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.’

After some emotional pondering, I had the following questions:

  • Why is Brave New World a dystopia?
  • Why does Richard Deckard’s wife hate the mood organ in Do Androids dream of electric sheep? 
The answer to both the questions can be found in Huxley’s website. To quote,

It is suggested that the price of universal happiness will be the sacrifice of the most hallowed shibboleths of our culture: “motherhood”, “home”, “family”, “freedom”, even “love”. The exchange yields an insipid happiness that’s unworthy of the name. Its evocation arouses our unease and distaste.

It is important to emphasize the term “insipid happiness.” It can be inferred from the above quote that we value societal and homely relations more than we value happiness — to put it in another way, the happiness we need should come from peers rather than machines. We believe that the happiness provided by machines is insipid and ersatz — So, that is why we hate mood organs/soma.

In addition to the above arguments, there are also several (trippy) thought-experiments which successfully undermine Utilitarianism.

Here’s a proposition: Utilitarianism supports euthanasia — even the involuntary type. (wait…isn’t involuntary euthanasia murder?)

Consider a terminally ill patient ‘A,’ with only a few of his body parts functioning properly. Sure he is paying the fees, but he is taking up many of the hospital’s valuable resources to stay alive. But the doctor knows that ‘A’ can never be fully alive. Now, if our doctor is a utilitarian, i.e if his motive is to benefit the most number of people, he would kill ‘A’ to free some of the hospital’s resources and allocate them to people who have a greater chance of survival. That’s because they have a better chance to be fully alive and even pursue happiness at a later stage. So, killing ‘A’ is morally right to a utilitarian doctor. But is that acceptable?

Here’s another thought experiment. Consider ‘B.’ He’s given the following choices: Kill an innocent person and save 99 others or leave the innocent person and have someone else kill the 99 others. If B’s a utilitarian, he would kill the innocent person and save the lives of 99 others. Wait…there’s more to it than what meets the eye. What if, all the 99 others are criminals? Assuming that these convicts would never change their criminal tendencies, saving these people would bring grief rather than happiness to others. Keeping that in mind, our ‘B,’ being a true utilitarian, would go to all the 99 people, test them (probably administer the Voight-Kampff test) to see any hints of a change in attitude, weigh the options based on their morality and then decide on going with the kill.

From the above thought experiment, it is understood that being a true utilitarian is an extremely difficult task — more so, when the number of options increase. So, we cannot expect a utilitarian politician to go about taking decisions by effectively weighing a multitude of parameters. The parameters involved are too complex. Even in a family having two children, the parents often find it difficult to keep both their children ‘happy.’ The situation just becomes worse if we extrapolate this to a nation having billions of people.

Finally, there’s the sour grapes problem. It refers to pretending not to care for something one wants, but does not or cannot have. To give an example, a Fox unable to reach the grapes overhead makes itself happy by assuming that the grapes are sour anyway! To extend this, in an excessively repressive society, acts that make people ‘happy’ are those, which do not make the same people happy if the society were not repressive. i.e A repressive society decreases people’s expectations of happiness and gets away by just giving them what, in a non-repressive society, are bare necessities and fundamental rights.

And here are eleven words to make this a 1000-word essay.


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