Utilitarianism is one of the most popular moral theories that focuses on the effects of actions as a justification on whether it’s morally right or wrong. Utilitarians believe that morality should serve the purposes of pleasure and happiness, by maximizing good results while reducing the negative ones. According to John Stuart Mill, a major proponent for utilitarianism, what is moral should be what creates the greatest level of good for the highest number of people. Our moral actions, therefore, are ones that create happiness while reducing our misery or pain. Utilitarianism rose as an opposition to Kant and the principles of categorical imperative, which stated that moral actions should be based on our intentions, and not the consequences. This essay presents some critiques of utilitarianism that question its effectiveness and applicability in our world.
One criticism of utilitarianism is that it gives the wrong answers to moral questions. Act utility calls for the actor to make decisions that can create the best possible results. In this case, the principle of utility demands that whatever creates the best overall results should be the answer to the case problem. However, to critics, sometimes, these actions that are made to maximize results can be morally wrong, hence not permissible. For example, if a judge punishes one person, even when not sure if they are guilty, to prevent chaos that might put the lives of millions of people at risk, then the decision is considered right. Critics feel that utilitarianism promotes the wrong answers to some moral decisions. However, utilitarians can defend their position by clarifying that the principle does not support wrong answers to moral decisions. In reality, wrong answers would not maximize utility and therefore, they cannot be supported by utilitarianism. For instance, how sure is the judge that punishing the wrongly accused would be the best decision at the time? There might be other options for action.
Another criticism for utilitarianism is that it undermines the trust between people. Utilitarianism is known for its attack of rigid moral rules in the society, with the claim that an action should be judged as right when it presents good results. For example, utilitarianism is against following some biblical commandments such as “do not lie.” For most schools of thought, telling the truth is always advised since this is the right thing to do but in utilitarianism, lying to save a life is moral and inherently good. In cases where telling the truth would put a life in danger, then it is the right thing to lie. To critics, however, not following traditional moral rules such as those against cheating and lying can undermine the trust that exists between people. Changing the rules depending on various cases as suggested by utilitarianism, essentially, eliminates predictability which is essential to social stability and trust. Act utilitarianism can defend itself by explaining that no one can prove that common sense moral beliefs are correct and deserve to be followed blindly.
Critics also note that utilitarianism is too demanding of the individual’s commitment. One example is that utilitarianism suggests that even if Joe wants to buy a PS5 to play, he should instead consider donating to a charity to give food to the homeless. Essentially, more good would be done by donating that by purchasing things for one’s own pleasure. To critics, utilitarianism demands too much by demanding that the individual considers the needs and desires of others. Critics feel that utilitarianism is false since it urges the individual to overlook their own affairs instead of those of others. A utilitarian can counter this argument with another that an action is still right if it creates more good for an individual. For example, perhaps Joe is choosing to purchase the PS5 to play after school as a means of relaxation and pleasure, one that he would not find in donating. If Joe overlooks the purchase of the gaming console, he will bring harm to himself by being stressed and partaking in more harmful leisure activities. Hence, considering the particulars of every situation can help individuals make the right decision that ultimately creates good outcomes for others. After being relaxed, Joe can be a great help to his mother and in school, he won’t bully other kids because they can bond over games.
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