Chapter 6: Utilitarianism Notes

Main Idea: Much of morality is based on consequences, but is all of morality based solely on an impartial consideration of consequences?

Format: Mini-Lecture on the strengths of Utilitarianism followed by a discussion of critical questions.

Utilitarianism Video (Click Here)


There are many types of consequentialist theories, but I will focus on J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism because it is the most popular and, arguably, strongest form of consequentialist theory. To be precise in definition, utilitarianism is the idea that we ought to "do what brings about the best overall situation, by choosing the act that creates the greatest net balance of happiness over unhappiness" (Landau). 

J.S. Mill defines utilitarianism in the following way:

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility or the greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, Chapter 2).

Utilitarianism is the idea that the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by the consequences of the act for everyone. For example, it is good to pull the lever in the Trolley Dilemma because it will save a net of four lives. Pulling the lever is the right act according to utilitarianism because it will maximize the greatest happiness possible for the greatest number of people.

It is helpful to reduce utilitarianism to three central claims (Rachels, Ch. 6):


1) Only the consequences matter. Motives, rights, character traits, duty, and actions are not good or bad in themselves, they are only good or bad in so far as they produce pleasurable or unpleasurable consequences. Mill writes:

“This theory of morality is grounded on pleasure and freedom from pain; These are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Ch. 2).

That is, only the consequences of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain matter.

It may be good to do your duty, but only because doing your duty maximizes the greatest pleasurable consequences for the greatest number of people. Nor are rights absolute or intrinsically valuable, rather people should value rights only because they bring about the best consequences. It may seem praiseworthy to have good motives, but such motives are good solely because they maximize pleasurable consequences for everyone. The utilitarian believes all of morality is, or should be, reduced to consequences.


2) Pleasure or happiness should be maximized. There are many good things (e.g. money, health, veracity), but they are ultimately good because they maximize pleasure or happiness. All goods are instruments to obtain pleasure or happiness (instrumental goods), and only pleasure or happiness are intrinsically good.

Why is money good? Because it helps people obtain what makes them happy. Why is pleasure or happiness good? They just are.


3) Each person counts the same. Utilitarianism is not ethical egoism because utilitarians seek the happiness of everyone, not just oneself. Indeed, utilitarianism may demand self-sacrifice.

This impartial consideration of everyone's interests seems to be a strength of utilitarianism because considering others is the heart of what it means to be moral. One weakness of ethical egoism is it never transcends the prison of self, but utilitarianism embraces the altruistic strands of morality.

Consider an example of utilitarian thinking: remember that most people believe it is good to pull the lever in the trolley dilemma because it saves a net of four lives. This demonstrates that at least some of their morality is based on utilitarianism, on saving the most lives.

A second example: Doctors and nurses use the system of triage in hospitals. The utilitarian idea is to save the most lives possible instead of devoting all resources to one individual who has little hope of surviving.

Notice too that utilitarians want to maximize happiness, not just create more happiness than suffering. For example, let's say donating 10 percent of your income will create more happiness than suffering. According to utilitarianism, that may be a decent act, but the best act is to donate the amount that will maximize overall happiness, which is probably more than ten percent. So, utilitarianism seems to be a demanding ethical theory. Unlike egoism, it may require self-sacrifice.

Here is another interesting point about utilitarianism. In the trolley dilemma, some of you may have been hesitant to pull the lever because you believe it is worse to kill (i.e. pull the lever) than to let die (i.e. not pull the lever). However, the utilitarian does not seem to care for such distinctions. According to utilitarianism, you should pull the lever and not worry about this distinction because it is irrelevant to the consequences. Only the consequences ultimately matter.

In short, Utilitarians claim “the right act is that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” All of morality is, or should be, based on this principle.


What are the strengths of Utilitarianism?

