A forgiving utilitarianism

Why utilitarianism is not as demanding as you may think

Ariel Pontes
Jan 17 · 9 min read
Silas self-flagellating in the movie The Da Vinci Code

This is the seventh of a series of articles defending a compatibilist interpretation of utilitarianism, which can be reconciled with all major moral theories. In the last article, I explain why utilitarianism doesn’t justify extreme injustice and inequality. Follow me on social media and subscribe to my newsletter in order to be notified about the next articles in the series.

Utilitarianism is the intuitive moral philosophy that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A common objection brought up against it, however, is that it is too demanding. A theory that entails that I should let my child die in order to save two strangers cannot be right, says the critic. But just because you cannot do the right thing all the time, does it mean you’re a hypocrite or a moral monster? Of course not.

A person who is trying to quit smoking but has a relapse and smokes a cigarette is not called a hypocrite. We don’t say they don’t really believe tobacco is unhealthy, because if they did they wouldn’t smoke. We understand that it is perfectly possible to believe sincerely that smoking is bad for you, but still fail to act accordingly. The same applies to eating unhealthy food, failing to exercise, or basically failing to resist any temptation that deep down you know you should resist. Weakness of will, or “akrasia” as the Greeks called it, is very real. We all struggle with many times throughout our lives.

The word “utilitarianism” has a lot of baggage. In the words of Joshua Greene, it is “the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy”. When I talk about morality, therefore, I prefer to provide my own definition of what it means to do the right thing. In short, my view is:

This interpretation of utilitarianism doesn’t tell us what we ought to do when confronted with multiple options. It only tells us how to rank the options from best to worst. If you’re considering whether or not to donate your kidney to a stranger, utilitarianism may tell you that by donating it you will probably contribute more to the improvement of the universe than if you don’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s immoral not to donate your kidney. There are many other things you can do to improve the world that are not so radical. You could for example go vegan, or donate 10% of your income to effective charities. But about becoming half-vegan? Or donating 1% of your income? What is the minimum that we should be allowed to do?

At the end of the day, these are questions about social convention more than questions about moral philosophy. What should we let each other get away with? In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer argues that it is the moral obligation of citizens of affluent nations to take action in order to eliminate global poverty. Singer goes as far as saying that “we must give until if we gave more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the bad things our donations can prevent”. This seems to imply that, as long as you’re not in risk of dying or becoming permanently disabled as a result of preventable poverty related diseases, you have to keep giving. He acknowledges, however, that this is an unrealistic standard to promote.

Asking people to give more than almost anyone else gives risks turning them off. It might cause some to question the point of striving to live an ethical life at all. Daunted by what it takes to do the right thing, they may ask themselves why they are bothering to try. To avoid that danger, we should advocate a level of giving that will lead to the greatest possible positive response. […] Hence in this chapter I propose a much easier target: roughly 5% of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, with less for those below that level, and significantly more for the very rich.

Those who subscribe to these views are part of a movement called Effective Altruism. A common problem among effective altruists is burnout. People get excited when they join the movement and donate everything they can, only to have a breakdown months later and realize that this lifestyle is unsustainable, which leads many to stop giving altogether. Singer insists that those who are financially comfortable ought morally to give more than 5% of their income, but he acknowledges that preaching something so radical can harm the cause, and therefore he sacrifices idealism in the name of pragmatism.

Many become defensive when they are presented with utilitarian arguments in favor of veganism or effective altruism, for example. They feel they are being accused of being moral monsters, who fail to do the bare minimum required in order to be a decent person. But although the intuition that suffering is bad and pleasure is good is universal, the intuition of what is the bare minimum you must do in order not to be considered a moral monster is very far from being universal. It varies widely from person to person and from culture to culture. The question “who counts as a moral monster” is fundamentally subjective and has no generic answer. The question we should be asking is not who are moral monsters, but who should we call moral monsters?

This question doesn’t have a descriptive answer, but a prescriptive one. As I have argued in “Vegans and omnivores must join forces”, calling everybody who’s not an effective altruist vegan a moral monster cannot possibly be an effective strategy of spreading utilitarianism. We are simply not there yet, and we don’t want to alienate the majority of the population. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend we couldn’t be better people and that veganism and effective altruism are not laudable. There is no shame in admitting you’re not as good as you could be. It would be absurd. Everybody could be better, even the best person in the world. It is our responsibility to be as good as we can given our skills and circumstances, but it is important that we do this in a way that is moderate enough to be sustained long-term.

As Kant said, “ought implies can”, which means something can only be an obligation if you actually have the capacity to do it. Only you know your limits and how much you can do before your altruism starts to be a burden on your mental health. From a pragmatic perspective, putting yourself first is not merely permissible, but to some extent, even recommended. A world in which everyone is constantly burned out and depressed from all the constant guilt and obsessive moral calculations is dystopian, and again, if a society seems dystopian, it is by definition not utilitarian.

