Seven Problems with Utilitarianism

The Morality of the Machine (part 1)

Utilitarianism (or, under the guise of one of its many variants, instrumentalism, behaviourism, functionalism, pragmatism, consequentialism, etc, etc.) has been the ruling moral worldview since the enlightenment, when it superseded so-called ‘deontological’ rule or duty-based ethics, in which the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of an act is measured against one’s obligation to God, society or ‘how things are’. Such obligations are, utilitarians found, absurd, arbitrary and parochial. Your God says it’s groovy to ‘strike off the heads of infidels and then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives’, while mine says that ‘if two men get into a fight and the wife of one tries to rescue her husband by grabbing the testicles of the other man you must cut off her hand’. Such duties don’t seem to be very easy to justify (which is why their adherents prefer to get furiously indignant when criticised), so utilitarianism came along and wiped the slate clean by focusing on how to rationally increase measurable ‘happiness’1 so that the largest number of people have, in effect, the highest possible ‘well-being score’. We no longer need to appeal to a sacred book, or a ‘categorical imperative’ pulled out of thin air, all we have to do is count up the ‘utils’,2 or whatever unit of ‘goodness’ we settle on, and do that which adds the most coins to the measurable jolly pot.

Utilitarianism did not just arise as a response to traditional religions, but as the ideological counterpart to the modern religion of technolatry, or technophilia, the worship of technology in the widest sense, which is to say instrumental thought wedded to large-scale functional systems in the world, such as finance, transportation, manufacturing, etc. When technology crosses a certain threshold of power or extent it become self-perpetuating (in that any advance in any aspect of technology requires a concomitant advance across society), alienating (in that men and women have to work for it, rather than the other way around) and cruelly subordinating (in that human beings can no longer choose for themselves what to do, but must submit to technical necessity). This last aspect manifests as utilitarianism; right and wrong become instrumental concerns. Humanity itself becomes an instrument, as does all of nature, to be measured and managed for ‘the greater good’.

The horror that all this leads to are now plain to see, at least to anyone able to see; a world without quality. A wastelend. By ruling out the irrational, utilitarianism cuts the elusive qualitative ground away from the morality it hopes to manufacture. Quality — truth, beauty, morality, meaning, freedom, etc. — is and can only be rationally understood, by the utilitarian, quantitatively — which is to say, not at all. It is ignored or it is destroyed. All qualities, such as ethical truth, aesthetic beauty, unconditional love and so on, are viewed by the utilitarian thinker as quantitative, measurable things (or thing-like processes). And this is exactly why the buck stops at utility; for without quality what else can there be? There certainly cannot be an ineffable, or rationally baffling ground to ethics. Such realities are meaningless to the rationalist and ruled out from the very start by the utilitarian, who instantly and automatically (and usually contemptuously) conflates irrational quality with deontological magic-making.

So here we are in a world in which everything is managed for the greater good. Or perhaps we aren’t. Perhaps it’s actually being managed for the utility of wealthy folk. Perhaps we need communism or socialism to do the job better, so that everyone’s score goes up? It really doesn’t matter. Utilitarianism, like technolatry, cuts across political ideologies. Both capitalism and communism (not to mention nominally theocratic societies) are predicated on the same rationalism and both terminate in the same more or less perfectly realised (or shoddily put-together) rational machine world, which is why we never select virtuous, creative, sensitive or wise leaders — only those able to realise rational, technically conceived, utilitarian projects. That these machine people may or may not succeed in clothing, housing, feeding or giving jobs to x number of people, under their flags of socialism or capitalism, is, however, ultimately (ultimately I say — obviously it is relatively good if there is less hunger) neither here nor there; because utilitarianism does not and cannot work. It destroys everything it pretends to save.