Most ethicists think utilitarianism is one of the three strongest ethical theories. Here are some of its strengths:

1) Utilitarianism captures the moral idea that we should promote happiness and eliminate suffering. It captures the idea that suffering is bad even if it occurs in other species. For example, most people believe torturing kittens for fun is wrong, and utilitarianism explains that moral intuition well.

2) Utilitarianism builds on empathy. Many thinkers are currently studying the role of empathy in morality and evolution, and most people believe empathy is a morally good emotion. This emotion is central to utilitarianism because it is usually empathy that motivates people to promote general happiness and reduce general suffering.

3) Most laws have, or should have, utilitarian foundations. For example, there are laws against drunk driving because such acts cause unnecessary death and suffering. Good laws should be utilitarian in that they promote the general welfare.

4) Utilitarianism is clear and does not controversially appeal to God's Will. Right and Wrong are not a heavenly matter, but simply a matter of calculating the amount of happiness and suffering caused by an act. Of course, it does not follow that all utilitarians are atheists. Some theists are utilitarian because they believe God gave them intellects and empathy to discern right from wrong. Also, theists may follow rules, but they often give utilitarian reasons for those rules.  

For example, a theist may argue that God forbids dishonoring parents because dishonoring them decreases general happiness and increases general suffering.

5) Utilitarianism is not absolutist and maintains that morality is created for humans, not humans for morality. For example, some absolutists believe it is always wrong to lie or kill. But this seems wrong. There are rare occasions where it seems good to lie or kill, and utilitarianism explains this intuition well.

When is it good to lie? Imagine the Nazis are knocking on your door asking for Jews. Should you lie to save dozens of Jews? In this case, most people believe it is good to lie because it will save the most lives, which is a utilitarian reason. The utilitarian idea is that we should not blindly follow rules, rather we should follow rules when they promote the general welfare.   And we should break rules when they no longer improve the general welfare.

6) Utilitarianism is consistent with many religious claims, such as Jesus' command to love others as yourself. Notice Jesus does not command a simple love of self, rather he commands a utilitarian love. Jesus is not an egoist or relativist. Buddha also recommends the reduction of selfishness and an interconnected love for others.

7) Utilitarianism seems more scientific and mathematical. It is not scientific because it can be proven that we should maximize happiness, but it is scientific and mathematical because we can gradually learn which rules, laws, and moralities promote general happiness.    



Critical and Clarifying Questions

  1. Is it good to kill one healthy person and use their organs to save the lives of five other people?

Many criticisms of utilitarianism are based on the idea that some acts are wrong despite their good consequences. The Organ Donor case is a famous example.

Imagine you are a doctor and could kill a healthy teenager suffering from appendicitis, make it look like an accident, remove her organs, and save five other teenagers who immediately need the organs. Imagine too that you are a genius and know you will not get caught. Finally, imagine you are certain the organs will save the lives of the five teenagers. As in the Trolley Dilemma, you would be killing one to save five.

Most people believe it is wrong to kill the healthy teenager even though it will save a net of four lives. Their reasoning is partly based on the idea that the teenager has a right to her organs unless she gives consent to remove them

So, it seems utilitarianism does not explain all of your moral beliefs. In this case, it violates your sense of justice and rights. The ends do not always justify the means. Utilitarianism may explain some of your morality, but it does not explain the whole of it . . .  and it certainly appears to be a poor guide in life since it encourages killing innocent teenagers for their organs.

Reply: An intelligent utilitarian may argue that killing the innocent teenager does not really maximize happiness. Killing her may lead to a general distrust of doctors and a reduction of overall happiness. Or, it may lead to a character defect in the doctor, which causes individual and general suffering. Finally, a utilitarian may argue that the doctor should follow the rules against killing innocent people because such rules have proven over time to maximize happiness.

The last response is based on Rule Utilitarianism. It is the idea that we need not consider the consequences for each act, rather we can follow rules which have been proven over time to maximize good consequences. Whereas Act Utilitarians examine each situation to determine which action maximizes happiness, Rule Utilitarians follow and create rules that maximize happiness. 

