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Archive for the ‘Utilitarianism’ Category

Useless Thought Experiments

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 12, 2013

Philosophers often use thought experiments in an attempt to refute some theory. In the particular case of ethical thought experiments, philosophers’ arguments tend to take this form:

1. Consider some unlikely situation.

2. In this situation, moral philosophy X says you should do Y.

3. Y is clearly immoral.

4. Therefore, X cannot be true.

In response, people who believe X often try to refute (2)—the idea that Y follows from X. In many cases, this is a mistake. Typically, the weakest point here is (3)—the assumption that Y is immoral. Even if we intuitively feel that Y must be immoral, our intuitions often misguide us; if we want to think clearly, we must apply rationality to our judgments whenever possible. We cannot reject a moral philosophy because of a thought experiment.

Intuitional and Rational Judgments

When making ethical judgments, people tend to rely heavily on intuition. An ethical system must contain some sort of intuition as the basis for a first principle; but it is important to select the right intuition. Most people who have not studied ethics (and even many who have) tend to act on whatever intuition they happen to feel in the moment, even if it contradicts some previous feeling.

When establishing an ethical theory, one should choose a few basic intuitions and then use rational principles to develop a consistent philosophy.

Once one selects some ethical framework, one can no longer make statements such as “Y is clearly immoral.” It must be proven immoral within the framework, not by our limited and often-inconsistent [1] instincts.

Below, I discuss three thought experiments that have been used to reject utilitarianism, and why they fail at this purpose.

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Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

Utilitarianism Resources

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 17, 2012

This is a collection of some of my favorite resources on utilitarianism.

Light Books
Practical Ethics, Peter Singer
Animal Liberation, Peter Singer
The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer

Heavy Books
The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick
Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill
The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Jeremy Bentham

Consequentialism FAQ
Utilitarian FAQ
Common Criticisms of Utilitarianism

80,000 Hours
Effective Animal Activism
The High Impact Network
Giving What We Can

Utilitarian Philosophers
Utilitarianism: past, present and future
Recommended Reading

Less Wrong

Essays and Blogs
Essays on Reducing Suffering
Reflective Disequilibrium
Measuring Shadows
Philosophy, et cetera
Reducing Suffering

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Article of the Day: Consequentialism FAQ

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 3, 2012

Today’s article is an excellent piece that explains consequentialism and why it makes sense, and explains some of its implications. It is probably the best introduction to consequentialism that I have ever read.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the deep jungles of Clamzoria across the Freptane Sea is a tall and snow-capped mountain. Within this mountain is a cave which is the lair of the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men. Encased within the chest of Hrogmorph is a massive ruby called the Heartstone, a ruby with legendary magic powers. The stories say that whoever wears the Heartstone is immune from the moral law, and may commit any actions he desires without them being even the mildest of venial sins.

Lured by the legend of the stone, you sail the Freptane Sea and trek through the Clamzorian jungle. You defeat the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men, in single combat, take the Heartstone from his body, and place it around your neck as an amulet. Upon returning home, you decide to test its powers, so you adopt a kitten from the local shelter, then kill it.

You feel absolutely awful. You just want to curl up in a ball and never show your face again. “Well, what did you expect?” asks the ghost of Hrogmorph, who has decided to haunt you. “The power of the Heartstone isn’t to prevent you from feeling guilty. Guilt comes from chemicals in the brain, chemicals that live in the world like everything else – not from the metaphysical essence of morality. Look, if it makes you feel better, you didn’t actually do anything wrong, since you do have the amulet. You just feel like you did.”

Then Animal Control Services knocks on your door. They’ve gotten an anonymous tip – probably that darned ghost of Hrogmorph again – that you’ve drowned a kitten. They bring you to court for animal cruelty. The judge admits, since you’re wearing the Heartstone, that you technically didn’t commit an immoral act – but you did break the law, so he’s going to have to fine you and sentence you to a few months of community service.

While you’re on your community service, you meet a young girl who is looking for her lost kitten. She describes the cat to you, and it sounds exactly like the one you adopted from the shelter. You tell her she should stop looking, because the cat was taken to the animal shelter and then you killed it. She starts crying, telling you that she loved that cat and it was the only bright spot in her otherwise sad life and now she doesn’t know how she can go on. Despite still having the Heartstone on, you feel really bad for her and wish you could make her stop crying.

