Bioethics Blogs

Why I Am Not a Utilitarian

Utilitarianism is a widely despised, denigrated and misunderstood moral theory.

Kant himself described it as a morality fit only for English shopkeepers. (Kant had much loftier aspirations of entering his own “noumenal” world.)

The adjective “utilitarian” now has negative connotations like “Machiavellian”. It is associated with “the end justifies the means” or using people as a mere means or failing to respect human dignity, etc.

For example, consider the following negative uses of “utilitarian.”

“Don’t be so utilitarian.”

“That is a really utilitarian way to think about it.”

To say someone is behaving in a utilitarian manner is to say something derogatory about their behaviour.

When Jeremy Bentham introduced utilitarianism in the 1700s, it was a radical, revisionary and welcome new moral theory. Its core was human equality: each is to count for one and none for more than one. Until that point, princes counted for more than paupers. But utilitarians such as Bentham argued that every person’s well-being and life counted equally. The right act is the act which maximises well-being, impartially considered. The basic idea of utilitarianism is straightforward – the common currency of ethics is human well-being. What matters to each of us is how our lives go. Morality is about treating everyone equally, that is, considering their well-being equally.

Utilitarianism had its heyday until about 50 years ago when it started to be pushed aside for neoKantian, feminist and virtue theories. There has been a resurgence of interest in the last decade following the pioneering work of Joshua Greene which was used to suggest that utilitarians made moral decisions in a more rational deliberative manner.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.