For example, a rule utilitarian may feel it is wrong to kill an innocent teenager. When asked why, she might cite rules and argue it is simply wrong to kill innocents. When pressed further, she might say, “Well, there would ultimately be more suffering in the world if doctors disobeyed such rules.”

She is a rule utilitarian because her morality is mostly based on following rules. She is not weighing the amount of happiness for each act, rather she is following rules that people originally` created to maximize happiness.

Most utilitarians are both rule and act utilitarians. They follow rules like everyone else, but they do so because they think such rules maximize happiness. They may not have thought much about the rules, but they intuitively trust the rules maximize general happiness. In a similar way, I may follow the rules of a diet, but I know I can always research nutrition to discover why the rules work. Of course, they are thinking like act utilitarians when they seek to change non-maximizing rules.

For example, rule utilitarians will follow the rule against killing innocent people, but there may be cases where they think like act utilitarians and believe it is good to kill an innocent person (i.e. trolley dilemma).

Question: Does the organ donor case expose a fatal flaw of utilitarianism, or are the utilitarian responses a sufficient reply? Even if an act has negative consequences, does it follow it is wrong because of those negative consequences? How can the utilitarian avoid rationalizations?



  1. Do utilitarians support the death penalty or abortion?

Utilitarians disagree. A utilitarian may support the death penalty because he believes it deters crime and therefore promotes general happiness. He may also believe life in prison is worse than a quick death.

On the other hand, a utilitarian may oppose the death penalty because he believes it does not deter crime and therefore promotes more suffering than happiness. He may also believe prisons should be rehabilitative rather than punitive.

As for abortion, utilitarians are sometimes uninterested in whether the fetus is a human person with rights. Their focus is not necessarily on personhood, but on present and future happiness. For example, a utilitarian may support abortion in cases where the child would most likely die of hunger at a young age, but be opposed to abortion in cases where the child will most likely live a long and happy life.

The point is utilitarians disagree on ethical issues. They all want to maximize good consequences, but they disagree about which actions will achieve that goal. To build on the chart from the relativism chapter, we can say utilitarians share primary values in the first column but disagree about the facts and reasoning in the second column. This causes utilitarian disagreement at the secondary level (e.g. death penalty and abortion).

Questions: Consider your arguments about abortion, death penalty, premarital sex, pornography, economic justice, taxation, or other ethical issues. Which of your arguments are utilitarian? Are there opposing utilitarian arguments?



  1. Is it good to kill one innocent minority to maximize overall happiness?

Imagine you lived in the Wild West and the majority want to kill an individual in the minority (his race is less than ten percent of the population). You are the sheriff and know he is innocent. Imagine too that if you do not surrender the prisoner to the majority, they will go on a rampage through town and kill dozens of minorities. Should you surrender the innocent prisoner? 

This scenario leads to long and interesting discussions, many of which are attempts to get out of the scenario. In the end, most people think it is wrong to kill an innocent person even if killing him would cause the greatest happiness and least misery. WE are talking about NET Happiness with utilitarianism not total happiness.  That is, utilitarians seem to violate the sense of justice because they would kill one innocent to promote general welfare.

Most people have a strong sense of justice, which partly means giving a person their due. That is, most people believe it is unjust to punish people for crimes they did not commit. So, the problem with utilitarianism is that it implies it is sometimes good to punish innocent people.

 So, it seems utilitarianism does not explain the whole of your morality because it disregards your sense of justice.  It is unjust, and therefore immoral, to violate the rights of individuals or minorities even if such acts would promote general happiness. 

Reply: The intelligent utilitarian may argue the sheriff should follow the rule of law, which commands protection of the innocent prisoner. It may be difficult for the sheriff to see how this will promote the greatest happiness in his town, but he should trust that such rules will in the long run because the rules are based on time-tested utilitarian principles.

