195. Utilitarianism and Evil

Classic utilitarianism, whose classic proponents were Jeremy Bentham (1789), John Stuart Mill (1861), and Henry Sidgwick (1907), is a moral theory which doesn’t consider motives and acts as having any intrinsic moral value. Rather, motives and acts can only be morally evaluated when we consider the consequences that flow from them. If these consequences satisfy the Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP) then a particular act or motive is right. This principles was given a famous formulation by John Stuart Mill: 

GHP: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” 

So, according to this approach, no act – killing, lying, stealing, and so on – has moral value until we see whether it satisfies the GHP. To see if the GHP is satisfied we can do a pleasure calculus which typically includes the following factors: 

  • The intensity of the pleasure or pain 
  • The duration of the pleasure or pain 
  • The likelihood or certainty of the pleasure or pain 
  • The nearness of the pleasure or pain 
  • The fecundity or fruitfulness of the pleasure or pain (i.e., whether or not the
    the pleasure gives birth to more pleasure or the pain gives birth to pleasure) 
  • The purity of the pleasure or pain (i.e., to what extent a pleasure is mixed
    with some pain or not)

It should be noted that some utilitarians are rule utilitarians rather than act utilitarians. Rule utilitarianism “says that we can produce more beneficial results by following rules than by always performing individual actions whose results are as beneficial as possible. This suggests that we should not always perform individual actions that maximize utility” (see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Act and Rule Utilitarianism”, section a.i.). Thus we might say that, while it might satisfy the GHP in some particular cases to take away some people’s rights in the U.S, it will, as a general rule, bring about more happiness for the majority if we respect people’s rights. That said, if there is indeed a situation, usually an emergency, where suspending the rule of respecting rights would satisfy the GHP, then the so-called rights could be removed. For some, this shows how rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. But it seems more plausible to suggest that rule utilitarianism does add a more stable approach which, in relying on rules, allows us to quickly judge situations in accordance with those rules rather than apply the pleasure calculus in each situation anew. Nonetheless, the rules would never be absolutely certain, no laws would be categorical, and no rights would be natural or inalienable.

Utilitarianism and Evil

With this overview in hand we can turn to evil. Initially, utilitarianism appears quite promising as an approach to evil since it construes all pain or harm as evil. And it certainly seems plausible that an evil act causes, or aims to cause, harm. The GHP, the pleasure calculus, and the various conditions for right action listed above give us useful tools with which to analyze evil. Moreover, the classic utilitarians had high hopes for widely applying the GHP to bring about less and less evil in the world. As Mill wrote, “The present wretched education and wretched social arrangements are the only real hinderance to [happiness] being attainable by almost all.” Mill and Bentham were reformers and their ideas can be taken as a means to action rather than just philosophical understanding when it comes to evil.  


However, we quickly see some difficulties arise despite this helpful emphasis on harm and the optimistic agenda to remove it. Some general objections to utilitarianism are as follows: 

(1) Perhaps pleasure is not the ultimate good: perhaps there are other goods, such as beauty, justice, truth, loyalty, duty, and so on, that can trump pleasure in some cases. Wouldn’t we support loved ones even if it wasn’t pleasurable for the majority? And wouldn’t we think we would be doing the right thing nonetheless? If we respond affirmatively then utilitarianism, which maintains that pleasure is the ultimate inherently valuable good, would be resting on a misunderstanding. 

(2) It does indeed seem wise to calculate consequences to some degree to discern if an action is right or wrong. But are we really prepared to accept that motives and acts have no moral value in themselves until we look at the consequences? Isn’t the act of rape intrinsically wrong…indeed instrincially evil? 

(3) Moreover, can we really calculate consequences to a sufficient degree of accuracy, especially in situations like war where there are an astonishing number of variables to take into consideration as we do the pleasure calculus? 

