What is the strongest objection to utilitarianism? How persuasive is this objection?

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PHIL1002 Introduction to Ethics

November 2012

What is the strongest objection to utilitarianism as a theory of moral rightness and wrongness? How persuasive is this objection?

The strongest objection to Utilitarianism is that it ignores the rights of the individual. When making moral decisions, the majority’s happiness often deprives individuals of their rights. I believe this objection is persuasive because it is difficult to contemplate a life where individuals only act in order to create “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” (Mill, 2002)


Utilitarianism states that when making a moral decision, you must assess the value of consequences in terms of overall pleasure over pain. This is presented by the Principle of Utility, where “acts are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness.” (Mill, 2002) As happiness is portrayed as the only intrinsically morally valuable thing, we should only act to produce the greatest available net happiness. (Dr Pekka Vayrynen 2012)

The main philosopher who this objection was influenced by was John Rawls. In his book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for the separateness of persons.(Rawls, 2005: 23-24) He argues that people are individuals with their own desires and needs, and that “the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many.” (Rawls, 2005: 23-24) Here, we can argue that you cannot ignore individual rights purely because it leads to the maximization of pleasure for the majority. I agree with Rawls’ ideas, because all individuals are entitled to their freedoms and satisfactions. If an individual always acts to maximize pleasure for the majority, it would appear that seeing a film, or going for dinner with friends is morally wrong because this doesn’t lead to the greatest good for the majority, only individual maximization of pleasure. Furthermore, the theory suggests that it is acceptable for some individuals to feel pain and sacrifice their happiness for the majority wellbeing, which many would see as incoherent, as it then leads to difficult questions of who should be the ones to suffer and why. This element of the objection is very persuasive, because we can see how through dismissing the rights of the individuals, utilitarianism removes the right for an individual to act purely for their own happiness.

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However, in response to Rawls’ objection, it can be argued from the view of Rule Utilitarianism that in a society “..man..cannot be isolated from others..all our actions will affect others in some way” (Mill, 2004:10) and so it’s right that we should adhere to the set of moral rules that is compliant with which produces the greatest overall happiness. (Dr Pekka Vayrynen 2012). In general, people find comfort in the stability and predictability of other’s behavior, which can be fulfilled if people are adhering to certain rules. (Dr Pekka Vayrynen 2012) For example, if we live in a society where ...

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