[I]t is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought, to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large. The great majority of good actions are intended, not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights — that is, the legitimate and authorized expectations — of any one else. The multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue: the occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an extended scale, in other words, to be a public benefactor, are but exceptional; and on these occasions alone is he called on to consider public utility; in every other case, private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to.

— John Stuart Mill,1861. Utilitarianism.

To be fair, things are a bit more complicated in our modern, globalized world, where we can easily have an impact on the lives of distant individuals:

Being a good person today requires thought and work. The moral intuitions that evolved during many millennia of living in small, face-to-face societies are no longer adequate. Our actions now — or our failure to act — affect people all over the world and people who will live on this planet for many centuries to come.

— Peter Singer, 2021. What Is Your Moral Plan for 2021?

But still, focusing on the immediate surroundings and the short-term future is a fundamental part of making the world a better place. And since this is what we evolved to focus on, selfishness and favoritism are, to some extent, inevitable. Trying to be perfectly neutral and to treat strangers as you treat our loved ones is painful and pointless after a certain point. But what point? Surely, we don’t want to be tolerant of nepotism in politics, for example. So where do we draw the line?

One useful heuristic I like to use is the following: if I can genuinely say that I would forgive a person who does the same as me, then I am permitted to act that way. For example, if an innocent bystander witnessing a trolley problem refuses to pull the lever because their mom is the person on the alternative track, letting five die instead, can I forgive them? Even if my mom was among those five individuals? I can. I have to be able to forgive them because I cannot sincerely claim that I wouldn’t do the same as them.

Forgivability

Much is said in ethics about permissible actions, recommended ones, virtuous ones, laudable ones, and obligatory ones. Very little is said about forgivable ones. I believe forgivability is important. It helps us solve many apparent dilemmas. Even if we concede that we should push the fat man off the footbridge to stop the trolley and save five people, we should still be forgiven for failing to do it, because it goes against powerful instincts and requires a level of cold bloodedness that we don’t want to cultivate as a virtue. Being caring and repulsed by violence is overall much more conducive to a happy society than to a miserable one. No problem has a perfect solution. Almost everything in life is a trade off.

If what utilitarianism asks of you seems absurd, then it’s not what utilitarianism actually asks of you. Utilitarianism is, once again, an inherently practical philosophy, and there’s nothing more impractical than commanding free people to do things that strike them as absurd and that run counter to their most basic motivations. Thus, in the real world, utilitarianism is demanding, but not overly demanding. It can accommodate our basic human needs and motivations, but it nonetheless calls for substantial reform of our selfish habits.

— Joshua Greene, 2013. Moral Tribes.

One of Peter Singer’s most famous arguments in defense of the view that we should do more to prevent suffering than we currently do is based on his “drowning child” thought experiment. Imagine you drive by a pond and you see a child who is drowning there. You could easily stop the car and save the child. Is it morally permissible not to do it? Singer argues that it is not. Indeed, most people intuitively agree. However, by donating modest amounts of money every month, we could save a lot more than a single child in a lifetime. Is it permissible not to donate?

Singer says it isn’t, but regardless of whether you agree with him or not, his argument is not based on utilitarianism so much as it is based on consistency. If you say you have the moral obligation to save a drowning child, you should also say you have the obligation to donate to effective charities that prevent poverty-related deaths, otherwise you’re simply not acting consistently. Personally, I prefer to avoid black-and-white words such as “permissible” and “obligatory”, and I prefer grayer words such as “laudable” and “reproachable”.

I try to give a reasonable percentage of my income to effective charities, to be at least half-vegan, and to spread ideas that I find positive. Could I do more? Yes. Should I do more? Honestly, I don’t know. I try to do what I can but I don’t let it become a burden in my life. What I consider a burden, however, is largely defined by social comparison. It’s easy for me to say “I do enough” when most people around me do a lot less. It almost feels unfair to sacrifice myself when nobody else is doing anything. But instead of using this as reason to do less, I use it as reason to convince others to do more. At the end of the day, if we all do our part nobody has to become a superhuman moral saint.

Conclusion

If you sometimes eat meat, occasionally spend money on small luxuries when you could instead be donating it, conceive children instead of adopting, and still have two kidneys, utilitarianism doesn’t imply that you should be ashamed of yourself. These behaviors are a result of powerful instincts that are difficult to overcome. You can always reduce the amount of meat you eat, donate at least some amount to effective charities, and support programs that prevent undesired pregnancies in low-income countries. There’s not need for self-flagellation. You can still call yourself a utilitarian without being a hypocrite.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices