societies tend to be happier because of the decreasing marginal utility of income and the net impact of envy characterized by the fact that the loss of well-being linked contempt of earning less than others is superior to the well-being granted by the pleasure of earning more than others. These last two findings, however, will not change the fact that income inequality can still contribute to increasing aggregate income and therefore a positive impact on aggregate well-being. It also remains to be considered at the end of the day that the importance given to income may differ from one individual to another.

The political instrumentalization of fundamental rights

Through the political instrumentalization of fundamental rights, utilitarianism will for example be guided by a cost-benefit calculation during judicial decisions. Even if rule utilitarianism believes that adherence to moral and legal rules is essential for increasing collective well-being through being able to foresee the consequences of one’s actions, there will always remain a contingent justification of fundamental rights by the probable consequence in terms of well-being.

The priority of happiness over justice

As, for example, illustrated by Amartya Sen in his book, More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing (1990), if utilitarian doctrine gives members of society what they want or makes them want what they have, it does not question what it is right to give. Wanting a happiest society does not mean wanting the fairest society. Even in a purified utilitarianism that ignores adaptive preferences (evolve over time) a series of injustices may emerge in proportion to the maximization of aggregate well-being.

Incalculable consequences

Utilitarianism holds morality in the consequences, which poses several problems in the eyes of some of its adversaries.

Uncertainty: the consequences of an act cannot be determined before it takes place. One is never certain that the supposed consequences of the act will be its real consequences. An apparently innocent act can then turn out to be immoral in view of its consequences, just as a supposedly bad act turns out to be moral.

Infinity: the consequences form a chain: if act A is the cause of B, and B causes C, act A causes C indirectly. Evaluating the consequences of the act therefore poses a problem of identifying these consequences: when to say that an act is no longer a cause? where to stop the chain of consequences? For example, there is a famous Chinese parable, “is it luck, is it bad luck?”, a long story in which happy and unhappy events are linked alternately as consequences of one another, without end.

Moral relativism

If utilitarianism sets felt happiness as the criterion of moral evaluation, any sensation of pleasure that results from a particular action could justify that action. This is why certain utilitarians aware of the problem, notably the representatives of Cornell’s realism and in particular David O. Brink in his book Moral Realism and The Foundation Of Ethics have attempted to develop an objective version of utilitarianism where the definition of happiness does not depend on the feelings of the agent.

The question of interpersonal utility comparisons

Maximizing the aggregated well-being of a group of individuals involves, strictly speaking, being able to measure the well-being of each, to add them up, and to choose the action that leads to the greatest result.

However, according to a whole school of thought, it would be impossible to compare different levels of well-being, because these are subjective mental states.

Utilitarians generally admit that a perfectly rigorous utilitarian calculation is indeed unrealistic. This does not, however, make utilitarianism inapplicable, as one can use “proxy variables” which allow welfare to be measured indirectly (unemployment rate, crime rate, etc.).

The question of the aggregation of individual utilities

Derek Parfit raised a classic problem that arises in utilitarianism when it intends to aggregate individual utilities: if only their sum counts, then it does not matter that a very large number of people enjoy very limited individual happiness or that ‘a very small number of people benefit from a very large individual happiness, the sum of the utilities will be the same and the result indifferent for the utilitarian, which is counter-intuitive and therefore morally unacceptable; if, on the other hand, we take as a criterion the average of the utilities per individual, then it is rational to reduce the number of individuals and increase the average of their individual utilities, by promoting, for example, a eugenic policy which eliminates individuals whose the ability to achieve a correct utility is reduced, which is again morally unacceptable.

A first escape route has been proposed with “threshold utilitarianism”: a threshold is determined, a level of utility below which it is the average of the individual utilities which is taken into account and beyond their sum. This makes it possible to avoid the “absurd or disgusting conclusions” that Parfit denounced. But where to set the threshold?

In addition, the question of measuring and comparing individual utilities remains fully open, except when taking “variables by substitution” (such as GDP in purchasing power parity, the HDI or life expectancy) to calculate and compare them.

A second way of escaping the dilemma raised by Parfit is to develop “objective utilitarianisms” where the measurement of happiness does not depend on that of utilities measured subjectively (see above). But, there again, why take such and such a variable by substitution rather than such another? The objective utilitarianism defended by David Brink lists several possible variables, but clearly chooses none.

Finally, let us note that, if we adopt threshold utilitarianism by taking per capita income as an (objective) variable substituted for subjective utility, then we find more or less the theory of distributive justice proposed by Raymond Boudon to compensate the faults of John Rawls’ maximin: a maximization of the average income under a minimum constraint.

