Are Consequences All that Matter?

All Utilitarians need do to counter the Honor and Friendship Arguments (and many similar arguments) is reject the thesis that happiness is the sole intrinsic good by changing how they measure utility.

Utilitarianism would not be Utilitarianism, however, if not for the key assumption that the morally relevant feature of an action is its consequences.

Much to the Utilitarian's consternation, it is possible to challenge their key assumption. Consider the following arguments.

The Justice Argument

Suppose that a white woman in a small southern town circa 1960 falsely claims to have been raped by a black man. The town constable knows that the only way to head off race riots is to arbitrarily jail some innocent black man.

  1 If CU is true, then the constable's jailing of an innocent black man is morally right.  
  2 The constable's jailing of an innocent black man is not morally right.  
3 CU is not true. 1&2

The Rights Argument

Suppose Lisa goes to health services with a cold. Lisa is otherwise perfectly healthy. As it turns out, however, Marge, Bart, Homer, and Maggie are all at the hospital with more serious conditions: Marge needs a lung transplant; Bart needs a heart transplant; Homer needs a liver transplant; And Maggie needs a kidney transplant. It turns out that Lisa is compatible with each, and could supply the necessary organs.

  1 If CU is true, then it is morally right kill Lisa and harvest her organs.  
  2 It is not morally right to kill Lisa and harvest her organs.  
3 CU is not true. 1&2

The Backward-Looking Reasons Argument

Consider the example of Stacy breaking her promise (a 'backward-looking reason', as are contracts and other agreements).

  1 If CU is true, then it is morally right for Stacy to break her promise.  
  2 It is not morally right for Stacy to break her promise.  
3 CU is not true. 1&2

These arguments appear to undermine the Utilitarian's key assumption that the only morally relevant feature of an action is the utility of its consequences. What the arguments show is that other issues like justice, rights, and backward-looking reasons (prior agreements) sometimes trump utility.

Utilitarians have a reply.

They cannot jettison consequentialism, so instead they reject measuring utility by the consequences of an action in favor of measuring utility by the consequences of a rule. For example, as a rule we shouldn't jail innocent people, because the utility of adopting this rule is greater in the long run than any particular instance, such as in the small southern town circa 1960, where utility might be maximized by jailing an innocent man.

Rule Utilitarianism is a two-tiered theory:

  • First, evaluate a relevant rule to see whether the rule maximizes utility.
  • Second, determine whether or not the action being considered accords with the rule.