Criticisms of Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is among the main ethical philosophies to have been developed in the United Kingdom. This novel moral theory hinges on a posteriori knowledge that opinions result from human understanding. Utilitarianism refers to the conviction that the aptness of a decree, code, or an action should be determined using its hypothesised results.1 For utilitarians to determine the aptness of a statute, code, or an action, they have to respond to certain ethical questions. Utilitarians must decide what is good and right before settling on an option that results to most positive result. The popularity of utilitarianism is accredited to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart for their role in developing the theory.2 Moreover, over the years, the philosophy has attracted several ethicists who have defended and criticised the concept with equal magnitude. This paper examines some of the major criticisms and problems that the philosophy of utilitarian face including the problem of injustice, arbitrariness, and incommensurability.

Utilitarianism Exemplified

In addressing the issue of morality, utilitarianism utilises a consequentialist technique. This assertion infers that under this theory, the end justifies the means.3 Deeds and statutes are not essentially evil or correct, what decides their precision and/or faultiness is the consequence of implementing the ideas.4 This hypothesis is disparate from the deontological philosophies, which affirm that deeds and decrees are wrong irrespective of their positive outcomes. In utilitarianism, there is only one solitary inherent measure for excellence, which is the theory of utility5.

According to Bentham, the theory of utility censures or consents every deed depending on the manner that the action increases or reduces the joy of the individual on whom the action or decree is executed. John Stuart Mill also shares an equivalent opinion about the principle of utility.6 Mill describes the principle of utility as the dogma that recognises the basis of morality and defines good actions as those that generate joy whilst wrong deeds as those that overturn happiness.7 Both Bentham and Mill affirm that in utilitarianism, what governs morality is the philosophy of utility. They assert that people should only practice actions that result into happiness if they intend to be ethical.8

The description of utility and happiness are broad and most utilitarians dispute it when it comes to defining these terms. However, both Mill and Bentham express a similar opinion, which one can consider as a theme that embodies utilitarianism. In their description, they appear to compare utility to an instrument that results to gain, merit, pleasure, as well as joy and averts the occurrence of trouble, evil, and despondency.9 The ultimate aim of any deed of decree should thus be to generate the utmost degree of delight over anguish, which is defined as happiness. An action’s utility refers to one’s capacity to generate the highest level of happiness for the parties involved.10

Some benefits of utilitarianism include the fact that it encourages an impressive ethical doctrine coupled with creating an opportunity for people to measure ethical actions methodically. Most people are aware of the fact that it is proper to be jolly and that happiness must be encouraged in every situation.11 Furthermore, if the excellence and wickedness of a deed is judged by evaluating the impact of its implementation, then conducting a utilitarian calculus to quantify its ethical value through a logical means is feasible.12 With this kind of reasoning, some how the issue of morality is transforming to an empirical issue that attracts scientific empiricists. However, is utilitarianism the ultimate ethical philosophy that should be applied in every ethical judgement? The response to this question would be no, considering the problems that utilitarianism suffer such injustice, arbitrariness, and incommensurability.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

The problem of injustice is a popular protest against utilitarianism. This problem affirms that utilitarianism can encourage some actions that stand out as unethical just because they increase utility. Since the actions are unethical, any philosophy that appears to support equally qualifies as immoral.13 Hence, utilitarianism is bogus. This problem often comes out strongly using the scenarios of the blameless obese man, the adjudicator, and the hostile crowd. All these cases raise ethical impasse where assassinating innocent individual results to utmost utility, because it saves the lives of many people who would have passed on in case the guiltless was spared.14

A contemporary philosopher from Canada, Khai Nielsen, supports the decision of murdering a guiltless man stating that it is the best decision considering its consequences of saving numerous lives.15 Nielsen encourages people to ignore the notion that it is not evil to kill, if that action results to saving other lives. This line of thought is entirely wrong. The problem is not about creating an idea where people have to kill an individual to save the lives of others and deliberate which decision is the best16. The main protest against this philosophy is that it can sanction any act even if it is immoral as long as its impact is positive. This aspect implies that the theory can justify acts such as persecution, discrimination, or sexual abuse as long as they maximise utility.17 The belief of human beings that these actions among others are wrong makes it difficult to accept any philosophy that defends them.18

