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living in the history of mankind.
But the rejoinder is that in maximizing all those goods,
some people get much and others get little or nothing.
53 Problems for Utilitarianism
A third problem for utilitarianism is the problem of
deciding what is the good. John Stuart Mill and his
mentor Jeremy Bentham were hedonists. They equated
the good with happiness, and happiness with pleasure.
But there are numerous difficulties with hedonism.
Philosophers usually view goods as objects of desire or
objects we aim at.
Generally, they break them down into two types: intrinsic
goods or extrinsic (instrumental) goods. An intrinsic
good is something desired or desirable for its own sake,
whereas an extrinsic or instrumental good is good
because it will lead to or is instrumental in obtaining
another good. Money is an example of an extrinsic
54 Problems for Utilitarianism
Happiness is clearly an intrinsic good. We show this
by pointing out that when someone asks why you want
money, you can answer, “Because it will make me
happy.” But if they ask why you want to be happy,
there is no further answer.
Mill recognizes pleasure as the only intrinsic good.
Others recognize other things, such as freedom or
knowledge, as intrinsic goods.
Some claim there is a plurality of intrinsic goods. Thus
we can have a disagreement among utilitarians about
what is good: pluralists think there are a number of
intrinsic goods; eudaimonists think happiness as wellas
being is the only intrinsic good; and, finally, hedonists
think happiness is the same as pleasure.
is Problems for Utilitarianism
Mill was a hedonistic utilitarian. But the fact that there
is disagreement about what counts as good should
point out an area where we can expect disagreement
in ethical matters. For example, capitalism is often
defended because it brought about the highest
standard of living in the history of the world.
But others criticize it because they think that a high
standard of living is not necessarily a good thing. So
we can agree about what an action will lead to, but
disagree whether that goal is good or not.
Anyone who does cost-benefit analysis will recognize
that determining what will count as a cost and what
will count as a benefit is a difficult matter.
56 Problems for Utilitarianism
A further problem with utilitarianism is the problem of
predicting the future.
To decide whether an action is right by looking at the
consequences means you have to look into the future
and try to predict.
Sitting looking out the window at a dismal day when
the weatherman predicted it would be sunny reminds
us how tenuous and risky predictions are. The
unreliability of predictions creates several problems.
Should utilitarians do what they think will bring about
good or should they do what actually will bring about
good—and how are they to know?
57 Problems for Utilitarianism
Very often what we think will be good turns out to be
bad, or has unforeseen consequences. Economists
speak of externalities—undesirable, unpredicted side
effects of some activity.
If nothing else, these problems for utilitarians show us
some of the areas where we might expect
disagreement about what is right or wrong.
Even though we can use benefit to society as a good
reason to support an action or practice, we might have
disagreements about what counts as a benefit, how
much benefit is required, how the benefits should be
distributed, and whether the benefit will come at all.
58 Problems for Utilitarianism
Beyond these difficulties, there is one that opponents of
utilitarianism think is the most serious. We call it the
problem of illicit means.
Utilitarians are accused of allowing the ends to justify the
means; even if the means are immoral. That is, utilitarians
give precedence to results over fairness and commitment.
History is replete with examples of actions and practices
that are considered immoral being performed for the sake
of bringing about some desirable end.
Suppose I could save 100 people by killing three innocent
children? Utilitarians should recommend the killing if the
happiness of the one hundred saved would seem to
outweigh the pain of the loss of three dead children.
59 Problems for Utilitarianism
But our ordinary moral sentiments are outraged at
such a suggestion, for they tell us that taking the lives
of these innocent children is immoral.
Suppose I could achieve law and order by convicting a
despicable (deserving hatred) character who
happened to be innocent of the crime? Suppose I
could improve my grade by cheating on an exam?
Suppose Lockheed could keep employees working by
bribing Japanese government officials?
Suppose I could keep my plant open and a hundred
people employed by lying to a government inspector?
Suppose I can keep a healthy economy in...
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