I heard in this video https://youtu.be/ebuve4INdAU?list=WL&t=699 that it is difficult to define morality as maximizing happiness for the maximum number of people.

I also read about the open-question problem–I do not understand it though.

Can someone explain to me with down-to-earth explanations why it is or not possible to define morality as happiness or pleasure.

Can you please guide me to some references where these matters were discussed?

  • Welcome to Philosophy SE! One problem is that what is good for an individual is often in conflict with what is good for society. See here for an example: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/60865/33787
    – christo183
    Mar 4, 2019 at 9:33
  • 2
    Maximal happiness for maximal number of people is known as moral utilitarianism. Some elaborations of it are still current, but you can read a long list of problems that bedeviled the original formulations in the linked Wikipedia article. Happiness is too vague and impossible to predict, there is no comparing it across different people, different moral priorities clash even within the same person suggesting that moral motivations are more complex than single "happiness", utilitarian prescriptions come out as immoral in a number of cases, etc.
    – Conifold
    Mar 4, 2019 at 10:18
  • Would you have a link to the "open-question problem"? I am not clear what you are referring to. Mar 4, 2019 at 14:12
  • I made some edits. If they did not clarify your intent, please roll them back or continue editing them. Welcome! Mar 4, 2019 at 16:33
  • I like liberalism in the broadest.sense, which is maximum liberty for the most people possible. It's easier to.define liberty than happiness for starters.
    – Richard
    Mar 4, 2019 at 20:16

2 Answers 2


If one is morally obligated to maximize happiness for "the maximum number of people" this would also mean that one may be morally obligated to a make a minority of individuals who are in the way unhappy in the process. Indeed, it may be worse than unhappiness for that minority. They may have to suffer injustice, even though they are innocent as individuals, in order to maximize happiness for the larger group.

Stephen Nathanson describes this criticism of utilitarianism as follows:

Against this, critics may appeal to common sense morality to support the view that there are no circumstances in which punishing the innocent can be justified because the innocent person is a) being treated unjustly, b) has a right not to be punished for something that he or she is not guilty of, and c) does not deserve to be punished for a crime that he or she did not commit.

G. E. M. Anscombe makes a similar argument. However, her objections are not just against utilitarianism, but also against any moral philosophy that claims the existence of a law-based moral obligation without also acknowledging the existence of a divine law-giver to whom we are obligated and who will make right any injustice that occurs.

This law-giver's divinity resolves the problem of injustice caused to others while performing one's moral obligation. However, if we are the ones making those moral obligations then we have to make any injustice right.

Anscombe's solution is to "jettison" concepts of moral obligation which are "only harmful" without such divinities. That would mean jettisoning any rule or act maximizing happiness for the maximum number of people. Such rules cannot be moral obligations.

That hopefully is a down-to-earth explanation of what is at stake. The OP also asks for the following:

Can you please guide me to some references where these matters were discussed?

Anscombe's Modern Moral Philosophy briefly covers the problem of moral obligation without a divine moral lawgiver. Her argument would undermine utilitarianism as well as other moral theories of obligation. From there, one can get a more specific, and positive, overview of utilitarianism from Nathanson's article discussing act and rule utilitarianism.

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

Stephen Nathanson "Act and Rule Utilitarianism" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/


'Morality' as the word is ordinarily used in moral discourse cannot be defined as 'maximise happiness to the maximum number of people'. If I said, 'She has no morality', I am not saying the (unintelligible) 'She has no maximise happiness to the maximum number of people'. This isn't even grammatical English.

What I think you are suggesting is that we should use 'maximise happiness to the maximum number of people' as the moral criterion - the test for the moral goodness or otherwise of an action. (Morality relates to other things besides actions - practices, institutions, dispositions and much more, but actions are central.)

Utilitarianism - or at least the classical utiltiarianism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries - used exactly this criterion.

That's not a bad first move. Now my move is this : what do you mean by happiness (or pleasure) and are there circumstances in which the primary duty is to minimise pain rather than maximise happiness?

You might find it useful to read JJC Smart & Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For & Against, published by Cambridge University Press (1973). ISBN 10: 052109822X ISBN 13: 9780521098229. Reprinted many times.

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