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the greatest happiness of the greatest number philosophy

This essay is for examining the Utilitarian hypothesis that the right is whatever makes the most people the most happy. The action does not matter but only the consequences. The theory is against rigid rules and demands that you do what seems to advance happiness.  Rules when deployed are only valid as long as they keep most people happiest.
Any ethic that claims that we must approach right and wrong by weighing up the consequences instead of just going by rules is called consequentalist. People fear being controlled by rule makers. Consequentalism, of which Utilitarianism is an example, therefore automatically produces some happiness at least.
The argument that consequentialism is wrong for the results of every action go out of control at some stage is incorrect and myopic. The fact of the matter is some good has come out of the things we do for the sake of consequences. Just because we may get it wrong does not mean we must stop trying to get it right.

The Utilitarian theory is wildly popular for it is easily confused with systems of ethics that weigh one action against another and advocate the one that does the least damage.
An ethic that says morality is about happiness directly or indirectly rings true. Even moralities that say life is valuable and more important than quality of life encourage and advocate happiness when possible.
Is Utilitarianism a sensible and acceptable ethic?

The principle of the Utilitarian theory is that happiness is the most precious thing. If persons should be happy and happiness comes first then the theory is incoherent. Why? If persons should be happy then persons must be more important than happiness. The theory is wrong.
Utilitarianism would command slavery or murder or unjust imprisonment if the fruit was great happiness. These are things that deny the value of the person. If persons don't matter then why should their happiness matter?


The fact that Utilitarians may never do that only means they never had to.  It is not grounds for praise.  Religion readily says that and it is right but that means we can say the same thing about it - it teaches doctrines that would harm and which are to be abhorred even if they never get into a position where they do a lot of damage.

Utilitarianism enables people to be used to the back teeth by those who pretend that this evil and that will make them happiest and can only lead to universal insecurity. Any theory about consequences will do that but the greatest happiness theory is too flexible and has more hazards than they do have and could have.

The Utilitarian cannot judge anybody for anybody could state that their seemingly bad action was done in good faith. And Utilitarianism demands that this lie be told for the lie makes the person happier and others happier. Utilitarianism is a recipe for anarchy in the lowest sense of the word. How can you send a thief or a murderer to jail when you endorse a theory that means they might have made a mistake rather than have done a wilful evil?

You could commit a crime and then make it look like you did the best thing under the circumstances later. Utilitarianism forbids you to judge. If you cannot put people into jail without proving their guilt you cannot advance happiness. You don’t know if jailing them maximises happiness.

When you give a person money and it makes you happy to do so you may feel that you have done right because that person is happier than you. But you will never know if you would have been the happiest if you kept the money. So Utilitarianism may be true but it cannot be put into practice. We have to find a theory that is workable. Utilitarianism certainly is not.

When people do wrong and tend to do wrong the Utilitarian cannot do what he or she regards as a good work because he or she cannot tell how the target will react or what it will inspire her or him to do. Watching TV is a sin in Utilitarianism because you could be doing better. So this gives some idea about how much offending against the philosophy occurs. And its very demanding too.  A demanding morality is hardly a recipe for happiness. 


Nietzsche thought that it is insane to invent a demanding altruistic morality such as Utilitarianism and then defeat it by telling people to try and be one of those for whom it is true “that the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. A morality that calls people to sacrifice for selfish reasons will backfire and becomes about the pay-off not the people.

If you accept that happiness is what matters then since you can only really know yourself and are more certain that you exist than you are that others exist, it follows that you should do whatever you like as long as it gives you pleasure even if it makes dirt of other people as long as you have some friends. Lots of happy people are happy because they have some friends and they don't care that everybody else hates them. The principle Utilitarianism is erected on is not the right foundation for it at all so the theory is incoherent.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy for those who maintain that what people do not know will not hurt them and is therefore right. How could it forbid the murder of an obnoxious person always when there are times you could secretly commit it and distress nobody?