Another objection to utilitarianism is incommensurability. Commensurability is an idea borrowed from the field of mathematics. In mathematics, it refers to the ability to determine something using similar measures whereby some figures are used to determine others. Nevertheless, there are certain lines that are incommensurable; for instance, the Pythagoras theorem. The diagonal and sides of a triangle are unequal and no amount of measure can cause then to be multiple of each other. In the case of utilitarianism, the concept compares with pleasures. The main objection is that pleasures are incommensurable. Contrasting aspects in kind are incommensurable. John Stuart Mill affirms that higher and lower delights are incongruent in kind. This observation means that upper and lower delights are incommensurable.19

Sense pleasures are also disparate. For example, the pleasure felt when one is taking a beverage is different from that felt when one is dancing to a tune of music, but both beverage and dancing trigger a feeling of pleasure. Thus, sense delights are also incommensurable. Any incommensurable material cannot be multiplied nor can it be maximised. Utilitarianism suggests that pleasures can be maximised in the process of selecting the best action that can have the best impact. In essence, utilitarianism recommends an idea that is impossible to employ.20

The third argument presented by critics to protest against utilitarianism is the problem of arbitrariness.21 Utilitarianism can emasculate itself. Since thoughts influence people’s actions, it is thus important to think of actions that can cause many people to be happy. Nonetheless, it may turn out that an individual who adopts a deontological aptitude towards morality ends up increasing happiness.22 Possibly, if people applied the notion that ethical rule is inherently requisite and obliged to this law; then happiness would be achieved more if utilitarian theory were employed.23 Under this notion, utilitarianism would suggest that it is ethically evil to encourage others to practice utilitarianism. Hence, though utilitarianism appears to support scientific ethics, it cannot endure criticism. Considering objections such as injustice, uncertainty, and incommensurability, the doctrines fall short of the requirements of morality theories.


As Bentham and Mill developed and encouraged the implementation of utilitarianism, they were anticipating a society whereby people performed deeds that would result in utmost utility or happiness of all the involved parties or the largest populace possible. Although the theory appears as a good mechanism for measuring ethical actions technically and encouraging an excellent moral belief, it is unable to endure assessment. The prolonged effects of a person’s deeds are enigmatic, thus stagnating the ethical judgment and creating the perception that quantifying the consequence of performing an action may prompt one to do an act that has negative results. The theory may compel people to sanction actions and statutes that are undeniably unethical. Moreover, utilitarianism may encourage evil societies to prosper based on the argument that the end justifies the means irrespective of the act. It is largely unpredictable because it can even undercut itself by considering it ethically erroneous to adhere to utilitarianism, hence opposing itself. Utilitarianism is a moral that should not be practiced; on the contrary, it should be discarded.

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  1. JS Mill, Utilitarianism, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 2001, p.3
  2. JE Crimmins, Utilitarian Philosophy and Politics: Bentham’s Later Years, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 2011, p.14
  3. B Darwish, ‘Rethinking Utilitarianism’, Teaching Ethics, vol. 10 no 1, 2009, pp. 87-109.
  4. P Louis, PJ Pojman, & F Fieser, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, Cengage Learning, Connecticut, 2011, p. 34
  5. Mill, p.35
  6. Mill, p.78.
  7. Darwish, p. 87-109.
  8. K Bykvist, Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 2010, p. 64.
  9. Bykvist, p.54.
  10. Mill, p. 91.
  11. Darwish, pp. 87-109.
  12. Mill, p. 94.
  13. Darwish, pp. 87-109
  14. Mill, p. 78.
  15. Louis, Pojman & Fieser, p.58
  16. Bykivist, p. 100
  17. Mill, p. 94
  18. Mill, pp.87-109
  19. Crimmins, p.84
  20. Darwish, pp.87-109
  21. Darwish, pp.87-109
  22. Crimmins, p.124
  23. Mill, p.133

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