If morality is just some kind of metaphysical rule, the magic powers of the Heartstone should be sufficient to cancel that rule and make morality irrelevant. But the Heartstone, for all its legendary powers, is utterly worthless and in fact totally indistinguishable, by any possible or conceivable experiment, from a fake. Whatever metaphysical effects it produces have nothing to do with the sort of things that make us consider morality important.

This article was written by Scott Alexander Siskind. He has written a number of excellent pieces and frequently contributes to Less Wrong.

Posted in Article of the Day, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Article of the Day: The Meat Eaters

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 18, 2012

Rutgers professor Jeff McMahan wrote an intriguing essay for the New York Times about the ethics of how we treat animals.

At the start of the essay, he determines that we have a moral obligation not to eat meat: “Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey[.]” I would make a small amendment here: although he is technically correct that most of our meat and eggs come from factory farms, he understates the true proportion, which in fact exceeds 99% (according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture).

Having established this fact, McMahan moves on to discuss the subject of wild-animal suffering. He explains why it is a problem and why we should do something about it, and addresses a number of objections to his argument. His main thesis is that we should work toward the extinction of all carnivorous species once we gain the capacity to do so without serious environmental disruption.

McMahan also wrote a response to critics. It is well worth a read if you find yourself skeptical of his ideas after reading “The Meat Eaters.” McMahan makes a number of excellent points in this essay, but one thing he says is especially worth quoting:

The commentators’ gesture toward the alleged suffering of plants seemed no more than a rhetorical move in their attack on my argument. But if one became convinced, as some of the commentators appear to be, that plants are conscious, feel pain, and experience suffering, that ought to prompt serious reconsideration of the permissibility of countless practices that we have always assumed to be benign. If you really believed that plants suffer, would you continue to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to mow your grass? . . . Shouldn’t that elicit serious moral reflection rather than being deployed as a mere debating point?

This sort of thing happens all the time in arguments over ethics: someone makes an ostensibly-outlandish claim merely for the purpose of refuting an argument, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion. If plants really do suffer, for example, then we ought to consider the moral implications of that fact.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 8 Comments »

Voting to Do the Most Good

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 4, 2012

If you are a United States citizen and you want to do as much good as possible with your vote, then how should you use it? (These principles apply outside the US as well, but my analysis focuses on US elections.)

Expected Value of Voting

For those who care about maximizing the welfare of society, the importance of voting increases as the population increases. Below is the mathematical justification for this claim. These calculations assume that you know the correct person to vote for. If you wish to avoid math, you can skip to the next section.

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Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 1 Comment »

Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Justice

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 30, 2012

Free will is an illusion [1]. What does this say about moral responsibility?

If the purpose of morality is to maximize the happiness of sentient beings, as I often claim, then whether free will exists is irrelevant. In fact, whether free will exists does not matter as long as morality focuses on the consequences of actions, rather than their motives.

The traditional argument goes: if free will is an illusion, then we are not in control of our own actions, which means we cannot be held responsible for them. So it doesn’t matter what actions we take, right? We can run around killing people, right? Well, no. Our actions still matter just as much as they ever did: they affect the outside world whether they are the product of free will or the result of deterministic processes. Others are still affected by our actions. We still feel emotions, even if those emotions arise deterministically.

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Posted in Ethics, Free Will, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Animal Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 18, 2012

Ethical Background

We have an obligation not to cause suffering. Furthermore, we have no reason to limit this obligation to members of the human species—any sort of suffering is morally relevant, and the importance of the suffering derives not from who experiences it but from how severe it is [1]. If animals can suffer then their suffering deserves equal consideration.

Many non-human animals (including most vertebrates) are definitely capable of suffering—physically, and often emotionally. True, most animals cannot know the range of suffering that humans can, but they still feel pain, discomfort, and distress, and they experience such feelings as acutely (or at least approximately as acutely) as humans do. (For those who doubt that mammals and other vertebrates feel pain to the extent that humans do, see Do Animals Feel Pain?.) We owe it to all animals—human and non-human—not to inflict painful experiences upon them. Furthermore, we have an obligation to prevent the suffering of animals in the wild.

