Ever since I first heard about utilitarian system of ethics, there is one thing that has been on my mind.

Since utilitarianism is about creating the greater amount of total good (and, the smaller amount of total bad), I feel like there is a "loophole" in the philosophy.

Let us imagine some sort of Sadistic Psychopath, who, for the sake of argument, enjoys murder and torture so much, that the happiness he gains by doing it is several order of magnitude bigger than any suffering he causes to the victim and their loved ones combined. If my understanding of utilitarianism is correct, that person would then be doing the morally acceptable (and even optimal) course of action, therefore be a benefactor, by torturing and murdering innocent people.

This seems ridiculous at first glance. So my question is:

What part of utilitarianism did I miss or misunderstand, would "fix" this loophole and make it viable even in this hypothetical situation?

Or, if I didn't misunderstand anything, how is it that the existence of this hypothetical example does not discredit utilitarianism as a whole?

  • One of the main problems of utilitarianism always was that measuring "good" or "happiness" across different people and then adding that up is hopelessly naive. Modern heirs of utilitarianism, grouped under the label consequentialism, give up on the single utility, and only keep the idea that morality of an action is to be judged (somehow) based on its consequences alone. "The happiness he gains by doing it is several order of magnitude bigger than any suffering he causes to the victim" is then meaningless, and one can easily adjust judgment criteria to spread the "good" over multiple people.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 20:06
  • What you say here already has been investigated by Nozick in his utility monster argument. But one can assume the model where one seeks to maximize the minimal utility. This is somewhat similar to Rawls' model (but his model is not utilitarian).
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 11:35

4 Answers 4


First off, there's a really big and unfortunately unresolvable problem about trying to resolve whether "utilitarianism" thinks X or Y. That problem is what do we mean by this term?

In contemporary philosophy, "utilitarianism" is used often synonymously with "consequentialism" where ethics is seen as the task of maximizing or minimizing some good (in contrast with the historical good being identified with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain). This can make things a bit tricky.

At the same time, the term also refers to the historical view used by Bentham but more well-known today in its formulation by Mill. When used with respect to the historical view, a problem of interpretation also arises -- as to what Mill's actual views are. (we can see a sticking point with that in Geoffrey Thomas's claim that Bentham and Mill state a distribution rule -- my sense is Mill/Bentham don't state such a principle or at least don't state or justify it with sufficient clarity to make that reading obvious).

We can skip over some of the second problem by following a principle of charity -- the point isn't to snooker the utilitarians out of claims they might avail themselves of but rather to evaluate the position fairly.

With that being said, you're in luck. You've hit upon an objection that does exist in the literature. What you're suggesting is Robert Nozick's utility monster.

On my reading, JS Mill's account does have some trouble with this problem. It's one of several ungrounded points in Mill's view (such as his revision on higher/lower pleasures vis-a-vis the objection Bentham's pleasure pigs).

But let's refer back to the principle of charity. A utilitarian can make ethics distributing happiness such that the highest number of people are sufficiently happy or something like that.

Here, I would suggest there's going to be a still remaining issue which is that the calculation becomes too hard to do. -- but this ties into another rough edge in classical utilitarianism: is it a metaethical viewpoint or a normative ethical one? If it's metaethical perhaps the calcuation can be avoided by appealing to rules rather than acts as the locus where we decided what moral action is (such as Hare's account).





  • I think some confusion has arisen through my initial failure to distinguish between a rule of equal concern, which I attribute to Mill, and a rule of equal treatment, which I don't. Btw : 'my sense is that they don't or at least don't justify it state it with sufficient clarity' : a word missing perhaps ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 11:20
  • @GeoffreyThomas thanks for pointing that issue out. I've tried to resolve it. Basically, I don't see it in the classic texts but do't blame contemporary consequentialists for amending something like it.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 11:35
  • 1
    Thanks. What I do see in the classic texts is the requirement of equal concern. I don't think equality of treatment (equal shares or outcomes) is present in Bentham or in Mill. Mill's phrase in U ch. 2 :the 'utilitarian standard ... is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether' is stubbornly perplexing. Whatever the case it does not appear to require equal shares or outcomes. Best - and good to be exchanging views again. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 12:09
  • +1 : Stimulating answer, sent me back to the texts. GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 12:13

Hi Kaito Kid and welcome to PSE. You pose a thought-provoking question but my own view of utilitarianism and of what it allows, which I'll explain as best I can, is rather different from yours. I am not btw a utilitarian.

Just a conceptual point to begin with. Utilitarianism in its standard formulation is a requirement of maximisation - of the greatest (not 'greater') happiness of the greatest (not 'greater') number. If we replace the slightly nebulous 'happiness' with 'interests', 'preferences' or whatever, the key point about maximinisation remains.

Utilitarianism has always had at least in standard formulations a rule of distribution : 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one'. This is to say that everyone is equally morally considerable. It is a rule of equal concern (regard or consideration) not of equal treatment.

In your example, no-one else counts for anything but the sadist psychopath. The victim counts for nothing, nor do their loved ones or presumably the wider society, since 'the happiness he [the sadist psychopath] gains by doing it [torture and murder] is several orders of magnitude bigger than any suffering he causes to the victim and their loved ones combined'. The reactions of the wider society are not mentioned, I assume because they do not count.

But utilitarianism is an ethical theory in which what is sought is the greatest happiness of the greatest number or at least the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness for all those affected. And all those affected have equal moral status, equal moral significance. That's a recap. The moral situation you describe does not meet these conditions.

A utilitarian can accept that from his own point of view the sadist psychopath is justified in doing what he does. By definition of his psychological state he cannot see that what he does is morally wrong or care about it even if he does see this. He experiences intense pleasure and this is all that concerns him.

It does not follow, though, that it is all that concerns a utilitarian, let alone that a utilitarian is obliged to endorse what he does. The utilitarian sees a much wider picture.

The following extract from Gardner Williams may help. There is no reason why we [utilitarians] should not accept that :

... there is nothing really shocking about the truth that a sadist would be right from his own point of view in performing his most horrible acts of cruelty if these satisfied him most deeply in the long run. People are likely to make the mistake of thinking that to admit a sadist might be right, from his own point of view, if certain conditions were fulfilled, is an endorsement of his cruelty. If he should be right in any way in torturing his victims, ought we not to encourage or even emulate him? We ought to do what is right, ourselves, should we not? And we ought to encourage others to do what is right! But, of course, the truth is that, from our own [utilitarian : GT] points of view, we ought not to encourage or emulate a sadist. And we can not take any points of view but our own. [We are utilitarians : GT.] What he does is obviously wrong from his victims' points of view because they do not like it. It is a social wrong because most people in society are horrified at it and suffer from it. It is wrong for all who sympathize with the victims. It threatens humane institutions which people need in order to live satisfactory lives. If successful, it would encourage other would-be sadists to indulge in additional nefarious practices which would incapacitate or destroy individuals needed for the support of institutions. ... [Everyone] must, if they can, restrain a sadist (Gerdner Wiliams, 'Hedonism, Conflict, and Cruelty', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 47, No. 23 (Nov. 9, 1950), pp. 649-656 : 654-5.)

The sadist psychopath violates the distribution rule : 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one' - his victim counts for nothing. And to assess the moral situation solely from a perspective in which the sadist's pleasure exceeds by an order of magnitude 'any suffering he causes to the victim and their loved ones combined' does not do justice to the utilitarian's concern for, not merely an immediate circle like this but 'the greatest number'.



Objections have been made to my answer :

Can you mention one utilitarian theorist, as opposed to a pedagogical presentation, who adopts the distribution role as you formulate it? (I confess I am asking because I am skeptical that there is one.)

The answer : 'Bentham, J.S. Mill' drew the response :

Where? This doesn’t strike me as fitting Mill’s rule utilitarianism at all. (E.g. hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3521354.0003.002)

Mill clearly supports the distributional rule as I formulated it is : 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one' this when he says (J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863, ch.5 : http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11224/11224-h/11224-h.htm. :

...the Greatest-Happiness Principle. That principle is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one person's happiness, supposed equal in degree (with the proper allowance made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another's. Those conditions being supplied, Bentham's dictum, 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,' might be written under the principle of utility as an explanatory commentary.

Perhaps I can better explain my position by distinguishing more clearly between equal concern (regard and consideration) and equal treatment. I read the distribution principle as a principle of equal concern, and it seems to me quite evident that Mill subscribed to it. There is to be equal regard and consideration for all affected parties. That is all I committed Mill to. I did not say or imply and do not believe that he is committed to equal treatment - equal shares or outcomes. (D.O. Brink, Mill's Progressive Principles, Oxford : OUP, 2013, 283-4.)

The distributional rule, as a rule of equal concern, is intrinsic to utilitarianism, in Mill's words 'explanatory' of it. It is not a rule, such as a requirement of honesty, promise-keeping, non-maleficence or even the Liberty Principle, which a utilitarian might adopt as contingently instrumental to her goal.

As for the point that 'This [the distribution rule] doesn’t strike me as fitting Mill’s rule utilitarianism at all', the distribution rule is (excuse the obvious) a rule even if as I have explained above a rather special rule. Why should it not fit ?

