Utilitarianism, when dealing with the question of what is the best course of action for a whole group (community, country, society as whole, etc...), states that the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people should be the decision criteria. From the IEP article on the topic:

"The well-being of the group is simply the sum total of the interests of the all of its members."

But it seems to me that this would immediately lead to the justification of such scenarios as:

  • Scientists are testing a new medical procedure or drug, and lab experiments or animal trials can't provide any conclusive results. It would then be ethical to force a small number of people to undergo clinical trials (with or without their consent), since this would lead to larger benefits to humanity as a whole.
  • It would be ethical to euthanize severely disabled people, who cannot contribute meaningfully to society, and would require significant resources to be taken care of, since the people who have to take care of them would otherwise be happier. This would be especially true if they had no family who cared about them (i.e. whose happiness would be reduced by their death).
  • Eugenics would be ethical.

And all sorts of similar situations were one could argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Situations which I call "ethical totalitarianism" (if there is a more accurate term please correct me).

My question is, how do utilitarians avoid justifying such scenarios? Or would a utilitarian say that these scenarios are indeed justified?

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    In your question you use the word "fascism" - can you either define what you mean by that or use a different word? That word has been taken by many people to mean many different things. – James Kingsbery Jun 24 '15 at 18:27
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    To answer the question, don't have the time to dig up the references, but I've seen people from this philosophical perspective justify the above scenarios. It is easy for us to forget, but eugenics was once quite fashionable in certain intellectual circles. – James Kingsbery Jun 24 '15 at 18:29
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    I don't have citations, but as I understand it most utilitarians are concerned with the weighted sum. That is to say they would (generally) oppose a serious harm to a minority that has only minor or intangible benefits to society. – dimo414 Jun 25 '15 at 14:01

Considering the inherent vagueness of "best course of action" and "sum total of the interests of members" utilitarianists can avoid endorsing any of your scenarios as ethical if they so choose. The relation between group utilitarianism and totalitarianism seems to follow from assuming that some subgroup of deciders calculates the utility for all members. This is not the case as alluded to in the OP link, even if the deciders believe that vanilla is superior to chocolate they must accept contrary calculation by other members when the group total is summed. As a political expression, much closer to utilitarianism is libertarianism, the opposite of totalitarianism, and closer to group utilitarianism is libertarian paternalism, which "tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves".

Take eugenics first. We have no firm knowledge of what is "best" for the gene pool or what adaptations are "superior" and are in our common "interest", or even if such judgements can be made meaningful (biology generally suggests otherwise). Even if we agreed on that we have even less knowledge on how to bring them about and avoid potential risks of genetic diseases, etc. In other words, we lack ability to say what is ethical here from utilitarian point of view. In which case we have to assess utility conservatively, and prudence dictates that eugenics at this point is unethical.

There are some obvious situations where one can argue that we know what is best. Such as screening for known genetic diseases and aborting fetuses that have severe ones. But I do not see why utilitarianists would even want to avoid declaring this ethical, considering that it is openly discussed as sensible policy in the mainstream.

Concerning euthanasia and human trials the calculation of utility has to take into account the disruptive social effects that such practices may cause due to mass spread of "it could happen to me" and "slippery slope" sentiments, and the uncontrollable consequences they might entail. Moreover, a utilitarianist has to deal with the fact that not everybody is a utilitarianist, and "sum total of the interests" will largely sum interests that are not assessed based on utility. So ironically utilitarianist social ethics may function like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is clearly ethical if and only if there is a consensus that it is, and it is uncertain otherwise.

  • For Utilitarians, there aren't interests that aren't valued in terms of utility. – ChristopherE Jun 25 '15 at 13:07
  • @ChristopherE A utilitarianist counts interests of others as understood by them, so as long as they are not utilitarianists group utility will incorporate factors that have nothing to do with utility as understood by the utilitarianist. – Conifold Jun 25 '15 at 19:33
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    I think you're misunderstanding utility. What has utility is whatever produces happiness. So if it produces happiness for person P, it has utility, as understood by them AND as understood by Utilitarians. That is, standard forms of Utilitarianism count all interests as morally significant to the extent that they are capable of yielding utility. They do not then turn around and say that on the other hand some interests are not significant. There are no "other factors." That said, if you know of a utilitarian publication treating this differently, I would be very interested in the citation. – ChristopherE Jun 25 '15 at 20:08
  • From the first and the with the definition of their words, I have no idea what their dogma is. Utility includes happiness which is quite vague and circumstance dependent and individually dependent. – Kentaro Tomono Jun 26 '15 at 2:22
  • "Moreover, a utilitarianist has to deal with the fact that not everybody is a utilitarianist, and "sum total of the interests" will largely sum interests that are not assessed based on utility. " Why does this somehow remind me of Quine's take down of logical positivism? The idea that every empirical statement is theory laden. – Alexander S King Jun 26 '15 at 2:31