Practical Considerations

If we grant that the suffering of all beings holds equal value, then what must we do to remain consistent with our morals?

It has been well-established that factory farms—through which nearly all domesticated animals (excluding pets [2]) are raised—cause animals a great deal of suffering. This essay will not go into details, as facts about such animals’ treatment are readily available (in many books as well as on the web; I recommend Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, an excerpt of which may be found here). All that need be said here is that animals on factory farms experience an enormous, almost incomprehensible amount of suffering for their entire lives.

So-called “free range” or “cage-free” farms, while they often improve conditions, still create considerable suffering. It is difficult to find farms that raise animals humanely, and even certified “humane” farms create conditions that I would not wish for any sentient being to endure (for example, castrating animals without anesthetic). It may be possible to find happily-raised animals in stores, but I warn the reader to be skeptical of any products that claim to be humane. For more information, see “The Truth Behind Labels: Farm Animal Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices.

In light of these considerations, we hold an obligation to avoid animal products, especially food. Of course, reducing the quantity of meat one eats—while not as good as removing it entirely from one’s diet—does a great deal of good. For those who wish to prevent animal suffering but find it difficult to do so, there are a lot of resources out there that can help you. I recommend The 99-Cent Ultimate Vegan Guide by Erik Marcus, which you can purchase online for 99 cents.

Of all the animal products we consume, chicken and fish suffer the greatest total harm. A cow or a pig can feed many more people than a chicken or fish, so not as many have to be raised and killed in cruel conditions. And when industrial fishing boats capture fish, they end up killing many times more fish than they actually intend to harvest, simply by accident (Foer 49). Together, chicken, eggs, and fish probably account for over 95% of the suffering that the food industry creates. For more information on this subject, see “How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?”

One should avoid animal products not only to reduce suffering, but to make a statement. We will make serious progress toward reducing animal suffering when caring seriously about animals becomes a widely-accepted position. As it is, people who concern themselves with the suffering of non-human animals are considered radicals and often looked down upon—many consider it rude to even bring up the fact that you’re vegan. Every person who joins this “radical” position helps push it toward the mainstream; and the more mainstream the position becomes, the easier it will be to reduce animal suffering. Similarly, it is important to behave respectably when it comes to animal welfare issues; if you behave respectably, your position will get more respect. Incendiary organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can hurt the credibility of the animal welfare movement.

Other actions we can take include political action (such as lobbying for stricter legal standards for factory farms) and donating to charities that support animal welfare. Effective Animal Activism continually invests effort into identifying the most effective animal welfare charities, and they publish their recommendations on the front page of their website.

I frequently hear people give reasons why they cannot be vegetarian or vegan. It goes beyond the scope of this essay to address them all, but it is worth saying this: (a) extensive research has shown that a vegan diet can be healthy for humans in every stage of their lives (see this report by the American Dietetic Association); (b) I have never heard someone raise a problem that could not be solved by searching online for five minutes or less. (For example, a common complaint goes, “I can’t get enough protein.” Myriad sources in bookstores and on the Web explain how to eat adequate protein with a plant-based diet.) I recommend Vegan Health as a quick source on how to maintain a healthy diet.

The Importance of Animal Suffering

Given the sheer volume of factory-farmed animals, the meat industry represents one of the most serious problems facing the world today. Most people—including many vegetarians—grossly underestimate the importance of this issue.

Non-human animals clearly have many differences from humans: they cannot vote, they cannot attend school, and they cannot in most ways participate in human society. However, many species can suffer just as we can, and as such deserve moral consideration.

As Jeremy Bentham put it in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Any fair-minded ethical theory must grant that suffering is equally significant no matter who experiences it, and that includes non-human animals.

Humans living in factory farm-like conditions would probably suffer worse than other animals because out higher reasoning capacities would create additional forms of suffering. However, the great majority of human suffering in such a situation would arise in the very same manner in which animal suffering arises: continual physical pain and discomfort, inability to form social connections, and severely limited emotional freedom. Considering the tens of billions of animals raised in such conditions for their entire lives, it should be no surprise when I claim that factory farming represents one of the greatest evils in existence.

