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Ethics: Utilitarianism, Part 3

Julia Markovits (Cornell University) gives an introduction to the moral theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that the right moral action is the one that maximizes happiness for all.

Speaker: Dr. Julia Markovits, Associate Professor, Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell Universtiy.

Video transcript

Hi, I'm and I'm an Associate Professor of philosophy at MIT. Today, I'm going to talk about utilitarianism. One feature of utilitarianism that the Jones example brings out is that utilitarianism is interested only in the total amount of good our actions produce, not in how that good is distributed across different people. That's why the brief frustration of billions of soccer fans could together add up to more disvalue than the intense pain of one person. According to utilitarianism, the distribution of value across different people matters only to the extent that it affects the total amount of value our actions produce. But might that not result in some terribly unjust distributions of goods? Here's another example to think about. This one due to the philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick asked us to imagine a creature he called a "utility monster," someone who is extremely good. Much better than the rest of us, at converting resources into happiness. The more money and food and other stuff we give him, the happier and happier he gets. However happy some resources could make a normal person, those same resources would make him the utility monster, much happier still. Utilitarianism seems to imply that all the ordinary people should be sacrificed for the sake of utility monster since that is what would make for the most happiness on the whole. Utilitarian sometimes respond to this. That in the real world, this won't happen. In the real world, in fact, they say, the opposite is true. The more resources we already have, the less impact some additional resource will have on our happiness. Think of how much bigger an impact $100 might have on your well-being than on the well-being of Bill Gates, and how much bigger an impact still a $100 might have on the well-being of a child in a developing nation, whose life it could save than it has on yours. This pattern is called, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. But we might wonder whether this pattern always holds true. Even if each of us exhibits diminishing marginal utility of wealth. If in other words, $100 would benefit me more when I'm poor than when I'm rich. Might some of us be utility monsters with respect to others? Some of us after all, might be much better at converting resources into well-being than others, even if we have more well-being to begin with. For example, the elderly, the disabled, or those suffering from expensive to treat diseases might require a lot of resources to produce a small increase in their well-being, even though they are already comparatively badly off, would utilitarianism tell us not to help such people? So I've been talking about ways in which utilitarianism seems to allow too much. It may say it's okay to do things like leaving Jones to suffer, or sacrificing people to the utility monster, that we feel intuitively it's morally wrong to do. But utilitarianism is also subject to the worry that it demands too much of us. That will be the subject of another video. Subtitles by the Amara.org community