The flawed concept of ‘Utilitarianism’

Utilitarianism is a doctrine in political philosophy according to which, an act becomes morally right if it provides happiness to the greatest number of people. i.e if there are two actions which give happiness to ‘n’ and ‘n+1’ people, the action which provides happiness to ‘n+1’ people becomes more right when compared to its alternative. Before you proceed any further, a caveat — the following article is biased. It aims to provide examples and cite references that undermine utilitarian motives.

Back to utilitarianism. This doctrine sounds exciting and agreeable, doesn’t it? Why aren’t we all utilitarians then? There can only be two reasons as to why someone’s not utilitarian.

  • They don’t know what utilitarianism is.
  • They know what utilitarianism is.

“But,” you might say, “happiness is the prime motive of all human beings!”

If that’s your line of thought, let me introduce you to a machine proposed by Robert Nozick.

Consider the following gedankenexperiment: A neuropsychologist comes up with an instrument which, when hooked up to a human being, makes him (/her) happy.

If happiness is what humans want, the entire human race should unhesitantly volunteer to hook themselves up to this machine for the rest of their lives.
  • But would you volunteer? No.
  • Would anyone volunteer? No.

Why not? There can be only two reasons why we wouldn’t volunteer.

  • We think that machines are soulless. (i.e they are at the nadir of the “consciousness cone” proposed by Douglas Hofstadter). So, we would never come down the cone to the level of these flesh-less contraptions for the purpose of an abstract notion called ‘happiness.’
  • Happiness is not what we want.

The first reason is self-explanatory. Let me elaborate on the second point. If happiness is not what we want, then what is it that we aspire for? As some philosophers point out, in addition to being happy, we also want to make others happy. To give an example, in addition to reading books, we also want to write books. To put it short, we value experiences as much as we value happiness — too bad utilitarians cannot give you ‘experiences.’