Wild-Animal Suffering

That said, the single most important source of suffering that we know of must be wild-animal suffering. Due to the sheer number of wild animals, they experience far more suffering than animals in factory farms.

Unfortunately, it does not look like we can do much about it right now, as we are not very good at predicting the impact of our actions. It is likely that our efforts to help will only make the situation worse. So consider this an open problem. We ought to spend time considering what we can do to alleviate the suffering of wild animals without inadvertently creating more. Perhaps we do not yet know what to do, but we have not spent much time considering the problem.

For now, we should stop using animal products, help promote moral sentiments that give consideration to animal suffering, and consider donating to effective animal-welfare charities.




[1] When I spoke to a friend of mine about the subject of this essay, he argued that human well-being is necessarily more important because humans have a greater impact on the global well-being than other species. If this is true, it does not give greater inherent value to human happiness, but rather gives them greater value because they create more significant side effects.

If a single human becomes more happy, his happiness spreads to other people—and hence, increasing a human’s happiness by X amount generally does more good than increasing a non-social animal’s happiness by X amount. But the added impact from a human’s happiness still does not compare to the extraordinary amount of suffering a human can prevent by taking on a few minor inconveniences (as described later in this essay).

[2] Factory farms represent the biggest source of suffering that humans inflict upon animals. This essay does not address the exploitation of animals for clothing, experiments, zoos, etc., because the sheer number of animals in factory farms far exceeds the number of animals in zoos and laboratories. And this essay excludes pets because we treat pets much better than most animals.


Foer, Jonathan S. Eating Animals. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2010. Print.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 7 Comments »

Why Utilitarianism?

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 30, 2012

Why should one adopt utilitarianism rather than some other moral philosophy? This essay explains four simple principles from which the utilitarian position follows.

First, the purpose of morality is to do what is good and prevent what is bad. I hope no one disagrees with this.

Second, I define good in relation to myself by my interests or preferences. The things that I value for myself—physical health, intellectual engagement, human connection—I consider to be good for me. The things I want to avoid, I consider bad.

Third, all beings who hold interests deserve moral consideration. While I cannot experience anything beyond my own consciousness, I still must recognize the existence of consciousness outside of myself. Even though I cannot directly experience the good that others feel, I must acknowledge that good exists for others just as much as it does for myself. I hold certain interests and other sentient beings hold their own interests; I ought to respect their interests just as much as I respect my own. [1] I want to do the most good possible—even if the good affects others and not myself.

Fourth, an interest holds value in proportion to the strength of the interest. My desire for life overrides my desire for an adrenaline rush, so I do not jump off of a cliff. Similarly, different beings’ interests may be compared by considering the strengths of their interests.

Those who do not accept this claim have no way of judging one particular good as more significant than another. However, I cannot deny that some of my interests are more important than others, and it is worth violating a lesser interest to serve a greater one (e.g. giving up my temporary happiness by cleaning the dishes so that I can use them later). From this fact, it follows that some people have some interests that outweigh other people’s interests. For this reason, tyranny of the majority is unjustifiable, as the minority’s stronger preferences outweigh the majority’s weaker preferences. (For a more detailed explanation of why it is possible to judge one good as more significant than another, see “Measuring Happiness.”)

This is not to say it is always easy to determine which interests matter most. Doing so is often difficult, but rarely (if ever) impossible.

Utilitarianism is simply the combination of these four simple premises. Good is defined by individuals’ preferences; all beings capable of having preferences deserve moral consideration; some preferences take precedence over others. From these principles, one may determine (or at least approximate) the most ethical choice in every situation.


[1] Here, “respect” simply means an acknowledgement that the interest holds value. Some interests promote the general good more than others; for example, a desire to provide for one’s family does more good than a desire to indiscriminately murder people. If someone wanted to commit murder, I would try to prevent him from doing so, but only because the potential victim’s desire to live overrides the potential murderer’s desire to kill, and not because his interests do not hold value.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 14 Comments »

Measuring Happiness

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2012

In response to the utilitarian school of ethics, people often object that it is impossible to measure happiness, or to weigh the interests of two or more different sentient beings. A previous essay addresses this objection in brief; this essay will examine the issue more deeply.