Seven Problems with Utilitarianism

  1. Morality cannot be found in the objective world. David Hume pointed out that ‘you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”’, a simple and devastating statement of truth that remains as unanswerable today as did in 1740. Hume himself was a utilitarian, but a rather unusual one in that he based his morality on nothing more than ‘convention’. As he pointed out, no moral principles can ever be found in facts. Any rational utilitarianism — indeed any qualitative assessment based on objective fact — is therefore built on sand. Hume might acknowledge a ‘feeling’ of ought, and he might tell us that this feeling usually ends up useful, but it is groundless, as is — Hume helped demonstrate — the science that modern utilitarianism is founded on. Nobody has answered Hume’s ‘is-ought’ problem, except by retreating to the kind of magical thinking of deontologists, positing what amounts to moral fairies fluttering around the objective world which we can somehow detect, although in a manner totally unlike the way we detect anything else in the objective universe.3
  2. Rationality is morally impotent. Arthur Schopenhauer said that rationally dealing with emotional suffering (including with rational deontological systems, such as Kant’s) was like trying to put out a raging fire by squirting water at it with a hypodermic needle, which anyone who has tried to reason their way out of unhappiness knows full well is the case. He didn’t take this argument further into the social sphere, by speculating on the effect of living in a rationally designed world, which can clearly ameliorate some kinds of suffering (physical privation), but without the ground of morality the futility remains.
    Schopenhauer demonstrated that this ground, and the solution of all moral problems (including, ultimately, all metaphysical problems) is empathy — experiencing the other from within — which is perfectly irrational, in that it confounds the very foundations of rational thought. Mere sympathy, which utilitarians regularly conflate with empathy, means rationally working out what other people are feeling, or rationally (albeit ‘emotionally’) responding to their distress. Sympathy is conceivable, which is how rational systems and theories, such as ‘game theory’ or ‘universal moral grammar’ or whatever rational calculus of right and wrong are flavour of the month, can ‘make sense’ to the utilitarian. Empathy, the experience of being in two places at the same time is, essentially, inconceivable, and so dismissed out of hand by extreme rationalists who are forced to substitute, in place of the understanding and creativity that empathy provides, tricks and techniques (see below).
  3. Machine morality for machine men. It is the machine man who is attracted to utilitarianism, he whose character has been built from or in accordance the needs of a rational machine world.4 Because the machine man lacks empathy — the capacity to experience the world from within — he must cross the divide between the locked prison of his self and the locked prison of the selves of others (or of the objects of the world) with method. As Albert Camus said, ‘the man without character must exalt method’ — he has no choice. He must learn tricks, techniques, ‘hacks’ and so on to engage with the world, not for the reason that we all must — because we do indeed need to function in a world of utility — but because that is all he can do.
    This is why excessively rational people are, despite the wacky post-hoc add-ons they apply to their shallow selves, hollow, dull and ridiculous — a fact noted by Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, D.H.Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Robert Graves, Charles Bukowski and a host of other sensitive writers and artists responding to modernity — and why they inevitably create or support a society which is hollow, dull and ridiculous, one in which technical expertise has complete or ultimate power over life; for if you believe that quality can always be reduced to quantity (mind to matter, love to chemicals, morality to utility, etc., etc.), it logically follows those who possess the things required to manage this quantity (the facts, theories, tools, speed, etc, etc.) must be in charge.
  4. Man will always reject a rational paradise. Fyodor Dostoevsky demonstrated in his first masterpiece, Notes from the Underground (and in a modified sense in Crime and Punishment), the disastrous psychological consequences of mistaking, as utilitarianism is committed to doing, material or demonstrable freedom with man’s essential free-will. Satisfy every single utilitarian need — emotional, physical, whatever — of every man and woman on earth; create a [rationally] ‘perfect’ society in other words, and, Dostoevsky argued (through the perverse character of the ‘Underground Man’), man’s innate, albeit unconscious, need for inner freedom will either irrationally destroy it or irrationally drive him into miserable insanity.
    The utilitarian responds with ‘if he is insane or unhappy, he is a problem to be solved in a utilitarian world’; and we all know what those kind of ‘solutions’ entail. The problem is that, in the end, they have to be applied to so many people that the world becomes a hellish rational dystopia. Talking of which…
