A Utilitarian FAQ

Last Updated July 1, 2000

Version 1.0

Copyright 2000 by Ian Montgomerie (ian@ianmontgomerie.com)
This document may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes if it is reproduced in its textual entirety, with this notice intact.



None (this is the first version of the FAQ).


Utilitarianism is a philosophy which has been around for centuries, and is still active and popular in the modern world. It is important not only in philosophy itself, but in disciplines such as economics, political science, and decision theory. To some people, Utilitarianism seems to be the only ethical philosophy which is obviously correct. To others, it seems to be quite misconceived, even reprehensible. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get information on Utilitarianism, especially on the Internet. Although many good books on Utilitarianism have been published recently, the picture most people have of Utilitarianism is of the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill two centuries ago. People who read more recent works of philosophy are likely to read about Utilitarianism only in the words of its critics. This FAQ provides a summary of Utilitarianism and answers to common questions about it and criticisms of it. It emphasizes modern Utilitarian ideas because they are the most refined, and the least well known. The main sections of the FAQ contain the necessary background, while explanations of the common questions and common criticisms do not rely on each other.


The purpose of this FAQ is to explain modern Utilitarianism, both by describing what it advocates and answering criticisms of it. Utilitarianism is actually a philosophy with quite a few different variants, and it is beyond the scope of any FAQ of reasonable length to do justice to them all. Additionally, many of the variants of Utilitarianism can be regarded as obsolete (which is why there are newer variants in the first place). The Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for example, is still the best known form but has relatively few adherents today. These older versions have been subjected to many criticisms, some of which were telling, and subjected to many revisions as human knowledge advanced. Modern Utilitarian writings have brought forth the best arguments for certain ideas which are only a small part of all of the ideas that have at one point or another been called "Utilitarian". Because of this, there are two main approaches that a Utilitarian FAQ could take. One approach would be to try and cover the full history of Utilitarianism and all of the variants of it, thus describing a large group of philosophical positions spanning centuries. The other approach would be to pick the most modern, relevant, and correct Utilitarian positions and provide a consistent and comprehensive explanation of them. This FAQ follows the second approach, aiming to present a strong philosophical position, rather than a neutral historical overview. The main Utilitarian perspective presented here is a modern perspective on an act-based, preference-based, indirect Utilitarianism (these terms will be explained). This appears to be the perspective which has the most and the best support in modern writings, and the strongest arguments in favor of it.

This FAQ is designed not just to explain modern Utilitarianism, but to do so in a straightforward and accessible way. The FAQ is intended as a resource for anyone on the Internet that is interested in a thorough overview of Utilitarianism, regardless of whether or not they support it themselves. It avoids technical terms and philosophical jargon, and when that is not possible, definitions are provided. This FAQ is intended to provide a concise and readable overview of Utilitarianism, not the most powerful or rigorous possible arguments. The intention is that people will actually be able to read the whole FAQ, or the sections that interest them most, without undue effort. All too often, justice cannot really be done to an argument in the limited space available. Suggestions on how to make the FAQ more understandable and more useful are always welcome.


The maintainer and author of this FAQ, Ian Montgomerie, has entirely too much experience in online philosophical debates. He is neither a professional philosopher nor an official student of philosophy, although he is widely read on topics related to Utilitarianism. Although he has been a Utilitarian since he learned what the word meant in his late teens, and reinvented several Utilitarian wheels, he has no particular claim to authority other than whatever merit his arguments have in their own right. The first version of this FAQ was written in June 2000, mainly because of a near-total absence of information related to Utilitarianism on the Internet. It is intended to be a first step in rectifying that.

This FAQ will be continually, although irregularly, revised and made available on various newsgroups as well as the World Wide Web. This FAQ may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes (in other words you can't use it to make money), so long as all of the text is kept intact, including disclaimers, copyright, and credits. Distribution of the FAQ is actively encouraged, and the maintainer will be happy to send updated versions to anyone who wishes, and will distribute it in some useful manner. HTML and non-HTML versions are available. Please email the maintainer, or check his web site, for the latest version of the FAQ in both formats. Please direct questions and suggestions to the maintainer, who is always eager to hear them. Pointers to online and print resources relevant to Utilitarianism are also greatly appreciated.


Utilitarianism, properly speaking, is a collection of philosophical positions which have five major characteristics in common. Anything with these five characteristics is some type of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has been called the doctrine that the morally right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest number, but that old maxim is not really a useful description. Utilitarianism is the doctrine that the morally right thing to do consists, entirely, of doing whatever will maximize utility. Utility itself is not a simple concept, although its intent is to represent circumstances that are good for individuals. The five main characteristics of Utilitarianism are as follows:

Given these characteristics, Utilitarianism is best described as the ethical philosophy that says the morality of actions is proportional solely to how effectively their consequences maximize utility. Utility is the welfare of individual people, from the perspective of those people, and one person's utility is as important as another's. The major opponents of Utilitarianism are philosophies which believe that actions can be inherently right or wrong regardless of their consequences, or that some consequences are good even if they do not increase the welfare of any individual, or that we should promote welfare in some way other than by maximizing it.


Utilitarianism is a fairly old philosophy, and major elements of it are even older. The best known, and most prolific, Utilitarian philosophers were Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In their time, Utilitarianism was a significant philosophical movement in Britain, and the Utilitarians were some of the leading social reformers of the time. Mill, especially, is quite well known today. Many people seem to think, unfortunately, that Utilitarianism began with Bentham and ended with Mill. This is quite wrong in two ways. First, Bentham was not the first Utilitarian, although he did coin the word "Utilitarianism". Various pre-Benthamite philosophers were advocating Utilitarian positions several decades before Bentham was born. Also, Utilitarianism has a lot in common with ancient non-Utilitarian philosophers, such as Mo Tzu and Jesus. Both of these people advocated a doctrine of universal love. These doctrines were not precisely stated enough to compare directly with Utilitarianism, but they were definitely universalist and egalitarian, and had strong currents of consequentialism, welfarism, and (at least in the case of Mo Tzu) maximization. The second problem with the popular misconception is that there has been a great deal of development in Utilitarianism since Mill. Some people are aware, for example, of the later developments of Preference Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Mill is still usually regarded as the main resource on Utilitarianism, though. Part of the problem is that he wrote about it comprehensively, and there have been few good comprehensive books about Utilitarianism since then.

Modern Utilitarianism is in many ways far more sophisticated than that of Mill. Most importantly, it has become connected with many developments in areas such as economics, political science, and decision theory. Utilitarianism has always enjoyed an essentially unique position as the only philosophy which applied to all areas of human endeavour in a reasonably straightforward (in theory, anyway) endeavour, and committed to specific positions on how conflict between various interests should be resolved. In Mill's time, Utilitarianism was strongly linked to economics, although the two disciplines subsequently diverged. Today, Preference Utilitarianism as a theory underlies many ideas in the sciences, and has been formalized to a degree that Mill never dreamed of. The idea of utility maximization even has applications entirely outside of philosophy, such as its use in artificial intelligence to represent how a computer could make tradeoffs between different goals. Utilitarianism today exists both as a powerful kind of formal reasoning, and as the philosophy which says that such reasoning should define the moral ideal in human affairs. Utilitarianism can even be formally derived from a set of four reasonable seeming axioms (an axiom is a simple founding assumption, most often used in mathematics), something that no other major philosophy can claim.

The modern state of Utilitarianism in relation to other philosophies is actually quite unusual. Most philosophies exist in theoretical isolation, based on ideas which have little in common with ideas in other disciplines. Other disciplines, in turn, don't have much formal contact with them. Most major philosophies have a significant presence in politics and social issues, with people explicitly referring to issues such as rights and equality when debating how society should be organized. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, exists mostly in the background of popular discourse. People who claim to follow other philosophies often make Utilitarian arguments when it suits them, and Utilitarian arguments are often used by people who wouldn't claim to follow any specific philosophy at all. Many philosophers make sure to explicitly place their ideas in opposition to Utilitarianism, as if it were always lurking in the background ready to pounce on the unsuspecting theory. In part, this may be because Utilitarianism is a sort of philosophical hydra, growing a new position for each one that is dismissed. While specific Utilitarian ideas are vulnerable to attack, the underlying sentiments have proven amazingly resilient and have evolved to remain entirely current. Throughout the twentieth century, many philosophers confidently predicted that Utilitarianism had been devastated, and would soon fall out of favor - only to be disproved when it remained as popular as ever. Utilitarian perspectives have also been quietly adopted in domains ranging from economics, political science, and decision theory to cognitive science and artificial intelligence. This has given modern Utilitarianism a powerful formulation like no other, and a strong (although largely invisible to the public) applied tradition. The old questions of how to measure utility, and how to maximize it most effectively in practice, have been extensively researched outside of philosophy. The result of this is that while other philosophies often talk in general terms of how they should be applied, and have problems in resolving conflicts between various principles, Utilitarianism is at the cutting edge of rigorously applicable principles. Which is still, it should be mentioned, far from perfect. Application of ethical systems to the complexity of the real world is no easy task, and Utilitarianism is the worst philosophy around for doing that, except for all the others.


Although a great number of different positions have been called "Utilitarian", there are a few major versions of Utilitarianism which it is important to be aware of. This is a short overview of some of the different approaches that have been taken to the five major elements of Utilitarian philosophy. Various combinations of these different approaches form the beliefs of individual Utilitarians. Essentially any combination is valid, although some are less common than others. Subdivided by characteristic, the versions are as follows.


One of the most important aspects of Utilitarianism as a philosophy is that it is very Empiricist. Empiricism is, basically, an approach to knowledge which relies on finding out what things are like in the real world. There are many approaches to knowledge other than Empiricism. Rationalism holds that a great deal of knowledge, such as moral knowledge, can be deduced from abstract principles and is thus absolutely true regardless of what the real world is like. Intuitionism holds that people can "just know" what the truth is because they feel it intuitively. Many religions hold that the truth is whatever the absolute authority of God says it is, and it must be accepted on faith. Empiricism is different from these. According to Empiricism, to know anything of much use about the world, you have to go out and investigate the world. You have to collect evidence, and use that to figure out what is true. Reason without evidence allows you to figure out little more than abstract rules and principles such as mathematics and logic. Faith and intuition are untrustworthy, only empirical evidence is trustworthy.

Empiricism is very important to Utilitarianism because Utilitarianism says that the morally best actions are those which produce the greatest welfare in practice. Figuring out what will produce the greatest welfare in the real world is a complex practical issue. Utilitarianism tells us what goal to work toward, giving us a standard to measure our actions against. Empiricism is necessary to tell us how to achieve the goal. A Utilitarian cannot sit down and figure out what the utility-maximizing action is by reasoning logically from first principles, or by consulting intuition. Most obviously, this is because the consequences of actions in the real world depend on the details of how the real world works. Those details can only be figured out by empirical investigation. More importantly, however, is the nature of welfare itself. Welfare is different for each person. People prefer different things, have different desires, and work toward different goals. They take pleasure in different things, and have different hopes and fears. To maximize utility, it is necessary to know what is good for different people. Sometimes this means using an empirical approach to figure out exactly what specific people want. Other times, this means using an empirical approach to investigate human nature, and find out what groups of people are most likely to want. Either way, we have to actually check real world evidence to learn about the welfare of real people. We cannot rely on our own particular perspective to figure out what other people want, and we cannot logically deduce desires.

What this means for Utilitarianism as a practical philosophy is that Utilitarians favor specific actions or policies based on evidence. Utilitarianism in itself gives no direction as to what methods are most likely to achieve the desired end of maximizing utility. Many philosophies are not at all empirical in their application. Philosophies based on religion often command their followers to follow fairly specific rules based on religious dictates. Philosophies based on natural rights say that certain actions are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong, regardless of their real world consequences. If actions are evaluated according to whether or not they follow strict rules and principles, then real world policy tends to become a matter of directly applying philosophical justification. For Utilitarians, on the other hand, philosophy does not apply directly to any policy. It is always necessary to look to Empiricism to determine the likely consequences of an action or a policy. Only then can those consequences be evaluated according to how effectively they maximize utility.


Before going into detail about the Utilitarian perspective on specific issues, it is important to be familiar with three kinds of ideas: normative, descriptive, and prescriptive. When discussing philosophy, especially ethics, it is important to distinguish between kinds of ideas that are talking about fundamentally different things. Failure to do so can lead to a great deal of confusion, and to poor arguments.

The distinction between these kinds of idea is especially important to Utilitarianism. It is very common for philosophers to fail to distinguish between prescriptive and normative ideas. All too often an ideal is criticized because it seems to hard for humans to achieve in practice, or a practical suggestion is criticized because it proposes getting closer to an ideal by indirect means. Utilitarianism is, fundamentally, a normative idea. Utilitarian philosophy describes the ultimate, perfect state of affairs - Utility maximization. The Utilitarian ideal is to achieve the highest possible level of welfare for everyone. Notice that the Utilitarian credo has the structure of a normative idea - it sets out the goal of welfare maximization, and it describes how to compare reality to the goal (use the concept of utility). It does not, however, necessarily say anything at all about how that goal should be pursued in practice. Indirect Utilitarianism, for example, is an explicit recognition that Utilitarianism is a normative ideal, not a prescriptive idea. According to Indirect Utilitarians, utility maximization is the ideal but that ideal might be most effectively achieved by people who are not constantly and consciously trying to maximize utility. The prescriptive ideas that work best in bringing utility as close as possible to the maximum may not be a straightforward or direct application of Utilitarian maximization.

When specific criticisms of Utilitarianism are addressed in the following sections, these three types of ideas will be mentioned fairly often. It is important to separate normative and prescriptive ideas, because criticisms of Utilitarianism itself must focus on its nature as a normative idea. Criticisms which focus on prescriptive ideas can only address the issues of applying Utilitarianism, not the validity of Utilitarianism as a normative philosophy. Confusion between these different types of argument is unfortunately quite common, because philosophers in general do not consistently distinguish between normative and prescriptive ideas. When they do distinguish them, the terminology they use to do so varies from philosopher to philosopher, providing further evidence that they are recognizing the difference on a case by case basis rather than in general. In fact, many disagreements within Utilitarianism itself seem to involve a confusion between normative and prescriptive ideas. For example, a major argument for Rule Utilitarianism has been that following rules would make coordination and cooperation easier, and thus maximize utility more effectively than attempts to evaluate the utility of every single action. This is simply an argument that following rules is prescriptively useful, because it is better in practice at increasing utility. It is not an argument against the normative ideal of Act Utilitarianism, which is entirely compatible with the idea that following rules will, in practice, be more effective than trying to calculate the utility of every action. An all too common philosophical error is to try and come up with normative ideals that will work as practical, prescriptive strategies as well. There is no particular reason to reject an ideal just because it cannot be fully achieved in practice, and these definitions should help us recognize that.


  1. Why should I accept Utilitarianism? (top)
  2. Numerous arguments have been advanced in favor of Utilitarianism, and it would be impossible to do justice to them here. Brief overviews of some of the arguments in favor of Utilitarianism will have to suffice. Those who are more interested should check out the "Useful References" section of this FAQ for further reading.

    The most obvious argument for Utilitarianism is that it is like an extension of Egoism (self-interest) to the group. Different people have different interests. Utilitarianism trades off between the interests of different people, holding that what is important is their actual interests rather than what someone else thinks they should be interested in. Utilitarianism takes all of the principles that we tend to believe someone should apply if they wanted to further their own interests as much as possible, and extends them to the interests of all. Utilitarian morality says that what is good for people is defined by what they value, not by what someone else values. Utilitarianism is attractive to those who believe that the well being of people should be determined by the people themselves, rather than what someone else has decided is good for them. Non-Utilitarian philosophers often hold that it is intuitively obvious that we should value things other than welfare. Exactly what else they say we should value, however, tends to vary significantly according to the dictates of culture, religion, and their own prejudices. Welfare is the one thing that virtually everyone agrees is a good thing, independent of perspective.

    A second argument for Utilitarianism is that it is the only rigorous, simple, and powerful system of morality that emerges solely from relatively basic principles. Many people believe that a system of morality should reflect our "moral intuitions" about what is right and wrong, but the details of such moral intuitions vary quite a bit between people. Utilitarianism can be supported by basic and nearly universal intuitions, such as that welfare is good, that if something is good you should have as much of it as possible, and that people should be given equal consideration. On top of these, Utilitarianism constructs a powerful and consistent philosophy that can be applied to any situation. The exact results do not always agree with peoples' specific moral intuitions, but that is also true for any other philosophy that is not equivalent to "do whatever your intuition happens to tell you is right". Non-Utilitarian philosophies are also supported by appeals to various moral intuitions, but not in nearly such a basic or consistent manner. Non-Utilitarian philosophers tend to appeal to a great many intuitions, some of them very specific. They do so at many stages of their argument, whenever it seems convenient. It often seems that philosophers use logic and inference from the intuitions they have appealed to already only so long as that produces the result they want, and when it does not then they appeal to yet another intuition to move the argument in another direction. Utilitarianism does not have these flaws.

    A third reason to support Utilitarianism is because of its strong support. The Utilitarian approach to morality can actually be derived from a small set of axioms, such as Bayesian reasoning and Pareto Optimality. These are technical ideas that not everybody accepts, but Utilitarians can point to a small set of reasonable founding assumptions and say "if you accept these, then our philosophy provably follows from them". Because of the power of the concepts it is founded on, Utilitarianism provides an ethical theory that applies to every situation in a well defined manner. Utilitarianism is not easy to apply in practice, but when one gets down to it other philosophies are not either. In fact, most non-Utilitarian philosophies can't even be consistently applied in theory. Philosophies based on the idea of natural rights, for example, have never managed to come up with a complete specification of what to do when different rights conflict with each other. They give some guidance about what to do in relatively ordinary situations, but not how to resolve every possible conflict. Utilitarian theory can provide an answer in any situation, so that we only have to worry about the practical problems that come from applying the ethical theory.

  3. Can Utilitarianism be logically proven? (top)
  4. There are actually three different ways in which a philosophy could be proven, and in which people try to prove philosophies. Each of those will be considered in turn.

    The first way to prove a philosophy would be to show that it followed inevitably from the basic rules of mathematics and logic. Such a proof would be very powerful, because you could not deny it without denying the very foundations of mathematics and reasoning. Such a proof is also impossible. Quite simply, mathematics and logical reasoning in themselves do not say anything about human morality. In general, such subjects deal with formal relationships between abstract symbols. They only produce conclusions that are more than interesting symbol games when we use the symbols to represent relationships in reality. When we do that, we introduce concerns such as the accuracy of the evidence we are using, and whether the assumptions we are making about how the symbols correspond to reality are actually true. This means that mathematics and logic require evidence to produce conclusions about reality, and their conclusions are only as good as that evidence. Anybody who claims to have absolutely proven the correctness of any moral philosophy using mathematics or logic is wrong. Neither Utilitarianism nor any opposing philosophy can be proven in such a way.

    The second way to prove a philosophy would be to introduce facts about the world, and to show that the philosophy holds true if those facts hold true. Such a conclusion is only as strong as the facts it is based on and the reasoning which produces a proof from them. Some facts, however, are certain enough that most people will reasonably accept them. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove the correctness of an ethical philosophy based only on empirical facts. This was recognized over two centuries ago as the "is-ought" problem. The facts describe only what is. Ethical philosophy attempts to describe what we ought to do. An "ought" and an "is" are two entirely different kinds of statements, and you cannot produce either one from the other. While this rule (known as Hume's Law) has not really been formally proven, it has also never been violated in two centuries. Countless philosophers have attempted to deduce what we ought to do using only knowledge of what is true in the real world, and all of them have failed. Neither Utilitarianism nor any opposing philosophy can be proven based only on reasoning from empirical evidence.

    The third way to prove a philosophy would be to deduce it from axioms. An axiom is a kind of foundational assumption used in such things as mathematical and logical proof. An axiom is assumed to be true, rather than being proven. Axioms are usually chosen because they seem reasonable and because they produce reasoning which is useful. For example, it is considered a good idea to choose axioms which are consistent with each other, because inconsistent axioms would allow you to prove anything. This kind of proof is only as good as the assumptions it is based on. What this means is that a logical argument which brings in assumptions other than the basic assumptions of mathematics and logic can be used to prove Utilitarianism, or anything else. Such a proof can show that if you accept certain assumptions as true, you must also accept the conclusions of the proof. Very few philosophers even attempt to formally prove their conclusions based on axiomatic assumptions, due to the complexity of the task. Most are content to produce written arguments in favor of their position, with a variety of assumptions mentioned. Most philosophies actually require a substantial number of assumptions at various points in their argument. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, requires only a few plausible assumptions to be formally proven.

    The axioms sufficient to prove Utilitarianism are described by Harsanyi in "Utilitarianism and Beyond" (see the Bibliography section of this FAQ). Note that one could prove Utilitarianism using other axioms, perhaps even more reasonable ones, but these four are among those that will work. First, the preferences of people should follow Bayesian rationality. Second, moral preferences should follow Bayesian rationality. Third, moral preferences should follow Pareto Optimality. Fourth, the preferences of different people should be given equal weight. Unfortunately, these issues are too technical to describe in this FAQ. The axioms will mainly be of interest to those who know what Bayesian rationality and Pareto Optimality are. Bayesian rationality is the dominant theory of how to make rational choices under uncertainty. Pareto Optimality is the idea that if there are two outcomes A and Z, and some people prefer A to Z while nobody prefers Z to A, then A ought to be chosen.

  5. Why the name "Utilitarianism"? (top)
  6. The name "Utilitarianism" is perhaps unfortunate, because the non-philosophical usage of "utilitarian" has certain negative connotations attached. Something which is utilitarian is functional, practical, and effective, just as Utilitarianism is intended to be. The world also, however, carries the connotation that something which is utilitarian is nothing more. Calling something utilitarian may give the impression that it is functional but has no other virtues; it is unappealing, ordinary, spare and minimal. This does fit in with some popular misconceptions of Utilitarianism, but it has little in common with the actual philosophy. If I had a choice I might call it something like "Welfare Optimization". The name "Utilitarianism", however, became thoroughly stuck centuries ago and is not going anywhere. It is also, unfortunately, becoming less useful over time because so many views are becoming identified as "Utilitarian". When advocating a particular sort of Utilitarian view, one is often tempted to coin a new name for it merely to avoid having it mixed up with whatever the reader's existing conception of Utilitarianism is.

  7. What is the relationship between Utilitarianism, Egoism, and Altruism? (top)
  8. Utilitarianism, Egoism, and Altruism are very closely related to each other philosophically, although they are very different in practice. They are all Consequentialist, Welfarist, Maximizing, Universalist theories. The difference is that Utilitarianism is Aggregative, and the other two are not. All three ideas accept that what is morally good is solely defined by the consequences that people prefer. Where they differ is in the weight that should be given to the preferences of different people.

    Ethical Egoism is essentially the ethical philosophy that says there should be no ethical philosophy. It claims that the only preferences that matter to any person should be their own. Ethical Egoism holds that people should maximize satisfaction of their self interest, without any consideration for others. Ethical Altruism is the opposite - it claims that people should entirely ignore their own preferences, and maximize the welfare of others. Utilitarianism claims that the same weight should be given to the welfare of everyone, regardless of who they are. Theoretically, one could also claim that people should give varying weights to different people according to some complicated scheme, but no philosophy has actually done this. In fact, Ethical Egoism and Ethical Altruism are both rare philosophies. Utilitarianism is the only one of the three with substantial support.

    Note that it is also common to label individual behaviors, as well as philosophies, as examples of egoism, altruism, and utilitarianism. An egoistic behavior is one which shows concern only for self interest, an altruistic behavior shows concern for others, and a utilitarian behavior shows concern for all equally. There can be some confusion because in the real world, unlike in ethical philosophy, behaviors can show varying balances between benefits to the self and to others. Sometimes, calling a behavior "altruistic" is used to mean that the net result of its effects taken together is to bring about more welfare for others, and less for the self, than a fully egoistic behavior. In this sense, egoistic behaviors are those which are entirely self-interested, and all other behaviors are referred to as altruistic, or as involving altruism, or as partly altruistic.

  9. Is Utilitarianism a form of Moral Relativism? (top)
  10. No, Utilitarianism has nothing in common with Moral Relativism. Moral Relativism states that all moral standards are equally valid. Utilitarianism claims that all values and preferences are equally valid, but it claims that only a single moral standard is valid (the Utilitarian standard of utility maximization). Morals and values are different. A value is something that is considered to be a good thing. Values are preferences, desires, goals, and so on. A moral is something that one ought to do. Utilitarianism says that the morally best thing to do is to promote everyone's values (by maximizing welfare), with all values treated equally. Many other ethical philosophies say that morality consists of promoting only some values, or promoting some values as more important than other values. Moral Relativism says that there is no morally best thing to do at all. It says that all moral standards are equally valid (or invalid), and thus that the truth of morality is entirely relative to the perspectives of each individual. Utilitarianism is strongly opposed to Moral Relativism, because it supports a single, straightforward and comprehensive system of morality intended to be applied universally.

