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In my first column, I said that I am a “compassionate utilitarian,” but didn’t have space to explain what that means. I’ll be tackling part of that this week. In this pursuit, I'll be trying to address some of the common critiques of utilitarianism and explain why I think they are not substantive.
I believe that the purpose of moral philosophy is to create prescriptions for proper action, which ultimately tell you how to be a good person. An understanding of moral philosophy should help you be a better person. There are two major facets of proper action: answering questions properly and finding questions to ask yourself.
The first facet is deciding which action among those you are choosing between is best, the second is seeing more potential actions. Both of these skills is made more valuable by the presence of the other. It isn’t all that useful to have a really robust way to choose between two different actions if you’re choosing between two mediocre options, because you failed to see broadly.
Utilitarianism encourages me to try to seek out questions to ask and provides what I intuit to be the right answers. To make sure we’re all on the same page about what I’m talking about here, utilitarianism is a school of thought that is based on the idea that doing what is good, that which maximizes utility, is right. Utilitarians’ intellectual opponents are deontologists, who believe that what is right — that which conforms to certain universal rules — should be done regardless of any considerations of what is good.
There are some Philosophy 101 kinds of objections to utilitarianism that I’d like to give a response to, to give you a sense of why I believe utilitarianism is worth practicing despite them. The big, overarching complaint against utilitarianism is that it does not treat people as ends in themselves, as deontologists would want us to, and “sacrifices individuals for the sake of the group.” The idea of treating people as ends in themselves essentially boils down to respect. It means that doing what we colloquially call "using" somebody is wrong. For example, a deontologist would say that harvesting an unwilling person's organs to save five lives is wrong because it does not treat the unwilling person as an end, but rather as a means to saving the others' lives. Although the image of an evil utilitarian sacrificing people for an abstract goal is a juicy image for people wanting to do violence to utilitarianism, this is sophistry.
True, the utilitarian is willing to incur a cost to human wellbeing to secure a payoff, but that payoff is also in human wellbeing. There is no abstract “the group” that is receiving the payoff, it is individuals who are gaining wellbeing. So, if we rephrase “utilitarians sacrifice individuals for the sake of the group” to “utilitarians are willing to make redistributive shifts that increase the total welfare of individuals,” poof, the critique disappears. It’s a little less snappy, but the truth usually is.
The second common critique is that utilitarians would enslave people if the rest of society prospered enough to offset that suffering. This is a corollary from the previous objection, which is meant to serve as an illustrative example to make the principle I laid out unacceptable .
I’ll accept the premise of the critique, that I would in fact accept slavery under certain circumstances, but I reject that this is a substantive critique. The reason that it isn’t substantive is the wildly unrealistic amount of prosperity that is needed to offset the suffering of the enslaved. Something on par with, you can either live in a society with slaves and keep the internet, the entire history of music and art, and vaccinations for diseases, or you can live in a society without slaves but you lose all the rest forever.
Anybody who thinks that any achievable amount of prosperity could justify slavery needs to do some reading to try to empathize with former slaves. Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is a good place to start if any of you are out there.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of objections, but they are the common objections that I’ve run into and I think that they’re frankly kind of silly, so I wanted to dispel them to encourage people into higher forms of discussion. I’d be happy to field any further questions about this, if you have your own objections you’d like to see answered go ahead and send them my way, my email is email@example.com.
To contribute to The Walk, email Opinions and Columns Editor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Contact columnist Cal Pringle at email@example.com.
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