Surely this seems like a subjective question but it seems to me that all the counterexamples against utilitarianism are just designed to move the problem when we can't really judge it.

For example the Trolley problem shows us the clear example when we have a single leaver to make a decision. But in case of pushing a fat man over the bridge to save five people, the situation is designed so that the there is a hidden negative variable in the utilitirianistic option: The pain of the fat man, the pain of you as the murderer and the extra pain of the workers in case you screw up your mission (which sound very realistic). (I think everyone would agree that killing the fat man in the Trolley problem is not a* bad thing* to do even though they wouldn't do it themselves.)

The same goes for the example with saving someone using organs of 5 other people or eradicating a 6-million inhabitants planet instead of a 12-million one. Some people give as an example the philosophy of nazism - in this case I think we can consider the contempt of persecution of minorities/diseased as a sort of social contract).

So could there be a situation when the total happiness of one option is less than the total happines of another and yet, it would cause more "harm"?

In other words, what else should we consider in our choice apart from the "overall happiness" whatever it is?

  • 2
    "Everyone" would not agree, according to a poll of philosophers only 68% chose to switch in the trolley problem. And obviously according to utilitarians themselves what their ethics dictates is moral, so "immoral" according to whom? "Best" according to what measure? "Sounds (naturally) immoral" sounds primarily opinion based.
    – Conifold
    Dec 5, 2016 at 22:13
  • @Conifold Definitely, though it's really something different to pull the leaver and to agree with pulling it. I hope my edit helped you understand.
    – Probably
    Dec 5, 2016 at 22:41

2 Answers 2


We should also consider, depending on what tradition you follow, human flourishing or that which is simply good.

A big proponent of the first view, virtue ethics, would be Aristotle, while the second, deontology, is, to me, best expressed by Kant.

Virtue ethics depends on an a posteriori understanding of what makes a good life, or eudaimonia. Kantian deontology is based on an a priori notion of the universality of the rational will, which forbids a rational actor from using another rational actor as a pure means, and not also as an end in themself.

Additionally, religion could be a source of either virtue ethics or deontology.

These traditions criticize consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is a specific manifestation) of focusing on the wrong thing (human lives instead of human flourishing or the outcome of an act rather than its intent) or being ungrounded in, well, anything, and simply supposing that the greatest good for the greatest number of people is good.

Notably both of these answers reject the premises on which your question is based. In a robust utilitarian framework, the utilitarian thing to do is never morally wrong, although your belief that something is the utilitarian option could be mistaken. We must leave this framework to find criticisms of it.

A common "counterexample" to utilitarianism goes something like this: Say you have a speck of dust in your eye. Well, that's a little annoying, right? Now say that everyone who ever has or will have lived will have a speck of dust in their eye at some point. That adds up to an awful lot of discomfort. You can stop this discomfort, and keep the dust out of everyone's eyes forever, but only by torturing an innocent for 50 years.

If you have enough dust in enough eyes this ought to balance out at some point. And we can substitute any relatively-trivial discomfort for dust.

A virtue ethicist might say that a flourishing human being would not torture an innocent person for 50 years; virtuous people just don't do things like that. And a deontologist could say that torture uses a person as a means and not an end, so it is inherently wrong.

  • I agree it seems much more wrong to torture someone but this judgement of ours could be the consequence of our inability to imagine such situation.
    – Probably
    Dec 6, 2016 at 5:31
  • But it's a good example of how doubtful the term of "overall happiness" or "most good for most people" is, though the formulation it's not what lies in the heart of utilitarianism, in my opinion.
    – Probably
    Dec 6, 2016 at 5:38
  • If you believe in utilitarianism, then yes, it is just a failure of the imagination; however the question as phrased called for possible moral considerations other than utility. Why we would want to be, eg, Kantians,---because we believe what Kant says is true, of course, but why we believe it---is a much longer conversation. The proof of the CI might be delivered more convincingly by Kant himself; anyways I think the easiest approach is just to ask what grounds utilitarianism.
    – Canyon
    Dec 6, 2016 at 5:46

Feeding the 'utility monster' seems to be the clear loser: If there is a given person or social class who are capable of being exceedingly unhappy when they do not get their way and exceedingly happy when they do, they get to push the rest of us around at will, and there is no motivation for them to get over their extreme lability. If we don't presume some other source of conscience, unrelated to happiness, the awareness of the power the system affords them should increase their wish to be even more abusive.

The idea that what is effectively a disease should bestow great power via an ethical principle is counterintuitive for most of us. It also suggests an immediate solution -- that inequality should have an implicit negative value of its own regardless of its effects on happiness. (But then we are just pursuing an alternative computation, which might be manipulated the same way, in principle. For this and related reasons, I have argued elsewhere that single-goal hill-climbing ethical solutions have been pretty thoroughly debunked by a series of moral theorists and psychological perspectives.)

An important problem with utilitarianism from my point of view, though it is hard to render into a single moral example, is noted by Sidgwick: Knowing the rules of the game is likely to be bad for people. Realizing that the world is effectively a competition for pleasure changes people's actions, generally in a way that ultimately inhibits their capacity to enjoy life. So if utilitarianism is really to be a force for good, it should be a hidden one. Yet, if you hide your goal, how do you get a fair measure of people's utility? You can't ask them, as that would tip your hand.

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