Due to feedback on my last post I think it may be beneficial to include one more idea to the list of what I called “the cornerstones of utilitarianism”.
These three cornerstones are:
- Premise 1: We all intrinsically value happiness.
- Premise 2: Happiness is the only intrinsic value.
- Premise 3: We ought to do what will promote intrinsic value.
Taken together, these three claims lead to the utilitarian conclusion that happiness is what makes a thing good and we ought to promote happiness. This post will be a critique of Premise three. Bentham and Mill, the founders of utilitarianism, take premise three as being obviously true. At worst this is an unfounded assumption and at best it is implied that premise three is intuitively obvious or self-evident. For now we will take the more generous interpretation and later we will show that other methods of proving premise three is true also fail.
Since pleasure is intrinsically valued premise three implies that we are to believe that upon realizing we intrsinically value pleasure that it will become intuitively obvious that all pleasure is good. As Bentham explains this, “Now, pleasure is in itself a good: nay, even setting aside immunity from pain, the only good: pain is in itself an evil; and, indeed, without exception, the only evil…” (Bentham 102). It is not at all obvious to me that the pleasure a pedophile gets while lusting after children is in and of itself a good thing, even if he does so without the parent or child knowing. I seek not only to show that pleasure is not intuitively and obviously good, but using a method called “reduction ad absurdum” I think we can show that such utilitarian claims are intuitively and obviously false.
Reductio ad absurdum is a method of disproving something by showing that its inevitable consequences would be absurd. Nothing shows utilitarianism to be more absurd than Robert Nozick’s example of a utility monster. Nozick argues:
“Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others and these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monsters maw, in order to increase total utility.” (Nozick 41)
It is entirely possible that one of more of these utility monsters exist. If we are feeling poetic we could think of the utility monster or utility monsters as Satan or even a whole host of demons. Bentham unknowingly explains why the existence of a utility monster makes his theory seem absurd when he writes, “It is… not from the principle of utility that the most abominable pleasure which the vilest of malefactors ever reaped from his crime would be to be reprobated…” (Bentham 9). Bentham actually believes that the vilest of malefactors always cause more harm to others than the pleasure they receive, but his theory implies that if Satan or his demons received greater pleasure than the suffering we receive from the destruction of our lives then we ought to sacrifice ourselves to the devil. Utilitarian theory makes it very clear we ought to maximize happiness and it is equally clear that the “most abomidable pleasure which the vilest of malefactors ever reaped” makes its way into that utilitarian calculation. I daresay that if your idea of being moral can include sacrificing saints for the delight of demons then your definition is wrong.
Something else to think about:
Other animals clearly experience pleasure and suffering. Mill might argue that these animals experience lower quality pleasures than humans, yet even with that stipulation their pleasure would still correspond to some level of value. If utilitarianism is true, are hungry humans actually utility monsters? Keep in mind that it is physically possible for farms to give animals a high quality of life as well as it being possible to kill animals in ways which do not involve much suffering.