Even if we cannot evaluate happiness, this in no way invalidates the principle of utility. If I lose the ability to perceive other people, they do not cease to exist; similarly, if I cannot perceive others’ happiness, their happiness still holds importance. It would indeed be tragic if we had no way of knowing how our actions affect others, but if this were the case, it would not constitute an argument against utilitarianism. At best, it could serve as a case for ethical egoism as the best method of increasing utility (see Argument 3 in “Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism.”)

Observing Well-Being

Fortunately, we know a good deal about how our actions affect others. While we cannot precisely feel what another person feels, we can make inferences as to others’ internal states. Animals (human and non-human) communicate their feelings and preferences through their behavior: if you step on a cat’s tail, it cries out and darts away from you. This indicates that it strongly prefers to avoid having its tail stepped on.

Of course, a rock may roll downhill, but is this because it desires to be at the bottom of the hill? Indeed, if you drop a cat off a building it will fall, but is this because it desires to reach the ground? No, because these actions are not voluntary. A cat cries out intentionally or instinctively to express its pain. Some plants let out distress calls when damaged, but this does not indicate pain because plants do not possess consciousness or the capacity to feel pain. It is unclear where the line lies between an unconscious reaction as an evolutionary adaptation and a conscious response to pain, but it is clear that vertebrates feel pain and plants do not. Do insects feel pain or pleasure? Maybe. But the only important facts for the purposes of this argument are that many animals suffer, and they express their suffering in a manner that we can observe.

We can indirectly infer the internal states of others—not just pain, but every emotion on the spectrum. As social creatures, we have evolved to perceive each other’s feelings. We can gain knowledge as to what sorts of actions promote well-being and use this knowledge to increase the total happiness in the world.

Accumulating Knowledge

John Stuart Mill responds to a related objection in his definitive work, Utilitarianism:

Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this- that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand.

Each individual person has spent considerable time learning what makes others feel pleasure and suffering, both through personal observation and through instruction. Parents teach their children how to respect others; “respect others” is another way of saying “do not cause others to suffer.” And throughout our lives, we learn through experience what sorts of behaviors promote others’ well-being. We learn to consider others’ interests and act to help others rather than hinder them.

And most of us become very good at it. You not only know what makes humans in general happy, but you know specifically what to do to make your mother happy, or your brother, or your husband. Perhaps your mother particularly dislikes when you chew your food loudly, or your husband greatly enjoys foot rubs. We accumulate such knowledge about our friends and relations, and can use it to increase utility.

We can also increase the well-being of those people with whom we do not have close relationships. Most people share certain tendencies as to what promotes their happiness. For example, nearly everyone dislikes physical pain [1]; so if I see a complete stranger who is about to walk through poison ivy, I can redirect her and feel confident that I have helped her. There is a small chance that she enjoys feeling poison ivy on her skin, but that is a risk worth taking.

Although we cannot be absolutely certain that a particular action will increase utility, absolute certainty is not necessary. Indeed, we cannot be absolutely certain about any empirical question. Gravity may cease to work tomorrow, but we still behave as though it will continue the way it has. We can make educated guesses as to what will increase utility and we will be correct most of the time.


Some may object that we cannot precisely measure happiness, and thus cannot weigh one person’s well-being against another’s. While there are limits to our capacity to measure happiness, we can indeed measure it (as discussed above), and some sorts of preferences clearly outweigh others. My personal desire to avoid significant injury outweighs my desire to shoot someone in the leg for fun (I do not happen to desire this at all, but suppose I did for the sake of argument); from this, and from my knowledge of other people’s desires, I can infer that another person’s preference to avoid injury outweighs my preference to shoot him for fun. In other words, the happiness I might gain from shooting someone pales in significance to the suffering he would experience if he sustained a major leg injury.

Some cases less clearly reveal which action best increases utility, and such situations are the source of much debate. For instance, does raising taxes on the wealthy improve the general welfare of society? We do not know the answer, but we do have evidence that points one direction or the other and we can collect still more evidence so as to better answer the question. However, irrespective of such cases, in many situations we can clearly observe that one choice increases utility to a greater extent than another. Additionally, people make many choices that clearly decrease utility, and we can improve the world by altering such choices.


