Assume that we have a way of quantifying happiness, and assume that all the people mentioned are equally well-off (not that the second point matters, I don't think). I know what the answer would be if "happiness" was replaced with "money" in my question. Because of diminishing marginal returns, we would give 100 dollars each to 10 people to maximize total utility(happiness). But happiness itself surely doesn't have such diminishing marginal returns (because it is the end goal, and doesn't "return" anything). So would a pure utilitarianism say that the two decisions are morally equivalent?

To add onto this, given the choice between giving 10000 units of happiness to 1 person and distributing 9999 units equally amongst 10 people, would a utilitarian choose the former?

I consider myself a utilitarian, and personally believe it is far "better" than other ethical systems, but this is a question which somewhat troubles me as it goes against my intuition (which I know isn't really important).

  • The problem is that "a way of quantifying happiness" across people does not exist for the simple reason that "happiness" means different things to different people, and many find it too vague to be meaningful altogether. This renders arithmetical questions of this sort moot. This is why single utility utilitarianism is largely defunct today, and replaced with more nuanced ways of ethically assessing consequences, see SEP, Consequences for Whom? – Conifold Jan 8 '20 at 0:53
  • But "assum[ing] that all the people mentioned are equally well-off" does matter. Since "happiness" is relative to current state. For a less abstract example, using the happiness-to-money replacement you mentioned, giving a million dollars to a single billionaire means a lot less to that billionaire than giving just $100,000 to a low income community. "Happiness" is a really hard thing to work with for this though, it is hard to quantify and due to human nature giving more to some while excluding others can actually decrease the happiness of those excluded. – Uueerdo Jan 9 '20 at 21:43
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    I'm also reminded of a quote/joke I read recently. Paraphrasing: To make someone happy give them $10; to make them sad give the person next to them $20. – Uueerdo Jan 9 '20 at 21:47

This is a misinterpretation of the rule "greatest good for the greatest number".

  • Choice 1 (points distributed equally to all people) implies "lowest good for the greatest number".
  • Choice 2, (all points to a single person) would be "greatest good for the lowest number".

"Greatest good for the greatest number" implies choices that can be differentiated regarding the final outcome. In both previous cases, the final outcome is 1000 points of happiness, so, it is irrelevant to give it to a single person (the lottery is precisely that), or to all people (a party is precisely that). The lottery implies a social investment of 20 bucks to give 1000 points of happiness to a single person, and a party is a social investment of 20 bucks to give happiness to a lot of people. You can't say that one or the other is incorrect from an utilitarian point of view. Utilitarianism is irrelevant in such case.

For example, making an utilitarian selection between democracy or monarchy woule be: if monarchy implies 100 points to 1 person and democracy means 1000 points to be distributed within 1000 persons, the choice is clear: 1000 points to all people. From an utilitarian point of view, this is the correct choice. That's why we clearly prefer to live in democracies. This is the clear manifestation of our utilitarian side.


A Utilitarian would choose to give 100 units to 10 people: the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. Unfortunately, if you had 20 units and 20 people that would mean each only got 1 unit. The two conditions are equally important.

  • Wrong. This is a misinterpretation of the rule. See my answer. – RodolfoAP Jan 10 '20 at 2:11

With utilitarianism you have to iterate several times, wether happiness has to be distributed equally doesnt matter initially, it's the global amount that matter.

However what matters is the impact the happiness you give will have in promoting more happiness (and so on and so forth). Giving more happiness to someone who's fine won't change much, but it may change a lot for someone who's suicidal. Saving a suicidal person with a bit of happiness will prevent a lot of damage etc...

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