Utilitarianism says that we should maximize aggregate utility. Greatest happiness for the greatest number is the usual catchphrase.

Suppose there is a wealthy country A with lots of extra resources, and everyone there has very similar appearance. There is another country B, and the people there look quite different from A-citizens. Some B-citizens want to immigrate to country A. The people from A do not want them to move in, and their sole reason is that it makes them really upset to look at typical B-citizens, who are unlike them. They have plenty of resources to allow these B citizens to be a part of their society, but they want to forbid it because of their aesthetic preferences. It turns out that the relative happiness that the potential immigrants would gain is less than the amount of negative feelings their presence would cause native A-citizens. (Let us assume that this is not due to some mysterious physical property, like the B-people are made of Kryptonite, but in fact some A-people have been known to completely get past their feelings through discussion or therapy.)

So the question is, does utilitarianism dictate that the A-citizens may forbid the immigration of B-citizens to their land, even though the underlying reason is solely racism against B-people?

  • This all depends on how to measure the utility. In the case of standard utilitarianism, one must prove that the pain (discontent) A-citizens will experience is greater than the pleasure (happiness) B-citizens will experience in the case of letting them in. But there also is a negative utilitarianism, which cannot justify this restriction solely on taste. But in order to measure pain and pleasure people also should predict what will be the relationships between A's and B's look like. Maybe it's better not to let them in, because A's then will beat them causing pain.
    – rus9384
    Jul 14, 2018 at 15:54
  • Utilitarianism of a common stripe (that is with the utility not including some racist preferences) may well motivate a policy that racism would also motivate. However, policies in themselves are not racist or otherwise, motives behind them are, and agreement on policy is not a justification for racist motives. Also, in this example your application of utilitarianism is too simplistic to work. Utilitarian policies must pass a test by alternative means, which in this case might involve A-citizens working to get over their feelings and aesthetic preferences, as you yourself mention.
    – Conifold
    Jul 15, 2018 at 23:07
  • @Conifold (1) The issue of racist actions vs intentions is not raised by my question. The stipulation is that the intention is racist. (2) We could also stipulate that therapy for all of the millions of A-citizens would be too costly or unworkable on a mass scale.
    – mbsq
    Jul 16, 2018 at 6:26
  • 3
    There is no "definition" of utilitarianism, there is a cluster of belief systems under this name. Their utility is something like "common good" and not tied to race. Utilitarianism can conceivably justify policies that have racist intentions but then it obviously provides an alternative motivation for them: maximizing a non-racist utility. As long as they are sincerely supported for the latter reason only they are no longer "racist".
    – Conifold
    Jul 16, 2018 at 21:42
  • 1
    @Monroe Eskew. I should have said more about incommensurability and will amend the answer accordingly. I upvoted your question, which deserved it. I confess that I thought you had rejected my answer purely over my opening wrangle over 'racism'. I can now see that you did read and consider the whole answer. Please accept my apologies. Best - Geoffrey.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 26, 2018 at 17:42

4 Answers 4


I would not myself use the term 'racism' here if the real grounds of complaint and aversion are as you say aesthetic : A-citizens object to the presence of B-citizens on aesthetic grounds of appearance. To my mind, this doesn't entail 'racism'. 'Racism' involves a spectrum of attitudes that are missing from your question : if As believed Bs to be culturally inferior, or intellectually inferior, or morally inferior, or if Bs were objected to purely as ethnic immigrants intent on exploiting country A's wealth, then talk of racism would be appropriate. But none of this comes up in your example. I can, however, see what you had in mind, or think I can : certain ethnicities are rejected on grounds of their appearance, particularly colour, or on points of physiognomy. This is 'racism', or an example of racism, as the term is widely used. On this basis there is no disagreement between us.

Act utilitarianism

Act-utilitarians contend that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the consequences of that action alone. The right action for any agent is allegedly that option open to him that will produce the best overall result' [in a particular situation : GT]. (Donald C. Emmons, 'Act vs. Rule-Utilitarianism', Mind, New Series, Vol. 82, No. 326 (Apr., 1973), pp. 226-233 : 226.)

If we consider the situation in act-utilitarian terms, I don't see how a utilitarian calculation can be made. How can you calculate the total disutility that accrues if A's are compelled to accept the aesthetically objectionable Bs as against the utility of better-living conditions that would accrue if Bs were let in - also including in the calculation the disutility to Bs of knowing that their presence is resented ? Aesthetic objectionableness, better-living conditions, awareness that one's presence is resented - these are incommensurables. By this I mean that there is no general lexical ordering between them. One has to decide how much importance to give them, individually and in relation to one another, from one occasion to another; a decision is not a calculation. Use of single-metric terms such as 'utility' or 'happiness' creates the appearance of a common metric when often there is none, as I suggest in the case you describe. See Joseph Raz, 'Value Incommensurability: Some Preliminaries', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 86 (1985 - 1986), pp. 117-134. Or, longer but easier to read and just as good, John Gray, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought, ISBN 10: 0691157421 / ISBN 13: 9780691157429. Published by Princeton University Press, United States, 2013.)

I don't see, by the way, that if we are going to use the notion of utility the strict logic of utilitarianism allows us to exclude 'nasty' utility. Whatever can yield utility - say, as many have done, whatever satisfies a preference - has a proper a place in an ethical theory that derives its entire rationale from utility. Not nice utility, just utility. This may, indeed, open the way to a serious critique of utilitarianism. But that is not my present concern. Add it to the problem of incommensurability, however, and the critical questions pile up.

Rule utilitarianism

An act is right if and only if the consequences of everyone's doing that type of action in similar circumstances would produce the best overall result.

Turning to rule-utilitarianism, we should have to consider whether on balance, taking one occasion with another, having a rule that rejects immigration on grounds of an ethnicity's appearance, particularly colour, or on points of physiognomy, will produce a better overall result than having a rule that does not reject immigration on these grounds or having no rule at all. Here we can only guess, not calculate : my guess is that the overall result would be better if there were not a rule that rejects immigration on grounds of an ethnicity's appearance, &c. This is based on general considerations about the mutual benefit of immigration but this takes us into economics and sociology, and beyond philosophy.

  • Why does this matter? It is the shared similar appearance of a race of people that leads to different treatment under law with material consequences. I could further say they had whatever beliefs about them being stupid to enhance the thought experiment.
    – mbsq
    Jul 26, 2018 at 15:12

So the question is, does utilitarianism dictate that the A-citizens may forbid the immigration of B-citizens to their land, even though the underlying reason is solely racism against B-people?

The trick with utilitarianism is in evaluating the utility in the long run. If racism was increasing overall happiness in the long run in the group then yes it would be the utilitarian choice. In other words, nothing is off the table with utilitarianism.

It is however highly unrealistic that a society so strong regarding physical appearance would thrive. Think about all the ugly people in such a society, should they be deported ? Think also about all the downstream implications (gene pool shrinkage, having laws based on arbitrary visual standards etc....) over time.


A utilitarian system transforms into an unjust proposition when it is allowed to treat people differently without a good reason for this different treatment.

The criterion of good reason can be fixed as those specification/parameters which can be acceptable to both parties.

Racism then is unjust because there is no good reason behind the unequal treatment given to the different races. The racist may claim that the other races are inferior. But this is not a reason that both parties will agree with.

The people of the same race as the racist may agree with him, that few members of their own race being oppressed would consider themselves naturally inferior. And the racist lacks sound evidence that could in principle convince everyone of that judgment about the other immigrants.

For example, the fact that people receive different treatment/facilities according to their wealth in a capitalist society is not necessarily unfair. A capitalist system can claim to be utilitarian. The justification for this unfair treatment is that the wealthy can spend more money, and hence catering to their needs receives more generous compensation. Thus pricing a good out of someone’s ability to purchase is not unjust as the system does not wish to give those materials to a section whose buying capacity is limited.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there may not be a good reason to moderate capitalism as well. The poor may argue that certain principle implies that they should receive some special treatment. But this is not a rejection of the reasons behind the unequal treatment resulting from an inequality in wealth, and hence such unequal treatment is not unjust.

