Discussion Questions on Utilitarianism


1.  What is the difference between utilitarianism and consequentialism?

2.  There are two main versions of utilitarianism.  One version takes the good to be happiness, while the other takes the good to be the satisfaction of (rational) preference.  What is the difference?

3.  Robert Nozick proposes the following thought experiment.   Suppose that you could be hooked up to an "experience machine".   Once hooked up to the machine, you would forget that you were attached to the machine, and for the rest of your life (which would be just as long) you would have exactly the sort of experiences that you would most like to have, whether these might be experiences of pleasure, of achievement, or heroic sacrifice or whatever.  Once attached there would be no going back, but the machine is totally reliable.  Would you want to be attached to the machine?  How does your answer bear on the question of whether we should take the good to be a mental state such as happiness or whether we should take the good to be the satisfaction of rational preference?

4.  What is the difference between utilitarianism and egoism?   Why would an egoist reject utilitarianism?

5.  What's the difference between maximizing total happiness and maximizing average happiness?  Can you describe a case where these two views differ? When they differ, which seems to you to be the most plausible?

6.  One criticism of utilitarianism is that it confuses what is morally right with what is expedient.  The critic alleges that the utilitarian has no real moral principles.  Rather than ruling out anything as simply wrong, the utilitarian looks to the consequences; and if the end is good enough, the utilitarian is willing to countenance any means, no matter how wicked.  Is this an accurate criticism?  How might a utilitarian respond?

7.  So-called "rule utilitarianism" rejects the view that one should do whatever has the best consequences.  Instead one should adopt the set of rules that leads to the greatest happiness, and judge actions to be right or wrong depending on whether they conform to these rules.  How plausible do you find rule utilitarianism?

8.  Is utilitarianism a relativist ethical view?  Does utilitarianism imply that the same things are right or wrong in every society?  Does utilitarianism imply that the ethical views that are accepted in a particular society are right for that society?

9.  What are the main arguments in defense of utilitarianism?   Do they convince you?

10.  What are the main arguments against utilitarianism?  Do they convince you?

11.  Consider the following utilitarian argument in defense of surrogate motherhood.  If surrogate motherhood is permitted and the contracts are held to be legally binding, then childless couples who would like to have children who are genetically related would be much happier than if the contracts were not permitted, and of course there is the happiness of the children who would otherwise not be born.  In some cases surrogate mothers will wind up being terribly distressed, but these cases are relatively rare; and in most cases women who serve as surrogates are happier for the opportunity to earn a fee and to give the gift of life.  So it maximizes happiness to permit surrogate motherhood.  Is this a good application of utilitarianism?   Does it persuade you?

12.  Consider the following pro-life utilitarian argument.  If abortions are illegal in most cases, many women will be less happy than they would have been if they had been able to have abortions.  But the happiness contained in the lives of all the children who would otherwise not be born will far outweigh the unhappiness of the women.  So utilitarianism implies that abortion should be illegal in most cases.  Is this a good application of utilitarianism?  Does it persuade you?