People will never agree on what will increase happiness in relation to the more important issues facing society. That will ensure that the theory will lead only to discord and resentment and arguments. Most people don’t have the time to look at something from every angle. There will always be the fear that something has been missed.

The solution that mental or intellectual pleasures like wisdom are more important than physical ones which are more fleeting and hard to maintain helps but not completely. Some complain that it is elitist for it implies you have to be smart to be moral. But the attempted solution would only be saying you should find your joy in wisdom as far as you see it and can see it. So it is not elitist. Another complaint is that you still can’t calculate what will bring the most happiness. But this problem is reduced. It is certain then that the most real and most practical Utilitarianism will promote mental pleasures principally. This is the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill. But we are back where we started for the stupid person still does what he or she sees as wisdom or hopes is wisdom.

Reducing the most suffering would count more than making the most happiest.

All forms of Utilitarianism claim to be based on reason. They say it is reasonable to abandon reason if that is what makes most people happiest. So it is not reasonable after all! Happiness is not more important than reason. It is better to be a rational being with no feelings at all than to be one that is happy and stupid or mad. Utilitarianism denigrates human dignity. Happiness implies that we should be rational for only then can we keep it and trust it and make it grow. It could be replied that realistically most people will not turn against reason that seriously and Utilitarianism is about what the world is like not what it could be like.
Happiness is too changeable for it to be the goal of morality and what morality is about. You can labour hard to make most people happiest and find no alternative only to discover that in a few weeks they are now tired of the benefits you got for them. It is too hard to predict.


The Utilitarian will argue that sometimes murder and rape are necessary but take comfort in the notion that these occasions will be extremely rare. But you cannot know if they will be. What if some kind of war breaks out and they become rife?  Looting is always sure to happen in wartime!  So why not the other evils?
We have destroyed the credibility of Utilitarianism.
Most bad arguments against consequentalism and utilitarianism are based on forgetting that they are a standard of duty or right action. They are not a decision procedure for its very hard to decide correctly.


It is said that Utilitarianism has no concern for whether your intentions are good or bad.  So it is good if you cause great good when you meant to do harm.  And if you mean to do good and disaster happens you are accountable and should be punished.  But obviously there is more happiness in an action if you do it with the best of intentions.  While it is true in theory it does consider doing bad that results in tremendous good as a good thing it cannot and does not do that in practice.  Utilitarianism will have as many problems with criminal justice as every other system of morality has.  When we punish we only hope it is fair and what more can we do?
“The happier you make yourself in all forms of Utilitarianism the less likely you are to become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Utilitarian belief. So, to work, the theory has to forbid individual happiness. Thus it contradicts itself when everybody has to drag their chins on the ground to make everybody else happy!”
It allows individuals to be happy when it maximises happiness. Unhappy people make other people unhappy. Utilitarianism only allows some to be unhappy under certain circumstances. But these would be expected to pretend to be happy when necessary. If you take happiness in simplicity, in living the simple life, the objection won’t be a problem for you.
"Lying and stealing are bad even when they are moral. In that case, they would be necessary evils. To lie is to oppose what is real and to steal is to oppose the security of another. In Ethics by A.C. Ewing we read, “It is fitting to rejoice in what is good in itself, therefore if it is an end-in-itself that the guilty should suffer, it is fitting to rejoice in their sufferings. But surely that is not the case: it is not fitting to gloat over the pain of anyone, even if he is a thoroughly bad man” (page 171). Nobody says we should hurt a bad man to hurt him and not to punish him. He has to be hurt for a reason or an end. Utilitarianism would urge us to rejoice in the necessary evils we commit and there is something vulgar and evil in that.”
But if happiness is the greatest good what can you do? You are not bad for being happy about the evil if happiness is what is important? You would be allowed to laugh when an evil man dies if you are strapped up to a bomb that will be triggered to blow up the world if you do not laugh.
“If all people on earth could be strapped to machines that make them have happy dreams until their dying day and keep them alive and dead to the world, Utilitarianism would say that it is right as long as they have robots to make them reproduce to make babies to enjoy this incredible happiness.”
This would be a good thing and only religion and spoilsports would dare to disagree. But as usual they can give no sensible reason that they could believe their position. Anyway, if there is a problem then why not have enough people connected up to make happiness tip the balance and not all people? That would still leave people to run the world. And Christianity offers you a Heaven where you cannot suffer for others and where there is only happiness. So this wonderful religion of sincerity believes after all that it is right to use the machine when it has its Heaven which is just the same! And yet it would have you believe that it doesn’t.
“If people tend to do wrong as religion says then you cannot be a Utilitarian because your good works will probably be abused and used to harm.”
But if you do bad or nothing they will be able to abuse that better so you when you cannot win do good. At least the good has shown a caring example if nothing else.
“Utilitarianism in all its forms leads to no room for acts that are over and above the call of duty for it makes it a duty to go the extra mile if it will maximise happiness.”
The doctrine of supererogation, or acts of generosity, is wrong and is really a declaration that morality is just make-believe. You can do your duty in a generous spirit so there is no need for it.
“Utilitarianism says we should be happy or free from suffering. But if we should be happy then we must be more important than happiness and so it would be wrong to kill a person to promote happiness. Utilitarianism denies the absolute value of human life so it is not an ethical theory and it is very wrong”.