Recently, science has begun to directly investigate the question of what makes us happy. Every day, the science of positive psychology wades deeper into the sea of human happiness, and we learn more and more. Many popular science articles have been written on the subject. The field is still in its early stages, but as it develops, I think we will become very good at scientifically measuring happiness.

We know, for example, that many small experiences make people happier than a few big experiences. Money brings happiness up to a certain level of income, and then plateaus. Science has provided many insights into happiness, and will continue to do so. Indeed, this is the thesis of Sam Harris’s recent book, The Moral Landscape.


Science tells us much about how to increase utility. But to effectively support the well-being of our communities, we must understand how our actions affect others on a personal level. Empathy is one of our best tools for this. When we can comprehend others’ positions, we can act in ways that support their interests. Empathy is the primary means through which we understand what makes others happy. If someone claims that we do not know how to make each other happy, she must claim that we have no empathy.

We can measure the well-being of the people around us, whether through science or through our personal capacity for empathy. We cannot measure happiness precisely, but we still know what sort of impact our actions have on the emotional states of those around us.


[1] It may seem that physical pain decreases utility by definition, but this is not so. It is important to distinguish between suffering and physical pain. Suffering does necessarily decrease utility, but some forms of pain are enjoyable. For instance, stretching one’s muscles hurts, but that hurting often brings pleasure—i.e. it hurts “in a good way.”

Masochists get pleasure out of physically painful experiences that cause most people to suffer. It is not inconsistent with the doctrine of utilitarianism to inflict physical pain upon a masochist.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

Utilitarianism in Five Minutes

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 11, 2012

The classic statement of utilitarianism is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Let’s dig a little deeper (but not too much deeper).


The single goal of utilitarian morality is to increase happiness and decrease suffering to the greatest extent possible. Any action in this direction is good, and should be encouraged; any action away from this direction is bad, and should be discouraged. All creatures that are sentient—that is, capable of happiness and suffering—are morally relevant, and their interests should be considered.

Utilitarianism does not only concern itself with physical pleasure. Happiness can mean reading a great book, having a long conversation with a good friend, or making a new discovery. It includes the taste of a fatty meal, but it also allows for the pleasure of lasting health. Philosopher John Stuart Mill examines pleasure in depth in his book, Utilitarianism.

You now understand the gist of what I mean when I say “Utilitarianism.”


happiness: Any sort of pleasure or positive experience that a sentient being may feel.

suffering: Any sort of pain or negative experience that a sentient being may feel.

utility: The balance of happiness over suffering.

well-being: Synonymous with “utility.”

preference: This means exactly what you think it means. It is sometimes used synonymously with “interest.” Some utilitarian philosophers prefer to maximize the satisfaction of preferences rather than happiness.

interest: Something aligns with an individual’s interests if it supports his/her preferences or promotes his/her well-being.


See Why Utilitarianism?

Common Objections

Below is a list of common objections to Utilitarianism, and essays that address them.

1. If we are obligated to maximize utility, that means we are almost always acting immorally since we are not maximizing utility as much as we should be. See: Why We Identify Good and Evil; The Mistake of Immorality.

2. If we follow Utilitarianism, that will make life worse (e.g. will cause people to lose their sense of right and wrong, will lead to an Orwellian society, etc). See: Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism.

3. In such-and-such hypothetical moral dilemma, Utilitarianism leads to a conclusion that I don’t like. See: Morality in the Real World.

4. Motives are important. According to Utilitarianism, there is no difference between behaving altruistically because you truly care and behaving altruistically to make yourself look good. See: Sustainable and Unsustainable Good; Why We Identify Good and Evil.

5. It is impossible to accurately measure happiness. Remind me to write an essay on this one. See: Measuring Happiness.

6. Utilitarianism can be used to justify the majority oppressing the minority. See: Tyranny of the Majority.

Further Reading

Consequentialism FAQ, Scott Alexander Siskind

All Animals Are Equal, Peter Singer

For more, see Utilitarianism Resources.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 9 Comments »

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