Nor should we disregard the rights of minorities by enslaving themc. Although it may maximize happiness for the majority in the short term, these unjust acts corrupt both slaveowners and slaves. In the long run, slavery and other forms of minority repression do not produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

It may be helpful to think of the moral landscape as composed of primary and secondary moral rules. At the secondary level, we follow rules like “never kill an innocent” or “everyone has rights.” But the primary justifications for these rules are utilitarian. For example, we should not kill innocents because such acts promotes more suffering than happiness. We should not violate these rules when it seems like better consequences will arise by breaking them, rather we should trust the rules are founded on stronger utilitarian grounds. So, the intelligent utilitarian argues that our moral rules are ultimately founded on utilitarian reasoning even if we are unaware of the utilitarian foundations when following the rules. In the long run, following the ideas of justice and refraining from killing innocent people will best promote the general welfare.

Questions: Does utilitarianism sometimes conflict with your ideas of justice or rights? Is this a problem for utilitarianism, or are the utilitarian responses sufficient? Is slavery wrong simply because of the consequences? Is it true that prohibiting slavery will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number?

*Research Le Guin's “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” or the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.” Write a summary and explain how these stories relate to utilitarianism.



  1. Is it good for peeping Tom to spy on his neighbor?

Imagine Tom spies on his neighbor. Nobody knows and it makes Tom very happy. Is there anything wrong with his voyeuristic activity?

Many people argue his activity is wrong partly because it violates the neighbor's right to privacy. But according to utilitarianism, the spying is good because it is causing more happiness in the world. So, the problem is most people think this act is wrong, but utilitarianism implies it is good.

Utilitarian Reply: A utilitarian may argue that spying, voyeurism, and pornography are wrong because they lead to harmful actions like rape. They also cause negative character traits, which will decrease productivity, cause marital strife, and lead to more suffering than happiness. Third, they cause a lack of trust and a sort of paranoia since people will worry more about voyeurs if such activity is legal and moral. Finally, many utilitarians argue that some pleasures are just better than others (see next section) and Tom’s pleasure is crude.

Questions: Is this action wrong simply because the neighbor has a right to privacy? Is the right to privacy based on utilitarianism? Is the peeping Tom scenario a problem for utilitarianism, or are the responses sufficient?



  1. Are some pleasures higher/better than other pleasures? Is opera better than pop music? Is it better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied?

As we explore these questions, note that a hedon is a unit of pleasure and a dolor is a unit of pain. If act one produces more net hedons, then act one is better.  

These questions introduce an important concept in Mill's Utilitarianism. Mill distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures whereas his predecessor did not (Bentham). According to Bentham's Utilitarianism, I could argue that the sensual act producing one hundred hedons in the pig is better than the geometrical act producing ninety nine hedons in Socrates. Only the quantity of pleasure matters. The belief producing three hedons in the kitten is better than the belief producing one hedon and one dolor in the genius. The pornography producing twenty one hedons is better than the opera producing twenty hedons.

But Mill disagreed. According to Mill, mental and spiritual pleasures are higher than carnal pleasures like food and sex. Mill writes, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied: better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (Mill, Ch. 2). He continues:

“Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs” (Mill, Ch. 2).

But how can Mill say there are higher and lower pleasures if pleasure is all that matters? How can some pleasures be higher unless we are using something other than pleasure to rank the pleasures?

One strategy in answering this question is to argue that mental and spiritual pleasures are better because they are longer lasting, less costly, and safer than carnal pleasures. Bentham used this strategy when he analyzed pleasures according to criteria such as as intensity, duration, and fruitfulness (i.e. “hedonic calculus”). The Epicureans also used this strategy. But how does one prove that watching an opera creates longer lasting, less costly, and safer pleasures than watching television all day?

The answer may lie in a second strategy, which is to claim there are higher pleasures and the person who has experienced both types of pleasure can tell us which is higher. This is Mill's strategy. He writes:

“Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the most desirable pleasure” (Mill, Ch. 2).