 But that does not refute Utilitarianism but it shows it needs to be modified. You can say that because human beings are absolute values the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be served as long as life is preserved and held to be sacrosanct.
Also, if Utilitarianism is the only ethical theory we can follow then it we cannot be accused of being unethical if we follow it. Its bad points and problems then would only show that it was not an ethical theory if there were a better alternative.
“Utilitarianism says the more happiness the better so it is a duty to have as many children as possible when you have good reason to believe that they will be happy”.

Utilitarianism is not just about increasing happiness. It is only about increasing the happiness of people that exist and that involves concern for their future. It is a mistake to think you should have as many happy children as possible for you have no duty to people who do not exist. I mean you are not doing wrong by refusing to bring a person into existence.

Peter Singer wondered how if we have no duty to make non-existent people happy by bringing them into existence, then how come we have a duty not to make non-existent people who will suffer (page 104, Practical Ethics). But the difference is that in the first case no harm is done to anybody while the harm of making a person to suffer is done in the second. That is the answer.

Negative Utilitarianism teaches that reducing the most pain and suffering in the world is the true morality. It puts increasing happiness in second place.

Alleviating suffering is harder and more unpleasant than making people happy. If everybody practices Negative Utilitarianism they will not be happy and sickness will increase. Or so it seems. But people can be happy despite doing unpleasant work. People can be happy to eat chewing gum that tastes awfully sour.

It has the same problems as Utilitarianism though it is a bit more intelligent than it.

Judging, condemning something as wrong and deserving of punishment and disapproval, disproves all forms of consequentialism.

Bernard Williams in his Morality (page 110) perceives something interesting that is in all manifestations of Utilitarianism. It is that the actions of evil people have to be dealt with by evil actions. The good have to punish them by reducing their happiness. The good have to do evil. But often it will happen that the good the Utilitarian works for will not have been worth the bad that had to be done to bring it about. The doctrine lead to more misery than happiness. If punishment is right then Utilitarianism is nonsense.
William’s argument disproves Negative Utilitarianism and Ideal Utilitarianism as well.
The argument has led some Utilitarians to assert that Utilitarianism should only be taught to a few (page 111, 112). The members of this few would need to be spread out in society so that each one is among absolutists to prevent the escalation of evil. But this damage limitation principle demanded by Utilitarianism still manages to contradict Utilitarian philosophy. It is asking people to promote error and moralities which are based on habit and feelings instead of on reason which is really furthering artificial morality and hypocrisy which will deaden the happiness of the non-Utilitarian world. Utilitarianism has to put the Utilitarian group of believers before everybody else. That's whose happiness they have to think about – nobody else’s. They cannot promote their philosophy or be happy or know how many Utilitarians there should be so the presence of the dissenters from Utilitarianism can only distress them. It seems to be hypocritical for them to publish books on their philosophy and to promote it.
It could be answered that the infliction of pain on evil people is necessary to stop worse evil and it could be said that they could be happy even with the pain and it is up to them to learn how. It could be said that if you feel you cannot be punished in life that will actually distress you at some point. But if it is up to people to make themselves happy no matter what is done to them or if they are in prison then the greatest happiness of the greatest number ethic is wrong. It would follow that their happiness is their concern and not yours.