We can then raise another set of objections that are more specific to the utilitarian account of evil:

(4) It appears that some harms are not evil. We can think of endless examples of how people harm each other in everyday life – certain inappropriate comments, lies, breakups, and so on – in ways that are bad not evil. Thus the utilitarian view that all harm is evil seems too inclusive

(5) Moreover, utilitarianism, in focusing only on consequences as far as moral analysis goes, fails to place any value on those doing evil. All harm is evil regardless of its source. But this seems wrong: we often judge one form of harm as worse than another not simply because of the harm it causes in others but because it was voluntarily willed by a culpable agent with certain sadistic, malicious, or defiant motives. So by adding certain motives and culpable agency to extreme forms of harm we can successfully distinguish evil actions, motives, and agents from those that are just bad.  

(6) A utilitarian must be prepared to accept some evil as a means to satisfying the GHP. This would allow evil to be used instrumentally, that is, to be used knowing that it is evil but allowing it to occur as a means to a greater good being established. This of course means that, paradoxically, it can be right to do evil. Claudia Card elaborates in her book The Atrocity Paradigm (Oxford 2002):

“According to utilitarianism, right conduct by definition produces good consequences and wrong conduct produces harmful ones, on the whole and in the long run. To put the point negatively and in Benthamite terms, right conduct does no more “evil” than is necessary to yield a balance of good. What is meant, of course, is that it does no more harm than necessary. Because utilitarians do not distinguish evils from lesser harms, they do not find it paradoxical to advocate doing just the right amount of evil. Wrong conduct is, by definition, simply productive of too much evil.” (51)

It is important to note that the evil in instrumental evil is not willed for its own sake. If the end for which it is enacted could be achieved in some other way then the means would be abandoned. Thus an instrumentally evil agent need not take pleasure in the evil act. For example, during the last days of WWII some saw the end of the war as a desirable good. They also saw the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to achieve that peace as evil. After all, the two bombings entailed an incapacity to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants like women, children, and the elderly thus violating any reasonable critierion for justice in war or jus in bello. If the war could have been stopped in a more peaceful way then that way would have been advocated. But, after doing a pleasure calculus, some concluded that the evil was necessary for the good it would bring about. So in this controversial scenario the dropping of the bombs would exemplify instrumental evil. 

Of course, we don’t need to invoke this dramatic WWII example to exemplify the point: we can easily appeal to less dramatic acts of lying, stealing, and cheating as well. If these actions satisfy the GHP then they can also be the right thing to do despite being instrumental evils that cause harm. But can we accept this view that it can be right to commit evil acts so long as the greater good is served? Another way to make this point is to ask: can we really accept the GHP if it doesn’t allow any special weight given to the sufferer’s choice and dignity? Claudia Card points out that the utilitarian definition of harm “gives no special weight to a sufferer’s refusal to consent to indoctrination, mind-numbing drugs, compulsory lobotomy, or “euthanasia,” which could reduce or eliminate severe suffering and would ordinarily be such that the subject would afterward surely not regret the treatment.” This is a problem since then genocides that reduce population control to solve a hunger problem or slavery that leads to a labor force which generates overall economic growth would be right. “Yet such choices are not only morally outrageous. They are evil, even if done to try to fight or guard against other evils.” (58)

Final Thoughts

If these difficulties are insurmountable then perhaps we need to adopt an approach to evil which, rather than focusing only on hedonistically evaluated consequences, focuses on motives, acts, and agents as well. Moreover, we may seek a theory of evil that doesn’t reduce evil to harm alone, which allows for distinctions between bad and evil, and which avoids the counterintuitive consequences discussed above. One possible approach that overcomes many of these limitations is the privation theory of evil which I cover in a series of posts here.

  1. Shea on

    While going through my daily dose of news, I came across an article on CNN titled the moral calculus of sanctioning etc., and it made me think of this very article on Utilitarianism. I think a few more people are writing about issues addressing humanity and moral correctness, because of the current conditions. But, these are moral issues you address all the time, not only when the conditions become necessary, so your yokes of wisdom is appreciated.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for reading Shea! I am glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you find it helpful as a critical guide in assessing practical applications of utilitarian thought.

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