For example, if you and I both enjoy swimming in the ocean, but you tell me the San Marcos River is a better place to swim, then I should take your opinion seriously because I know you have experienced both.

In An Introduction to Ethics, Kevin Gibson gives the following example:

“Meat-eaters might be content with hamburgers. However, once they have tasted a well-cooked filet mignon, it is likely that all things being equal, they would prefer the filet. This is not to say that the experience of eating a hamburger is ruined or it would never be appropriate to eat one again. Rather, once people have been exposed to a range of qualitative experiences, they will be better equipped to make a choice” (p. 62).

So, our preferences are not mere innate preferences, they change as we are educated and have new experiences. You might think a hamburger is best, but that is probably because you have never tried filet mignon.

In a similar way, we should consult the wise and elderly since they have experienced much. They can discern the true forms of happiness from the false. For example, they can tell the codependent that he is not really happy in his current relationship. The wise and elderly can tell him this because they have experienced many types of relationship. It is shocking to many young people, but yes you can be mistaken about being happy.

So, according to Mill, we can determine which pleasures are higher by asking people who have experienced many types of pleasure. To maximize happiness, we should not trust our intuitions, rather we should consult the wise and elderly.

But the question remains, “what makes the filet mignon better than the hamburger, and the healthy relationship better than the codependent relationship?” It is all good and well to consult the wise, but how do the wise know which pleasures are higher? Consulting them no more explains goodness than reading a thermometer explains how the thermometer works.

To save utilitarianism, we could say it is still pleasure and happiness that makes some pleasures better, but it is impossible to quantify. This is why we must ask the wise. I'll leave it to you to evaluate this response.

Philosophers like G.E. Moore object in a different way. Pleasure cannot be the ultimate good because we can always ask, “Is that pleasure good?” For example, you would probably judge as bad the pleasure Bob gets from killing animals for fun. Happiness cannot be the ultimate good because we can always ask, “Is that happiness good?” These sorts of questions show that we are using some criteria other than pleasure or happiness. Goodness is elusive and perhaps undefineable.  

Questions: “Would you give up twenty IQ Points for a more even, content, or happier outlook on life” (Gibson, 62)? Does pornography produce more hedons than opera? 



  1. Consider Nozick's Experience Machine. Imagine scientists have figured out how to make a machine that will give you whatever you want. It will maximize your happiness/pleasure by creating a virtual reality, but you will think it is real. Would you prefer the machine to real life? How does this experiment relate to utilitarianism?

When students imagine this experiment, they often get distracted with concerns about technology. To bypass these objections, we must first imagine the machine is so well designed that it will not malfunction or produce more pain than happiness. If it helps, imagine you have the ability to occasionally unplug and reprogram as needed. Imagine too that some pain can be simulated, but just enough to maximize and appreciate happiness.  With these practical concerns set aside, the question is, “Would you plug in to the machine; would you enter a virtual world to maximize your happiness?”

Now, if we choose not to plug into the machine, it is because something other than pleasure or happiness matters to us. If only pleasure mattered, we would enter the machine. But many of us choose not to enter, so it seems pleasure and happiness are not the only intrinsic values.

Perhaps some people do not enter the machine because they want real relationships, not virtual ones. They want to be in contact with reality at a deep level, not just manmade reality. Perhaps reality is an intrinsic value. That is, we value reality for itself, not just for the pleasure that may come from reality.

If this is correct, then all classic utilitarianism is mistaken. Pleasure and happiness are not the only intrinsic goods. 

Question: Make a list of your intrinsic and instrumental values. Are pleasure and happiness your only instrinsic values, or do you also intrinsically value reality, truth, knowledge, friendship, goodness, love, or power?

Reply: Some modern forms of utilitarianism seek to maximize goods other than pleasure or happiness (e.g. preference utilitarianism).



  1. Imagine I lose my temper and attempt to kill Mr. Scott by placing poison in his tea. But the poison cures him of his arthritis instead of killing him. Imagine too that I later change my mind and want him to live. Was my action good?