  11. What political positions do Utilitarians favor? (top)
  12. This is a difficult question to answer, in part because there is no one answer. The nature of Utilitarianism is that it sets out a goal (utility maximization), and says to use whatever methods will best achieve that goal. Determining what methods best maximize utility depends on what the values and preferences of people actually are, and what methods work best in practice. Determining these is a difficult empirical question, and in principle any answer is possible. Utilitarians could conceivably support any political position, so long as they believed that doing so would be the bring about the highest utility. Utilitarians do, in fact, come from a broad range in the political spectrum. Some are fairly conservative, some are moderate, some are liberal. Some are essentially socialist, some are libertarians, some are even social anarchists and anarcho-capitalists. Some political views are associated mostly with particular varieties of Utilitarianism, but that is beyond the scope of this FAQ. Utilitarians have the same problems of imperfect knowledge, limited skills, biases and prejudices that are common to the rest of humanity. As such, it is unsurprising that they often disagree given that Utilitarianism does not dogmatically prescribe a detailed ideology. What Utilitarians have in common is the ethical philosophy they use to approach political issues, not the conclusions they come to on those issues.

    Despite the range of Utilitarian views, the average Utilitarian does not have the same views as the average person. The classical Utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, were radical reformers. They were important Classical Liberals who directed harsh criticisms at old British society, which they believed was ruled by tradition, superstition, and powerful interests in a way harmful to the general welfare. Modern Utilitarians are less in favor of radical reform, but this is largely because of a much greater awareness that more modest but effective changes can have better results. Utilitarianism today is also not often the explicit philosophy of political reformers, especially in North America (where it never had as much of an impact as in Britain). Some safe generalizations can still be made. Utilitarianism is broadly in favor of the redistribution of wealth, to at least as much of an extent as most modern Industrial countries are (and often considerably more). Utilitarians tend to be in favor of a substantial degree of freedom and autonomy on the part of people because that is an effective way of promoting their welfare in practice. Democracy and the rule of law are also overwhelmingly favored because they are effective ways of running a society composed primarily of non-Utilitarians (and even a society of Utilitarians would have to deal with human nature). As believers in a philosophy which holds all values to be worthy of equal consideration, Utilitarians are generally socially liberal, and very few are strong religious conservatives.

  13. Is Utilitarianism Atheistic? (top)
  14. Utilitarianism is not inherently Atheistic. Utilitarian philosophy does not directly say anything about the existence of a God or gods. Many religious believers are Utilitarians, and the preachings of many major religious figures (such as Jesus) have many similarities to Utilitarianism. Utilitarians generally believe that Utilitarianism would be perfectly correct in a universe with a God or gods. Of course, it must be pointed out that Utilitarianism is not compatible with any non-Utilitarian ethical theory. If a specific religion involves an ethical theory that is in significant disagreement with Utilitarianism, then Utilitarianism is not compatible with that religion (or at least with fully orthodox belief in it). In practice, because there is often a great deal of disagreement within religions and between similar religions, Utilitarianism is compatible with the main ideas of many religions. Some religious denominations believe so strongly in ideas opposed to Utilitarianism, however, that Utilitarianism is not compatible with them. One important factor is that Utilitarianism does not appeal to divine authority to support itself. People have argued that God wants us to be Utilitarians, but the secular origins of the philosophy (like those of most major ethical philosophies) are obvious. Those who claim that morality is defined by divine authority, rather than by what is inherently right, tend to take a dim view of Utilitarianism. It should be noted that many major religious denominations actually believe that divine authority promotes certain morals because they are inherently right, rather than that certain morals are right merely because they are backed by divine authority.

  15. Does Utilitarianism favor redistribution of wealth? [LONG] (top)
  16. The short answer to this question is "yes in theory, yes within limits in practice".

    Utilitarianism has actually had a significant overlap with economics, and many people have used Utilitarian ideas to justify the maximization of wealth, claiming that it is the same thing as maximizing welfare. A substantial number of economists over the centuries have claimed that Utilitarianism justified wealth maximization, and thus that the redistribution of wealth was only justified insofar as it increased the efficiency of the market. They opposed any redistribution of wealth that would decrease the total amount of wealth in society. The Utilitarian tradition in philosophy, and the broad trend of modern Utilitarianism, does not follow that line. Mainstream Utilitarianism tends to be quite supportive of the redistribution of wealth.

    It is fairly obvious that wealth and welfare are different things. Wealth consists of assets such as property, goods, and money. Welfare consists of subjective things such as happiness, the satisfaction of preferences, and the achievement of goals. It is also obvious that the presence of wealth does not always mean the presence of an equivalent level of welfare, and that gaining more wealth does not necessarily lead to a corresponding gain in welfare. Wealth is an important contributor to welfare, but it is not the only one. The reason that this creates a policy dilemma is because the production and the distribution of wealth are not independent of each other. Ideally, Utilitarianism recommends producing the maximum possible amount of wealth, and then distributing it on the basis of need. In the real world, redistributing wealth can often diminish the incentive or the ability of the people in the economy to produce more wealth. Not all redistribution decreases total wealth - in fact, some forms of redistribution can increase total wealth because they serve to fix inefficiencies in a market economy. In general, though, there are many forms of wealth redistribution which decrease total wealth, thus creating a tradeoff between the total amount of wealth available, and the distribution of that wealth.

    In principle, the Utilitarian answer to this is simple - aim for the specific tradeoff between total wealth, and distribution of wealth, that maximizes utility. That doesn't mean that the dispute is actually simple to resolve, because some have argued that wealth and welfare cannot practically be distinguished. There are two main arguments for this assertion. The first is that it is effectively impossible to compare the utility between persons, either in theory or in practice. If it is impossible in theory, then this is essentially a rejection of Utilitarianism as it is generally understood. If it is impossible in practice, then there is no basis on which to redistribute wealth from one person to another. It would be impossible to predict whether it would lead to an increase or decrease in overall utility. Thus there would never be any point in sacrificing the total production of wealth in order to redistribute it. The second form of argument involves assuming a definition of utility which causes utility maximization to be similar or identical to wealth maximization.

    The argument that utility cannot be compared between people is in reality very implausible. It is true that comparing arbitrary sets of preferences is a theoretically complex task, and some kinds of utility are fairly difficult to compare between people. Some, however, are fairly easy to compare. It is quite sensible, for example, to suggest that the welfare benefits of basic food, shelter, and health are quite similar between people. We all like to avoid hunger, to be protected from the elements, and to enjoy good health. Our likes and dislikes in such matters are similar enough that it is quite safe to say they are approximately equal between people. Utilitarian theory can easily cope with a situation where some kinds of utility can be compared and others cannot. One solution would be to confine redistribution to goods of well known utility, and to use a market economy to allow people to trade for the rest according to their preferences.

    Some arguments that wealth and welfare maximization are essentially identical rely on an empirical, psychological argument. The argument asserts that while wealth and welfare maximization are not identical, they are associated strongly enough that wealth is at least as good a measure of welfare as anything else. We do not, after all, have anything like a perfect way to measure welfare under any of the common views of what welfare is. Many people believe that because wealth in a free market is heavily influenced by the choice of individuals between available alternatives, people who choose in a rationally self-interested manner will naturally be quite effective at maximizing their welfare. They know what they want, and they will try their best to get it. Unfortunately, this argument actually hides some fairly broad psychological assumptions. It is well known that people are not rationally self-interested, and that no actual market is perfect. Many markets are pretty good, and people are mostly fairly rational, but wealth maximization will only be the best approximation of utility maximization if the failures of markets and human reasoning are unpredictable and/or evenly distributed. If people are always mostly rational and markets are always fairly good, then wealth maximization will be a reliable across-the-board substitute for welfare maximization. In the real world, however, neither is the case. Market failures are minor in some circumstances, and extreme in others. Humans can deal quite rationally with many situations, but are consistently poor in dealing with others. Whenever we can identify the situations where the "wealth equals welfare assumptions" fail badly, welfare maximization can differ substantially from wealth maximization and there can be a strong case for redistribution of wealth. The empirical evidence is complicated (and a hot topic of current research), but it is known that the "wealth equals welfare" assumptions fail under many circumstances, some of which are well known though beyond the scope of this FAQ. The empirical assumption that wealth maximization is equivalent to welfare maximization is simply not supportable in general, and those who argue for it tend not to test its conclusions strongly enough to give them a good idea of when it fails.

    The other argument that wealth and welfare maximization are the same is essentially an economic argument which relies on using an economic definition of welfare/utility. The argument defines welfare in the form of "satisfaction of expressed preferences". Economists can't actually measure preferences that people do not act on, because that is a complex psychological issue. To make their jobs easier, they look at whatever alternative people pick when given a choice, and say that they preferred that. This measurement of welfare becomes divorced from the subjective mental welfare of individual by a chain of assumptions. The big problem with measuring welfare in this manner is that what people choose in a free market is dependent upon their resources. You cannot choose what you cannot pay for. The theoretical assumptions used by economists in these matters are actually quite complicated. Empirical research seems to indicate that the welfare benefits of each additional bit of wealth decline as a person becomes wealthier (this is known as declining marginal utility, of goods and of money). This provides an argument that, in principle, highly unequal distributions of wealth are unlikely to be welfare-maximizing. The economic definition of welfare measures preference as if dollars counted equally, not as if people counted equally. In practice, counting dollars equally is often not the same as counting people equally. This is theoretically complex, but can be illustrated using a fanciful but simple example.

    Imagine that there is an economy consisting of two groups of people, the Greedy and the Blind. The Greedy are very productive, generating large amounts of wealth. They are also very selfish, caring nothing about the well-being of others. The Blind are disabled, through no real fault of their own, and thus they are considerably less productive. They are not able to produce much that the Greedy want. The productivity level of the Blind is barely sufficient for them to eke out a meagre existence on the brink of starvation. Their lives are difficult and often short, and they can expect no charity from the Greedy who care nothing for them. They can also expect little money from the Greedy through voluntary exchange, since the Greedy do not have a strong desire for the limited goods that the Blind can produce. The Greedy, on the other hand, are quite wealthy. Their high level of productivity provides them with lives of luxury and health. Many of them spend more money on their hobbies than the Blind spend in their entire lives. According to wealth maximization, this situation is as it should be. The Blind cannot produce much of what anyone else wants, and thus few of their preferences will be satisfied. According to welfare maximization, it is not hard to see what is wrong with this situation. Redistributing a small portion of the Greedy's wealth to the Blind would produce a very large benefit to the Blind, and only a small detriment to the Greedy. The Greedy would live lives of slightly less luxury; the Blind would move from miserable poverty to living comfortably. The redistributed wealth produces more welfare benefits in the hands of the Blind than the hands of the Greedy. It is easy to see that this can remain true even if the redistribution decreases total wealth (so that, for example, a 100 dollar decrease in Greedy wealth would result from a transfer of 50 dollars to the Blind). Whenever someone claims that welfare maximization and wealth maximization are the same thing, remember this example.


  1. Utilitarianism is contrary to our moral intuitions, so there must be something wrong with it. (top)
  2. The single most common criticism of Utilitarianism, and indeed of most ethical philosophies, is that it produces conclusions which are "contrary to our moral intuitions". What this means is deceptively simple. A "moral intuition" is a gut feeling, intuition, or involuntary sentiment about whether something is right or wrong. If a situation or philosophical conclusion is described, and you think that it is obviously right or wrong, without needing to think it over or consult an ethical philosophy, that is a "moral intuition". What someone means when they say Utilitarianism is contrary to our moral intuitions, therefore, is that there are situations where Utilitarianism says one thing is right, but moral intuition says an entirely different thing is right.

    A lot of people find arguments from moral intuition very compelling. This includes most philosophers. There are various reasons for that, but none of them are compelling. Moral intuitions can be a sort of useful piece of evidence in many arguments, but they prove nothing when it comes to normative ideas. Recall that a normative idea serves as a theoretical ideal, which describes a perfect state of affairs (or a perfect strategy for action), providing a basis against which to evaluate reality. Normative ideas not intended to be descriptive (a descriptive idea explains how the world actually works), or prescriptive (a prescriptive idea describes an effective and practical strategy for improvement). Utilitarianism is a normative theory. Moral intuitions certainly exist (descriptive), and they are practical and effective ways to get people to cooperate in the real world (prescriptive), but there is no reason to think that they have anything to do with any kind of ethical ideal (normative).

    The most obvious argument against "our moral intuitions" (and that is the exact phrase used by countless philosophers), is that they are not "ours". Popular conceptions of morality vary dramatically across societies, across time, and between individuals. There are some underlying common features, but what is or is not morally intuitive varies dramatically according to who you ask. When someone talks about "moral intuition", they are probably speaking for their own moral intuition, but regardless of what they think they are probably not speaking for the majority of humanity across the ages. One thing about a normative ideal is that it is consistent - its nature does not depend on who you are, where you live, or what you were raised to believe. Most arguments from moral intuition implicitly assert that the arguer's moral intuitions are either universal, or are somehow superior to the differing intuitions of others, but they have no basis to support either of those claims. Trying to build an objective, normative ethical philosophy on a foundation of subjective intuition is not productive.

