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Utilitarian Response To Objections Regarding Justice And Supererogation Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1854 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay I am going to firstly explain the concept of utilitarianism. I will then discuss the problems it faces regarding both justice and supererogation before evaluating whether the arguments for these objections are convincing and whether a utilitarian can give a response.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that relies on the principle of utility to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an act token. It is therefore a consequentialist theory, since it relies fundamentally on the principle that the moral worth of an act token is judged solely on that acts ability to maximise utility. This utility can be defined in a variety of ways, for example knowledge or preference satisfaction, however for the purpose of this essay I am going to define utility as John Stuart Mill did:

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” [1] 

A general definition of utilitarianism might therefore go as follows:

An act token A is morally right if and only if it produces as much or more happiness for all those involved than any available alternative.

Bentham proposed a system of calculating the total value of an action’s consequences, which is known as the felicific calculus [2] . This takes into account the intensity, duration, likelihood etc. of the pleasures and pains which result from our actions and utilitarians suggest that by using this system we are able to compare the morality of actions. They believe that we ought always to choose the act that produces the most overall utility.

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Some of the main objections made in response to utilitarianism are based on the concepts of justice and fairness. Some people hold that utilitarianism is incompatible with justice and that it can imply that in certain situations it is morally right for us to treat people unfairly and violate what we intuitively believe to be their moral and civil rights. These objections arise out of the fact that utilitarians determine the rightness and wrongness of all actions by using what is known as the Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP). If an action satisfies this principle, then it produces the greatest happiness or utility for the greatest amount of people.

This raises problems in regards to justice and in particular, the rights of the individual and democratic equality. The first justice-related objection I am going to consider is problem of the violation of rights, since, in a utilitarian society, rights are only justified if they are essential to the maximisation of happiness. Therefore if a right is not essential to the overall happiness of a given society, then a utilitarian society is not required to protect it.

An example of this would be to imagine a minority group within a society who engaged in a religious practise of a sexual nature which offended the rest of the society. If this was a utilitarian society, the GHP would determine that preventing the minority group from performing these practises would be the morally right thing to do, because it would maximise the overall utility of the society. This seems intuitively problematic since it appears to violate the minority’s civil right to the freedom of religion.

The second justice-related objection I am going consider relates to the nature of the GHP principle itself, and the notion that it is a purely collective principle, only concerned with maximising the overall amount of utility.

An example of why this is problematic becomes apparent if we consider the act of genocide. It might be the case that in a given society, the extermination of a certain minority (E.G 100 people) would generate an increase in happiness for the majority (E.G 1,000,000 people.) Utilitarianism’s GHP would determine that in this case, genocide was the morally right act to perform, since the consequence of the action would promote happiness in the larger portion of the population. However our intuitions tell us that genocide is never something we ‘ought’ to do, yet in this case utilitarianism seems to tell us not only that we ought to do it, but that it is morally right.

A third justice-related objection I am going to consider relates to the notion of punishment. An example of this would be to imagine that there had been a series of murders in a town that were generally believed to have been committed by a homeless man. Following these murders there has been an outbreak of rioting in the town and the murders of several other homeless people have occurred. The sheriff has a homeless man in his custody that has no friends or family and knows that by executing this man, the rioting and murders will stop. The sheriff however knows that this particular homeless man is innocent. In this case utilitarianism would determine that it is morally right to convict and consequently execute the innocent man, because it promotes the most happiness within the given community, and prevents the rioters from causing anymore pain. However this again goes against our intuitions that it is wrong to punish the innocent.

These objections do at first seem very convincing because they appeal to our moral intuitions. However a utilitarian might respond to these cases by suggesting a variation on the classical version of utilitarianism: rule-utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism determines the rightness and wrongness of an act by finding the best rules of conduct that if followed by the majority of a society, would maximise the overall utility of that society. Rule-utilitarians may therefore suggest that in the long run, the rules ‘protecting the civil right to the freedom of religion’, ‘not committing genocide’ and ‘not punishing the innocent’ would create more overall utility, when followed by all or the majority of a society than not following them on these particular occasions. Rule-utilitarianism might therefore suggest that to follow these rules would be the morally right thing to do.

I will now move on to look at some objections to utilitarianism regarding supererogatory actions. The problem is that utilitarianism does not appear to allow for supererogatory acts. An act is said to be supererogatory if and only if it satisfies the following conditions:

1) It is morally optional

2) It is morally praiseworthy

3) It goes beyond the call of duty

Since utilitarianism requires that in any situation we may find ourselves in, we are morally obligated to perform the act that brings about the best possible consequences, it appears to leave no room for supererogation.

An example of this would be to imagine a man faced with a decision of whether to run into a burning building and save the five people trapped inside it himself, or to stay at a safe distance and call the emergency services. We are inclined to say that both actions are morally right since both aim to preserve the utility of the people trapped inside the building, however utilitarianism would seem to suggest that the only action that is morally right and thus morally obligatory in this situation, is for the man to run into the burning building himself, since that would maximise the utility of all the people involved. It would seem then that utilitarianism leaves no room for doing more than duty requires.

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Some have claimed however that utilitarianism can accommodate the three conditions of supererogation; there will often be acts which are morally optional in case where there is more than one act which would maximise utility, and some of these acts will also be morally praiseworthy. The common example used to illustrate this is that of Smith, who is given the option to save his own life or Jones’ life, on the basis that utility will be maximised either way. If Smith saves Jones’ life instead of his own, he is doing something that is both morally optional and morally praiseworthy. Smith’s action of saving Jones is also often considered to go beyond the call of duty, since he is doing more for others than he is required to. However this notion of requirement seems unclear and it seems that supererogation should involve doing more of what there is moral reason to do. In this case however, utilitarianism would deny that there was more moral reason for Smith to save Jones rather than himself, since both acts would maximise utility.

Utilitarianism also seems to have the consequence of suggesting that many supererogatory acts are wrong. The common example used to illustrate this is the intuitively supererogatory act of Smith taking Jones out for lunch. If taking to Jones to the most expensive restaurant in town would maximise the overall utility of everyone involved, then utilitarianism inevitably leads to the suggestion that taking Jones to a moderately priced restaurant would be morally wrong.

Objections such as these have led some utilitarians to a variation of the classical theory: satisficing consequentialism. This theory determines an action as morally right if it promotes a good enough outcome, however there are some obvious problems with this theory. The main challenge facing satisficing consequentialists is to explain when an outcome is good enough; it is not clear whether there is an absolute level of goodness which we ought to abide by or whether levels of goodness are relative to each individual situation.

In conclusion it seems that although utilitarianism appears at first to be correct in focussing on the consequences of our actions, the principles which form the basis of the theory are not without their problems.

The objections put forward about the issues such justice and supererogation that I have considered are all very convincing and although different variations of utilitarianism have attempted to, and often been successful in responding to those objections, there appears to be no unifying version of the theory which can respond to them all. Satisficing consequentialism for example, may be successful in responding to objections regarding supererogation, but may not necessarily be adequate in responding to objections regarding justice. This is obviously problematic because it means we are left with what appears to be an incomplete moral theory.

Since it appears that all the objections to utilitarianism that I have considered are rooted in the notion that the morality of an action is determined by its consequences, we might perhaps be better advised to look to a non-consequentialist theory of morality, such as deontology, for a theory of morality that does not suffer from the same objections.


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