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Elements of Moral Philosophy 7-8: Utilitarianism


Rachels offers three utilitarian case studies in chapter 7. An interesting one, and one I should save for future reference, is the chapter on animals. There’s a quote from the Catholically revered Thomas Aquinas on animal cruelty (104). Aquinas thought that it was totally fine to do horrible things to animals, because they are “intended for man’s use in the natural order. Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatsoever.

Chapter 8 attempts to actually outline what utilitarianism is. Rachels reduces it to three propositions (109):

  1. Actions are to be judged right or wrong solely by virtue of their consequences.
  2. In assessing consequences, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is created.
  3. Each person’s happiness counts the same.

Rachels attacks hedonism first, using two examples. First, someone ridiculing you behind your back, even if you never know about it and thus never suffer from it, is still bad. Second, if a promising pianist’s hands are injured, this is bad, even if the happiness is replaced by watching tv. Rachels says that these show that we value creativity and friendship as ends in themselves. Really?

I really don’t think Rachels makes his case. With a little thought, a hedonist could point out why the two examples are still bad. Talking behind one’s back shows a likely lack of friendship, which makes it more likely that pleasure will be reduced, and pain will be increased. If we know these things won’t happen, then maybe we shouldn’t care about the talking behind one’s back. A pianist’s hands being harmed wouldn’t be bad if it didn’t result in a loss of happiness overall. Still, expectations refuted are very unlikely to lead to increased pleasure, which accounts for our aversion to the damaged hands. It is simply hard to imagine the above scenarios leading to good, which helps account for our aversion.

Next, Rachels confronts consequentialism, using the concept of justice. He brings up the example of bearing false witness in order to stop riots. This would, presumably, lead to better consequences overall, but is still wrong. But sacrificing justice is still a consequence, so in order for people to object, they are still pointing to the consequences. They are simply valuing justice over prevented violence. This still sounds like consequentialism. Also, one could make the case that failing to value justice would lead to worse consequences overall, even if in this one case it would be a benefit. Short term vs. long term.

“But it is evident to moral common sense.” (113). This seems to constitute begging the question.

Rights are the second challenge. Rachels points out that in some cases, more happiness than misery is created by violating people’s rights. But rights exist, therefore this is a challenge to utilitarianism. Again, if we take the long view, I think a utilitarian can answer these objections. He just needs to point out that allowing for the violation of rights, in general, would lead to more misery than happiness, and simply enforcing rights unequally is not possible or practical. Fostering a respect for others rights, in the long run, increases the happiness more than sacrificing rights on a case by case basis.

Rachels does acknowledge some of the above arguments, and points to some defenses that a utilitarian can use, like pointing out that ultimately, we are all consequentialists. He leaves room for debate, but weighs in against, pointing out how some arguments have convinced “most” to abandon the theory.

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