An Analytical Critique of Utilitarianism



Recently, I wrote an article named Antithetical Nature of Emotions1. Based on the line of argument present in the former, this article presents a quasi-hegelian contention to Utilitarianism.

Related Arguments

1. The Experience Machine

Perhaps the most accessible, although not rigorous, argument is the Experience Machine2 by Robert Nozick.

The Experience Machine
Imagine a machine that could give you any pleasurable, or desirable, experience you could want. Humans have figured out a way to stimulate the brain such that the subject couldn’t distinguish between real and machine-induced virtual experiences. Given a choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?

The immediate answer of most people is no. Nozick argues that if pleasure were the only intrinsic value, people would rationally decide to connect themselves to an experience machine. The response contradicts the utilitarian premise.

2. Critique of Act Utilitarianism

The strongest critiques of act utilitarianism aim to show that it approves of actions that are clearly wrong, under the guise of fundamental moral intuitions. Perhaps best portrayed by the Organ Transplant Thought Experiment

Organ Transplant Thought Experiment
Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which there are five patients, each of whom will soon die unless they receive an appropriate transplanted organ⁠—a heart, two kidneys, a liver, and lungs. A healthy patient, Chuck, comes into the hospital for a routine check-up and the doctor finds that Chuck is a perfect match as a donor for all five patients. Should the doctor kill Chuck and use his organs to save the five others?3

Act Utilitarianism would implore us to kill Chucky, maximizing the greatest good of the greatest numbers4. However, as we all agree, hopefully, this nonetheless remains morally wrong.

3. Critique of Rule Utilitarianism

Rule Utilitarianism applies a deontological spin to act utilitarianism. An action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule; and said moral rule is justified if its inclusion into the set of moral rules would create more utility than other possible rules (including the simpliciter, no rules). In the paper Forms and Limitation, the philosopher David Lyons shows how rule utilitarianism5 is essentially a weaker version of act utilitarianism.

Suppose an exception to a rule R produces the best possible consequences. Thus the new rule becomes – Do R except in circumstances of the sort C. However, anything that leads the act utilitarian to break a rule would lead the Kantian rule utilitarian to modify the rule. Thus, an adequate form of rule utilitarianism would be, at best, extensionally equivalent to act utilitarianism.

Therefore, subjecting it to the same critiques of Act Utilitarianism; one of which is provided above.

The Premises

Oftentimes, the utility principle is attacked on the grounds of vagueness in its evaluative metric. For using pleasure, or even happiness, leads to easier critiques than the concept of “well-being”. However, the argument presented thereafter will be much stronger, such that the explicit details of the evaluative metric isn’t significant.

The Generalized Utility Principle6: The right action is the one that will produce the best overall results i.e. the one that maximizes goodness and minimizes badness.

Note that goodness and badness are qualities of opposite nature, necessitated by the utilitarian premise.

The Argument

1. Descriptor Lemma

Lemma: A descriptor for all objects in a set of nature \(N\), any criteria that group them in the set, only has meaning if not all objects align with the description prescribed.


Assume a descriptor \(d\) for all objects in set \(S\). Then let \(S_{1}\) be all objects in set \(S\) with descriptor \(d\). Here \(S_{1} = S\), implying \(S_{1}\) to be a tautology. Hence, the descriptor \(d\) has no meaning.

2. Contention to the Utility Principle

2A. Goodness and Badness exist in a circular fashion


Assume a world without bad acts. Consider the set of all actions \(A\) in the world. Goodness here is a descriptor of acts, in varying degrees, and in this world all acts. Applying the Descriptor Lemma, the descriptor of goodness has no meaning here, as it exists if and only if badness exist along it.

2B. Goodness is measured with respect to Badness, of the greatest degree, and vice-versa


Assume the set of all acts \(A\), composed of the set of good acts \(G\) and bad acts \(B\) such that \(G + B = A\). Say goodness and badness are properties with degree such that two acts, \(a_{1}\) and \(a_{2}\), can be compared in order to conclude which is more good. Say all \(g_{i}\ \in G\) are of different degrees, same with the set \(B\).

Sort the set \(G\) in ascending order such that, \(g_{1} < g_{2} < …. < g_{n}\) with respect to degree of goodness, similarly for \(B\) in terms of badness.. Note that \(g_{n}\) is more good when compared to \(g_{n-1}\), which is then subsequently compared to \(g_{n-2}\), all the way to \(g_{1}\) – the least good act in \(G\).

Here \(g_{1}\) is more good than \(b_{1}\) by 2A. Applying a similar line of reasoning as the above, \(b_{1}\) is the least bad act when compared to \(b_{n}\). Then \(g_{n}\), the act constituting the greatest good, is measured with respect to \(b_{n}\), the act constituting the greatest bad. Hence proved.

Therefore, a necessary condition for maximizing goodness is maximizing badness. This introduces a contradiction in the formulation of the Generalized Utility Principle, leaving any possible variants of it incoherent.

  1. Antithetical nature of emotions. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 13). Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
  2. The Experience Machine. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
  3. The Rights Objection. (2023, January 29). Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
  4. In classic Spock fashion
  5. David Lyons, The Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press, London, 1965)
  6. Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, Bernard (1973). Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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