The question refers to utilitarianism and I received it during my ethics class. I need to critically evaluate this by referring to 3 global examples. I don't really know what example I could give provide? I was thinking about using the following:

  1. Israeli occupation of Palestine and the apartheid laws present,
  2. Laws placed against the use and research of psychedelics eg, marijuana, psylocybin mushrooms, etc, despite its massive medical benefits,
  3. the manufacture and trade of nuclear weapons, etc.

I don't know if I can use these examples or if there are better examples.

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    Welcome to PSE! My two cents: using controversial examples can sometimes distract from your point. I would instead look at less controversial laws to protect rights of any minority group. You also in coming up with some examples of right actions need some basis for saying what makes something a "right action." Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 11:42

4 Answers 4


I might suggest civil rights in general as a historical example.

In the U.S. Antebellum South, the greatest number of people may well have been made happier by the system with slaves. Relatively fewer people are enslaved (about an eighth), and those people generally came from conditions that were not that good to begin with. So their lives may even be improved materially. The Confederate argument is Utilitarian.

But the intrinsic inequality is just wrong, especially when slavery extends across generations. The right action was to free the slaves, even if that threw the South into immediate and quite intractable poverty.

The caste system in India has similarities, but they are not as clear-cut.

Gay marriage is a similar thing. It upsets economic fine-tuning meant to favor reproducing couples without saying so. So its overall effects for everyone may not be positive. And it offends a lot of people in a very visceral way, which makes them less happy. But the arbitrariness of having non-reproducing straight couples treated like reproducing ones, and gay couples treated as not being couples at all, is significantly bad for a small part of the population.

The nuclear weapons trade generalizes out to the whole military-industrial complex with privileged countries supplying weapons for continual third-world wars, of both ours and their own. We like making money of other people's wars. And we like the stimulus that wars of our own give to our economy. And those other people somehow feel better having their wars than not having them, or they would just stop. So everybody may be happier with a huge weapons trade. But in the end, encouraging violence is wasteful of life and resources in a way that is just wrong.

  • Thank you for your answer and time! Even after inquiring with some lecturers, I think this is the best answer yet. Really helped me in understanding the issue. Greatly appreciate it. :)
    – Rae
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 8:01

The principle of freedom of speech is a case where the rigth action - allowing anyone to speak their mind - trumps the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Consider for example how courts consistently side with Westboro Baptist Curch's right to express it's views despite the fact that the majority of Americans find them extremely offensive and hurtful (especially the funeral picketing.

  • Thank you so much!! I Did'nt think of that, definitely going to use this! :)
    – Rae
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 7:54
  • @Rae Can you really say that freedom of speech doesn't result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Considering the lack of an objective standard for determining whether speech is offensive (all speech might be considered offensive by someone), one might argue that more harm is always done in restricting freedom of speech in any way and freedom of speech therefore does result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Commented May 9, 2015 at 1:31

I suggest that you carefully scrutinize the implicit multiplicative equation. Let us arbitrarily assume that we have some way of quantifying happiness on a 100-point scale (and to be fair, 0 should be the most abject misery possible, and 100 is the greatest happiness possible -- you need to consider both sides of the happiness equation, thus 50 points means "no effect on happiness"). Then if your world has 100 people, the "greatest good" approach would treat the following acts as morally equivalent:

1: One having minimal benefit (one degree) for half the population and minimal detriment for half the population. 2: One having no effect at all on the population. 3: One causing excruciating misery for one person and extreme happiness for another (and no effect on the remaining 98 people) 4: One causing excruciating misery for one person and a minimal degree of happiness for 50 people, with no effect on the remaining 49 people.

And so on... The two main problems with the "greatest good" approach to ethics are that there is no objective measure of "happiness", and that it does not weigh "more good" relative to "more people".


What makes you consider either of your three examples as morally right? Many (if not most) people I know personally would consider each of those three examples morally wrong.

Some might argue that saving one genius filled with kindness from certain death is more important than saving a million ignorant jerks from certain death. While it might not result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it might result in a better future for those who do survive.

Quantity is important, but quality needs to be considered as well. A single extraordinary individual can contribute more to mankind than millions of even just average people. This criterium (the importance of quality over quantity) is what, I believe, you should look for.

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