Why Utilitarianism Is Flawed

As I’ve covered previously, utilitarianism is a useful philosophy in explaining the social utility of freedom. However, it puts the horse before the cart in saying that utility defines morality. The distinction is important, because under this premise anything is morally acceptable if it can be proven it provides utility.

This, of course, begs a few questions.

On utilitarianism, Quintus Curtius at Return of Kings correctly highlights some of the grievous flaws in the arguments made by its founder, Jeremy Bentham.

The weaknesses of utilitarianism are readily apparent. Bentham, while claiming to despise ideologies, simply substitutes his own for the ones that preceded him. And how are we, in our limited perspective, to know what is to the greatest advantage to the group? Who judges? Is not history and tradition—for which Bentham had such little regard—the primary determiners of what works for the group and what does not? (emphasis added)

And is it even proper to evaluate everything from a utilitarian perspective? “Usefulness” itself may be more often in the eye of the beholder than we care to admit. Bentham’s knowledge of history and human nature shows surprising shortcomings: “utilitarianism” in practice can often degenerate into a cover for our own prejudices and preferences. He was vigorously attacked in his lifetime by conservative Tories for being an atheist, a materialist, and an impractical idealist.

One of the comments made on the article by Davis Aurini of Stares at The World also summarized further these problems.

One of the great ironies of utilitarianism, is that despite its rejection of Natural Law, it repeatedly proves the existence of Natural Law by its attempts to patch itself (emphasis added).

Raw-utilitarianism often comes to inconvenient conclusions: such as, if the murder of one person by 10,000 others results in a net increase in ‘hedons’, then that murder is justified – you can literally see this logic being employed by communist countries. Sensing that this is evil, utilitarians will endlessly try to patch their ideology (creating exceptions that forbid acts like this), but ultimately the patches never work, and the very act f patching shows that they’re trying to adhere to Natural Law.

Under utilitarianism, the end truly does justify the means. But who gets to decide what the end actually is? Therein lies the problem.

Read more of Curtius’ writings at his blog

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14 Responses to Why Utilitarianism Is Flawed

  1. Utilitarianism’s main failing is that it tries to explain everything in terms of “happiness”, but feelings are flexible, and feelings are acquired by learning. It is possible to feel good about doing bad. Moral education teaches us to feel good about doing good and being good.

    Natural law’s main failing is that it cannot define why this law is more natural than that law. And if we strictly go by what we observe in nature, then there are two many bad behavioral examples of violence, “might makes right”, etc.

    Morality seeks what is good, and it seeks it for others as it seeks it for itself. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. To the degree that these needs can be objectively defined for a situation, the moral good can be objectively determined. For example, giving a glass of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert would be objectively good. But giving the same glass of water to a man drowning in the swimming pool would be objectively bad.

    As you move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, things start to get fuzzier. But, at least in theory, what is good and bad may be objectively determined.

    The goal is to achieve the best good and least unnecessary harm for everyone. Laws evolve to meet that purpose.

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    • The Question says:

      I agree with your assessment of utilitarianism. Just to clarify, by Natural Law I refer not to the law of the jungle, “might makes right,” but the concept of natural rights. I certainly agree that what we observe in nature, where the concept of rights does not exist, is not a good example of how humans should conduct themselves or interact with one another.

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      • But you have only said what “natural rights” are not.

        To my mind, there are two basic classes of rights. One class I call “rhetorical rights”. These are rights that a person may claim rhetorically, but are not necessarily agreed to by anyone else. The other class of rights are “practical rights”. These are rights that a community has agreed to respect and protect for each other, especially those which the community has provided means to enforce.

        To call a right “natural”, or “God given”, or even “inherent” is to merely make a rhetorical statement. Rhetoric attempts to convince by means of emotion as much as reason. For example, when Jefferson said men were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”, he was speaking rhetorically. However, when he said “and to secure these rights governments are instituted” he was speaking practically about the means by which we provide enforcement for laws that prohibit behavior that violates the rights that we agree to respect and protect for each other.

        So the question remains, how will we know a “natural right” from a right that is not “natural”?

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      • The Question says:

        Very intriguing.

        One way to tell the difference between an “unnatural” right and a “natural one” is that natural rights do not require coercion or aggression against another individual in order for you to exercise that right, though the legitimate use of force may be needed to defend that right. I have a right, for example, to write whatever I wish, but I do not have a right to force someone else to provide me with the materials necessary to write. I must acquire the property through non-coercive and voluntary means. For me to do otherwise would be to violate someone else’s property rights. In that same regard, someone else does not have the right to use coercion or aggression to prevent me from writing whatever I wish as long as I am using my own property to do so.

