Unformatted text preview: ed that, in
contradistinction to hedonism, it can explain why we
ought to satisfy the wishes of deceased people.
However, if they want to stick to an interpretation of
their view which has this implication, they have
difficulty in explaining why we should not, when we are
old, satisfy preferences or desires we held as young
people (concerning old age) that we gave up long ago,
now that the time has come to satisfy them.
Both hedonism and preferentialism present us with
subjectivist notions of welfare. Some have found these
notions much too superficial.
They have tried to develop a more objectivist notion of
welfare, based on some kind of objective list of
properties that can characterize a life worth living. Let
me call such notions ‘perfectionist’.
Among the items on the perfectionist’s list we find
such things as knowledge, close relations, friendship
and achievements of various kinds. According to
perfectionism, my welfare is increased when I acquire
important knowledge or friends, or achieve certain
The American Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick
(1938–2002) is a proponent of perfectionist notion of
46 Problems for Utilitarianism
There are many technical problems with the various
forms of utilitarianism.
How are pleasure and pain to be measured?
Which desires are to count?
Is knowledge a good in itself?
Should we take into account actual or probable effects
How do we characterize the possible world which is to
guide us in our selection of rules?
These are problems for the theorists themselves, and
there has been a great deal said in attempts to resolve
47 Problems for Utilitarianism
The first problem is what we will call the formulation
problem. We need to decide whether we should do
that action which will bring about the greatest good
possible— that is, maximize happiness—or whether
we should and might ethically settle for making sure
there is simply more happiness than misery.
If by expending all my efforts I can produce ten units
of happiness and eliminate all units of misery, should I
do that, or am I merely obliged to make sure I produce
six units of happiness while leaving four units of
misery? My mother used to recite the verse “Good,
better, best /Never let it rest / Till your good is better /
And your better, best.”
48 Problems for Utilitarianism
Mill seems to be saying that you only need to produce
more good than misery, whereas the latter-day
formulation requires that we do our best and maximize
That becomes an important bone of contention in
business. Am I required simply to do minimally what I
have agreed to? Or am I obliged to do my best?
A second problem with utilitarian theory is the
distribution problem. The phrase “the greatest good for
the greatest number of people” is ambiguous.
Are we obliged to bring about the maximum good, or
we obliged to affect the maximum number of people?
49 Problems for Utilitarianism
Suppose I had five units of pleasure to distribute to
five people. Let’s make it five pickles. How, according
to the formula, should I give them out?
The easiest answer seems to be to give each person a
pickle. Then supposedly each would get one unit of
pleasure and we would have distributed pleasure to
the greatest number of people, five.
But suppose two people passionately love pickles and
two people don’t care one way or another about
pickles. Then wouldn’t it make sense to give the two
people who passionately love pickles two apiece? And
the two who don’t care none?
50 Problems for Utilitarianism
A 2 pickles 2 units of happiness
B 2 pickles 2 units of happiness
C 1 pickle 1 units of happiness
D 0 pickle 0 unit of happiness
E 0 pickle 0 unit of happiness
Totals 3 recipients 5 units of happiness 51 Problems for Utilitarianism
(B) In the case where you distribute equally, you get
A 1 pickle 1 unit of happiness
B 1 pickle 1 unit of happiness
C 1 pickle 1 unit of happiness
D 1 pickle 0 unit of happiness
E 1 pickle 0 unit of happiness
Totals 5 recipients 3 units of happiness
Thus, in case B, you distribute to the greatest number of
people but don’t create the greatest amount of happiness,
whereas in A, you create the greatest amount of
happiness but don’t distribute to the greatest amount of
52 Problems for Utilitarianism
This is the problem of distributive justice: a problem of
fairness, a problem of how the goods and the burdens of
the world are to be distributed.
It is a problem that the utilitarian decision procedures do
not resolve well, one that seems better handled by
One sees this utilitarian justification used in defense of
capitalism, because the claim is made that the economic
system of capitalism produces the highest standa...
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