Template:Under Construction This page will contain a broad overview of criticisms of utilitarianism. The first part will consider how the structure of criticism can contribute to its effectiveness or lack thereof. Many of the principles that section apply to criticism of ethical theories in general. The second part will review some specific criticisms of utilitarianism, perhaps by referencing existing pages that describe those criticisms.

The Structure of Criticism Edit

Effective Criticism Formats Edit

Arguments Against Specific Claims Edit

Arguments made against specific claims in which the conclusion is to discredit only that claim can be effective.

Detailed, Realistic Examples Edit

Less Effective Criticism Formats Edit

Premature Declaration of a Fatal Flaw Edit

Identification of a legitimate imperfection with any school of ethical thought is not necessarily evidence that the entire school of thought should be invalidated. Ethics is not mathematics. A more meaningful method of comparing moral systems is to judiciously record all features (or an abundance of relevant features) of the philosophy so that those features can be compared to those of another philosophy. If legitimate evidence indicates that a particular claim of a school of thought is invalid, then it is possible that the conclusion militates against only that claim. In this regard, pursuit of ethical theories is unlike pursuit of scientific theories in which continually changing the hypothesis would be an indication of its failure[1].

The following example partially invokes the premature declaration of a fatal flaw. The argument does provide a disclaimer that utilitarianism can be redeemed if evidence shows that slaves would be worse-off without slavery, but before getting to that point in the example, the author made a series of assumptions about the magnitude of utility and disutility. After accepting the author's unstated assumptions about utility curves, the reader would find it difficult to escape the conclusion that utilitarianism "will stand morally condemned."

For example, one of the standard objections to utilitarianism is that it might be forced to legitimate a system of slavery, if the total number of slaves were few and the benefits to the slave-owners were sufficiently great. Yet we would surely want to insist against this, that it is only the worst off individuals who should be taken into account. (This intuition will be captured by the so-called difference principle of contractualism, as we shall see later.) Unless it can be shown that the slaves themselves must inevitably be even more degraded and unhappy under any realistic alternative to slavery, the system will stand morally condemned. Isaac Carruthers [1]
This example is not intended to be an example of a straw man argument because it is possible that a utilitarian argument would support slavery. The problem is that without presenting the exact details it is difficult to argue that the slavery of one person would stand in opposition to prevailing morality or that it would otherwise be wrong. What if there were only one scientist who knew how to stop an asteroid from destroying earth, but there was not enough money to pay the scientist's requested salary. What if the scientist was subsequently forced to work for 2 months without pay, as a slave, to save the entire planet? In that example, fewer people would complain and fewer people would conclude that utilitarianism "will stand morally condemned."

Failure to Seek Disconfirming Evidence Edit

Related to premature declaration of a fatal flaw is the failure of a nonutilitarian to seek disconfirming evidence after identifying a flaw with one version of utilitarianism. Stated another way, a person who already doubts the truthfulness of a system of beliefs and encounters a stumbling block might not be motivated to seek a solution that goes around that block. This is not a problem that is unique to utilitarianism but is instead a frequently encountered reasoning bias[2][3]. Other types of reasoning bias tend to lead people to accept conclusions based on the believability of the conclusion (as opposed to the legitimate strength of the argument)[4][5]. In other words, a person who begins an analysis with disbelief in the conclusion is likely to perceive that the supporting arguments are invalid. A more productive approach to any problem-solving exercise is to suspend judgment about the conclusion and attempt to evaluate the merits of a conclusion based on the content and structure of the argument and to seek other solutions if the first proposed solution fails. It is difficult to specify when a person should stop pursuing an exercise that presents many obstacles, but it is not unusual for nonutilitarians to cease after encountering relatively simple problems.

Unwarranted Reliance on Intuition Edit

Intuition is often invoked as one basis for assessing the merits of an ethical theory. It would seem unconscionable to adopt an ethical theory that condones the widespread torture of infants as a means of entertainment. This process of seeking reflective equilibrium (when the content of a moral theory stands in equilibrium with existing moral conventions) involves several difficult problems. One problem is determining if our objection to torture-as-entertainment really stems from intuition or if it can be, or does, stem from another source. Emotions are certainly entangled with any cognition that might tell us that torture-as-entertainment is wrong, and yet socially-constructed cognitions appear to have a powerful role in seemingly abhorrent behaviors such as holding humans in slavery and mass-killing in the name of a nationalistic or religious causes. The other problem with seeking reflective equilibrium is that overreliance on it holds people in the grasp of traditional morality regardless of how significantly that morality diverges from even a remotely objective perspective.

Complex Hypothetical Examples Edit

Aspiring philosophers have probably seen examples of the trolley problem. There are many variations of the problem, but the general idea that the reader is faced with a moral dilemma in which a trolley (street car on railroad tracks) is rolling down a hill, out of control. The reader is posited as the only person who can save five people who are standing on the tracks. To save the five people, you have to either push a fat man onto the tracks to stop the trolley or redirect the trolley onto another track where it will definitely kill one person.

Some real-world considerations of the trolley-problem that are difficult to ignore even if asked to ignore them:

  1. After pushing somebody onto the tracks, the dead body exists and it would become the reader's legal burden to demonstrate that killing the fat man saved five people (the courts will have the dead body as an undeniable fact and the savior of five other people is merely a hypothetical).
  2. The reader might not be able to perform all the advanced physics calculations mentally in 3 seconds to determine with a high degree of confidence that pushing the fat man onto the tracks will save the lives of the five other people.
  3. The reader might be conditioned to cringe at the thought of killing a person because of the real world implications that we simply cannot ignore because our conditioning has already occurred and exists as an unconscious process.
  4. The reader might fear retribution from publicly responding to an ethical dilemma in an unflattering way. The reader might want to avoid giving the impression that support for a given action under extreme circumstances is representative of general support for that position (e.g., killing people frequently in attempts to save others). In private, the reader might experience negative affect when considering one of these ethical decisions because of the implications of public disclosure and thereby avoid certain responses. The aversion would then be due to conditions outside the stated ethical dilemma, but observers might attribute the response to the ethical dilemma itself.

Because of the details of the problem that we either assume or cannot consciously ignore, we can mistakenly attribute our objection to (or support of) an action based on the overt content of the problem when perhaps our decision was determined by the unstated details that we either assumed or could not consciously ignore.

Straw Man Arguments and other Fallacies Edit

The list of fallacious arguments that lack merit will not be discussed here, but one type of fallacious argument that is not uncommon is the straw-man argument. This is an argument that presents a false representation of another person's argument, then discredits that misrepresentation and concludes that the original argument is unsupported. An example begins like this:

Utilitarian principles have been used to justify every major expansion of government, and they can justify nearly any expansion of government. [2]
If we accept the misrepresentation, our only conclusion is that utilitarianism must lead to socialism or communism and that no utilitarians value autonomy.

Specific Criticisms Edit

(under construction)

References Edit

  1. Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Translated by Karl P. Popper, Julius Freed and Lan Freed. Basic Books: New York (originally published 1934 as Logik der Forschung)
  2. Wason, P. C. (1960). On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12(3), 129-140. DOI: 10.1080/17470216008416717
  3. Sperber, D. Cara, F. & Girotto, V. (1995). Relevance Theory Explains the Selection Task. Cognition, 57(1), 31-95. DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(95)00666-M
  4. Klauer, K. C., Musch, J. & Naumer, B. (2000). On Belief Bias in Syllogistic Reasoning. Psychological Review, 107(4), 852-884. DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.107.4.852
  5. Roberts, M. J. & Sykes, E. D. A. (2003). Belief bias and relational reasoning. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56A(1) 131-154.