        An “unnatural” right would be for me to force a content publisher like WordPress to provide me with a platform to write at my command under the claim that I have “right to publishing material” rather than the “right to write.”

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      • There needs to be some criteria for judging rights, some way of demonstrating that “the right to own slaves”, for example, is less right than “the right to never be enslaved”. At a point in history, we agreed to deny racial slavery and embrace universal liberty. And we did that despite a very long human history of slavery in many different forms.

        I believe the criteria was moral judgment, a weighing of the benefits versus the harms resulting from adhering to one right rather than another. The abolitionist movement educated northern populations as to the harms being inflicted upon the slave, both physically and emotionally. And human moral judgment eventually abolished slavery.

        I would suspect that some who defended slavery argued that it was “natural”, due to its long history as a social norm.

        I’ve read of the non-coercion principle. But I do not see why it should be called “natural”. Nor do I see it as a valid guide for behavior.

        The classic example is the restaurant owner claiming a natural right to post a “Whites Only” sign in the window. A black man walks in, sits down, and orders a cup of coffee from the menu. Who, if anyone, has “initiated force” at this point?

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      • The Question says:

        “The classic example is the restaurant owner claiming a natural right to post a “Whites Only” sign in the window. A black man walks in, sits down, and orders a cup of coffee from the menu. Who, if anyone, has “initiated force” at this point?”

        Putting all emotion or distaste for the behavior aside, if someone is on another person’s property against their will, regardless of their reasons, it is trespassing and therefore aggression. To argue otherwise is to say that someone has a right to be on another person’s property against their will. This of course, begs the question: Where does this right to be on someone else’s property against their will come from?

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      • In practice, regardless of any theory, the right to own property exists only by common agreement. When the people of a country constitute a nation, they agree to settle matters of property by law. New territories may be open for settlement, as they were in the old west. Deeds of ownership are issued. And, under certain extraordinary circumstances, a person may be required to sell their property at fair market value to the state for the sake of roads or infrastructure necessary for the common benefit of everyone.

        This right to property is defended by everyone, and thus becomes a practical right, not one existing merely upon the rhetorical claims of one person.

        And this right is just as “natural” as any other claim to the contrary. After all, anyone can make a rhetorical claim to anything.

        And, if you use your own logic, it is also easy to accommodate the correct resolution of the restaurant problem. To deny commerce is to deny the means of sustaining an independent life (or for that matter, life itself). If one restaurant can post a “Whites Only” sign, then every other can do the same. The black man has no place to work, no place to eat, and no place to sleep. Therefore, the “Whites Only” sign is clearly the initiation of force.

        And we may say that the black man walking into any restaurant, just as anyone else, has a natural, God given, and inherent right to sit down and order a cup of coffee.

        But, of course, that remains a rhetorical claim, until a consensus is reached that we should respect and protect that right for each other. Then it becomes a matter of agreement which everyone who wishes to live in our nation is party to, whether he likes it or not.

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      • The Question says:

        You’re arguing a person has the right to enter property that is not his against the will of the property owner. Where does this right come from, and how did you come to this conclusion?

        “The right to own property exists only by common agreement.”

        What do you mean by “common agreement”?

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      • The word “right” implies “things as they ought to be”. We come to think that this is “right” and that is wrong by applying moral judgment to our experience.

        When two hungry persons are given two apples and one of them gobbles his down and grabs the second apple from his friend, the friend will get angry and punch him in the nose. Eventually, to avoid violence, we come to a common agreement that each should be entitled to his own property. We say that it is “right” that each shall have their own and it is wrong for one to steal what the other has. If this works well, to everyone’s benefit, then it becomes a behavioral norm for the group.

        When an outsider comes and grabs an apple from someone in the group, the other group members defend the victim’s right to his property by stopping the thief, and restraining him until he learns the group’s new rule against stealing.

        This is how the right to property naturally arose in societies. All practical rights arise from consensual agreements. One person convinces another that “this is how things ought to be” because it produces a better result for everyone than everyone stealing each others products all the time. If everything one person produces is stolen, then the motivation to produce becomes instead the motivation to steal, and nothing more is produced. Everyone suffers.

        The point of every rule is to make things better for everyone and to reduce everyone’s suffering. And this desire to improve things for everyone and prevent unnecessary harm is called “morality”.

        Specifically, In the case of the restaurant, it is better for everyone if we all are free to enter any restaurant and sit down to a meal that we are willing to pay for. It benefits the person who is hungry and it benefits the restaurant owner’s desire to earn a living by providing meals.

        The restaurant owner’s prejudice against a given race or religion benefits no one, not even the owner himself. And there is no right to exclude any customer who is willing to present himself as a customer and does no harm to the owner or his business by eating there.

        A person’s right to one’s own property is not absolute. When a person opens a restaurant on his property on the public street he is subject to public regulations regarding things like healthy food preparation and storage, as well as serving all valid customers regardless of their race.

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      • The Question says:

        Now you’re discussing what is morally right when we’ve been discussing legal rights. They are not the same.

        “A person’s right to one’s own property is not absolute.”

        How did you come to this conclusion? Who else has rights to that property?

        Again, I’m going to leave this question here:

        Where does the right of a person to enter a someone else’s property against their will come from? If a person doesn’t have an absolute right to their own property, then how can someone have any right to property they don’t own in any way?

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      • Q: “Where does the right of a person to enter a someone else’s property against their will come from?”

        It comes from the same place that all practical rights come from. It comes from our agreement with each other to respect and protect that right for each other.

        Q: “If a person doesn’t have an absolute right to their own property, then how can someone have any right to property they don’t own in any way?”

        You’re probably familiar with the history of various peoples invading the lands of other peoples and taking their property.

        When this happens in a small way, say in a family, then the parent defends the property rights of each person in the family. When one family attacks another family then might determines who ends up with what. Families form tribes to improve their ability to defend their property. Tribes form states for the same reasons.

        And that’s what Jefferson meant when he said “to secure these rights, governments are instituted”. The people constituted both the individual states and the United States to secure the rights they agreed to respect and protect for each other.

        Why? Did you have some other theory as to where rights came from?

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      • The Question says:

        “It comes from our agreement with each other to respect and protect that right for each other.”

        What agreement? I don’t accept this “right” exists. Therefore, there is no “agreement” on the matter. If there was we wouldn’t be debating this in the first place.

        “And that’s what Jefferson meant when he said “to secure these rights, governments are instituted”. The people constituted both the individual states and the United States to secure the rights they agreed to respect and protect for each other.”

        Jefferson was referring to the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” not the right to enter a person’s property against their will. He also stated that these rights are “endowed” by their Creator; they do not come from government. Government exists, according to Jefferson, to “secure these rights.”

        You also assume that Jefferson’s statement on government protecting rights is correct. I do not accept this. You also not accept that rights originate from a Creator, which Jefferson argued.

        So once more I ask, if our rights are not natural, where do they originate from? And, more importantly, how did you come to this conclusion?

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      • Since I’m the only one offering an explanation of where rights come from, I apologize if I seem repetitive.

        The moral person seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. To that end, rights and the rules to protect them, are created. Everyone desires to be safe from the threat of murder. Everyone desires to be free from bondage. Everyone desires to securely possess one’s own property. The security of our life, liberty, and property against harm accomplishes this goal of improving good and reducing harm for everyone.

        Therefore we come to an agreement to respect and protect these rights for each other.

        The threat to one man’s life by murder is in the hands of other men, both the murderer and those who would stop the murderer. The threat to one man’s liberty by being chained into slavery is in the hands of other men, both the slaver and those who are willing to stop him. The threat to one man’s possessions is in the hands of the thief and those who would stop the thief and imprison him. Neither God nor Nature will guarantee any right for any of us. It is totally in our own hands.

        So the existence of an agreement between us as to what rights we will respect and protect for each other is the most important and most significant guarantee of any rights we might claim.

        Any “rhetorical” claims to a right may in fact be backed up by a well-reasoned argument. But unless everyone buys into that argument, and believes it is true, and is willing to sacrifice self-interest to make it true, then it is only rhetoric. And the right is merely rhetorical rather than practical.

        Suppose I assert the following: The right of a black man, to sit and order a cup of coffee, in any privately-owned restaurant that is open to the public, is endowed upon him by God, and by Nature, and is inherent in his person from the time he is born.

        Do you wish to argue to the contrary?

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  2. Pingback: No One Owes You Anything (You Don’t Own) | The Anarchist Notebook

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