Rachels, Ch. 8: The Debate over Utilitarianism


1.      One: Only consequences matter

         a.      Right acts determined solely by the goodness of the results

         b.      What kind of act it is, the motive behind the act, and the kind of person who did the act don't matter; all that matters in determining if an act is right/wrong is its consequences

         c.      Questions about the morality of the act that utilitarianism ignores (or claims is not relevant):

                   i.       Does it treat individuals justly, fairly, equally, or as they deserve to be treated?

                   ii.      Does it treat individuals with respect?

                   iii.     Does it avoid violating rights?

                   iv.     Is it universalizable?

                   v.      Does it treat persons as ends and not merely as means?

         d.      None of these questions are relevant; all that matters is if the act produces results that maximize happiness

2.      Two: Only the happiness or unhappiness of the consequences matter

3.      Three: Strict impartiality

         a.      Everyone who is affected gets included equally; whose happiness is not relevant; even the agent's own happiness doesn't get special treatment.

         b.      Rules out special treatment of groups; rules out racism, sexism, egoism, nationalism, speciesism


4.      (Rejects Two): False that happiness is the only thing that matters (intrinsically) (that is good in itself)

         a.      Instrumental vs Intrinsic value: Distinction between intrinsic value (good in itself or valued for its own sake) and instrumental value (good/valued as a means)

         b.      Rachels rejects hedonism (while utilitarianism embraces it)

         c.      Hedonism = Idea that happiness is the only thing good in itself, or that pleasure is the only intrinsic good/pain the only intrinsic bad

                   i.       Everything else is good only as a means to happiness/pleasure

                   ii.      Pleasure/happiness is the only thing worth seeking for its own sake

         d.      Rachels argues hedonism falsely assumes that things are good and bad only in terms of how they make us feel

         e.      Counterexamples to this claim

                   i.       Pianist damaged hands counter-example: Is loss of her hands bad simply because it makes her unhappy? Would the tragedy be averted if we simply cheered her up? No, it is bad because her promising artistic talent has been ended.

                   ii.      Friend ridicules you behind your back: But you never find out about it, so it doesn't make you unhappy. So nothing bad has happened according to hedonism. But clearly something bad has happened even if you never are aware of it

         f.       We intrinsically value things other than happiness and pleasure; such as artistic creativity and friendship

         g.      So utilitarians are mistaken that only happiness/unhappiness of the consequences matter.

         h.      Most contemporary utilitarians have dropped hedonistic assumption; they define the good/bad of the consequences in some other way than pleasure/happiness and pain/unhappiness

                   i.       Preference utilitarians (good is whatever individuals prefer); ideal utilitarians (good involves a number of ideals, including friendship, pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment)

5.      (Rejects one) False that only the consequences matter

         a.      Utilitarians ignore considerations of justice/injustice

                   i.       Utilitarianism could justify the punishment of an innocent person (say to stop a race riot)

                   ii.      This ignores the moral ideals of justice, fairness, treating people according to their merits and needs

         b.      Utilitarians ignore individual rights (and could justify violating rights)

                   i.       Could justify the violation of the right of privacy by the police for the sake of their happiness or a peeping Tom if overall happiness was maximized

                   ii.      Rights can't be set aside so easily

                   iii.     Rights are not a utilitarian notion, but a limit on utilitarian thinking:

                            (1)    Rights put limits on what can be done to individuals for the sake of the good results that might come about

         c.      Utilitarian ignores backward-looking moral considerations/reasons

                   i.       Utilitarianism looks to the results of an action to determine if it is right or wrong; results are in the future, so it ignores any considerations from the past (unless they affect the future)

                   ii.      But what happened in the past is clearly morally relevant to determining if an act is right or wrong

                   iii.     Examples (of past events relevant to morality of present acts)

                            (1)    If I made a promise I should keep it, even if there is somewhat more utility (happiness) in my breaking it.

