I have always been one to side with a utilitarian’s point of view, such as Mill and Bentham. The greatest happiness of the greatest number, or as cold as it may be, sacrificing the few for the good of the many. Utilitarian moral theories evaluate the moral worth of action on the basis of happiness that is produced by an action. Whatever produces the most happiness in the most people is the moral course of action.
I will give the best arguments against Utilitarianism, and show in my own opinion, why I think they are wrong. The strongest counterargument against Utilitarianism would have to be Sterling Harwood’s eleven objections to the theory. Sterling Harwood states that even he does not accept all eleven of his objections, but he merely wants to survey a large number of objections and provoke further discussion. (p. 86) Harwood’s objections are applied to all twelve versions of Utilitarianism, which are motive, act, rule, average, total, hedonistic, eudemonistic, negative, welfare, preference-satisfaction, felt-satisfaction, and ideal utilitarianism. Harwood uses most of the versions of Utilitarianism in his objections, and I will briefly introduce his eleven objections but go into detail on a few of them; the ones that I feel help show that Harwood is incorrect in his assumption to reject Utilitarianism.
Harwood’s eleven objections are that Utilitarianism is overly demanding, it eliminates supererogation, it is unjust, it fails to take promises seriously enough, average and total Utilitarianism produce absurdities, rule-Utilitarianism is incoherent or redundant, Utilitarianism requires us to enter the experience machine, it wildly overstates our duties to animals, it panders to bigots and sadists, it makes interpersonal comparisons of utility, and Utilitarianism is too secretive, undemocratic, and Elitist.
Harwood concludes that though he rejects some of the objections to utilitarianism, but he feels that the remaining objections collectively have enough force to convince people to reject Utilitarianism. (p. 198) Harwood’s objections try to show how utilitarianism should be rejected, but I will go through a few of those objections and show my side of why they are false and why Utilitarianism should be recognized and respected. Sterling Harwood’s third objection against utilitarianism states that utilitarianism is unjust.
Utilitarianism is often criticized for failing to treat retributive justice as having intrinsic moral importance (p. 189) since utilitarians only value pleasure, so they just want to maximize the utility they could generate. As they do that, they didn’t take what is moral into account; in their mind only the utility they could generate value the most over all other things. Harwood is incorrect; I do not feel that Utilitarianism is unjust.
Harwood uses examples in his writings, such as the sheriff dilemma, where angry black mobs are about to take the law into their own hands after a local black woman had been raped and murdered. The sheriff can easily disperse the mob and potentially save many lives if he blames the murder on the useless town drunk, who remembers nothing of the night and has no alibi. (p. 190) Utilitarianism would say blame the innocent drunk and save the lives of many. Another example that Harwood gives is of a genius, who is about to develop a cure for cancer, but murders his wife.
Utilitarianism would tell us not to punish this man, but let him create this sought after cure that could save millions of lives. Though it may appear unjust to let the drunk take the blame or the genius walk to develop the cure, look outside the box. A drunk, though innocent in this situation, probably causes mischief and crime and benefits the community none. Instead of having hundreds murdered, why not sacrifice the few for the good of the many? And this question is applied to both examples. Let the genius remain free until he develops the cure, and then lock him up.
Among other objections is Harwood’s fourth objection. Harwood’s fourth objection states that utilitarians do not take promises seriously enough. Harwood’s primary example in this objection is a person who makes a promise to his dying mother, promising to beautify her grave and put flowers on it on her birthday every year. (p. 191) Harwood states that a utilitarian would not keep that promise because his time, money, and energy can be better spent doing other things. But what if that person really does enjoy putting flowers on his mother’s grave?
What if that is the main way he chooses to spend his resources? Then keeping this promise is in the utilitarian’s best interest. Alternatively, imagine that the person does take the utilitarian approach and ignore the promise made to his mother by investing his time and energy into something he truly enjoys: robbing bank or committing heinous crimes. Although this person broke the promise, the result does not generate much pleasure for everyone involved. Therefore, keeping the promise would be in the utilitarian’s best interest.
I think that when utilitarians break promises, it is for legitimate reasons, such as saving a person’s life. Harwood illustrates how utilitarians operate in regards to promises by offering the example that a person who is meeting a friend for lunch helps victims from a car crash on the way to the restaurant, and as a result is late for lunch. (p. 192) Harwood says that the difference between a utilitarian and a non-utilitarian would be whether or not the person that was late apologized to their friend.
However, I think that this is just a matter of social graces. Although the utilitarian might seem rude in not offering an apology for being late, I think that the friend would be rude in even expecting one, meaning that their time is worth more than someone’s life. Therefore, I do not agree with Harwood’s objection that utilitarian’s don’t take promises seriously enough. I will end with my arguments against Harwood with one more critique to his objections. Harwood objects to utilitarianism through the seventh objection of entering the experience machine. Which he compares to something like virtual reality) He believes that there are more intrinsic values out there like truth, knowledge, and reality. However, isn’t this objection simply mere opinion? Apparently he values these intrinsic goods more so than pleasure and satisfaction making him not a Utilitarian. But why do his values make utilitarianism false? If being inside the experience machine would allow every desire of mine to be fulfilled without my knowing of it being fake, I personally would rather be in the machine. Does that make me wrong to do so?
Life is a struggle; it provides much dissatisfaction as well as pleasure as one goes through the course of their lives. Some encounter more struggles than others and to the extreme take their life to end their pain. So to someone whose only value is pleasure, would he or she not be a fool to enter the machine? I understand Harwood’s points of valuing other goods in life; however I do not think it applies to all and therefore his objection is false. If I were to go through all eleven objections that Harwood presented, I would be writing a very lengthy paper, so I end with these three objections of his and my arguments against them.
Sterling Harwood did a very good job arguing against Utilitarianism, but it just was not enough to make me reject it as a theory. I lean towards utilitarianism more and more as I age. I do not think any of Sterling Harwood’s arguments successfully show that utilitarianism is incorrect as a moral theory. I do not consider myself utilitarian or an egoist, but I find myself agreeing with both of these theories, even though these two theories run parallel to each other. Egoism is the rough idea that the right thing to do is to look out for your own self-interest.
Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of oneself alone. It is contrasted with altruism, which is not strictly self-interested, but includes in its goal the interests of others as well. Egoism can be a descriptive or a normative position. Psychological egoism, the most famous descriptive position, claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: his or her own welfare. Normative forms of egoism make claims about what one ought to do, rather than describe what one does do.
Ethical egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right that it maximize one’s self-interest. Rational egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be rational that it maximizes one’s self-interest. With egoism, we are morally required only to make ourselves as happy as possible. We have no moral obligations to others. Ayn Rand said it best in the reading that “By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose” (p. 1) Ethical egoism does not imply hedonism or that we ought to aim for at least some higher goods (e. g. , wisdom, political success), but rather that we will ideally act so as to maximize our self-interest. This may require that we forgo some immediate pleasures for the sake of achieving some long term goals. Also, ethical egoism does not exclude helping others; However, egoists will help others only if this will further their own interests.
An ethical egoist will claim that the altruist helps others only because they want to or because they think there will be some personal advantage in doing so. That is, they deny the possibility of genuine altruism because they believe we are all by nature selfish. Human beings are and always will be selfish. So to conclude, I believe that morality is based on egoistic principles rather than non-egoistic ones. No one likes to admit they are selfish, but the truth is they are. Everyone looks out for themselves in the end; just like the saying goes, “it’s a dog eat dog world”.