    In fact, people who call upon moral intuitions to justify their philosophies place themselves in a curious dilemma. Philosophies are usually consistent ideas based on a manageable number of fundamental principles and concerns. Reasoned argument is used to produce conclusions based on the principles. Moral intuitions, on the other hand, are very case-specific, variable, sometimes contradictory, and seldom consistent with any simple set of general principles. Intuitions are not the product of reasonable inference from a manageable set of principles, they are the very specific feelings produced by extremely complex workings within our minds. The only philosophy which is compatible with all intuitions is Intuitionism, which says that what is right and wrong is entirely determined by what moral intuition says is right and wrong. Of course, since intuition varies from person to person, Intuitionism can justify essentially anything, and fails to provide a consistent normative standard at all. A great deal of philosophy, therefore, consists of little more than trying to produce manageable sets of principles which, when reasoned from, will produce results as similar as possible to our intuitions. This is not an exercise that is capable of finding out anything fundamentally new about morality. It implicitly assumes that our moral intuitions already generally describe right and wrong, and that the role of philosophy is only to produce a consistent and useful theory which formalizes what we already believe (for some suitable "we").

    The most devastating criticism of intuition comes from science, not from philosophy. Philosophy tends to view moral intuitions as some sort of fundamental evidence that constitutes morality, indicating what is right and good for humans to do. In reality, however, such intuitions are the product of biological and cultural evolution. Whenever a certain mental trait granted a survival advantage to those possessing it, that trait became more common. Whenever a certain belief granted a competitive advantage to those believing it, that belief spread. This has long been obvious in general, but recently the specifics are becoming equally obvious. Time and again, scientists in fields from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to psychology and economics keep discovering that human behavioral tendencies and cultural norms correspond to the predictions of evolutionary selection. Our moral intuitions are prescriptive - but not in any moral sense. They prescribe behaviors which promote fitness, in the sense of "survival of the fittest". They do so precisely because they are the result of a process of evolutionary selection (biologically, and culturally) which gave the advantage to intuitions which promoted fitness. The unsettling truth is that the legacy of moral intuition that history has left us cannot conform to any moral ideal which is not equivalent to that which, in practice, best promotes its own survival. Humans have the capabilities of general purpose reasoning which enable us to break from the tyranny of our evolutionary legacy, but only if we choose to use it effectively. In the modern world, reason has shown the power to thrive as never before, serving to promote ideas based on their truth rather than their ability to ensure their own survival. Utilitarianism applies this power to morality, allowing us to discover what is right, rather than what idea of right is most selected for. To make that discovery, we must be entirely willing to reject our intuitions. Indeed, we have good reason to - evolution selects for norms, tendencies, and other determinants of intuition so long as they work well in most situations. Human intuitions are expected to break down in uncommon situations, and to sometimes contradict each other, because this is part and parcel of "bounded rationality" - using the cheapest, most effective decision strategies in the real world. Unlike a proper normative standard, low level human reasoning is not rationally consistent because that is a waste of resources for everyday reasoning.

  3. Utilitarianism doesn't properly account for our commitment to rights. (top)
  4. Utilitarianism in theory certainly has no regard for "natural rights" or other such philosophical constructs. Utilitarians reject the idea that a concept of the right to certain things is morally useful in itself. Morality is defined by welfare, and rights are useful only insofar as they promote welfare (which, in practice, they often do quite effectively). People often find the idea of morally absolute rights intuitively appealing, but see the Utilitarian response to the use of such moral intuitions in this FAQ. Utilitarianism fundamentally rejects the idea that ideas of absolute rights should place constraints on welfare. Whenever any idea of rights conflicts with welfare, Utilitarianism must choose welfare. It sees no justification for sacrificing the welfare of people, even to the extent of bringing about circumstances that are not preferred by anyone, because of some idea that certain "rights violations" are inherently bad regardless of their consequences. In fact, all proposed systems of absolute rights violate Pareto Optimality - the doctrine that, given two situations A and B, where some people prefer A to B and nobody prefers B to A, A should be chosen.

    The real reason for "our commitment to rights" (the commitment of modern Westerners at any rate - rights were not always such a strong idea) is that they have been prescriptively useful. Legal and political rights in the real world have had very positive results. Unfortunately, rights have often been supported on the grounds that they are inherently right in themselves. Their success in the real world has tended to reinforce that perspective, even though people would not have found it very appealing if the concept made everyone worse off. Humans have a great history of taking concepts that are prescriptively useful, and coming to believe that those concepts are inherently right (rather than useful because they promote welfare). This may be, in part, because humans tend to believe in something more strongly if they think it is inherently right, than if they think it is merely useful in practice. There is, in fact, a natural tendency among many people to believe that whatever conventional wisdom holds to be good is good because of some inherent correctness, rather than because it is "merely" very useful in promoting the welfare of people.

    Utilitarians tend to be strong supporters of legal and political rights. This is because, rather than wasting time trying to determine which rights are to be preferred based on their inherent merits, Utilitarians recognize that many rights are very effective at promoting welfare. In the real world, things like crime, abuse of power, and intolerance are very real problems and legally protected rights are effective and efficient safeguards against them. It is important to recognize that those who criticize Utilitarianism for not having a sufficient regard for rights are either doing so on entirely theoretical grounds, or are missing how useful rights are in practice. Rights are certainly not so lacking in justification that they cannot stand on evidence, but must appeal to being moral requirements in themselves.

  5. Utilitarians will promote inequality as long as it maximizes utility, and that is unfair. (top)
  6. Utilitarianism in practice has fairly significant egalitarian implications, because a very uneven distribution of resources is unlikely to be utility-maximizing. For more information on this, see the question "Does Utilitarianism favor the redistribution of wealth?" in this FAQ. Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing the overall welfare of people, and a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth appears to be a good way of doing this in practice. It is certainly true, however, that Utilitarianism will promote inequality when doing so is utility maximizing. To promote equality at the expense of utility is to say that equality is in itself inherently good, and that in some circumstances it is permissible to increase equality even when that is not what the people themselves value. The Utilitarian response to this criticism is that, while people often feel a concern for equality in itself, this is because that has become a part of the prescriptive morality of modern cultures. Equality is usually beneficial in practice, and so beliefs that equality is a good thing have thrived. The prevalence of modern belief in equality should be understood not as evidence that equality is good in itself, but as evidence that belief in equality has produced good results in practice. Utilitarianism establishes why equality is a good thing (it often promotes welfare), and then promotes it exactly as far as its benefits justify.

    It should be noted that the people who criticize Utilitarianism for not promoting equality usually place much more importance on equality than the average person. Many of the modern Egalitarian philosophers who criticize Utilitarianism for being insufficiently egalitarian believe that welfare should be sacrificed to equality in fairly dramatic ways. A school of thought started by John Rawls, for example, believes that inequality is only permissible when it increases the welfare of the least well off member of society. Such a philosophy argues that it is better to have a society where everyone is poor, than to have a society where a few are very poor but most are very well off. Most people do not agree with such ideas. Philosophies which would tend to produce policies more egalitarian than Utilitarian policies tend to call for strategies that would produce very high equality at a significant cost in wealth. One of the hallmarks of Utilitarianism is that it sanctions any effective method for welfare maximization. This means that Utilitarianism is compatible with using a highly productive market economy to generate wealth, and then redistributing it in an efficient and effective manner. Highly egalitarian philosophies other than Utilitarianism often specify rather extreme methods of how equality is to be achieved, such as the compensatory resource distribution of Rawls or the formation of cooperatives under Marxism. These are often not very compatible with market mechanisms, and thus would have substantial problems of inefficiency.

  7. Utilitarianism ignores justice in favor of whatever is expedient. (top)
  8. There are two senses in which "justice" can be used. The first is that of a system which ensures results that are morally good and "deserved" according to ethical theory. The second is that of a system which enforces law effectively in practice. In the sense of ethical theory, Utilitarians argue that utility maximization provides the optimal tradeoff between the values of different people. A concept of what people "deserve" which is not derived from the values of the people requires placing an objective, inherent value in some concept of justice. That would be fundamentally contrary to the basis of Utilitarianism, and Utilitarians argue that there is no good reason to claim that some form of justice is inherently good independently of the welfare of people. Such a concept of justice would require that, under some circumstances, justice should be promoted even if it was not in fact what anyone involved wants. People do seem to feel that justice should be considered valuable in itself, but this is because justice has tended to be practically useful. The practical usefulness of justice means that beliefs that it is a good thing thrive, since they tend to lead to outcomes which further their spread. The prevalence of modern belief in justice should be understood not as evidence that justice is good in itself, but as evidence that belief in justice has produced good results in practice. Utilitarianism establishes why justice is a good thing (it often promotes welfare), and then promotes it exactly as far as its benefits justify.

    Utilitarianism also indicates that justice is useful in practice, to deter and rectify various forms of undesirable, welfare-reducing behavior. Utilitarianism leads to a strong commitment to an effective justice system, and argues that promoting justice in the real world is an effective way of maximizing utility. This is especially true because it is not practically feasible to attempt to directly apply Utilitarian principles to every decision. The social order recommended by Utilitarianism must be able to deal effectively with a non-Utilitarian majority, and with every failure and abuse to which humanity will inevitably subject it. A consistently enforced and fair set of laws and system of government are effective at maximizing utility under such circumstances. Utilitarians often suggest a sort of justice system that many people find quite attractive, and which does not differ radically from that present in modern society. Utilitarianism does not recommend sacrificing the real world justice system to hopes that individuals will come up with more expedient behavior on their own. While perfect Utilitarians would not need to bother with a justice system, actual people will often respond to a highly permissive system by abusing it for personal gain.

  9. Utilitarianism fails to recognize that we should punish people because they deserve it for what they have done, not purely because we want to increase present and future utility. (top)
  10. Utilitarians believe that justice is useful only insofar as it promotes welfare. This means that a punishment is never desirable if the loss of welfare it causes to the punished exceeds the gain in welfare resulting from a reduction in future undesirable behavior. In fact, the ideal level of punishment minimizes the total loss of welfare, both from the punishment and from undesirable behavior, in society as a whole. Few people would argue that punishments should be more lenient that called for by Utilitarian policy, since this would have the effect of decreasing the welfare of society in order to preserve the welfare of those guilty of undesirable behavior. On the other hand, many people believe that punishments should be more severe than the Utilitarian guideline (which, for one thing, says that a criminal should ideally not be punished if doing so will not reduce future crime by deterrence or by physical restraint of the criminal). Utilitarianism can easily answer any practical objection to its policies, since it recommends whatever is optimal in maximizing long term utility in practice. Utilitarianism can take into account all of the practical problems of running a justice system, the need to reduce crime in the long term, the need to punish severely enough to create an effective deterrent effect, and even the fact that people may value a system which imposes severe punishments. The only real difference arises when non-Utilitarians claim, for example, that punishment should be made more severe than the Utilitarian optimal punishment even if it won't deter or prevent significantly more future crime. Utilitarians regard imposing additional punishment when that will not be effective in reducing crime (or creating some other benefit to welfare) as pointless torture. It would harm someone and help nobody.

  11. Utilitarians ignore our special responsibilities, obligations, and promises to people such as family. (top)
  12. One common argument which philosophers direct against Utilitarianism is that it does not place any intrinsic moral value on things such as promises, obligations, and special responsibilities. People tend to feel that making a promise, or having an obligation to someone, creates an inherent moral commitment to live up to it. Utilitarianism takes a different perspective, saying that the morality of something is entirely a function of its consequences. If you borrow money from someone, for example, Utilitarianism says that you should only pay it back if doing so will have better consequences than not paying it back. Many people find this disagreeable, but the Utilitarian response is that such disagreement is a product of prescriptive morality. In practice, it is usually a good idea to keep promises and live up to obligations. Doing so promotes trust and cooperation, and often promotes not only welfare but the personal prosperity of those honoring their obligations. It is natural that people would feel compelled to follow such a useful strategy, but that does not mean that it is inherently right. Utilitarianism recognizes that keeping promises and following obligations is a good thing in practice because of the beneficial consequences that result, not because it is the right thing to do regardless of the resulting effects on peoples' welfare.

