I am having troubles understanding utilitarianism a little bit, and have posed this question to a number of people and been met mostly with bafflement about how I cannot see the error in my proposed claim. But, when they explain against it, I cannot see the soundness of their argument. So, I am willing to accept that there is an essential error I am making in my reasoning, and am making this post in the hopes that someone will be able to point it out.

People like to say against utilitarianism the idea of inalienable rights. We believe people should have them, not because they will increase pleasure/decrease pain in the aggregate, but for some other given reason. Despite the fact that 30 people being run over by a bus is a much more unpleasurable result than one person being run over, we still (some of us) do not think it right to push that person in front of the bus to save the 30. Not advocating for this, just as a proposed counter-argument.

My question is: if we say that inalienable rights are valuable, are we not just simply choosing a different kind of pleasure that we place value on? People should have inalienable rights, and the value of a society which upholds these rights (with that value being determined by the consummate pleasure that comes with having inalienable rights, as compared to not having them) we consider to be a greater point value (+100 points of pleasure) versus the 30 people surviving the bus crash (+50 points of pleasure).

Or, if I refuse to torture one person to save two people from being tortured. Some might call me a Kantian, or some other thing, but not a utilitarian. But am I not just saying that the point value of the displeasure that comes from taking it upon myself to torture the one person (perhaps I believe that humans do not have that right, only God does) is -1 trillion versus the (granted) still very large point value of saving the other 2 (-1 billion)?

I had someone say, ok, well that is no longer about the aggregate. That is about the one person saving their self the -1 trillion points value. But for the person making this decision, isn't the idea that a society in which these decisions are made by people (and not God, say) substantially worse than even half of that society getting killed off? Like, if I think there are personal moral laws that absolutely cannot be transgressed, I only think that because I believe acting in a contrary way will be extremely unpleasurable (be it spiritually, emotionally, or for the greater society). And perhaps I believe that a society of people that have license to kill off the one for the many is damaged in a way that is way worse for the aggregate than half of its population dying.

I almost wonder if this can't be distilled to: for any value claim, is there not a normative claim attached necessarily? I believe this is the is/ought debate, right? If I refrain from doing something that I think is bad, is it not always because I also believe that everyone doing that thing would also be bad, which means utilitarianism can't be escaped? Any normative belief I have is also a belief that the aggregate is better off (i.e. experiences more pleasure or less displeasure) for having this.

  • For any value claim there is an implicit normative claim. But if we say that something is valuable we are not "simply choosing a different kind of pleasure". To make this fit one would need a question begging definition of "pleasure", under which anything being pursued is "for pleasure". Under the normal definition of "pleasure", one can value things without deriving any pleasure from them at all. Not all value is utilitarian value by any stretch of "utilitarian". Some people also believe that moral rules are more fundamental than values, and respecting inalienable rights derives from that.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 22:49
  • Personal death marks a discontinuity in the calculation of utility. It is hard to value things that do not include one's existence in that future. The one exception would be someone knowingly doing something to save another person they care about.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 20:33

2 Answers 2


The difference is that a utilitarian who endorses inalienable rights can conceive of a world in which that endorsement ends up morally wrong, even if our actual world endorses inalienable rights. By contrast, deontologists about rights say such a world is quite literally inconceivable. Indeed, on a basic utilitarian analysis, we can imagine a case in which inalienable rights are unjustified, even if such a case never obtains. In a world in which the enforcement of a right led to negative utility in the aggregate, it would have to be admitted that the prescription of utilitarianism in this case would be not only that violation of the right was permissible but obligatory. The deontologist about rights says such a situation is quite literally inconceivable: there is no possible world in which it is morally permissible to violate the right of another. Hence, talk of inalienable rights in utilitarianism reduces to shorthand for talk about utility. The deontologist would argue that this is unacceptable: rights are valuable not for their utility but because they, say, preserve human dignity.

Now you might want to then pose the question: why do we want to preserve human dignity in the first place? And you might want to argue: we want to preserve human dignity because societies that preserve human dignity tend to lead to greater aggregate utility. This would be a particular theory, but you can't simply assert that this is what's going on, you'd have to argue for that claim.

My sense is that you are confusing ethical and psychological hedonism. A psychologist, for example, might be able to collect data to support the claim that---as a matter of empirical fact---most people reason in a hedonist-utilitarian fashion about moral matters, even if they don't explicitly hold utilitarianism as a moral theory or even if they explicitly hold some competing moral theory (such as deontology or virtue ethics). In other words, it may be that what in fact motivates us psychologically is pleasure and pain. Hence, it may be that, statistically speaking, the reason most people end up behaving in such a way that endorses inalienable rights is based on utilitarian considerations. But that is a separate matter from whether utilitarianism can actually give us a theory that grounds the value of inalienable rights.