  5. Utilitarian ‘utopia’ is dystopia. Where Dostoevsky took utilitarianism to its logical psychological conclusion, Aldous Huxley presented the social end-point of ordering a society so that it satisfies the desires of the largest number of people; a happy-clappy dystopian machine in which material or rational freedom, to do as you please, suffocates or completely degrades the conscious quality of autonomous freedom to independently be as you are. The utilitarian is obliged to reject this freedom, to support the creation of a self-satisfying machine and, if genuine freedom, or truth, is ever in danger of threatening the ‘happiness’ of those dependent on the machine, to stamp it out; for the utilitarian greater good. If Huxley had paid more attention to Dostoevsky he would have peopled his Brave New World with more insanely erratic epsilon semi-minus semi-morons, the kind familiar to us — inhabitants of dystopia — today.
  6. Rational morality eradicates quality. Utilitarianism is committed to the effacement of qualitative difference. Any quality which is does not tally with the yard-stick of the day (many moral states are, after all, extremely unpleasant) or anyone who manifests such a quality, cannot be accommodated. Utilitarians (like democrats) claim that, provided the qualitatively unique5 man, or unique minority, is not harming anyone, and is ‘happy’, they can accommodate him. This sounds marvellous. In the real world, merely quantitative satisfaction always ends up wiping out qualitatively more profound experiences, which are a threat to the comfort, ease, aesthetic pleasure or what have you of the rational utilitarian, and his contented mass, who must always, rationally, put ‘us’ and ‘everyone’ and ‘the greater good’ first, despite the obvious truths that, firstly, the intelligence of the mass mind is degraded by its size and, secondly, there is no way to know, and certainly not to quantify, what is best for ‘us’ and ‘everyone’ and ‘the greater good’ — unless, of course, you are a tyrant or a tyrannical cadre of experts.
    This is why, as has often been pointed out, utilitarianism leads to totalitarianism; for it condemns the individual to existing as a means only, never as an end in his or her self, which has no rational utility for the management class appointed to guide all these means towards more utility; more production, more safety, more order, more efficiency, more health. All this ‘makes sense’ to the utilitarian. Where all this ‘more’ is headed, or what the individual is… these things are as elusive to rational reasoning as quality itself.
    Nowhere is this clearer than in man’s blind adherence to rational law. Blind because the law is blind; it cannot see or feel the context, the ‘end’ (as well as the beginning) of justice. This blindness is the source of every legal injustice the world has ever known, in which the letter of the law is used to justify the punishment of the morally innocent. Here it matters not whether the law — ‘do not steal’ for example — comes from a deontological holy book or has been rationally calculated by utilitarian experts. At some point the context demands that you steal, or kill, or lie, or get angry, at which point the law-abider either becomes a hypocrite or immoral, or both.
  7. A critical note on ‘spiritual utilitarianism’. There remains one problematic aspect of utilitarianism, little commented on, because it is taken up by people whose overall philosophical approach to life is anything but utilitarian; religious and ‘spiritual’ folk. Such people often reject rationality as a tool by which reality can be unpicked, or they adhere to deontological moral systems handed down by favoured philosophers, priests or prophets. Utilitarianism however, being rooted in a rational mind that is not so easy to spiritually shake off, sneaks in the back door of the lives of devotees, disciples and do-gooders by suggesting that if a certain number of spiritual or religious practices are conducted with sufficient measurable intensity, then a certain amount of goodness will result. The individual might not reason it out like this, but this is what his general approach to spirituality or godliness or mindfulness or whatever is based on.
    The spiritual or religious man — or, these days, the self-help enthusiast or therapeutic client — comes to think that ‘enlightenment’ or ‘nirvana’ or ‘peace of mind’ or ‘self-actualisation’ or ‘grace’ or ‘being a good Muslim’ or ‘self-esteem’ is a thing (even if that ‘thing’ is a dynamic state or is a mystical no-thing) that can be causally achieved through practice. Forgive yourself, treat yourself, respect yourself, meditate three times a day, pray five times a day, seven Hail Marys, go vegan, give money to charity and follow your bliss for an unspecified time and you’ll get it, you’ll get there.
    But what is ‘it’? Where is ‘there’? And who is going to arrive? The truth is that ‘it’ does not literally exist, that ‘there’ is here and that there’s no unifying self that can even make the journey, let alone leave whatever religious path it is following. The truth is that there are no paths, no solutions, nothing that the mind can use to get the freedom, joy, creativity and uniqueness that it wants. There is obviously nothing wrong with striving to get things, but your own, simple, natural existence is not a thing, and there is nothing you can do to get it.