    Once again, Utilitarianism disagrees with the philosophy of many people in theory, but provides a powerful argument for respecting promises and obligations in practice. The Utilitarian argument is powerful because it does not require believing that anything is inherently right or wrong in order to demonstrate the benefits of being trustworthy. In order to understand the Utilitarian position, it helps to consider an example. Imagine that someone has performed a service which you agreed to pay them for, such as painting your car. Are there consequences which could cause you to think refusing to pay them would be morally justified? The first reaction of many people is "no". But what if, before paying, you lost your job and money became so scarce that you were in danger of losing your house, and feeding your family became a problem? In such a situation, it suddenly seems quite acceptable not to pay. Refusing to pay someone for a service, knowing that this will decrease the welfare of that person and probably decrease your trustworthiness as well, does seem to be justifiable by suitably extreme consequences. This is the Utilitarian's point - no matter how bad or "inherently wrong" an action seems, people will accept that it is justified if it becomes obvious that the alternative is a substantial loss of welfare.

    People often seem to require more of a welfare loss that straightforward Utilitarian calculation would indicate, but real world Utilitarian calculation need not be straightforward. Popular intuition in these matters is likely biased to discourage casual violation of the rules, which is important because of the great human tendency to rationalize. If a rule is very useful in most situations, then in practice it is probably not very effective if people think that it can be broken whenever reason seems to justify it. While it may be perfectly acceptable to break the rule when reason actually does justify it, most people would break the rule whenever they could convince themselves that reason justified it. The two are very different things, because people often convince themselves of something via rationalization, or self-serving thinking, or according to a biased or poorly informed perspective. Any rule designed to curtail self-serving behavior, for example, should be strong in practice to combat rationalization. This is a big reason why people don't like breaking "moral rules" without very good justification - the rules had to evolve to be fairly strong, stronger than they would have to be for a society of perfect reasoners, because otherwise they would not be strong enough to resist rationalization. Utilitarianism as a normative ideal sets out what a perfect reasoner would do, and thus conflicts with many normal ideas of how strong moral rules should be - until one realizes that Utilitarianism tends to support strong, prescriptive rules in practice.

  13. Utilitarianism is cold and unemotional, its calculations failing to account for the human element. (top)
  14. Utilitarianism has often been called cold and unemotional, because many people believe two things. First, that anything involving calculation must be cold and unemotional. Second, that anything which is cold and unemotional is inherently bad, or is likely to produce poor results when dealing with people. None of these ideas are true. In fact, Utilitarianism places more importance on human feelings than any other moral theory. It is not possible to be more thoroughly focused on feelings, emotions, and other forms of subjective well-being than a philosophy which focuses entirely on maximizing the subjective welfare of people. Utilitarian calculation is a calculus of feeling, desire, preference, and sentiment. It certainly does involve an objective and unbiased calculation, but that is the only way to simultaneously maximize welfare, and treat the welfare of different people as being of equal worth. When the critics of Utilitarianism call it unfeeling, they are invariably referring to the process of calculation itself, rather than the Utilitarian concept of good (welfare, which certainly includes feelings). This is a confusion of means and ends. If we really want to give maximal and equal consideration to the feelings of different people, a formal calculation will inevitably represent the best way to do that. Emotional consideration of others may be vital in practice, but there is no reason for it to be present in the theory defining the Utilitarian ideal.

    Emotions are invariably subjective, and they are only really directed towards the familiar. People have strong emotional responses to what they know, but seldom to what they can only view as an abstraction. Any moral ideal which says that moral decisions must be influenced by things like caring and compassion implicitly says that it is acceptable to treat people who one has less caring and compassion for as less worthy of moral consideration. The reality of human emotion is that our emotions, positive and negative, are directed primarily toward the people and things with the most personal relevance to us. They are not necessarily selfish, but they are inevitably fairly self-centered simply because our experience and knowledge is self-centered. Even if someone could feel universal caring and compassion toward all equally, this would merely cause them to arrive right back at the Utilitarian ideal - equal consideration for all.

    The "failure" of Utilitarianism to rely on subjective emotion is a great strength in theory, and also a strength in deciding practical policies which are to apply to large groups. The position of Utilitarianism is that when you are making a decision that has great consequences for other people, it is primarily how they feel about the results that matter, not how you feel. There are six billion people in the world, and from an emotional perspective most of them are "statistics", unknown faceless masses which nobody can feel much of anything for. Yet every one of those "statistics" is a thinking, feeling human individual worth as much as any other. Human emotions cannot cope with such a scale, but abstraction and calculation can. In order to have proper consideration for the welfare of large numbers of people, it is necessary to discard empathy and attachment as tools which are not up to the job of working at such a broad and abstract scale. Only an informed consideration of the preferences of the people in the group, as unclouded by bias and self-centered sentiment as possible, can effectively promote the welfare of them all.

  15. Utilitarians focus totally on the consequences of actions, missing the importance of the motive behind them. (top)
  16. There are two senses in which the motive behind an action can be important - theoretical and practical. Utilitarianism recognizes that motivations have great practical importance. Even if the direct effects of two actions are the same, the motivations behind it can make a great deal of difference in how we should respond to the action. In theory, however, absolutely all effects of an action can be considered. Two acts which have the same consequences for welfare cannot be distinguished as better or worse than each other, because all of their direct and indirect results taken together are equivalent. When Utilitarian theory says that a "bad" motivation is not morally inferior to a "good" motivation, it is necessarily because the "bad" motivation does not produce any consequences whatsoever that would make it more harmful.

    Utilitarians recognize that motives are important in practice because they are important to future behavior. Future behavior is an indirect and difficult to predict consequence of the present. This means that if a given motivation is known to be a good predictor of future undesirable behavior, that knowledge should be taken advantage of. When that motivation is seen in action, it provides an excellent opportunity to criticize and discourage it. Such an opportunity may often outweigh the importance of the immediate consequences of the action, even if they are positive. As an example, if someone publicly helps another only because they want to grab the spotlight for political advantage, the opportunity to condemn such a negative motivation may outweigh the short term benefits of the act. It may be beneficial to discourage using others for political advantage in general, even if the consequences of some such actions happen to be positive. In reality we cannot always be certain about specific consequences, but we can know that certain motivations are usually associated with negative consequences.

  17. Utilitarians treat utility as if it were something valuable in itself, and people only vessels of utility. (top)
  18. Many people focus on the Utilitarian credo to "maximize utility", an overall quantity, and come to the impression that Utilitarians think utility is a "thing" which is important independently of people. Utilitarianism has been accused of treating people as "vessels of utility", as if they were only important because they contained utility. A bit of reflection quickly shows the error of this criticism. "Utility", or welfare, is nothing more than a measurement of a person's well-being. When Utilitarians talk of utility, this is a conceptual shorthand for the well-being of people - their satisfaction of preferences, achievement of goals, and so on. Utility is the exact opposite of a concept valuable "in itself", independent of individual people - it is a measure of what is good for individual people. Utility is valuable precisely because it is not independent of the well-being of people, it is that very well-being. It can sometimes be easy to forget this for people not used to using an abstract concept to represent a complex reality. Regardless of the fact that Utilitarians talk of utility in abstract terms, as a single thing, utility is not a thing. It is a concept referring to the well-being of all. People are not "vessels of utility", worthwhile only because they possess utility. Utility is a measure of the good of people, who are what Utilitarianism regards as valuable and important.

  19. Utilitarianism doesn't have a proper regard for the uniqueness of people, because it only cares about their utility, a number. (top)
  20. One of the criticisms of Utilitarianism, raised by such notables as Amartya Sen, is that Utilitarianism rejects huge amounts of information about people to "reduce" them to a number, their utility. Utilitarianism is criticized on the grounds that it says decisions can be made based only having only one piece of information about people, a number. When you know the numbers representing the utilities of people under different circumstances, that is all you need to come to a Utilitarian decision about which circumstances are better. The critics charge that this approach fails to treat people as unique individuals, rejecting lots of important information in describing people with a number. Many people find this criticism appealing, because it seems to them that human beings and their interactions are very complex, and you could not possibly describe them with a single number. Any philosophy which tried would have to be guilty of a great oversimplification.

    While this argument may seem appealing, it is also one of the most fundamentally flawed criticisms of Utilitarianism. It is helpful to look at all ethical philosophies, including Utilitarianism, as what they ultimately are - a procedure for making a decision. You start with information, then apply an ethical philosophy, and that allows you to come to a decision about what action you should take. The ethical philosophy is a procedure for deciding which action you should take, given alternative actions. It tells you what the right thing to do is, or at least what the most right thing to do is. This is important because all decision procedures are equivalent to a decision based on numbers. They start with all of the information you have available, and manipulate it in some way so as to give you one piece of information - which action you should take. At any stage of this procedure, you are going to have reduced the initial information to some smaller, more manageable set of information. As you process that information in making your decision, you reduce it further and further until you come up with the answer. For example, before coming up with your final choice of action, you might have classified the available choices according to how right or wrong they are. This is much less than all of the information that was initially available, but it is enough to allow you to decide which action to choose (the most right, where that rightness was calculated according to whatever philosophy you are using).

    Utilitarianism is nothing special with regard to repeatedly narrowing down the information that it uses at various stages of a decision making process. In fact, that is exactly what any procedure for making a decision must do. Utilitarianism simply makes it conveniently explicit what steps it uses to come to a decision. Other philosophies tend not to specify so rigorously how a decision is made, and so it is easy to miss the fact that any philosophy must do the same thing, even if only implicitly. Any system for choosing one alternative from many does something which is equivalent to ranking alternatives according to some numeric order, and picking the most preferred alternative. Any system for evaluating how good or bad an alternative is compared to others does something which is equivalent to taking all the information about that alternative and producing a numeric rating of it. Given this perspective, it can be seen that the criticism that Utilitarianism rejects too much information and "reduces" people to a number is flawed. Utilitarianism begins by saying that every single bit of information in existence is important, because everything in the real world is relevant to the consequences of actions in it. Every characteristic of people, every thought and desire, is ultimately relevant. Because this is too much information to reasonably work with, a decision maker must begin by considering only what appears to be most practically relevant to the decision. Given a reasonable amount of practical information, the Utilitarian decision maker estimates how various choices would impact the welfare of people. If two entirely different circumstances result in the welfare of people being the same, there is no moral basis to choose between then and so they are regarded as having the same utility. This does not reject information about people, because no information is rejected in calculating the utility. Utility itself does not encode all of the information about a situation, because that would be pointless - it would mean that no progress toward a decision had been made. Utility is a measurement of a situation, which is used to tell whether one situation is morally better than another or not. If two situations have the same utility it does not mean they are identical, it means neither of them is morally preferable. Given the utility information about all of the relevant people and circumstances, we can calculate the overall utility and produce the conclusion - the single piece of information that says which decision is preferable.

    In fact, if one was to consistently argue against "rejecting information", coming to a conclusion would be the most reprehensible thing of all. A conclusion is just one piece of information - "such an such an action is best". Any philosophy which produces conclusions is saying that in order to make any decision, all you need is a single piece of information - the knowledge of which action is best. If you already know that, then you don't need to consult any other information unless you happen to want to double-check yourself. Indeed, the very exercise of logic, one of the foundations of philosophy, would be unacceptable. Logic is a complex process for deciding whether an argument is true or false, and it reduces the complexity of an argument down to a single piece of information - its truth value. Given the truth value, say those who use logic, you know whether an argument is right or wrong without having to consult any other information. Shocking!

  21. Utilitarianism is infeasible because people can't constantly calculate the utility of their actions. (top)
  22. It is quite correct that people can't constantly calculate the utility of all of their actions. Even if they could try, the lack of relevant information would often make the calculations relatively useless. Direct Utilitarianism, the idea that utility maximization should be constrained to use the methods of explicit utility calculation, is not a practical approach. Indirect Utilitarianism, however, is a normative theory that says what is important is maximizing utility, regardless of what approach leads to it. Indirect Utilitarianism, as a normative standard, cannot be attacked by this criticism. The practical question of whether calculating the utility of every action would be possible in practice is not relevant to the theoretical issue of what defines a perfect ethical ideal. Criticizing a normative theory because it leads to practical difficulties is like losing your car keys in a dark room, and then looking for them in a different room because the light is better there.

    Utilitarianism is seldom advocated as a way to determine one's every action, or as a system which can be applied perfectly. It is, however, both useful and reasonably applicable as a way to evaluate social structures and systems, and patterns of personal behavior. Fairly often, the general effects of a policy can be reliably known even if the exact effects in any specific case cannot. Utilitarianism can produce very effective suggestions in the evaluation of laws, forms of government, economic policies, and so on. It can also be useful in our personal lives to remind us to behave in ways that we know will usually produce good results, such as being open minded, paying reasonable attention to the welfare of others, and avoiding prejudice. Even under circumstances where Utilitarianism does not lead to a single correct result because there is still disagreement over the facts of the matter, it allows us to reject any course of action which is obviously not welfare maximizing. In practice, rejecting bad ideas can sometimes be almost as useful as identifying the best idea. When there are many bad ideas, getting rid of them all can cause a large improvement in the likely result, whereas getting rid of the remaining "pretty good but not the best" ideas will lead to a smaller improvement.