According to utilitarianism, it seems poisoning Mr. Scott was good because it cured him of his arthritis. The world is now a happier place because I poisoned his tea.

So, it seems utilitarianism does not account for the role of motives in morality. We think motives matter, which is why we don't just want to know what the child did, but why she did it. Legally, we don't just care about murder, but whether it was first, second, or third degree murder. Motives matter in both morality and law, but utilitarianism disregards motives in its narrow focus on consequences.  

Reply: The intelligent utilitarian may argue this is a straw man fallacy. The utilitarian will think the poisoning act is bad for the same reason you do (i.e. bad motive). The difference is simply in why the utilitarian thinks the motive is bad. While you may judge it to be intrinsically bad, the utilitarian judges the motive as bad because a world in which characters have these types of motives would be a world of less general happiness.

Mill also believed that the greatest happiness is achieved when we structure society so that seeking one's own welfare promotes the general welfare. This includes forms of education that develop empathy and compassion. Mill writes:

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole, and secondly, that education and opinion, which exercise so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole” (Ch. 2).

In short, the utilitarian believes that a character with good, compassionate, and loving motives will be happier, and this type of person will promote greater happiness in everyone else. So, utilitarianism supports good motives and good character. You may immediately judge my motive as wrong in the poisoning case, but the utilitarian believes the deeper reason you think it wrong is because of the negative consequences of bad motives. That is, the motive is not intrinsically bad.   I’ll leave it to you to judge the merit of this utilitarian reply.



  1. According to Utilitarianism, you should always do the act that produces the most utility/happiness. So, should you eat at the nice restaurant or use that money in a way that will produce more net happiness/utility?

According to Utilitarianism, it seems you should sacrifice your restaurant meal and give the money to some charity. You should not eat fancy food because there are certainly alternative acts that will better promote the general happiness.   So, the criticism is that utilitarianism is too demanding, it requires that you live without resting much. You should only keep the income you need for basic food and shelter.

For example, imagine my sister needs a loan. Should I help her? Well, it seems not since I could use that money to save many lives; I could use it to maximize happiness for everyone, not just my sister’s happiness.

Another example: consider the mother who loves her children more than other children. The loving mother spends her money to pay for food, toys, music lessons, pizza parties, and other enriching experiences for her children. That is, she shows preference to her children, which seems problematic because utilitarianism demands impartiality and using money to promote general happiness, not simply the happiness of one’s own children. Lady Justice is blind, impartial, and so it seems the loving mother is not ethical.

In short, these types of examples seem to show that utilitarianism is too demanding and cannot explain the moral goodness of preferential love.

Reply: There are several utilitarian replies. First, we best take care of others when we take care of ourselves and our own. So, rules that promote rest, care, and individual entertainment actually fit into the utilitarian scheme because one best promotes general welfare by making oneself well.

Second, it is good to show preferential love to family because these are the people we know best and can therefore help best. Louis Pojman writes, “Although we should be concerned about the needs of future and distant people (especially poor), it actually would promote disutility for the average person to become preoccupied with these concerns” (Pojman, Ch. 6). You may not be able to keep the entire city clean, but you can at least keep your own yard clean.

So, I should help my sister with the loan because I deeply understand her character and I know how she will use it in a beneficial way. In reflective moments, I may also see how such acts create love and mold more benevolent character traits in both the lender and recipient.

In short, the utilitarian paradoxically argues that preferential love promotes general happiness, not just the happiness of those we prefer. It seems paradoxical because the utilitarian is resorting to second order reasoning to justify firs order moral beliefs. The first order moral belief is that the loving mother is highly moral in her preferential love. The second order reasoning involves a utilitarian attempt to connect preferential love to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Of course, it does not follow that all forms of preferential love are good. For example, it is not good to kill one orphaned teenager to save your five kids.

Question: Is utilitarianism too demanding or too narrow? Are the utilitarian responses sufficient?