“Sacrificial” aspect

Like progressivism, from which it stems, utilitarianism promotes the sacrifice of some for the benefit of the greatest number. This is one of the points of the theory which will be the most criticized in the 20th century. Thus in 1964, the Frenchman Jacques Ellul (according to whom the technical ideology is the supreme expression of utilitarianism) affirms:

“The Technique supposes the creation of a new morality. […] Technical morality presents two main characteristics (closely linked): on the one hand it is a moral of behavior, on the other hand it excludes the moral problematic. Moral behavior: […] the problems of intentions, feelings, ideals, debates of conscience… do not concern her. […] And this behavior must be fixed […] according to precise technical rules. […] All this leads to questioning the problematic of the choice of good and evil, the individual decision, the subjective morality: there is no more (really) choice to carry out because the good behavior is that which technology demands and makes possible. […] We can question everything in our society but not the technique, which then reveals itself as a decisive value. And as a value, it is desirable. It well deserves that all the forces be devoted to it, it well deserves that man sacrifices itself for it.”
– Jacques Ellul.

In 1971, in his work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls also denounces the sacrifice to utility since utility has been elevated to the rank of value.

On this question, we can already distinguish in the nineteenth century the position of William Godwin from that of real utilitarians: unlike them, Godwin does not meet the criterion of impartiality of calculation, which leads him to defend a partial sacrifice in which the maxim “one count for one” is “not” respected. We must therefore distinguish between the pseudo-utilitarian point of view of Godwin and that of utilitarianism.

The so-called “sacrificial” aspect is linked to the logic of compensation and to utilitarian prescriptivism. In the overall assessment of morality, the good and bad consequences offset each other. If in order to increase the satisfaction of the greatest number one has to sacrifice a person, utilitarianism maintains that this is what “must” be done.

The classic example is that of the castaways: a group of castaways is on a makeshift raft, but it will sink because there are too many of them. By abandoning one of the members of the group we will prevent the raft from sinking, but the one who is sacrificed will die. Utilitarianism leads to sacrificing one of the members to save the others: the act of abandoning it has a negative consequence for him, but it is compensated by the positive consequences for the other members.

In such a case, the name “sacrifice” is relative. Anti-utilitarians will speak of “sacrifice”, but utilitarians will prefer “rescue”. Depending on whether one takes the point of view of the individual sacrificed or the individuals saved, the vocabulary can change.

However, the accusation of sacrifice may relate to cases where the “rescue” is less blatant. In choosing a model of society, the utilitarian will defend the model which allows the happiness of the greatest number, regardless of the distribution of this happiness. Oppressing a social group for the benefit of others therefore seems possible from a utilitarian perspective. However, it is necessary to do justice to the utilitarians by recalling that they do not generally support sacrifice positively: to sacrifice is a duty only when there is “no” other solution.

Utilitarianism and “merit”

It will be noted, however, that utilitarianism does not require systematically sacrificing one’s happiness for that of one’s fellows. This criticism that is often made of Mill’s utilitarianism is a false trial.

If, in fact, I live in a just society and I occupy the place I deserve, it is difficult to see why I should interfere with my happiness to satisfy the desires of others. If, for example, I passed a competition which my neighbor failed, it would be neither rational nor fair for me to give up my place to him only to increase his happiness because it is better to live in a society that frustrates some of its members but nevertheless reserves for each the place which it deserves. Such a society will never eliminate frustration, but will still maximize aggregate happiness.

This is why one can consider, like David Brink, that the planning of his own professional career, which is an important element of individual happiness, is not opposed to altruism in a just society. Because it is right to give the most deserving, in such a society, the place they deserve. The effort to live and work conscientiously in a just society that rewards merit is not opposed to altruism since such an effort benefits everyone and places those who deserve it in the place they deserve. By making the effort to give the best of myself in the pursuit of my personal career, I serve all of my society.

This is also, by the way, the reason why the theory of moral feelings in Adam Smith does not oppose his theory of the invisible hand: one is sometimes right to pursue his personal interest if it is in the general interest of society. And this is also Rawls’ intuition.

The neutrality implied by utilitarianism (that is to say the moral principle of considering that my happiness is neither more nor less important than that of my neighbor) therefore does not always require sacrificing one’s personal happiness.

Impartiality and neglect of the agent

Although this criticism even covers other moral theories, utilitarianism has been criticized for its impartiality. The impartiality required of the agent would indeed be deleterious for the latter: to be moral one would have to no longer be oneself. All the processes aimed at acquiring an impartial point of view are indeed depersonalizing processes (trying to put yourself in the other’s shoes, for example).

This attack can be compared to the criticism of the neglect of the moral agent. For utilitarianism it is the act that counts, regardless of the agent who performs it. However, you might think that there is a difference when I do or not do the action myself.

Bernard Williams offers an example in which the consequences remain unchanged regardless of the agent. A scientist working in a firm is asked to manufacture a weapon which will be used in a certain way to kill thousands of people: if he accepts he will have to manufacture the weapon, if he refuses the firm will find someone else and the weapon will be manufactured anyway. Utilitarianism does not allow you to choose what to do, yet it seems that the agent is faced with a moral problem. It may therefore be that we cannot fully evacuate the agent of questioning morality.

That said, it is difficult to understand a) why the reproach of excessive impartiality demanded of the agent is often made of utilitarianism and not of Kantianism, b) how such a reproach can be compatible with the one, also common, which sees in utilitarianism a sophisticated form of moral relativism and selfishness.

Texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia

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