It is supposed, “All consequentialist ethics imply that you can never judge anybody. The person who looks to be doing bad may really be doing what he thinks is right and may not be able to explain to you his reasons. You have to think the best of him. That is a dangerous position and shows the hypocrisy of believers in consequentialism who sent people to jail to be punished. No wonder jail makes them worse.”

But criminals are given a chance to speak up for themselves – that is what trials are for. If a person steals a cheque from an employer because he is grossly underpaid, that excuse is not going to work in his favour if he explains this in court. It is only going to add more stigma to his already tarnished reputation. And how can the criminal use this defence if he is in any way a consequentalist for it will mean propagating a principle that will lead to most employees stealing on the grounds that they imagine themselves to be underpaid? But as we have to take people’s word for these things we have no choice but to judge him as guilty. And since we know human nature from being human ourselves we will frequently have an accurate idea of what a person meant to do.

Ideal Utilitarianism says that we must maximise good happiness or happiness that does not rejoice in evil. It tells us to have good intentions when we act and it forbids evil thoughts despite the happiness they bring us.

Ideal Utilitarianism would forbid you to increase happiness by keeping slaves or advocating slavery.

It says you should not freely tell a needless lie to maximise happiness because that is asking people to be grateful for your availing of evil. But what if they don’t know it’s a lie? The theory says you have to be sincere but you don’t have to be right for you cannot always be right. That injects it with a heavy dose of liberalism.

The ideal Utilitarianism theory will allow lying to prevent a greater evil for it is a consequentalist theory.
The theory recognises some acts as evil forbidding you to rejoice in them. Lies are evil for they are opposed to what is real. Slavery is evil for all should be regarded as equals. Ethical theories, which permit these things, do not claim that they are good but that they are regrettable evils that are needed to further a greater good.
Ideal Utilitarianism will allow you to enjoy the results of this evil on the grounds that you had to lie and so the evil opportunity was forced on you by necessity. It will allow you to commit and enjoy adultery for the same reason. It will argue that enjoying the results is not the same as enjoying the lie that was told in order to get the results.
To this I say, if we are to like the results and enjoy them, then whether the evil deployed is necessary or not is irrelevant.
The theory only allows you to work for good happiness. But what is more important: good or the happiness? If it is the good then happiness is less important. If it is the happiness then indeed we should rejoice in evil. To say we must work for only good happiness is really saying goodness comes first when there is a conflict.
If happiness is good that implies that you can rejoice in the evils you have benefited from for they are done now and cannot be undone.  Whether they were necessary evils or wanton evils is irrelevant. The point is they are in the past.

The theory is accused of having no concern for those who like evil and can only be happy if they have slaves. Its believers will preach to them and hope to convert them.

The theory makes calculations of what makes the most the happiest a bit handier for it reduces the number of people you have to take into consideration. It says that those you know well and believe to be good sincere people have to come before strangers whom you don’t know which makes it easier again.

The theory answers the problem of how it could be wrong if a gang steal your television set when they get more happiness for it than you. The happiness is bad for it is celebrating evil.

It says that secret evil would have to be bad for it is talking pleasure in evil.

The theory can be improved further by amending it to, “Advance the greatest good happiness but only when you have reduced the greatest suffering first.” Ending suffering is more important than maximising happiness.

Ideal Utilitarianism is a vast improvement on Utilitarianism. Is Ideal Utilitarianism the best of the consequentalist theories and therefore the right one?

Some say they believe in a new theory called Preference Utilitarianism (page 94, Practical Ethics). According to this instead of maximising the greatest happiness of as many people as possible you work out what people would prefer and do what the greatest number prefer. That is fine but I don’t believe this is a new form of Utilitarianism at all for you cannot maximise happiness without giving people the happiness they prefer. You don’t give the majority an opportunity to enjoy a sex orgy for many of them will prefer to have sex with their own partner.

If Ideal Utilitarianism is true then we should either maximise our own happiness or that of others or both. Maximising that of others at the expense of your own, would be altruism and altruism is twisted and a caricature of love. Maximising your own would be egoism (serving others and yourself to feel good) or egotism (when it is about yourself regardless of others).
Altruism is unacceptable which would imply that we should only worry about ourselves and not other people though if we do this properly we will benefit others which is egoism. Egotism isn’t an option.

Ideal Utilitarianism fails to see that we should enjoy nothing for there is hardly anything that is not a necessary evil. For example, entertainment is evil for you could be among the starving poor feeding their babies and you are able to be entertained because they suffer without you. When you get a job it is stopping somebody else from getting it. You are judging that your need is greater than theirs and who are you to decide that?

When I am most sure I exist than that others do, I should be more interested in my own good happiness than in theirs. They want me to be happy with them as equals or in other words, they want me to make them happy and see us all as equals rather than in terms of my happiness being more important. The solution to this problem is that I cannot help it if I am most sure so everybody has to understand and accept and respect that. They must encourage me to put myself first. But that cannot be done unless I act as if I consider them as important as I am. I cannot be happy as an island. Thus my attitude that I am all that matters will
not stop me from treating them as well as I would if I regarded them as equals.
Ideal Utilitarianism has to bring this knowledge to the fore. Otherwise I may fail to reconcile the fact that I alone matter with the fact that I need to treat others well. Trouble and inner conflict will result.
It is dishonest yes to treat others as equals when that is not how you can think of them. But it is necessary to avoid the greater dishonesty that will result if I think I must behave as if there is nobody else around with feelings. The bad side is not your fault and there is no alternative thus you are paradoxically good in serving others despite valuing yourself first and foremost. As I am at the heart of my good conduct it becomes easier and more natural.

Ideal Utilitarian theory says that happiness is not good in itself for it is being happy about good and because of good that makes it good. So avoiding evils like lying or violence must be more important than happiness. This means that they have to be avoided totally and the happiness they bring will be turned into sadness. We cannot live in peace if we do that. Life is a choice of one evil over another.

The theory is incoherent for it says that lying and violence are worse than unhappiness and still it seeks to make an absolute value out of good happiness.

The theory cannot allow forgiveness for forgiveness is giving a person what they do not deserve. You cannot deserve to be pardoned for you deserve punishment. You cannot forgive a person unless they don’t deserve it. Forgiveness implies that you ought to be punished in the retributive sense. You cannot hold anything against a person you wish to reform or deter from evil. So forgiveness and being forgiving is celebrating the evil of forgiveness and the injustice so it is contrary to Ideal Utilitarianism.

Rule Utilitarianism says that we need to stick to at least some rigid rules to promote the most happiness or preferably the minimisation of suffering.

It says that rules are necessary even if they cause a lot of unhappiness in individual situations as long as the general happiness is maintained or heightened. That is why things like lying and stealing are only allowed under certain circumstances for serious reasons. But when you are forced to do them by the circumstances they are not lying and stealing. Are you a liar if your mouth takes a mind of its own and lies? You are not a liar when forced by your circumstances either. Are you are thief if you have to steal to save a life? And if you need to take something that belongs to another for a serious reason then it is no longer that person’s for ownership is just about order. Nobody really owns anything when it comes to such cases. Everything belongs to everybody in a sense.

Rule Utilitarianism recognises that certain rules are more conducive to happiness in the long run than others and that is how it works out its rules. This avoids the danger of having a morality that leads to too much freedom like classical Utilitarianism.

Does Rule Utilitarianism give no reason to disapprove of secret stealing from a shop or employer within reason and slander and discreet adultery or child-abuse and many other things we detest? Secret wrongdoing makes people sad for they know it is going on though they cannot prove it or they know how likely it is to happen to them so it is wrong. Even if it never happens it will still make people sad for they just do not know so one might as well do the detested things. But it will make them sadder if it is accepted and not preached against for they will be more cynical.
Here are some rules,

Don’t tell lies when they lead to more lies for you will then get caught and lies destroy trust and we would never know if a person is telling us the truth perhaps for a good reason.

Don’t break up families with young children for it is better for reasonable families to stick together.

Don’t let religious belief thrive for it is something extra to bother people and for them to fight over and any good benefits can be gained by spirituality without religion.

Rule Utilitarianism is not perfect but if it is the best we can come up with we have to follow it.

Another thing that seems to be wrong is that it cannot lay down general laws that the world can accept. What laws we have has to depend on what the majority of people want and like. It seems that if most people want to rape it has to be legalised and it is right to rape if Rule Utilitarianism is true. Such a system will serve only to put up walls between nations and races and we know how much trouble division causes. The law could let x number of men with strong passions to rape some women to curtail much of the harm. To answer that rape is wrong even then is to deny the Utilitarianism of Rule Utilitarianism. You may reply that the women will be unhappier and general happiness will be minimised. But what if this were not true? Rule Utilitarianism has to stand for the view that as long as rules make us happy it does not matter what they are.
It is no refutation to say that women and people being happy in a world where rape is allowed and encouraged will never happen. That is beside the point.
Since the person is an absolute value the desire to rape would be a sickness and would have to be cured instead of practiced. But to say that the person is the absolute value or is the most important thing is to deny Rule Utilitarianism.
People generally agree on what is right and wrong or on what they want to be right and wrong. They often have serious intellectual difficulties with some of the principles. It is the particulars that may cause the problems but they are not that serious.

If people won't accept the rules that are good for them then the theory has to advocate forcing them to obey them.
If most people break the rules then the rules only cause trouble by being kept in force for they cause dissent and guilt. This suggests that Rule Utilitarianism has to get more lax the more people offend.

If people won’t keep the rules well, their belief in them will only reduce their happiness or increase their suffering through pangs of conscience and shame. But that is no justification for refusing to believe in the rules for it would be worse if you did not if they are right. It is not the rules that hurt you but your not keeping them.

Some say, “Rule Utilitarianism says that what we feel should determine what we want to make right and wrong and not what reason says. But people who do not take their instructions from reason but emotion have no right to make laws. They are forcing their feelings about what is right and not what is right on other people. Rule Utilitarianism is rubbish.” But if reason tells us that it has to be feelings we must listen to for there is nothing else the theory is vindicated against this accusation.  It is not wrong if it is a necessary unavoidable evil.

Some would object to Rule Utilitarianism on the grounds that I am most sure I exist therefore nobody has the right to force these rules on me. But the egoists have to go along with the majority for the sake of their own welfare anyway. Egoists know they might not be alive if it were not for rules.

Humanists should believe in Rule Utilitarianism as the best of a bad lot.

Utilitarianism has serious problems but it has its merits too. It is certainly true that its rivals are evil for they deny the principle that the greatest happiness of the greatest number comes first. That principle is correct whether we can put it into practice or not. Utilitarianism is itself a necessary evil. That is the general answer to the criticisms and it is correct.
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Roman Catholic Ethics: Three Approaches by Brian Berry