The idea of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people sounds pretty good at first blush. But, as Stalin, Hitler, and any number of other tyrannical dictators demonstrate, utilitarian policies can be pretty bad for those who are not part of the “greatest number of people.” Here are the main problems with utilitarian ethical reasoning:
1. Disagreement About The Greatest Good. While most people would agree that achieving the “greatest good” would be nice, it turns out that there is very little consensus about what the greatest good actually is. One person might believe the greatest good for society is absolute freedom, and therefore support limited government, while another might believe that the greatest good for society is law and order, and therefore support a large government that involves itself in people’s private lives. When believers in utilitarian ethics talk about the “greatest good,” they often fail to communicate because they erroneously assume that others agree with their vision of what constitutes the greatest good.
2. Disagreement About The Greatest Number of People. Utilitarian ethical reasoning is also stymied by a lack of consensus on who, exactly, constitutes the greatest number of people. A majority of the population can be carved out in many different ways. For example, if the population of women is slightly higher than the population of men, then utilitarianism could favor policies that benefit women, regardless of those policies’ effect on men. At the same time, though, one could argue for policies that favor white people over other races in the United States, because whites are the numerical majority. When utilitarian thinkers talk about achieving the greates good for the greatest number of people, it is often unclear which of the many possible majorities they are referring to.
3. Detrimental Affect On Minorities. Regardless of which majority utilitarian thinkers want to help, there will inevitably be a minority. The whole point of utilitarian reasoning is that the minority’s rights can be sacrificed for the benefit of the majority. For example, utilitarian ethics might permit the government to seize the property of the wealthiest 1% of citizens and distribute it evenly among all citizens; the wealthy 1% would understandably disapprove of this policy. Or utilitarianism might permit a single, healthy person to be killed so that his/her organs can be divided up among several people who need organ transplants, thereby increasing the life expectancy of the whole; here again, the member of the minority would likely object. Utilitarianism is not compatible with a strong belief in individual rights.
In practice, therefore, utilitarian ethics can be used to justify many acts to which the average person’s ethical sensibilities would object.