Hence, this quote:

Like, if I think there are personal moral laws that absolutely cannot be transgressed, I only think that because I believe acting in a contrary way will be extremely unpleasurable (be it spiritually, emotionally, or for the greater society).

...is the kind of hanging chad in your case. You claim that the only reason you believe in a moral law is because you in turn believe that acting in a way contrary to that law will lead to negative utility. But have you really separated out psychological from ethical hedonism here? Do you just take it that your behaviors are motivated by pleasure and pain? if so, that means you're a psychological hedonist. But ought your actions be motivated by pleasure and pain? Well that's a different question, and to jump from psychological to ethical hedonism is simply begging the question in favor of utilitarianism. First you need to clearly separate in your mind the question of how people psychologically deliberate about things, from the question of moral value. You would need to make the case that moral laws are grounded in utility, rather than just argue that people in fact reason in utilitarian ways. Indeed, Mill tries to do this himself when he claims that all Kant's derivations of moral duties from the categorical imperative implicitly rely on reasoning about the aggregate consequences of an action on the resulting world in which such moral laws were implemented globally and without exception.

  • This is extremely helpful. So, is Mill making the same mistake about Kant? How does he go about trying to prove the "ought", that moral laws are grounded in utility. Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 2:07

Your objection of inalienable rights against utilitarianism is perfectly sound. I would be very interested in reading about the opposite arguments that did not convince you.

One very common trait of utilitarian thought experiment is that they put their subject in the acting role: the one who chooses who gets under the bus, but almost never the one acted upon, the one being pushed. I personally find very telling the case study of the involuntary organ donor:

A person is being drugged on the operation table for a very benign surgery and sleeps. just before the operation begins ambulances arrive, with on board several people who got caught in an accident. Those people will die until they are being transplanted with new kidneys, heart, lungs, livers. The only timely available source of fresh organs is the person sleeping on the table. No time to wake him up and ask for his opinion: either the doctor takes his organs, killing him and saving the injured, or he lives and the injured are declared DOA. What should be done ?

This experiment has many variations: the injured people are Nobel prizes whose research will undoubtedly save thousands of lives, the drugged patient is a Nobel prize, the drugged patient is your daughter... But 99% of the time I heard it, it puts the subject in the role of the doctor making the decision.

It is a shame, as the real moral and politic dilemmas arise when the subject is in fact the drugged patient: "you are the drugged patient, do you accept to live in a society where people who go to the hospital for a benign operation face the possibility of being sliced open without consent and never wake up in order to save several others ?" I sure would not.

This configuration raises the same questions you do by opposing the value of inalienable rights against the direct utility gained by, say, torturing a person: it is clear, or at least it can't be simply hand waved, that a society where people can be acted upon without consent, including the sacrifice of their life, to maximize general utility is not desirable. Therefore limits exists to what can productively be done in order to maximize utility. And the idea of giving to any subject the possibility to oppose beeing acted upon to preserve their personal utility is equivalent to what you could call inalienable rights.

It must be acknowledged here that this argument's soundness depends on one's metaphysical world view. For example, if one believes that such a sacrifice can grant them better karma or a place in paradise, their utility is maximized as well and the ethical problem solved. But people who do not believe in afterlife can rightfully oppose that making the world a better place by sacrificing their life is meaningless if they can't enjoy it anyway. It is a sound logical position to prefer living in a somewhat crappy world and still enjoy what is left to enjoy rather than making it the best possible at the cost of not enjoying it. Yet this only highlights one of the dead angle of many utilitarians, which is that the measure of utility ultimately depends on metaphysical considerations that can't be universally agreed upon (at least it was never agreed upon so far).

Now, please note that the concept of inalienable rights defined above is in no way Kantian. There is no absolute imperative at play here, but pure subjectivity: "I don't care if the utility for the society is maximal if it makes my life too short or too crappy to enjoy it myself" says the subject. Yet this subjectivity can be shared by anyone, and as a least common denominator it is somewhat universal. Being universal, it is the closest thing utilitarians can get to base their value system upon, and therefore no utilitarian view is complete without taking into account the liberties of each individual.

I think objections like yours demonstrate that utilitarianism, albeit a useful rule of thumb, is not the "one size fits all" objective moral standard it is often advertised to be, and that a "utilitarian tyranny", even if ruled by the most objective of leaders, say an AI, would certainly be more of a dystopia.

  • I learned something from this Answer, it was helpful. Not much that I read of Philosophy is helpful.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 20:38

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