I am trying to figure out what are the critiques of a Utilitarianism oriented around money. The critiques of Utilitarianism in general is pretty easy to find online, but not for specifically about money. Infact if I search monetary Utilitarianism no search result pop up.

When I think of monetary Utilitarianism , I get a vague feeling that it is related to how people typically think of capitalism, or conceive it. That is selfish gain of money is the ends that an individual would wish for, and hence, the criticisms for capitalism would transfer here too.

4 Answers 4


If you're trying to maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals (taking the definition of utilitarianism from Wikipedia), this would seemingly be the exact opposite of pure capitalism.

You getting to live in a bigger house, drive a fancier car, wear nicer clothes, have a big bank account, etc.: that arguably doesn't provide as much utility to you as someone else would get from simply being able to have shelter, afford clothes, not starve, etc.

Selfishness doesn't align well with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism seems to promote charity or welfare above unnecessary spending. It's closer to socialism, at least in theory (although, especially in practice, one can argue whether you get more utility from socialism, or from some combination of socialism and capitalism, with both financial freedom and social safety nets, as many countries do it, although some better than others).


Utilitarians are usually not in favour of capitalism because they imagine that they can sometimes maximise something called utility by violations of property rights. As such, they think that the law should sometimes allow such violations, e.g. - taxation for the welfare state.

The Austrian economics free market position, as explained by Ludwig von Mises, claims that utility can't be measured. Saying X has higher utility than Y is at best a way of saying that a person offered a choice between X and Y will choose X so there is no such thing as a utility function. In Mises' view money can't measure utility because utility is ordinal not cardinal.

Some non-Austrian pro free market economists, such as Bryan Caplan, say that utility functions are just a way of summarising ordinal preferences.

Mises did sometimes advocate a position he called utilitarianism, but what he meant by utilitarianism was that if people who favoured state intervention in the economy understood the free market position they would realise it does a better job of achieving what they say they want than does government intervention.

  • It's not a "violation of property rights" to not grant someone a right in the first place (or to grant a limited right). If you don't have a right, someone cannot violate that right. Unless you're arguing that some basic human right is violated by taxing people, but you'll need to make that case first.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 17, 2023 at 7:28
  • "if people just understood that actually I'm right and they're wrong". Yeah, yeah, everyone thinks they're right and others are wrong. I'm pretty sure a complete free market tends towards slavery, as people gain control of different production chains, and people without such control need to submit to whatever demands those people make, just to be able to afford to put food on the table. Look to the US, where people have to work 3 jobs just to afford food and shelter (and we're supposed to believe that eliminating minimum wage would improve things?!).
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 17, 2023 at 7:44
  • @NotThatGuy If I think the state is doing a bad job on some issue, then there is no way for me to refuse to pay for what the state is doing on that issue. If I refused to pay taxes for the state's activities I would be fined, possibly imprisoned, and any attempt at resistance might result in the government killing me. If any other group of people did that you would regard it as a violation of property rights. For example, I would prefer not to fund medical experiments performed on people without their knowledge or consent vitaldissent.com/oppenheimer
    – alanf
    Aug 17, 2023 at 17:31
  • @NotThatGuy Your example of a pure free market is the United States, where it is illegal to take a label off a pillow saying it contains fire retardant lawbabcock.com/three-felonies-a-day There is no tendency to monopoly on a free market. The size of a business will be limited by the cost of coordinating its different lines of business. Also, your solution is to defend a giant monopoly called the state that gets its funds by threats of force and locks people up or kills them for such terrible sins as selling loose cigarettes: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Eric_Garner
    – alanf
    Aug 17, 2023 at 17:47
  • "If I think the state is doing a bad job on some issue, then there is no way for me to refuse to pay for what the state is doing on that issue" - do you understand how democracy works? Because it doesn't sound like you understand how democracy works. If you think the state is doing a bad job, vote for someone else who'll do better. It sounds like you're projecting your complaints about democracy onto the idea of tax. "There is no tendency to monopoly on a free market" - that's some hypothetical claim that may be true in your delusions, but here in the real world, that's been proven false.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 17, 2023 at 19:04

Keyword Search 1

Money Utilitarianism


In his fourth chapter, Mill uses money as an analogy to illustrate the role of virtue in his ethical thought. He responds to critics who argue that virtue is “good in itself,” which these critics say disproves the utilitarian claim that happiness is the only inherent good. In response, Mill agrees that virtue is inherently good, and yet maintains the position that only happiness is inherently good. To explain this apparent contradiction, Mill uses a familiar example: virtue is like money. At first money is a means to something else (buying things). Then, people want what money gets them so badly that they begin to desire money itself. And this is fine: money even becomes “a principal ingredient of [people’s] conception of happiness,” and it is very difficult to conceive of a happy life that does not include it. Accordingly, Mill’s point is that money is good not as a means to happiness, but as part of happiness itself. This not only explains Mill’s argument about virtue, but also illuminates the nature of happiness, which is “not an abstract idea but a concrete whole.” It is the sum of all the good things one needs, wants, and does in a reasonably pleasurable, minimally painful (or maximally pleasurable, not-too-painful) existence. Virtue, Mill says, works the same way: being virtuous is an important part of a happy life, which means that desiring virtue in itself is merely desiring “a part of happiness.” Therefore, happiness remains the only inherent good—but its parts are also inherently good.

Keyword Search 2

References below show up on the first page upon keyword search "von mises utilitarianism". This is my first search because I know Ludwig Von Mises is the primary figure of Austrian economics and this is the school that puts money at the center of the market prices system (private property and contract system) and that also tries to put philosophical foundations under the concept of the free market economy.

The Ethics of the Market Economy: A Critical Appraisal of Ludwig von Mises’ Utilitarian Interpretation (Academic paper)


The essential regulatory principle of markets and consequently of a market economy is the price system. The information and signals provided by prices coordinate the actions (of buying, selling, and producing) of people pursuing in each case their own ends and preferences. However, a price system can only do its work under the condition of freedom, that is, in a “free market” in which the price mechanism really works. Admittedly, a market economy can be hampered by interventions into the proper logic of its functioning and we would still talk about a (more or less free) “market economy”. However, to the extent a market economy is “less free” it is also “less a market economy”. In the extreme case, an economy can possess only the appearance of being based on a market, because the essential regulatory principle of markets, the price system, is working under conditions of state intervention so that market mechanisms are not really responsible for prices and the allocation of resources.

Money is the unit of account necessary to state the prices of goods, services, and debts in the utilitarian argument for the market based economy.

In Defense of Mises's Utilitarianism


By "utilitarianism" Mises means something like simply giving people advice about how to achieve the goals they already have. So you're not necessarily endorsing their goals, but utilitarianism says that really the only real role for any kind of evaluation is simply to talk about means to ends, because you can't evaluate the ends. (Quoted from another source in footnote 5).

This article appears to be a defense of free market utilitarianism against opposition from Libertarians within the Austrian school. Making money can become an end or money and prices can be a means to an end in this dramatic context.

Ludwig von Mises Was a Free Market Ideologue


Mises is perhaps best known for his writings on the “calculation problem,” which he claimed would bedevil any socialist society. Under capitalism, Mises explains, the price mechanism allows profit-seeking firms to determine what products consumers want and in what quantity. It is “an illusion,” he argues, that a large-scale socialist community could engage in such calculations without money or a similar medium of exchange. At best, a socialist society would make decisions about what things to produce and how to distribute them based on “vague valuations” that could only prioritize those commodities “needed most urgently.” The capitalist market, Mises argues, always beats the socialist planner.

The calculation problem was later fine-tuned by Hayek, and it is indeed a serious challenge for planning-inclined socialists. Some socialists have responded that technological advances solve the calculation problem, since computers today can handle far higher levels of data. Just look, they say, at actually existing capitalist firms like Walmart that plan on a vast scale. Others (including me) think that market socialism plus workplace democracy is the way to go.

My Two Cents

Baruch Spinoza gives the best working definition of affect: a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. Love is pleasure accompanied by the idea of its external cause. Christian love has to incorporate feelings of desire, pleasure, pain, and humans as the cause or else it would be meaningless. Utilitarianism in a social context evokes subjective ethical and moral judgment so it ends up being a domain of secular debate rather than theological debate.

Economic theory includes the idea of economic value independent of stated prices in the market. Economic value is the idea that it is better to live in the Governor's Mansion or a nicer home independent of its market price, but prices in the market tend to reflect the relative values, not the unpriced economic value that would exist even without money. The problem with free market economics is that the debt and credit system is a feedback loop into the price mechanism. Money and debt in an industrial credit system are individual and collective fantasies concerning future value and cash flow patterns. These fantasies will not all manifest as actual cash flows so debts will default either on a statistically sustainable basis or in a systemic debt crisis the stochastic level of debt defaults rises sharply as a characteristic of the macroeconomic crisis. So free markets cause problems due to network effects which are not in the control of any individual dealers in those markets. Whether the system is capitalist or socialist it produces "coordination problems". These problems are limits on individual and collective rationality and can only be solved by social policies that minimize the violence and harm done to individuals who are otherwise exercising their liberty within the political-economic system.


Christian ethics based on Love/charity/agape and Capitalism are at two ends of the selfishness spectrum. Utilitarianism comes in between. This may lead us to believe that it can give the best of both worlds. But it more likely gives the worst of both. The following condensations of two well known Christian apologists expands on this.

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man, makes the case that utilitarianism is a poor approximation of Christian values. He argues that utilitarianism is ultimately self-defeating, as it reduces all human action to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This, he says, leads to a society where people are only concerned with their own happiness, and where the weak and vulnerable are easily exploited.

Lewis contrasts utilitarianism with the Christian view of the world, which he sees as based on the idea of love. Love, he says, is not about seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, but about serving others and putting their needs before our own. This, he argues, is the only way to create a truly just and compassionate society.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis writes:

The morality of pleasure and pain is, in the long run, incompatible with any morality at all. If the only thing wrong with cruelty is that it gives pain, it follows that the more pain the better: for then more pleasure will result in the end. If you go on to ask why you should want pleasure, the answer is that pleasure is good in itself. But if pleasure is good in itself, there is no reason why the amount of it should be limited. If I am good because I seek pleasure, I must be better if I seek more pleasure.

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre made the case that John Stuart Mill's morality is just watered-down Christianity. In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that Mill's utilitarianism is ultimately a secularized version of Christian ethics. He points out that Mill's concept of utility is essentially the same as the Christian concept of love, and that Mill's emphasis on happiness is similar to the Christian emphasis on eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

MacIntyre argues that Mill's utilitarianism is flawed because it lacks a teleological foundation. Teleology is the belief that things have an inherent purpose or end. In the case of Christian ethics, the telos of human life is to achieve union with God. Mill's utilitarianism, on the other hand, does not have any ultimate goal or purpose. This, MacIntyre argues, makes it impossible to judge whether an action is truly good or evil.

MacIntyre concludes that Mill's morality is ultimately a shallow and unsatisfying substitute for Christian ethics. He argues that we need to return to a teleological understanding of morality if we want to create a truly just and compassionate society.

I am not in any usual sense a Christian. I just believe that modern faux religions are far more murderous than the traditional ones even at their crusading/jihading worst. See Communism Capitalism


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .