While utilitarianism might not be popular among professional philosophers, it has been very influential among students, doctors, bioethicists and lawyers. Peter Singer, the best-known of contemporary utilitarians, is often described as the “most influential living philosopher”.

Utilitarianism’s appeal is that it offers a clear and simple solution to moral dilemmas. A morally good action, it says, is the one which produces the most good. In the words of the first utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, the “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” 

The apparent simplicity of this rule makes it very attractive for policy makers faced with hard choices. They can appeal to the cost effectiveness of business decisions or the size of a majority on social issues. Utilitarian arguments are often marshalled to think through difficult end-of-life decisions.

Paradoxically for a philosophy which invokes happiness, utilitarians have a reputation for being miserabilists. Perhaps Bentham had something to do with it. He was not exactly the life of the party. His will specified that his body should be embalmed, placed in a glass case at University College London and wheeled out when his friends and disciples were “commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation”. You can imagine the wild parties they must have had with JB’s corpse as an onlooker.

Another leading utilitarian, Julian Savulescu, an Australian bioethicist who teaches at Oxford, lamented this bad press last week:

“The adjective ‘utilitarian’ now has negative connotations like ‘Machiavellian’. It is associated with ‘the end justifies the means’ or using people as a mere means or failing to respect human dignity, etc…. To say someone is behaving in a utilitarian manner is to say something derogatory about their behaviour.”

Nothing has done more to tarnish the prestige of utilitarianism in recent years than trolleyology. This neologism is shorthand for a flourishing cottage industry in a well-known philosophical dilemma: should you push a fat man onto a track to save five innocent people from being hit by an oncoming railway trolley? (See the recent bookWould You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong.)

Psychological tests have shown that ordinary people who say Yes say often explain why they did so by invoking the utilitarian mantra, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The psychologists therefore have identified these Fat-Man-Sacrificers with typical utilitarian thinking. Digging deeper, several studies have found a correlation between their decisions and anti-social personality traits. According to one recent article, “Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness”.  Utilitarian=Psychopath has never been a good marketing slogan.

Responding to this interpretation, Savulescu and four colleagues argue in the journal Cognition that this slur is based on a mistaken interpretation of the tests. When they repeated the experiments and scrutinised people’s reactions, they found that these “utilitarians” were really motivated by “the more modest, unremarkable, and ordinary thought that it is, ceteris paribus, morally better to save a greater number”.

In fact, people who were willing to push the fat man onto the tracks were more likely to be moral egotists, whose only motivation is to maximize their own selfish welfare. They were faux utilitarians.

For a non-philosopher, here’s where things get interesting. The true utilitarianism, says Savulescu, is a lofty, cerebral and exacting doctrine which is diametrically opposed to egotism:

“Utilitarianism is a radically impartial view: it tells us to consider things as if ‘from the point of view of the universe, without giving any special priority to ourselves, or to those dear or near to us. Instead, we should transcend our narrow, natural sympathies and aim to promote the greater good of humanity as a whole, or even the good of all sentient beings. Needless to say, this view of morality is strongly at odds with traditional ethical views and common intuitions. It is also a highly demanding moral view, requiring us, on some views, to make very great personal sacrifices, such as giving most of our income to help needy strangers in distant countries.”

Perhaps too lofty. In his post on the Oxford blog Practical Ethics last week, he confessed that he himself, a standard-bearer in the vanguard of utilitarianism, fails to live consistently by this demanding creed.

“Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices.”

And then he makes an extraordinary confession:

“People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding. I try to live my life according to ‘easy rescue consequentialism’ – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly.”

Failure to be consistently utilitarian is also a feature of Peter Singer’s life. He is well-known for declaring that infanticide and euthanasia of non-persons, ie, people who do not have a certain level of consciousness, is ethically acceptable. But when his own mother suffered from a severe case of Alzheimer’s disease, he dutifully supported her.

Which leaves readers of these philosophers perplexed. Utilitarianism is not a parlour game. When it oils the wheels of end-of-life decisions, it is a loaded gun. If it is a game, it is a game that is played for keeps. But when it comes to their own lives, the utilitarian elect confess that they do not take its austere doctrines seriously. The inconsistency is jarring.

If utilitarian sinners are psychopaths and there are no utilitarian saints, is utilitarianism a respectable guide to making ethical decisions or is it just a machine for cranking out controversy?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.