Utilitarianism has a false premise

by Alex T. Arnold

One of the most influential moral philosophies alive today is utilitarianism. The basic idea is that moral decisions should be calculated based on what would bring the greatest amount of overall happiness (“utility”) to the highest number of people. 

In this view, morality can be adjusted to fit whatever the situation calls for. For example, a classical Utilitarian will argue that it is morally justifiable to murder a person if the death of that person would bring more benefit to more people than that person being alive would. There are other forms of Utilitarianism that might disagree with that particular example, and this is a simplified explanation of it, but the basic premise remains the same across all varieties. 

The problem I want to focus on is that Utilitarians argue that whatever brings more happiness to more people is what is obviously morally right. I think that this is a thinly veiled yet cleverly disguised sleight-of-hand. It is quite easy to make arguments for a philosophical idea if that idea is already assumed to be true. It’s simply unfair to assume that overall human happiness is the goal that is being sought while discounting other options. 

I admittedly do want all of my fellow human beings to be happy and live in peace and prosperity, but is this a reasonable foundation for an ethical theory? Let’s assume that there is a society where 90% of the population was cannibalistic, meaning that humans enjoy, practice, and celebrate cannibalism as something that is good for civilization as a whole. This hypothetical utilitarian society would set aside a group of people at birth to be sacrificed at specific times later in their life, there would then be no connection to the person by any of the cannibals and very little utility would be lost for the 90%.

Common sense and basic human dignity tell us that even in this society where the majority holds a completely different set of values than us, cannibalism is still morally wrong and grotesque. Some things can be proven by logic to be objectively morally wrong even when the mob disagrees. Just because a certain action would bring happiness, health, nutrition, or prosperity to the overarching human race does not make that action intrinsically morally correct. Frankly, utilitarianism is far too dependent on faulty human opinion to be a reliable source of ethics.

Furthermore, we cannot assume that utility is the purpose of acting ethically. In order to prove that Utilitarianism is true, you have to prove that utility is the greatest overall good in the universe. That idea should be counted as an impossibility. For example, someone might say that knowledge is the most important thing in the world and it is the dominant factor in deciding what ethical decisions we should make. Why should a harmful scientific study not be done if it would advance our understanding? 

Secondly, many would argue that the quintessential element to consider in making a moral decision is whether or not it glorifies God or another deity. What does it matter if life is unhappy and suffering if the source of that life is not happy? Finally, some would say, including the Kantians, that the most important factor when making moral decisions is the Categorical Imperative, the moral obligation that mankind is under. The morally right thing would then be true no matter how it affected the entirety of civilization.

I am not promoting any of these other views, but my goal is to draw attention to the fact that it’s basically cheating to just start off with a premise that would favor your conclusion without ever considering its truthfulness or acknowledging other positions. If you are a Utilitarian, then start there. If not, then make it your mission to understand what it is that’s in the place of utility; I see no other way to proceed in this argument until this is agreed upon.

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