  1. Can we know the future? Is this a problem for Utilitarianism?

It is often difficult to know how our acts will change the future, but utilitarianism is based on the ability to accurately predict the future. This is a problem.

For example, imagine two utilitarians disagree on abortion. One argues the baby might grow up to be a saint or genius like Albert Einstein. The other argues he might grow up to be Hitler. Of course, both are mere speculations. We do not and cannot know the future. Therefore, we cannot know what is right in this case.

Consider the butterfly effect in Chaos Theory. The initial conditions of a butterfly flapping its wings can cause any number of unexpected outcomes, such as a hurricane. So, the utilitarian must have god-like powers to know the future, to know the flapping of wings will cascade into a hurricane.

Reply: The intelligent utilitarian has several responses.

First, we do know the future in many cases. For example, dropping an atomic bomb will most likely kill many people. Donating to this charity will most likely save lives. Driving drunk will most likely cause more suffering than happiness. While we cannot be certain the sun rise tomorrow, we can know that it will most likely rise tomorrow. In short, the critic exaggerates our ability to know the future.  In most cases, we can predict the future fairly well and so this criticism seems weak.

Second, Mill argued that we do not have to calculate the future in each case. We can trust rules that society has tested over time. As rule utilitarians, we can trust the rules that have been proven to produce the best consequences.

Finally, Louis Pojman (Ch. 6) explains that the utilitarian distinguishes between three types of consequences:

“(1) actual consequences of an act, (2) consequences that could have reasonably been expected to occur, and (3) intended consequences. An act is absolutely right if it has the best actual consequences. An act is objectively right if it is reasonable to expect it will have the best consequences. An act is subjectively right if the agent intends or actually expects it to have the best consequences.

The utilitarian is concerned with objective consequences (#2) and these will usually harmonize with actual consequences since rational people can predict the future fairly well. So, the criticism seems weak.

If there are cases in which we really do not know the consequences to a high degree of probability (and I think there are such cases) then we should say, “We don’t know what is right since we don’t know the consequences.”  

Question: There is a cute baby in your neighbor's house who will one day destroy the earth. Would it be right to kill this cute baby? Do we kill cute babies during wartime?



  1. Imagine you have a choice between the following two acts: (a) Tell a particular lie, which will increase general happiness by ten hedons, or (b) Tell the truth, which will also increase general happiness by ten hedons. *Assume both acts cause one dolor.

It seems the utilitarian must believe the two acts are equal in moral value since both produce the same amount of happiness and suffering.

But is this correct? Isn’t telling the truth better when all factors are equal? Isn’t there something intrinsically good about veracity? Isn’t telling the truth noble whereas it is ignoble to lie whenever it is expedient?

Reply: The utilitarian will argue that telling the truth is usually good because it promotes trust, promise keeping, honoring of contracts and, in general, keeps society flourishing. So, we have a strong intuition that lying is good because it has been reinforced through societal teachings and thousands of years of experience.

However, the utilitarian emphasizes that there are cases when veracity is bad (e.g. Nazi case). Veracity is not an absolute value nor an intrinsic value, rather we value veracity because it usually promotes the greatest happiness.   In short, we should not make a fetish of veracity, it is valued for its good consequences and nothing more.

Question: Buddhists (and other types of thinkers) may argue that veracity is a state of mind that “captures” the interconnected state of reality. There is value in conforming the mind to reality, not simply producing pleasure or happiness. Veracity is the quality of being real and that is morally praiseworthy even if it fails to promote good consequences. What do you think? Is there something intrinsically valuable about veracity?




This chapter has introduced you to the ongoing dialogue on Utilitarianism. As with any ethical theory, there are crude and more sophisticated versions of the theory. In the end, it is your task to judge whether all of morality can be reduced to an impartial consideration of consequences.

As you review the strengths and criticisms of Utilitarianism, rem ember that it is one of the strongest of ethical theories because it gives fairly clear guidelines for determining right and wrong, especially at the social policy level.