                            (2)    Fact that someone did not do a crime is a good reason for why they should not be punished

                            (3)    Fact that someone did you a favor may be a good reason for doing her a favor now

6.      (Rejects three): False that we should be equally concerned for everyone; rejects strict impartiality

         a.      We should not always be impartial

         b.      Equal concern for everyone is too demanding

         c.      It would require us to not only give up luxuries but to radically alter our lives (e.g., move to a cheaper apartment) to help others in greater need,

         d.      Requiring us to subordinate everything to the impartial promotion of general welfare would require us to give up our projects and activities (reading, exercise, friends) and devote ourselves full time to promoting the good of others

                   i.       This is implausible

         e.      Duty vs. Supererogatory: Utilitarianism is unable to make a distinction between doing our duty and doing things that are praiseworthy but not required by duty (supererogatory acts-those above and beyond the call of duty).

         f.       Utilitarianism would require we give up personal relationships, because they require partiality

                   i.       We are all deeply partial to friends and family; we love them and go to great lengths to help them (something we would not do for strangers)

                   ii.      What would it be like to be no more concerned for one's spouse or children than for strangers?

                   iii.     A person who does not save her own child but some other child because that would better contribute to the general welfare is not a hero but a "moral leper"


7.      One: Fanciful examples don't matter

         a.      It is far from clear that punishing innocent people, violating people's rights, ignoring one's promises, etc. would bring about the overall best consequences

         b.      Further, utilitarianism can explain why we should treat people justly, not violate their rights and keep our promises: Because doing so promotes good consequences

         c.      Far from being incompatible with common sense, utilitarianism is common sense (and explains common sense)

8.      Rachels reply: Sometimes violating moral common sense does bring about good results and so utilitarianism sometimes will violate common sense

9.      Two: Rule Utilitarianism: Principle of utility is a guide for choosing rules, not individual acts

         a.      This version of utilitarianism claims that right acts are those that follow the set of rules whose existence would maximize happiness overall

         b.      Rule utilitarianism can easily respond to the anti-utilitarian arguments given above:

                   i.       Which rule would bring about more happiness overall: Convicting and punishing innocent people or a rule that prohibits that?

                            (1)    Since it is clearly the second rule, then the right act is to follow that rule

                   ii.       Does a rule allowing the violation of people's rights bring about more happiness than a rule prohibiting actions that violate people's rights? No, so follow the rule prohibiting the violation of people's rights

                   iii.     Rules against lying, and in favor of loyalty (partiality) to friends/family would also promote the greatest happiness and so following those rules is right

         c.      Criticism of rule utilitarianism:

                   i.       May one make exceptions to these utilitarian rules in atypical cases where breaking the rule maximizes happiness/utility?

                   ii.      If so we are back with the original version of (act) utilitarianism

                   iii.     If not, then we seem to have an irrational rule worship; a utilitarian telling us we should do something that does not maximize happiness...

10.    Three: Common sense can't be trusted

         a.      That utilitarianism goes against common sense morality is not a criticism of utilitarianism, but shows that common sense morality is flawed

         b.      Much that was once taken as common sense we now know (believe) was wrong: treatment of women and blacks, for example.

         c.      It could be in 200 years practices that utilitarianism condemns but common sense now accepts (e.g., our treatment of animals and our letting children starve for our own luxuries/lifestyles) will be looked at as the moral outrages utilitarians believe they are

Study Questions Ch 8, Debate over Utilitarianism

1.      What are the three central features of utilitarianism that Rachels identifies (Ch 8)?

2.         Explain the difference between intrinsic (valued for its own sake) and instrumental value (valued as a means to something else).

3.         What is hedonism? Does Rachels agree or disagree with hedonism? Why? In other words, does he think happiness is the only thing that matters intrinsically (i.e., is good in itself)? Explain how Rachels two examples count against hedonism (pianist with damaged hands and friend ridiculing you behind your back).

4.         Explain why a critic of utilitarianism thinks it can't account for the moral concepts of rights and justice. How do these concepts purportedly show that consequentialism (only the consequences of actions matter in determining their rightness) is false. Use examples to explain this criticism of utilitarianism. How might a utilitarian respond to this criticism?

5.         Explain and give an example of a "backward looking" moral considerations? What is the relationship between utilitarianism and backward looking moral considerations?

6.         Explain the reasons for why one might think utilitarianism is too demanding a moral theory. How does the notion of strict impartiality fit into this criticism?

7.         Explain the reasons why some think utilitarianism undermines personal relationships. Do you agree?

8.         What is rule utilitarianism (as opposed to act utilitarianism)?

9.         How do utilitarians respond to the objection that their views of morality have consequences that violate common sense.