  • 1
    Can you mention one utilitarian theorist, as opposed to a pedagogical presentation, who adopts the distribution role as you formulate it? (I confess I am asking because I am skeptical that there is one.) Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 20:24
  • Bentham, JS Mill.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 20:26
  • 1
    Hmm. Where? This doesn’t strike me as fitting Mill’s rule utilitarianism at all. (E.g. hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3521354.0003.002) Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 20:29
  • 1
    @ChristopherE. I found more difficulties in Mill than I'd expected when I went back to the texts. As I said to virmaior (above) I find Mill's phrase, 'the greatest amount of happiness altogether', a stubborn perplexity. I can't persuade myself that I know what he means by it. I was at fault btw in the clipped and uncontextualised way I formulated the (now infamous !) rule of distribution. Quite unintentionally I left myself open to misunderstanding. I appreciate your reply. Here's till we meet again on PSE. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 18:50
  • 1
    Final point. I think later, certainly recent, utilitarianism does not stress or perhaps even accept the 'one to count for one' principle. This would make my emphasis on it look out of line with the accounts of utilitarianism in textbooks.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 19:01

You are posing what looks to me like a wildly unlikely case, evaluating it in a way that looks iffy to me, getting a result you didn't expect, and claiming that's a problem with the theory. I haven't seen any complete ethical theory that I couldn't come up with apparently wrong results for.

You're assuming that someone could enjoy murder and torture to a degree that seems impossible. You're further assuming that we could determine this, since if we can't we can't use it in our deliberations. (It isn't clear that happiness is the right measure to use, but we'll disregard that for now.)

Also, you aren't considering the total effects. Having a sadistic psychopath running around torturing and murdering freely is going to have a lot of negative effects on a lot of people who fear that they or their loved ones are going to be selected. It's certainly arguable that the benefit to everyone in society of having laws against murder and torture is very large.

Finally, you're not necessarily getting a wrong result, but rather an unexpected and counterintuitive one. Is it moral to drop a nuclear bomb on a city? I believe the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nukes to be justified because of the tremendous amount of suffering they saved. Under less extreme circumstances, nuking a city is clearly immoral, but we don't usually consider an ethical system discredited because it considers the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to be moral.

After all, utilitarianism does claim it's moral to make some sacrifices to make other people happier, and this really weird situation is an extension of that.

As an aside, I consider this a good question to ask, and answering it illustrates some useful principles.


Let us imagine some sort of Sadistic Psychopath, who, for the sake of argument, enjoys murder …...

This seems ridiculous at first glance. So my question is:

What part of utilitarianism did I miss or misunderstand, would "fix" this loophole and make it viable even in this hypothetical situation?

Regarding fixing the “loophole” – what I found in literature( described below) regarding the principle of utilitarianism and its development …the example of a ‘sadist’ who profits by his actions (in the form of immense pleasure at the cost of the people who he tortures- may not find a rightful place in the principle as a whole.

The Classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill, were concerned with legal and social reform.

Accomplishing this goal required a normative ethical theory employed as a critical tool.What is the truth about what makes an action or a policy a morally good one, or morally right?

however developing the theory itself was also influenced by strong views about what was wrong in their society.

For Jeremy Bentham, what made the norms bad was their lack of utility, their tendency to lead to unhappiness and misery without any compensating happiness. If a law or an action doesn't do any good, then it isn't any good.

Therefore the "loophole" of the principle must be plugged.

In "Utilitarianism" Mill argues that virtue not only has instrumental value but is constitutive of the good life. A person without virtue is morally lacking, is not as able to promote the good.

For Sidgwick, the conclusion on this issue is not to simply strive to greater average utility, but to increase the population to the point where we maximize the product of the number of persons who are currently alive and the amount of average happiness.

So, a person’ssubjective pleasuree derived from torturing others will not fall in the ambit.

Moore further criticized the view that pleasure itself was an intrinsic good, since it failed a kind of isolation test that he proposed for intrinsic value.

If one compared an empty universe with a universe of sadists, the empty universe would strike one as better. This is true even though there is a good deal of pleasure, and no pain, in the universe of sadists.

This would seem to indicate that what is necessary for the good is at least the absence of bad intentionality.

The pleasures of sadists, in virtue of their desires, to harm others, get discounted — they are not good, even though they are pleasures. Note this radical departure from Bentham who held that even malicious pleasure was intrinsically good, and that if nothing instrumentally bad attached to the pleasure, it was wholly good as well.

Since the early 20th Century utilitarianism has undergone a variety of refinements.After the middle of the 20th Century, it has become more common to identify as a ‘Consequentialist’ since very few philosophers agree entirely with the view proposed by the Classical Utilitarians, particularly with respect to the hedonistic value theory.

Looking at the above scenario of the thought process in ‘principle of Utilitarianism” I think the loophole is ‘non-existant’.



  • It's some good general info about utilitarianism, but I'm at a loss as to how this answers the question.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 4:15
  • @virmaior-<The pleasures of sadists, in virtue of their desires, to harm others, get discounted — they are not good, even though they are pleasures...>your question was about personal/subjective pleasures..and if one gets a larger popular/common good angle of utilitarianism ..i think one can find answers...
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 12:17
  • This is not my question. My point is that while there's information in your answer, it's not very well organized for the person who did ask the question to see how it serves to answer their question
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 13:34
  • @virmaior.. thanks sir for your comments- I agree that the uploaded answer is not a pointed one... I belong to physics stream and learning 'philosophy' through these exercises of understanding the formulations of Philosophy..but i will try to edit the answer..thanks again
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 14:33
  • @virmaior...as per your comments the answer has been edited...
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 15:10

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