The impossibility of true utilitarianism

You just can't do it: you save a kid's life, because you think that will increase overall utility, and the kid turns out to be Hitler. You shoot someone beating an innocent victim, and it turns out the person was going to reform, and wind up curing cancer. No one can possibly calculate what actions will "increase overall utility," and what ones won't.

So what utilitarianism as a matter of fact is either:

1) A way to justify doing whatever it was you wanted to do anyway: just put in the right consequences, the right imaginary futures, etc., and you can make any action look good!

2) Or you opt for rule utilitarianism, which just winds up meaning that you should follow the rules of morality that you knew you should follow all along, before you ever started mucking about with utilitarianism.


  1. I always think of 2002 as the Year of Consequential Math. You will recall all those arguments that ran on these lines: If Saddam Hussein remains in power, he will - on our best estimates - kill 100,000 people a year. That will be a million in ten years! On the other hand, if we blow up Baghdad, we will "only" kill (maybe) 30,000 innocent civilians. The math has decided. We must invade.

    That worked out well.


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