Therefore simple utilitarianism is an unjust proposition and can allow racism to prosper in a political system.



  • Could the pure utilitarian claim that the calculation of aggregate utility being a net positive constitutes a good reason, as it is indeed good according to the only ultimate criterion she accepts?
    – mbsq
    Jul 26, 2018 at 18:47
  • @Monroe Eskew-but the 'claim' must be accepted as a good reason by all the sections of the society..in other words 'aggregate utility' may be shared by the community/individuals...and it becomes a tough condition...
    – drvrm
    Jul 26, 2018 at 19:54
  • I made some edits to ease reading. You are welcome to roll them back or continue editing. Jul 31, 2018 at 3:58
  • @Frank Huberry-thanks for the edits...
    – drvrm
    Jul 31, 2018 at 15:45

Enlightenment values are very recent, and the pain that results from aspiring to them is also new. The notion of racism is a consequence of colonial abuses, and not a basic ethical principle. If Europe had treated Africa and natives elsewhere reasonably, Europeans would probably not have this kind of notion as a value.

You are assuming that B-people would not be hurt by the very fact of the racism of the A-people. And that is actually realistic. In many older societies, that was basically true. The English hated the French, but the French were not offended by English racism, because they already hated the English, and didn't care what they thought.

So yes, ethical principles nobody has do not cause pleasure or pain and do not affect Utilitarian computations.

But we do have this experience of the damage of extreme remote dominance, slavery and destruction of whole cultures. So nowadays B-people could not possibly ignore it. The B-nation would not put up with it. They would see that letting their neighbors prosper and gain technical dominance might end up with very happy A-people turning their backs on utilitarianism and owning them as slaves. The risk is too high.

This realization that fairness of a certain sort is a totally new value brings up three problems Utilitarianism has as a basic principle:

1) Ethical principles are sources of pleasure and pain. So determining utility automatically depends on the dominant morality of the people you are trying to treat in a utilitarian manner. And ethical opinions shift. A new principle can arise from a given experience and totally change the distribution of satisfaction. So you are really using a different system of ethics in the name of utilitarianism, once enough of your population works is way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs past basic animal and safety needs.

2) Any utility computations are impossible to optimize and would have a bizarre chaotic dynamics. There are feedback loops involved, and that means complex dynamics, and mathematical chaos. For instance, something can maximize utility, but be slightly unfair. Then someone can notice the unfairness, causing them pain. So then there has to be a feedback loop between the pain we are trying to adjust for, and the fact that the adjustment itself is being done to something that removes pleasure from others, and may be seen as unfair to them. Such functions are not stable, and this cannot end. The odds are very high that there are strange attractors here that mean any optimum is insanely unstable, and trying to get there will be very unpleasant.

3) Things like the notion of fairness itself create sets of 'utility monsters'. Its value to some people is virtually infinite (like our modern intersectionalist "wokescenti" for whom the ultimate value of any act relies entirely on how it addresses traditional and existing inequality). This kind of person would willingly either seriously deprive themselves or go to war and destroy everyone's lives for it. Their infinite pain can become the dominant measure of utility across a whole society, and it can weigh so heavily in the balancing computations that real, non-abstract pain and pleasure do not end up mattering at all. And since it really can't be defined, it can control everything and never allow balance.

A fourth one that does not arise here is Neitzsche's principle of the wretchedness of the Last Man.

4) Pleasure is a self-destroying concept. Pleasures attenuate and shift according to experiences. Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance resolution suggests that our values are maintained through challenges to them. You think less about the causes of pleasure the more it is guaranteed, and you enjoy it less. We create our future pleasure with our current choices, because they establish our values, even if we are protected from their actual consequences. If you never starve, your enjoyment of food is not as good. So should we do the Spartan thing and starve you in your youth, so that you will be happier at every meal later? Or is that inflicting unnecessary pain, and would it harm your relationship with us too much? It obviously depends on who you are.

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