A utilitarian, briefly, is someone who believes that ethical action is about making the world a better place, in terms of the sum-total of human happiness. Utilitarianism says that a person should act so as to maximise the expected amount of happiness (‘utility’) in the world. That is, they should try to pursue “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, as the point is sometimes, a little misleadingly, put. Sometimes achieving this result might require doing some harsh things – locking up someone in prison for instance. But doing so would be justified, says utilitarianism, if such an act would maximise the sum total of human happiness (for instance, by preventing a violent criminal from harming lots of other people by putting him in the prison cell). For the utilitarian, then, the end justifies the means. Indeed, for the utilitarian the end is the only thing that can justify the means; the rightness of any given action is evaluated solely by the consequences of that action for the net total of human happiness (or, more broadly, the happiness of every sentient creature).
For many of my early years in academic philosophy I was a utilitarian. I suspect, indeed, that I had somewhat of a reputation as a very determined – if not intransigent – utilitarian. One of my first published papers, in Cambridge's Utilitas in 2009, was a defence of utilitarianism against the objection that one cannot know enough about the future consequences of actions or others’ happiness to make utilitarian judgments about what to do. (I still the think the argument of this paper is right, and that when making this type of objection against utilitarianism, as John Stuart Mill put it, “Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment.” If you can’t figure out that a children’s birthday party is likely to have more happiness in it than a Nazi concentration camp, then I hope you never get in a position to make policy decisions. Or organize kid’s birthday parties.)
So I was a utilitarian.
But I changed my mind.
My reasons for doing so were straightforward enough; I began to worry about the cogency of some of the positive arguments for utilitarianism that I had hitherto accepted, and I began to take more seriously several of the objections to it that I had previously believed could be deflected. So there were a variety of reasons I had for coming to reject it. But there was one particular thought-experiment that did keep me up at night throughout this period of philosophical doubt, and it is the concern I wish to relate here.
From the outset it is important to emphasize that I don’t expect every utilitarian to find what follows to be a decisive objection to their theory. Utilitarianism has been around for hundreds of years; it has many different philosophical variants, and there are many different philosophical reasons a person might have for being a utilitarian. Some, like me, might worry about the forthcoming objection. Others will not; and they will have their reasons. For one thing, the following thought-experiment is very fantastical (i.e. weird and unlikely). There is a substantial literature on the extent to which utilitarians need to take seriously thought-experiments that conjure up ‘fantastic situations’ in order to try and demonstrate that the ethical theory gives counter-intuitive results in those situations. I was always of the view that, as an ethic with universal pretensions, utilitarianism did indeed need to engage with such scenarios. If it could be shown that a utilitarian in pursuing the greatest net happiness would do something seriously unconscionable, even in an extraordinary situation, then that was a strike mark against that theory. It’s a bit like a good scientific experiment that tests a hypothesis in an extreme situation to see if it holds true. If it doesn’t hold true in that special case, then you have reason for thinking the hypothesis might not even be true in more ordinary cases, and that something else is at work.
So here is the fantastical – and it really is fantastical – thought-experiment.
Imagine you are some sort of inter-dimensional space-time traveler, and you wind up in the following situation. You can create a better world than Earth in a new parallel universe (maybe you can do this by time-travel, or creating a mirror-universe somehow, or some other possibility). Now the new world is not an exact copy of our Earth. It is very similar, and has the same population, but it has different individual people in it. More importantly, there is some important and concrete way in which Earth Mark II is plainly superior – from a utilitarian perspective – to our Earth. Maybe in Earth Mk.II Hitler never existed, or racism, nationalism or religious intolerance never really took hold for some reason. As a result, there is more peace, trust, prosperity and diversity in the new world, and as a result more happiness. Or maybe there are just better supplies of safe drinking water in Africa, or terrific alternative energy-sources that don’t inject carbon into the atmosphere. Choose whatever you like that would make our world and its prospects better if we had it.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that to create that world you need to destroy our world (imagine that we need to demolish this planet in order to perform the mapping process that creates the almost mirror-image of Earth in the other universe).
Should you do it?
The utilitarian answer here is that of course you should. The Earth Mk.II is exactly like our Earth, only better in some respect for net human happiness. So you should trade in our Earth for the new Earth for exactly the same reason you might act to prevent a war or assuage starvation; namely that to do so increases the sum-total of human happiness. (Perhaps you might be worried whether you can guarantee that the new Earth comes into existence with the promised happy features. This risk would be a reason for a utilitarian to avoid the trade. If so, then let’s change things so that the new Earth comes into being five minutes before you have to do any destroying. You can check out the new planet and make sure it’s all good. Once the five minutes is up you can choose which one to destroy. So you can’t lose.)
My judgment is that it would be unconscionable to make the trade. To destroy the lives and hopes and dreams of all the world’s people is genocide with a vengeance. The fact that one creates an entirely new world with lots of happiness is terrific, but it cannot justify the devastation required.
Suppose you share that judgment. Is this really a good reason for doubting utilitarianism? After all, it’s not as if any of us are ever going to have to confront such a crazy scenario in our lives. But the reason the thought-experiment worried me was that the very reason I had for being a utilitarian was that utilitarianism seemed an appropriate way to respond to and respect the projects, desires and hopes of other people in the world.
But by that I mean actually existing other people.
It worried me that the reason the utilitarian had for trading in our old world was exactly the same as the reason they would give for improving our current world. For the utilitarian, there is no morally relevant distinction to be made between improving the lives of currently existing people or annihilating those people and replacing them with happier ones. But that meant that if I really felt morality was committed to responding appropriately to other people’s projects and hopes, then I could not be a utilitarian. Indeed, any type of ethical system that relied solely on consequences to evaluate acts would be subject to the same problem, namely, that such a system viewed trading people’s lives as something that did not in itself attract any moral concern. So even if we imagined a ‘utilitarianism of rights’, where we were obliged to work towards the sum-total of human beings in the world who had their rights respected, it would still be open to this same concern that it failed to give the proper respect to actually existing, rather than potentially existing, persons.
In sum, then, I came to believe that utilitarianism was not – as I had felt it to be – an ethic in principle built around improving the world and the lives of the people and animals in it. To be sure, improvement of actual people’s lives is what a utilitarian will usually do in our world, because trading those people’s lives for other, better lives is usually not an option (or, more carefully, it is not an option that does not involve other consequences the utilitarian can rightly avoid). But improvement is not in principle what they are committed to. In principle, the utilitarian is as happy to trade up as to improve.
And that looks wrong.