So what is the alternative? Presumably, you might be thinking, without rational, utility-based assessments of what to do, we have to fall back on the absurdities of religion and do good because a book tells us that’s what God wants? Or maybe we have to give up ethics altogether and settle for extreme moral relativism, the idea that there is no good and bad, except that thinking makes it so? This isn’t the place to dispose of these illusions, except to say that, as with utilitarianism, they both have something to recommend them. The religious tradition of a people (which frequently spans centuries of diverse cultural output), and the ‘religious’ commitment of many ordinary people to irrational goodness (which is frequently at odds with the coercive forms of institutionalised religious ideology); both of these are very often the ‘repositories’ of morality. Likewise, the complete abandonment of not just all moral systems, but morality itself does not have to lead to the ethical (not to mention aesthetic) abyss of nihilistic, postmodern relativism; it can be a doorway into a strange and unique moral universe. And clearly the rational morality of utilitarianism is not without some value either. We can’t help but reckon some moral problems rationally, at least to some extent. The rational mind is, after all, a tool, and if the tool is not in charge it can enhance the power of the hand which wields it.

The problem is that none of these moral systems get to the root of the matter. None of them can uncover the quality which is the source of all genuinely moral action.

Allow me to suggest a metaphor. Instead of asking what the truth or essence of ethics is, we can ask what that of aesthetics is. Instead of asking how you can know what the right thing to do is, let’s ask how you can write a truly timeless melody, something like Greensleeves, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Georgia On My Mind or Yesterday.6 How is it done? Is it done by following traditional rules? Is it done by rationally working out what to do? Is it done by completely abandoning all knowledge of music or ‘belief in’ composition? Yes, partly, yes, partly and yes, partly. There is a traditional, cultural aspect to all musical composition (all great musicians sound like the time and place they come from), there is a technical, ‘craft’ aspect to song writing (all great musicians are consummate technicians) and there is a radical, ‘wiping the slate clean’ aspect (all great musicians have a thirst for doing what has never been done), but these definable aspects are not enough. If they were, it would be possible to learn how to write great songs, and it is not. It is possible for someone to know everything there is to know about their tradition, be a technical master of music and do nothing but produce strange, unusual, novel work and still produce nothing of value.

This is because the source of creativity, like the source of morality, like the source of all quality, does not come, ultimately, from the definable parts of life — from your definable, partial milieu, from what you have definably, partially learnt, from your definable, partial character, from your definable, partial physical tastes and emotional predispositions, from your definable, partial fears and desires (or lack thereof), from your definable, partial family, from your definable, partial posture, from your definable, partial lovelife, from your definable, partial proximity to nature or from your definable, partial freedom from institutional coercion. Quality does comes partly from all these things — so all these things must be ‘improved’ for you to become more creative or moral. It’s very difficult for someone who grows up in a society of egoists, who has learnt nothing but lies, who is extremely unhealthy, who is afraid of everything, who lives in a modern city engaging in modern labour, who is frustrated in his love life and who has all kinds of problems with his family, to be a creative or moral person. But it’s not impossible. Conversely, it’s not just possible that someone with objectively excellent taste, teeth, education, family, flat, character, posture and diet is an unoriginal moral monster; but likely.

Ultimately, and finally, quality does not come from the definable, rationally-graspable, manipulable and managable parts of one’s life. It comes from an indefinable something else. And as it is indefinable, I can’t literally say what it is. Nobody can. It can only be expressed a) indirectly, b) metaphorically or c) ‘apophatically’ (by saying what it is not).7 For those who need solutions, systems, rules, theories, plans, paths and clear, literal explanations to get it, this is most unsatisfactory; but not as unsatisfactory as their lives.


The Morality of the Machine, Part 2; a modern utilitarian argument by Sam Harris.


  1. Actually satisfaction, but I won’t get into that here.
  2. The ‘unit of utility’ suggested by prominent enlightenment utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham.
  3. A view offered, ironically enough, by a group called ‘moral realists’.
  4. Such men first appeared with the first machine society, or civilisation, some eight thousand years ago, but now, as man perfects the machine, we find utilitarianism reaching something like a world religion; again, as noted above, this is even the case in nominally theocratic societies, where the demands of the machine always trump those of the local religion.
  5. Uniqueness cannot be tolerated in a ‘morally rational’ world, because it cannot be understood, predicted or managed.
  6. I’m choosing extremely famous tunes here, but there are of course hundreds of thousands of examples, both well-known and obscure.
  7. In this essay, I’ve chosen c)