“Bernard Williams…concluded a lengthy attack on utilitarianism by remarking: ‘The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it.’ It is now more than forty years since Williams made that comment, but we continue to hear plenty about utilitarianism.”
- Peter Singer & Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek 1
Utilitarianism is a very controversial moral theory. Critics have raised many objections against it, and its defenders have responded with attempts to defuse these objections.
In the following, we explain and address the most influential objections to utilitarianism.
General Ways of Responding to Objections to Utilitarianism
Many objections rest on the idea that utilitarianism has counterintuitive implications. We can see these implications by considering concrete examples or thought experiments. For instance, in our article on the rights objection, we consider the Transplant case:
Transplant: Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which there are five patients, each of whom will soon die unless they receive an appropriate transplanted organ—a heart, two kidneys, a liver, and lungs. A healthy patient, Chuck, comes into the hospital for a routine check-up and the doctor finds that Chuck is a perfect match as a donor for all five patients. Should the doctor kill Chuck and use his organs to save the five others?
At first glance, it seems that utilitarianism has to answer the question with “Yes, the doctor should kill Chuck”. It is better that five people survive than that just one person does. But on commonsense morality and virtually every other moral theory, the answer is “No, do not kill Chuck”. On most views, killing Chuck would be morally monstrous. This apparent counterintuitive implication of utilitarianism is taken as an argument against its being the correct moral theory.
Proponents of utilitarianism can respond to its counterintuitive implications in cases like Transplant in four separate ways.
First, they can accommodate the intuition that seems to conflict with the utilitarian recommendation by emphasizing that a sophisticated, as opposed to naive, application of utilitarian principles avoids the counterintuitive implication. We usually lack detailed information about the future consequences of our actions. This suggests that usually it would be naive for us to act in a way deemed very wrong on commonsense morality, under the impression this will bring about the best outcome. A sophisticated utilitarian—in line with multi-level utilitarianism—recognizes the limitations to our foresight and acts in accordance with commonsense heuristics, other than in exceptional circumstances.
Second, utilitarians can attempt to debunk the moral intuition invoked by a particular case by pointing out that it resulted from an unreliable process.2 If a debunking argument succeeds, the respective moral intuition should not be given much weight in our moral reasoning. As an illustration, consider that in most Western societies Christianity was the dominant religion for over one thousand years, which explains why moral intuitions grounded in Christian morality are still widespread. For instance, many devout Christians have strong moral intuitions about sexual intercourse, which non-Christians do not typically share, such as the intuition that it is wrong to have sex before marriage or that is wrong for two men to have sex. The discourse among academics in moral philosophy generally disregards such religiously-contingent moral intuitions. Many philosophers, including most utilitarians, would therefore not give much weight to the Christian’s intuitions about sexual intercourse.
Third, proponents of utilitarianism can attack the available alternatives—such as deontological or virtue ethical theories—to show that they, too, have implications no less counterintuitive than those of utilitarianism.
A fourth strategy is to tolerate the intuition, which is sometimes called “biting the bullet”. This is to accept that utilitarianism has counterintuitive implications but to hold on to the theory because all-things-considered it is still more plausible than its rivals. The costs of accepting a counterintuitive implication, it is argued, can be outweighed by the force of the arguments in favor of utilitarianism. Moreover, it is impossible to have any non-ad-hoc theory that accords with all of our intuitive moral judgements. Our intuitions are often inconsistent and they are subject to change over time, which makes it impossible to find consistent and plausible principles that reflect all of them. So it requires judgment to determine which intuitions and theoretical commitments are non-negotiable, and which we should be willing to compromise on in pursuit of “reflective equilibrium”, or the most plausible and coherent overall combination of moral judgments and principles.
Specific Objections Against Utilitarianism
In separate articles, we discuss the following critiques of utilitarianism:
The Rights Objection
Many find it objectionable that utilitarianism seemingly licenses outrageous rights violations in certain hypothetical scenarios, killing innocent people for the greater good. This article explores how utilitarians might best respond.
The Mere Means Objection
Critics often allege that utilitarianism objectionably instrumentalizes people—treating us as mere means to the greater good, rather than properly valuing individuals as ends in themselves. In this article, we assess whether this is a fair objection.
The Separateness of Persons Objection
The idea that utilitarianism neglects the 'separateness of persons' has proven to be a widely influential objection. But it is one that is difficult to pin down. This article explores three candidate interpretations of the objection, and how utilitarians can respond to each.
The Demandingness Objection
In directing us to choose the impartially best outcome, even at significant cost to ourselves, utilitarianism can seem an incredibly demanding theory. This page explores whether this feature of utilitarianism is objectionable, and if so, how defenders of the view might best respond.
The Alienation Objection
Abstract moral theories threaten to alienate us from much that we hold dear. This article explores two possible defenses of utilitarianism against this charge. One recommends adopting motivations other than explicitly utilitarian ones. The second argues that suitably concrete concerns can be subsumed within broader utilitarian motivations.
The Special Obligations Objection
Relationships like parenthood or guardianship seemingly give rise to special obligations to protect those who fall under our care (where these obligations are more stringent than our general duties of beneficence towards strangers). This article explores the extent to which impartial utilitarianism can accommodate intuitions and normative practices of partiality.
The Equality Objection
Utilitarianism is concerned with the overall well-being of individuals in the population, but many object that justice requires an additional concern for how this well-being is distributed across individuals. This article examines this objection, and how utilitarians might best respond.
The Cluelessness Objection
Is utilitarianism undermined by our inability to predict the long-term consequences of our actions? This article explores whether utilitarians can still be guided by near-term expected value even when this is small in comparison to the potential value or disvalue of the unknown long-term consequences.
The Abusability Objection
Some argue that utilitarianism is self-effacing, or recommends against its own acceptance, due to the risk that mistaken appeals to the 'greater good' may actually result in horrifically harmful actions being done. This article explores how best to guard against such risks, and questions whether it is an objection to a theory if it turns out to be self-effacing in this way.
How to Cite This Page
Resources and Further Reading
- Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer (2017). Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 4: Objections.
- J. J. C. Smart & Bernard Williams (1973). Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
de Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2017). Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Preface. ↩︎
For a discussion of evolutionary debunking arguments, see Hanson, R. (2002). Why Health Is Not Special: Errors In Evolved Bioethics Intuitions. Social Philosophy & Policy. 19(2): 153–79. See also the discussion in our chapter on the Arguments for Utilitarianism. ↩︎