In the introduction to the Theory of Justice, Rawls goes over the classical defences of Utilitarianism (to better distinguish his own position, which is closer to Kant); and one of which uses the notion of the impartial spectator, this is someone who is able to enter into all the souls of the men, women and children of a (putative) society and by through this understanding construct a system of laws that harmonises as best as possible all the interests of each and every individual; in essence an embodiment of the general will.

(At least for me, it is suggestively related to the picture of the soul in the Republic, and also n Whitmans poem Leaves of Grass; where he enters into spirit of each type and is also far above them).

Rawls instead of this device uses a veil of ignorance.

I'd speculate that certain moral philosophers in the late 19C and early 20C explicitly used utilitarian ethics to endorse eugenics; Rawls mentions eugenics just in passing only to expressly avoid it; and this no doubt because of its terrible history in Europe and elsewhere.


Since I see a meaningful disagreement between Conifold and ChristopherE, and since I learned a few utilitarianism chops from my master (The religion of my dissertation adviser (Professor Arneson) was act utilitarianism), I thought I could serve as a judge.

  1. Conifold is correct to point out the harmful effects of a society that routinely practices euthanasia (the kill-one-to-save-five type example):

"...the disruptive social effects that such practices may cause due to mass spread of "it could happen to me" and "slippery slope" sentiments, and the uncontrollable consequences they might entail."

  1. Conifold then concludes that the effects show the limit of utilitarianism. ChristoherE correctly points out that this is not how a utilitarian would proceed. Utilitarians will argue that a society with disruptive social effects (distrust in the system, random victimization, etc) cannot maximize utility after all. Thus the example cannot count as a counterexample to utilitarianism. Dissolution of a problem is the best utilitarianism chop.

  2. Remark: Conifold's way of proceeding to the non-utilitarian (or non-consequentialist) conclusion is universal for any intrinsic value theorists. That is, they argue that there must be something that cannot be reduced to outcome values, and thus the value must lie in the thing itself (e.g., equal opportunity, fair procedure, and the Doctrine of Double effects).


Utilitarianism has limitations depending on the timescales involved, in my view. A question: How can a perceived social construct like "equality and equity" be beneficial for society if it ultimately leads to negative outcomes under certain scenarios like; If it makes the majority of us happy to allow intellectually disabled people to procreate, drive cars, or become professors at university, under the umbrella of "equality and equity", then how would this translate into productive benefits for society that has derived from happiness?

Just for clarification, I am not advocating any particular ethical solution here. I am just interested to know how a utilitarian reconciles these ethical issues.

Furthermore, the basis of utilitarianism philosophy (greatest-happiness principle) is a similar school of thought to the Epicureans. However utilitarianism is remarkably different in so much as it advocates an element of totalitarianism to justify the means if need be, as Mill argued: "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any other member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” So taking this particular quote into context with utilitarianism’s founding principle, am I correct in understanding that if my happiness is being restricted by another, which is causing me harm (mental or physical), then force should be legally exercised?

  • It seems to me that Utilitarianism does indeed have an element of confliction as this "greatest – Chris Oct 31 '17 at 15:09
  • This seems to be an additional question, rather than an answer to the OPs question. – philosodad Nov 11 '17 at 4:02
  • It would seem that if you try and do something that is rejected by some portion of society, is would lead to a disharmonious society, and because harmonious societies are happier they are more productive. Meaning the cost of social disharmony outweighs whatever benefit you're trying to get. I'm not defending utilitarianism, just providing a possible answer. – J. M. Becker Aug 21 '18 at 16:17

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