  23. Utilitarianism is unacceptable because it requires people to be saints, always ready to do whatever will maximize utility. (top)
  24. Utilitarianism defines morality not in terms of right and wrong, but in terms of relative levels of welfare. A higher level of welfare is better, and maximum welfare is the best you can get. Saying that Utilitarianism "requires" people to be perfect utility maximizers is not really meaningful. Utilitarianism says that being a perfect utility maximizer is morally preferable to not being a perfect utility maximizer, but that is a matter of degree rather than of absolute "moral and immoral". Increasing welfare less effectively is morally inferior, not immoral. Utilitarianism also recognizes practical issues of utility maximizing - people have imperfect knowledge and are not capable of arbitrarily altruistic behaviors. Practicality requires that people often follow generally effective rules and strategies rather than trying to fine-tune every action, and that Utilitarians avoid being exploited by others. Many people, when they say "Utilitarianism requires people to be saints", actually mean that the Utilitarian optimum would be for them to give away most of their possessions and live a life of great hardship in service to others. It is not at all clear that Utilitarianism would suggest this in practice.

    This raises an important issue, which is the difference between evaluating the morality of an action, and evaluating if that action should be praised or condemned. According to Utilitarianism, how effectively an action promotes welfare does not necessarily have anything to do with whether it should be praised or condemned. Actions should be praised or condemned only when that praise or condemnation in itself works to maximize utility. Giving credit and laying blame are actions themselves, with important practical consequences. Take, for example, the Utilitarian ideal - perfect welfare maximization. To fall short of being a perfect welfare maximizer is to fall short of the Utilitarian ideal, and thus to fall short of the most morally beneficial action. Does that mean that we should condemn those who fail to live up to the Utilitarian ideal, or even to insinuate that a person has somehow failed if they do not maximize welfare at every opportunity? Certainly not. The Utilitarian ideal is an impossible standard for most people to meet in practice. Criticizing people for failing to live up to such an impossible standard would not cause them to live up to it. In fact, it would probably not even cause them to move closer to it - such ridiculous demands would be rejected, or would lead to feelings of depression and incompetence. Criticism should be applied when people fall short of some reasonable standard, which is chosen so that criticizing those who fall short of it will tend to have the most positive effects.

    In short, Utilitarianism does not advocate trying to convince people to be self-sacrificing saints (or even trying to be one personally). This would not be effective. Many philosophies focus on setting forth a concept of duty, certain requirements that people are morally obligated to fulfill. Failure to do one's duty is not only immoral, but it should be condemned and even punished. Utilitarianism is not such a philosophy. That not being a utility maximizer is to be less than optimal does not mean that society should demand that it is one's "duty" to be optimal, or to spend one's every moment striving to be optimal. Not only would this not be achievable, but the pressure that this would place on every person would worsen the quality of their lives, thus making such demands self-defeating from the Utilitarian perspective of maximizing welfare.

  25. Utilitarianism devalues our deepest commitments, by saying that we should value everyone else's commitments as much as we value our own. (top)
  26. When answering a criticism such as this, it is especially important to remember that Utilitarianism is a normative theory, which defines an ideal. The method which is best, in practice, at nearing that ideal is not a simplistic implementation of the theory. Utilitarianism does say that, from an ideal and objective moral standpoint, the commitments of all people should be valued equally. This is necessary for any philosophy which is neither biased in favor of specific people, nor supportive of self-interest over the welfare of others. The real criticism here is practical. Many people believe that Utilitarianism requires that, in practice, people make an effort to think of everyone else's desires and commitments as just as valuable as their own. They argue that this devalues our commitments, because part of being deeply committed to something is treating it as more important than the commitments of others. Certainly, the perfect Utilitarian decision maker would evaluate the utility of its every single action, and in those calculations would treat the commitments of others as just as important as its own. That is not relevant, though, because people are not perfect Utilitarian decision makers and are not capable of such things as calculating the utility of their every action.

    Human beings making decisions in the real world should take two approaches to their commitments. Most of the time, they should pay the most attention on the things they care about, and work towards them. People know their own values and situation better than those of others, and are better equipped to deal with them. The benefits of constantly and consciously juggling one's every interest against those of others is more pressure than people can reasonably deal with. Paying attention primarily to one's own interests, by default, is a useful and effective strategy of maximizing welfare in the real world. A requirement to pay such constant attention to the every interest of others that one's own welfare suffered from the effort would, in the Utilitarian view, be self-defeating. There is, of course, another necessary approach, because sometimes our interests do come into real and obvious conflict with those of others. In such a situation, we must give equal consideration to the interests of other people. To follow a policy of universally considering one's own interests as more important than those of others would be nothing but sheer selfishness. When an obvious disagreement arises with another person, their interests are going to have to be considered one, even if only to dismiss them. There are compelling Utilitarian reasons for paying less attention to the interests of others when conflicts are minor, trusting that each person can tend to themselves. When a significant conflict of interests happens, however, those reasons no longer apply and the morally superior thing to do is to consider the interests of others on an equal basis. This is no ridiculous demand of Utilitarianism, it is in fact the common demand of empathy, fairness, and a reasonable consideration of others.

  27. We will get the best outcome if everyone just follows egoism and acts in their own best interests. (top)
  28. Several philosophies have advocated a kind of egoism (pure self-interest) for practical, rather than moral, reasons. Actual Ethical Egoists believe that the interests of others are morally irrelevant, and thus one should only look out for number one. Many people who are not Ethical Egoists, however, believe that the interests of all people are important, but that the best way to advance the interests of everyone is to act like an egoist. Often, this view is refined to say that people should act in "enlightened self-interest", since it is fairly obvious that simplistic and short-sighted selfishness can be very destructive. The idea that acting in enlightened self interest is the best way to promote the interests of everyone is especially common among those who advocate having a laissez faire market economy (for some reason, collective action via government is not usually considered a suitable method of exercising enlightened self interest). The theoretical results of a "perfect free market" in economics do support the idea that a perfect form of "enlightened self interest" maximizes welfare in such a theoretical situation, for a definition of welfare which is not generally accepted by Utilitarians.

    The Utilitarian response to this criticism is entirely practical. Utilitarianism would in fact support a universal standard of acting in "enlightened self-interest" if that was the best way to maximize welfare. In practice, however, it is not even close. The biggest problem is that "enlightened self-interest" is a pipe dream; humans are not consistently "enlightened" about anything. In the real world, we mainly have to deal with plain ordinary self-interest, which is distinctly not enlightened. In fact, the actual economic and theoretical assumptions of enlightened self-interest, sometimes called Homo Economicus, are nearly as different from actual people as ideal Utilitarians would be. It is instructive to consider how often the proponents of enlightened self-interest will speak in one breath of how morality and political structures are useless because their approach will produce the best outcome for everyone, and then use their next breath to complain about how real people do not behave in accordance with their ideal standard of behavior.

    Beyond even the most intensely empirical concerns, it is well known that Homo Economicus does not maximize welfare even in theory. A society of perfect Utilitarians would easily be welfare-maximizing, but even a society of perfectly, rationally self-interested individuals would not. They would suffer from problems such as an inability to produce public goods efficiently, perverse outcomes from prisoners' dilemma type situations, and more. The flaws of enlightened self-interest in maximizing overall welfare are well beyond the scope of this FAQ. They are, however, very well documented in the sciences. Any good introductory Microeconomics textbook, or a book on game theory, will describe some of the failings. The entire field of Welfare Economics contains a great many more examples. Despite the illusions of some people on the fringes of science (or outside of them), the weight of economic and other research is thoroughly against the proposition that enlightened self-interest is the best way to run a society. It's not even the best way to "run" a species, as recent work in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology makes clear.

  29. The Utilitarian argument for why we should treat pleasure as utility contradicts itself. (top)
  30. This criticism actually refers to one of the original arguments in favor of Hedonistic Utilitarianism. It was argued that utility was equivalent to happiness, because happiness is what people desired. This led to maximization of happiness, but it is in fact possible to come up with circumstances where maximizing the happiness of a group of people leads to an outcome that they do not desire. This is, quite simply, because happiness is not the only thing that people desire or prefer. The original Hedonistic Utilitarians had not really come up with a concept of generalized values or preferences, and thus tended to refer to forms of happiness or pleasure as what should be maximized. Their various arguments in favor of this were often somewhat psychologically naive. Another problem is that some of them, such as John Stuart Mill, actually used "happiness" in a very broad sense whereas to the modern observer, the term is mainly associated with Benthamite Utilitarianism and the simple emotional experience of happiness.

    One extreme but obvious example of how happiness does not necessarily correspond to general satisfaction of preferences or values is the extreme case of drugs. With sufficiently advanced drugs, someone could be kept in a constant state of medicated happiness or pleasure, but most people would rather continue their present lives than live in such a state.

  31. Having a preference doesn't make something valuable, its value is a reason to prefer it. (top)
  32. The terms that Utilitarians use to describe utility can vary significantly, as does the concept of utility itself. Utilitarians agree that preferences arise from values, in the sense that subjective values are what lead to peoples' preference for one alternative over another. For Utilitarians interested in maximizing the satisfaction of "expressed preferences", the preferences which a person demonstrates are simply the best way of determining what that person values. If they value it, they will then prefer it. For Utilitarians interested in maximizing the satisfaction of various kinds of "informed preferences", the talk about preferences is equivalent to talk about the associated values. A preference for something does not cause it to be subjectively valuable, but it does imply that it is subjectively valuable.

    This same criticism, however, often comes from people who are talking about objective values. They argue that if something is objectively valuable that is a reason to prefer it, but preferring something is not a reason to think it is objectively valuable. Utilitarians simply reject the existence of objective values entirely. They believe that things are never inherently valuable, they are only valuable because people value them (and the values of different people have equivalent weight).

  33. Utilitarianism fails to distinguish between good preferences, and bad preferences (such as sadism). (top)
  34. Some people - even some Utilitarians - think that Utilitarianism is flawed if it holds up "bad" preferences as things which are just as worthy of being satisfied as other preferences. Generally, a "bad" preference is one which people tend to find repugnant, such as taking pleasure from things which harm others. People tend to have a great dislike of preferences which tend to harm others, and that is both understandable and sensible. Such "bad" preferences tend to lead to behavior which harms others, sacrificing overall welfare for selfish gain. Discouraging them is useful in practice, since a group which discourages such preferences discourages the resulting behavior, and can thus promote its own survival and prosperity. Notice, however, that even in this sense the fundamental reason why people have evolved a dislike of sadistic preferences is because they produce undesirable results in practice, regardless of what one things of them morally.

    Utilitarianism provides no way of excluding the pleasures of the sadist or masochist, or anything similar, as inherently undesirable. Utilitarianism requires that when a crime is committed, the benefit to the criminal must count (in however small a way) against the harm to the victim. Only the biases of ingrained, prescriptive standards - which have no relevance to a normative ethical philosophy - cause people to think that some preferences are "inherently wrong". Many people think that for one to take pleasure in a harmful act makes it worse, not better - but this perception probably arose because someone who takes pleasure in the harm of others is more likely to harm others, and is thus more dangerous in practice. Utilitarianism deals with this situation by addressing that danger directly, rather than by an indirect perception that says sadistic pleasure is bad regardless of its consequences.

    The main effect of "bad" preferences is to create zero sum situations - situations where increasing the welfare of one person must decrease the welfare of another. Sadism is not the only example of a zero sum preference. The exact same thing holds true for any preferences which place people into conflict over finite resources, or over choices for collective action, or any other situation where different preferences produce mutually contradictory demands. In the real world, preferences often conflict, and whatever preferences people might label "evil" are another case of this. What is considered inherently wrong actually varies quite a bit between different cultures, different times, and even different people. Appealing to preferences which are "obviously" inherently bad does not produce a standard which is universally consistent, but Utilitarianism does. Utilitarians would not support satisfying such preferences unless they actually knew that overall welfare would be better off for it, which would in reality be a rather rare circumstance. It is helpful to ask yourself the following two questions. First, if a particular crime ended up producing no benefit to the criminal, would that not be in some way worse than a world where the crime did actually produce some benefit to its perpetrator? Second, if a deluded sadist took pleasure from the suffering of imaginary people, would it not be better to convince him they were suffering, and thus let him live a happy illusion, than to convince him they were well off and thus leave him miserable?

  35. Utilitarianism would sanction any horrible act if a sufficiently large number of people preferred that it happen. (AKA "Utilitarians would support the fatal games in the Roman Coliseum") (top)
  36. It is quite true that Utilitarianism would sanction any "horrible" act if a sufficiently large number of people wanted it to happen. For any given act which causes some finite decrease in welfare, there exists some number of people whose desire for that act would, all together, cause them to gain enough welfare to justify the act. This has been used in a great many thought experiments designed to criticize Utilitarianism for supporting some seemingly repugnant deed because enough people wanted it to happen. One common example is the Roman Coliseum and its gory battles to the death. The Roman public quite enjoyed the spectacle, and there exists some large but finite number of Romans whose welfare gains from watching the games would seem sufficient to justify them.

    One rebuttal to this is that in practice, it may be beneficial in the long run to prevent many "horrible" acts to work against the perception that they are necessary. Something such as the violent Roman games, for example, would likely have significant negative psychological side effects on the viewers, plus of course the suffering of those actually fighting in the arena. In the long term, a utility maximizing strategy could involve trying to get rid of the institution and focus the public on less destructive forms of entertainment - which would probably require denying people the pleasure of watching the games in the short term. Also, it is often necessary to engage in a great deal of hand waving to make a horrible action truly utility maximizing when all alternatives are considered. In the case of a public with a strong desire for blood sports, for example, they could be satisfied by volunteers. Sufficient payment can induce people to take great risks very willingly. Sending slaves to die in the games may make sense if you fundamentally don't care about the lives of slaves, but not if you regard the welfare of all people as important enough to pay for. In the real world, things like slavery can be effective from the perspective of a self-interested person who is not the slave, but they are virtually never the welfare maximizing alternative.

    While some specific "horrible" acts might not be advocated by Utilitarians in practice, however, one can always come up with an example sufficiently contrived that there would be no Utilitarian objections to it. The real question in such extreme examples, apart from the obvious one of how reliable our real-world intuitions are in such unreal situations, is exactly how much that differs from non-Utilitarian philosophies. Utilitarianism is explicit about being willing to let some suffer in order to promote the welfare of others, but virtually every other philosophy is willing to support the same thing. The difference is that they are less obvious about it, being horrified at the deliberate sacrifice of another but supporting behavior which amounts to the same thing. See the next question in this FAQ, "Utilitarians would sanction things like sacrificing a healthy man to use his organs to save five sick men", for more details on this. In general, all ethical philosophies must trade off the welfare of some for the welfare of others (or ignore it entirely), because it is not possible to satisfy the welfare of everybody at once. Given that, it is virtually impossible to prevent situations where a horrible thing ends up happening to some people because preventing it would violate some other moral rule, or would require others to sacrifice too much of their well-being.

  37. Utilitarians would sanction things like sacrificing a healthy man to use his organs to save five sick men. (top)
  38. There are two responses to this criticism. The first is that a Utilitarian system in practice would not make it a habit to allow one person to be sacrificed for others in nightmarish "organ harvesting" scenarios or anything like that. This is, quite simply, because the world is not full of ideal Utilitarians. Allowing such practices in the real world would be a giant invitation for abuse. Organ harvesting, for example, would be subject to manipulation by the wealthy, would give a very easily abused authority to kill someone for the apparent benefit of others, would create great fear in those who might be sacrificed, and would create perverse incentives for people to disregard their health. The actual regulations and laws a Utilitarian would recommend would be broadly similar to those of most modern societies, subject to tweaks and reforms to reduce harmful consequences, increase efficiency and equity, and so on.

    The second is that, regardless of how reluctant Utilitarians would be to sacrifice innocent people in practice, there will always be some sufficiently extreme situations where they would promote it. One obvious example is in warfare, where it is often true that many innocent people will be killed by a strategy that is intended to prevent greater suffering in the future. And then there is the justice system, where it is essentially guaranteed that some number of innocent people will be punished by a system whose primary effect is punishing genuine criminals and fighting crime. These examples, however, will seem to many people to be somehow more acceptable than horrible scenarios of organ harvesting. Popular morality seems to hold that many normal rules stop applying in an emergency such as a war. It also tends to differentiate between deliberately killing an innocent person to benefit others, and following a beneficial strategy which will happen to kill some innocent people as an inevitable side effect.

    The prescriptive morality of everyday life makes a distinction between harms that are deliberately and directly caused, and harms that are not. This is a sensible rule, because people who are deliberately causing harm are usually more likely to be causing harm which could have been avoided with a better strategy, or which they are simply trying to justify after the fact through appeal to some kind of benefits. Despite this, we must recognize that harms not directly caused are still indirectly caused, and usually by our own actions and choices. For example, while it is often argued that under certain conditions Utilitarianism would condone the deliberate killing or torture of a person for the good of others, it is seldom mentioned how the same people who find this horrible don't seem to mention any horribleness of any doctrine which will inevitably increase the probability of people dying or being tortured, for indirect reasons, in order to influence the good of others. The Utilitarian perspective is that for someone to die "accidentally" is no less a loss than for them to be murdered, for someone to be tortured by direct result of one's action is no more painful than for them to be tortured as an indirect result of one's actions. What matters are what people experience, not any difference between causes that result in no difference in what people experience. The Utilitarian has been accused of cavalier willingness to kill a few if this would cause sufficient benefit to the many. The Utilitarian can bring up a counteraccusation about the hypocrisy of those who do not think it equally horrible to trade off life for wealth when the loss of life is "a statistic", a sort of avoidable accident, rather than a death at their own hands.

    How often are "thought experiments" raised in which a non-Utilitarian must evaluate the morality of allowing pollution control standards which will inevitably lead to hundreds of deaths, because it would impoverish society to prevent them? Or the morality of being willing to kill some inevitable number of innocent people in a war, if to do otherwise would bring the defeat of one's nation and its dominance by a society with very different values? Or the morality of allowing a legal system to proceed with some risk of jailing innocents (a sort of mild torture) even in the prosecution of crimes such as fraud, which do not directly lead to injury or death? The Utilitarian in this matter is distinguished not by horribleness or inhumanity, but by honesty, responsibility, and consistency. He does not ignore that tradeoffs of such things as life for wealth are made in all human societies, and are in fact essentially impossible to avoid. He is willing to impose the necessary pain and suffering as direct results of his actions, rather than to only accept the results when they benefit him or his ideals but he does not have to personally support any "dirty work". He does not oppose some positions on the grounds that it is horrible to inflict pain on some for the welfare of others, and then turn around and implicitly support exactly such a trade-off when it occurs under the position he favors.

  39. Utilitarianism cannot account for why it would be bad to be stuck in a Matrix-like "Reality Machine". (top)
  40. One argument against various forms of Utilitarianism - namely, against any form which says that welfare consists of purely subjective perceptions such as emotions and ideas about the world - is the "Reality Machine". The argument, originally due to Robert Nozick, begins by supposing that a machine has been created which can simulate reality so perfectly that someone inside it cannot tell an imaginary life inside the machine from real life outside of the machine. The machine could feed them experiences of simulated friendship, simulated work, and indeed an entire simulated world. Modern readers may wish to bring to mind the scenario of the popular movie "The Matrix", which is essentially the same idea. The argument is basically that living inside such a machine would be inferior to living in the real world. Since Utilitarian views based on subjective satisfactions deny that (the simulated reality is convincing enough that it produces real emotions of satisfaction and so on), they must be wrong.

    Some Utilitarians try and get around this by saying that people can have "objective" preference satisfaction - that if they want something to happen, it benefits them for it to happen even if they do not know about it. This seems to depart, however, from the most sensible conception of welfare as defined by the mental state of a person. If someone does not know about something, it cannot actually affect the quality of their life as subjectively evaluated by them. The real issue is that there is no fundamental subjective difference between reality and a suitable reality machine at all - for anyone. For all we know, each one of us could be in a "reality machine" right now. We may sensibly regard the idea as unlikely, but we have absolutely no way to disprove it. The best Utilitarian answer to the reality machine seems to be that it does not make a difference to the subjective welfare of people, the "worth" of their experiences, but it can make a practical difference in other ways. For example, someone in an actual reality machine would be quite helpless and vulnerable inside it, powerless in the real world. This could be a very risky situation to get into. Also, someone's experiences in a "Reality Machine" would not be constrained by the concerns of the real world, which means that their potential utility could change. A circumstance in the real world which would be utility-maximizing would often not be in the Reality Machine, because the subjective welfare of the inhabitant of the machine would not actually have to be traded off against that of others.

    Many of us are driven not only by welfare but by morals - we will sacrifice our own welfare to help others if that appears to be justified. The reality machine removes that possibility, because we are no longer interacting with actual others. In the real world, a Utilitarian could work to promote the welfare of others, but in the reality machine that would no longer be possible. Since the Reality Machine would only be convincing if people thought it was real life, though, the Utilitarian in the reality machine would still think that they were interacting with real people whose welfare mattered. This would cause the Utilitarian to sacrifice his own welfare for no gain, mistakenly believing that it would increase the welfare of others. This sort of concern may greatly influence peoples' feelings about the Reality Machine scenario - they may do things that would only be justified if real people benefited from them, but the people in the Reality Machine are not real.

    Imagine that you go to sleep in your bed tonight, but tomorrow you wake up sitting in a virtual reality pod. A bored technician standing next to you says "welcome back to the real world". Would you really rather learn your whole life had been a lie, or would you rather think that this strange incident had been a bad dream? If you did decide to wake up, would you decide that your life up to that point had been fundamentally inferior, even if it turns out you would have lived a much less comfortable and interesting life in the real world? To be more extreme, imagine that you have unknowingly lived in a Reality Machine all your life, and you are on your deathbed. Would you want to know the truth shortly before you died, or would you rather pass away in blissful ignorance?

  41. We can't measure arbitrary preferences, so Preference Utilitarianism is useless. (top)
  42. It is quite true that, in reality, we do not have the ability to measure the arbitrary preferences or desires of people. We can often only make rough guesses about what the "utility function" (the relationship that turns their circumstances into welfare values) is. This does mean that we cannot implement an ideal form of Utilitarianism in practice. We cannot actually produce a perfect calculation of the welfare benefits of an arbitrary event, because we don't know what its exact effects on the welfare of people will be. We cannot make our everyday decisions using a straightforward application of Utilitarian calculation. As if such a phenomenally complex process of calculations and comparisons could every really be straightforward anyway.

    Problems in measuring preferences, or any other complex idea of welfare, are of great practical importance. What they are not, on the other hand, are arguments against Utilitarianism. Most importantly, no practical problem with applying Utilitarianism is an argument against its correctness as a normative ethical philosophy. If Utilitarianism is hard to apply that means it is hard to apply, not that it is wrong. Many great discoveries, especially in the sciences, are very hard to apply, but that does not make them wrong. The fact that we can only approximate the solution to a complicated differential equation does not mean that there is something wrong with it. Likewise, the problem of measuring preferences is simply a practical difficulty to be overcome. Fortunately, it is not impossible to overcome. We can't measure any arbitrary preference, but we don't need to be able to do that in order to make very useful decisions. Utilitarians only need to know just enough about preferences to come up with strategies which will reliably maximize utility. Take, just as one example, the economic idea of a market. In a market, people all make choices according to their own preferences. Each person has, in general, a better idea of what their preferences are than someone else. Working together in a market situation, people can satisfy their own preferences with reasonable effectiveness - and we have knowledge and theory from economics to back this up.

    Markets are not necessarily utility maximizing, but economics is one way of giving us a good idea of how to increase welfare in practice. We do not actually need detailed knowledge about the preferences of individuals to be able to show that a well structured economic system can effectively satisfy those preferences. Disciplines such as economics can give us a good idea of how to establish, regulate, and manage forms of social organization that are effective at satisfying preferences even though no single person knows more than generalities about what all those preferences are. This is not to say that economics, or psychology, or any other science of human behavior and organization is perfect - far from it. It is merely to say that they can give us practical, useful information about how to maximize welfare even though we do not have detailed knowledge of exactly what the individual welfare of each person is.

  43. There is no effective way to compare utility between people, so Utilitarians in practice cannot effectively redistribute assets. (top)
  44. This particular objection is often raised from the perspective of economic theory. Various theoretical results based on certain preference structures suggest that it can be quite difficult to compare arbitrary sorts of preferences. Theorists investigating such issues are looking for a rigorous and exact comparison between the full preferences of different individuals. Finding the "weighting" of preferences so that one person's preferences can be quantitatively compared to those of another is a daunting task. It's not insoluble in theory, but it's certainly not the kind of thing that you would want to try in practice. Fortunately for Utilitarianism, there is no need to try it in practice. Real humans do not come with arbitrary structures of preferences, we come with goals and desires that are reliably similar in important ways. We are all part of the same species, with very similar brains and thus similar minds. Our differences are outweighed by our similarities.

    Real preferences can often be compared in a sensible, straightforward manner. The basics such as food, shelter, and good health, for example, are of similar importance to most people. We can be confident that the effect of factors such as these on the welfare of different people is substantial, and similar. We can even safely assume that people benefit to a similar extent from money, at least up to a reasonable amount which allows comfortable living. This is not to say that all people actually do benefit equally. The point is that the benefits to different people are similar enough that we can assume they are the same, and not be too far off. Not all goods can be compared in such a way, and that is also important. We have no reasonable basis to compare how much welfare benefit different people gain from activities such as going to the opera (or a rock concert), walking in a pristine forest, or living in a society which promotes their religious beliefs. Although we might be able to establish the benefits of these to specific individuals, given extensive testing, it is not practically possible to compare them across the population in general.

    The fact that welfare benefits for different people can be compared easily for some goods, but not for others, has important policy implications for Utilitarians. A government can reliably estimate the welfare benefits of such basics as food, shelter, health, and a minimal income. This gives it an effective basis on which to design policies to supply, regulate, or redistribute such goods. It cannot effectively redistribute arbitrary goods, however, because there is too much room for people to misrepresent their interests. If the government cannot reasonably know what the welfare benefits of a good are except by asking, and the people it asks are not reliable because they are promoting their own interests, that will not lead to effective redistribution of the good. These practical concerns indicate that governments should focus on redistributing basic goods and money, rather than on trying to manage the distribution of a wide variety of goods. In fact, the government should support policies such as free speech, and free choice in the realm of hard-to-compare goods. Free speech allows accurate information about the welfare benefits of goods to be distributed. Free choice allows consumers to promote their own interests when it comes to the many goods which cannot be effectively redistributed.

  45. Utilitarianism is inherently conservative. It says our current preferences are good in themselves, so there is no room for social reform aimed at encouraging people to have better preferences. (top)
  46. Utilitarianism is not inherently conservative. Utilitarians do refuse to regard the current values of any society as inherently "wrong", believing that any one value is worth as much as any other value. This does not, however, mean that Utilitarians are against practical social reform. There is only one specific kind of reform that Utilitarians are against. Because Utilitarianism does not support the idea that certain values are inherently better than others, Utilitarians do not support efforts to radically restructure society simply in order to get people to follow a new, "better" set of values. This does not, however, imply conservatism in the usual sense of the word. Most people do not support such radical plans to restructure society, whether they are liberal or conservative. The people who really think that their values are inherently "better", and want to impose them on the rest of society regardless of the cost, are found at the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum. Utilitarianism opposes the radical reform programs of Communists, reactionaries, and crusading religious fundamentalists alike.

    What Utilitarians do not oppose is any effort to change peoples' values. This is because Utilitarians recognize that change of values is a natural and inevitable part of human life, and take a long term view of welfare maximization. Change in some specific values, for example, can increase the satisfaction of other values. A society of people which place an increased value on honesty will likely have decreased problems of corruption. Utilitarian views based around "informed preferences" support efforts to change what people value so long as those people, given a full and informed hindsight, would tend to agree with the change. The difference between Utilitarian efforts to change values, and the efforts of many others, is that the Utilitarians wish to change values only when they believe that it will benefit the long term welfare of the people. Utilitarians refuse to define certain values as inherently better than others, and thus refuse to let the furthering of some values override other values sufficiently to cause a decrease in welfare.

    In practice, Utilitarians (especially the original British Utilitarians) often proposed fairly substantial programs of social change and reform. They did this not because they believed that certain social structures and values are inherently better, but because they believed that this would make people happier and better off. If an increased value placed on tolerance will decrease the great misery caused by prejudice, for example, then society may be better off in the long term if Utilitarians encourage greater tolerance. Utilitarians are not held prisoner by every whim and preference of the present. The future generations who will inevitably inherit society must be considered as well, and so must the fact that people often prefer a change in their values when they look back on the change from an informed perspective. Utilitarianism only rejects changing peoples' values in ways that will probably decrease their well-being (from their perspective), or encouraging new values which can only be sustained by ignorance of the alternatives.

  47. Game theory proves that Rule Utilitarianism is superior to Act Utilitarianism. (top)
  48. Some fairly complicated arguments have attacked Act Utilitarianism using game theory. To simplify the issue, game theory is a way of rigorously describing many situations of real-world relevance which involve cooperation and competition. Instead of going into the theory, consider the following example. An apartment building is on fire, and the people in it each have a choice of saving their own families and some of their possessions, or fighting the fire. Attempting to fight the fire will only be successful if about three quarters of the people in the building cooperate to do it. If enough people fight the fire, the building will be saved; otherwise, it will burn down and their efforts will have gained little. Anyone who tries to save their own family and possessions can save significantly more than they would if they joined the firefighting effort. In this example, the best outcome overall will happen if most of the people in the building join together to fight the fire. Any individual, however, faces a hard choice. If they simply try and save their own families, they can guarantee getting most of them out before the fire consumes their possessions. If they fight the fire, they are taking a substantial risk. If enough people cooperate with them, the building will be saved and they will achieve the best outcome. If not enough people cooperate, the building will burn down and they will not even have made the effort to save their own families. This is quite a dilemma, because which action is best depends entirely on what everyone else is going to do.

    Various arguments have been made asserting that Act Utilitarianism cannot deal effectively with this problem. Rule Utilitarianism can certainly deal with this specific example. Rule Utilitarians believe that actions should be chosen according to rules, and the rules should be chosen according to whether or not they maximize utility if everyone follows them. In this example, the Rule Utilitarians would compare the two actions by asking which action would have the best results if everyone followed it. Since cooperation has the best results if everyone cooperates, Rule Utilitarians would cooperate with each other in this situation. Act Utilitarianism does not provide such an obvious answer to these kinds of problems. Although its answer is not obvious, however, Act Utilitarianism does have one. An Act Utilitarian trying to maximize expected utility would know that the best outcome happens if everyone cooperates. If the Act Utilitarians each had good reason to expect other people to cooperate, then they would do so. One good reason to expect another to cooperate would be knowing that they are also an Act Utilitarian aware of the potential benefits of cooperation.

    Many of the arguments from game theory result from inappropriate definitions or a lack of imagination. Since it is more obvious that Rule Utilitarianism successfully deals with situations such as the example above, some people see this as a sign of superiority. Act Utilitarianism can also deal with these situations but it can take a bit more sophistication to see exactly why. Some such arguments against Act Utilitarianism also arise from a poorly chosen definition, where the Act Utilitarian optimal action is the one which produces the best actual result, rather than the one which produces the best expected result. Producing the best actual result depends on what everyone else actually does, which can't really be predicted in these situations without knowing the future. If you define the best action by actual results, then if 100 Act Utilitarians cooperate with each other, cooperation is the best action, but if 100 Act Utilitarians all fail to cooperate, then cooperation is the worst action because it does no good to "cooperate" alone. This definition produces situations where Act Utilitarianism cannot define a single action as the best action. Such an approach is not suited to game theory, though, because the whole point of the game theory approach is that the actions of others are not known beforehand. Actual decisions must be made on the basis of expected utility, and maximizing expected utility means cooperating with others who are likely to cooperate.

  49. Utilitarians in the real world would simply be exploited by the less altruistic, and lose power and influence. (top)
  50. Avoiding exploitation is a real concern for Utilitarians, but not one that cannot be dealt with. Always short-sightedly trying to maximize the present utility could lead to severe exploitation of Utilitarians by those who would manipulate them into excessive self-sacrifice. Maximization of utility in the long term, however, requires that Utilitarians prevent Utilitarianism from slowly losing power and influence. This could eventually lead to the extinction of Utilitarianism. The ideal Utilitarian actions, therefore, often reduce self-sacrifice by Utilitarians in order to prevent exploitation. Even in theory, when dealing with ideal Utilitarians, doing what appears somewhat selfish in the short term can maximize utility in the long term.

    In practice, avoiding exploitation is just as important. Working with imperfect knowledge and limited capabilities, Utilitarians in the real world must often follow behavioral policies that are designed to maximize expected utility in a wide variety of circumstances. It is important not only to avoid sacrificing oneself so much that one's ability to maximize utility in the long term is harmed, but also to avoid creating incentives for others to try to exploit Utilitarian behavior. Utilitarians must participate in social and political systems with a non-Utilitarian majority, and engage in cooperative endeavours which can survive the efforts of a reasonable proportion of exploitative insiders. Utilitarianism does not advocate fragile, self-defeating systems which encourage others to new levels of selfishness and lead to the weakening of Utilitarianism in the long run, because that is hardly an effective way to maximize utility. It is important to remember that there is no requirement that Utilitarianism be applied in the most straightforward or simple manner, only that it be applied in whatever way best achieves the goal of utility maximization.

  51. Utilitarians are opposed to democracy because a popular vote is unlikely to maximize utility. (top)
  52. Actually, most Utilitarians believe that democracy is an excellent way to maximize utility. There are enough theoretical problems with democracy that in a perfect world, filled with perfect Utilitarians, it probably wouldn't be the best way to maximize utility. In the real world, however, democracy works very well. Real people are not perfect Utilitarians. There are many people who will abuse power. Even well meaning people, who want to do what is best for others, do not necessarily have a good idea of what other people want. A democratic government is very resistant to abuses of power, because every level of authority has someone else watching over them to catch their abuses. The various elements of government watch over each other, and the justice system watches over the people. The people, in turn, have ultimate authority over the government. Making the government responsible to the people is vital, because otherwise the highest level of government can become abusive without anyone having the power to easily stop it. Democracy gives the vote to all of the people equally, but that works best in practice too. Although some people may vote "better" than others, in terms of promoting utility, there is no reliable way to identify these people. Trying to give power on a basis other than "one person one vote" opens the system up to significant abuse by people who want to get more power for themselves or those that they like. It can also lead to dangerous biases, because everyone is inevitably more familiar with their own perspective than that of very different people. A reliable way to make sure that the interests and perspectives of all people are represented is to give them each a vote.

    Utilitarians also usually favor a form of government which has limitations placed on it that prevent it from being equivalent to direct majority rule in all matters. There are some areas of society, such as in attempts to enforce religious belief, where government influence is so likely to produce negative results that it is safest to simply limit the powers of the government so that it is very hard for it to become involved. Even where the government has power, direct democracy is often not a good idea. For sufficiently complex or long-term decisions, most members of the public do not reasonably have the time to become usefully aware of the subject. Utilitarians generally favor some form of representative government, where the decision makers can dedicate a lot of time and energy to making the decisions. The public, of course, should retain oversight over the government at the ballot box. Utilitarians wish to maximize welfare, which means that in a sense "majority rules" often applies to ideal tradeoffs between the welfare of people. That does not, however, imply that Utilitarians think the majority should always rule in political decisions. Nor does the Utilitarian belief that the morality of an action is determined on a case by case basis, mean that Utilitarians believe people or government should not have restraining rules and laws in the real world.

  53. Utilitarians just keep adding patches to their theories to rectify specific criticisms, but the very fact that this is necessary demonstrates the bankruptcy of the Utilitarian approach. (top)
  54. Utilitarianism has been modified quite a bit, but this is hardly evidence against it. Why should we expect any philosophical theory to get all the details right immediately, even if the general idea is sound? In fact, given the number of mutually contradictory philosophies out there, philosophers are wrong most of the time. After all, at most one of any bunch of mutually contradictory beliefs can be right. More generally, any kind of important idea or theory has to be tested and refined, because in practice it doesn't just spring out fully formed. That Utilitarianism changes is evidence of its strength - Utilitarians can recognize when some of their ideas have been decisively criticized, and then abandon or change them. If a philosophy is unchanging, that is evidence that its followers are dogmatic and incapable of recognizing their mistakes, not that it is correct. Some people view change as an admission or indication of defeat. That view is not useful when it comes to endeavours such as philosophy or science, though, because such complex ideas always start out at least partly wrong. Finding errors and changing beliefs as a result is unremarkable. What is remarkable is when a position admits no errors and does not change, because that means its followers are not finding their own mistakes. Utilitarianism remains an important and useful philosophy because new knowledge and new techniques are constantly added to its repertoire. Utilitarianism will continue to evolve and grow in the future.


The following books are useful references about some aspect of modern utilitarianism. There are unfortunately not many very good modern references that provide comprehensive overviews of Utilitarianism. If you only read one book on Utilitarianism, however, it should definitely be William H. Shaw's "Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism" (which is accessible, comprehensive, and up to date).



As of the current version, Ian Montgomerie is the sole contributor to the Utilitarian FAQ. Hopefully, after this version has been circulated, many other people will comment on and contribute to the FAQ. Suggestions and constructive criticism are always greatly appreciated, and any help of significant usefulness will be credited.

Copyright 2000 by Ian Montgomerie (ian@ianmontgomerie.com)
This document may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes if it is reproduced in its textual entirety, with this notice intact.