The Best & Worst Utilitarianism Responses: Explored & Debunked

Utilitarianism Responses Explored & Debunked

Any debater who’s been around me knows that I love utilitarianism. It’s my favorite philosophy, and I’ve read quite a bit about it. This is why the current state of debate around utilitarianism in Ohio, and other traditional circuits, bothers me so much. It’s intellectually dishonest, lazy, and often completely warrantless. As such, I thought I’d take some time to help debaters who must respond to utilitarianism strengthen their responses, while also explaining how to respond to many common arguments against utilitarianism. In order to facilitate this, I’ve grouped responses I’ve heard to utilitarianism under three rankings, bad, meh, and good. I’ll explain why the argument got that ranking, engage a bit in the debate to illustrate what happens in a round, and explain if and when a debater should use these responses in round.

Bad Responses

“Utilitarianism justifies slavery”

We’ve all heard this famous response to utilitarianism. In fact, this is probably the response I hear most often against utilitarianism. Let’s start by showing the various ways one could run this argument. Sadly, the most common form is just “Utilitarianism justifies slavery, so it can’t be (Just, Moral, or achieve societal welfare)”. The primary problem with this delivery of the argument is that it’s not an argument. It’s a warrantless claim. Often debaters make no attempt to warrant why or how utilitarianism leads to or justifies slavery. This is just bad arguing. I also hear the cx line “Doesn’t utilitarianism allow for slavery?”. This is also unwarranted and relies on your opponent being dumb enough to answer yes, making it an even worse form of the argument. Debaters should ALWAYS make sure they warrant their claims or explain why their argument is true. Even if it seems obvious to you.

            Of course, a warrantless argument isn’t a sign of a weak argument, so much as it is a sign of a bad debater. So, let’s explore the warranted version of the argument. The most common warrant I hear is that because utilitarianism is about creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people, thus it would justify enslaving a minority of the citizens (49%) to benefit the majority of citizens (51%). There are of course, many problems with this. First and foremost, it ignores the principle of marginal utility. To briefly explain marginal utility, let’s look to Peter Singer 1993 “Practical Ethics” page 22-23

Singer 93

There is a still more controversial inegalitarian implication of the principle of equal consideration of interests. In the example involving earthquake victims, although equal consideration of interests leads to unequal treatment, this unequal treatment produces a more egalitarian result. By giving the double dose to the more seriously injured person, we bring about a situation in which there is less difference in the degree of suffering felt by the two victims than there would be if we gave one dose to each. Instead of ending up with one person in considerable pain and one in no pain, we end up with two people in slight pain. This is in line with the principle of declining marginal utility, a principle well-known to economists, which states that the more someone has of something, the less she will gain from an additional quantity of it. If I am struggling to survive on 200 grams of rice a day, and you provide me with an extra 50 grams per day, you have improved my position significantly; but if I already have a kilo of rice per day, I won’t care much about the extra 50 grams. The same is true of money: $100 means a lot to someone for whom it is equivalent to his weekly income, but it means very little to a billionaire. When marginal utility is taken into account, the principle of equal consideration of interests inclines us towards an equal distribution of income – disincentive effects aside – and to that extent the egalitarian will endorse its conclusions. What is likely to trouble the egalitarian about the principle of equal consideration of interests is that there are circumstances in which the principle of declining marginal utility does not hold or is overridden by countervailing factors.

To explain using slavery as the example, the suffering you cause slaves outweighs the small amount of happiness the rest of society gets from being able to own slaves.

            Some debaters may respond to this with an example where we treat slaves well, we provide them with housing, free time, some spending money, food, and clothing. Unfortunately, this is really just capitalism that they’re describing, and utilitarianism justifies capitalism isn’t that strong of an attack (and probably also isn’t true). They may also respond with hypotheticals, in which they describe a situation where slavery would generate so much good, that it outweighs any suffering caused to the slaves. While this is a far stronger response, it’s flawed in the sense that it relies on hypothetical examples that will never exist in the real world. This is especially important, as utilitarianism is generally focused on real world impacts, rather than hypothetical implications.

            There is of course another response to the slavery argument: utilitarianism includes rights and would not allow for this [the] control of a minority. This is supported by authors like John Stuart Mill. Peter Bowden 2009 “In Defense of Utilitarianism.” explains

Bowden 09

This attack is principally on Bentham’s greatest good for the greatest number, a position which has already been noted as only partially reflective of Mill. Mills does argue for the greatest amount of happiness altogether (Warnock, p199), but labels the sacrifice of individual happiness for the overall benefit as “absurd. An allied but stronger argument against utilitarianism that Mill specifically rejects is that minorities will be sacrificed for the wishes of the majority. Mill’s rejects this argument in On Liberty, warning us that tyranny of the majority is “among the evils… society requires to be on its guard”. He regards utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions, including the issue of compulsion, but “utility in the largest sense” (Mill, 1859/1929, pp. 5, 13). These statements are a direct refutation of the accusations of Rawls and Williams, and as it will be seen, to a large extent of Nussbaum’s.

            I’ll conclude with a few ways to deal with being asked “Doesn’t utilitarianism justify slavery?” in cross. First, just say no. This is the single most effective way at shutting this line of cx down. It forces your opponent to waste their cx trying to warrant a weak argument, and you can likely refute their warrant with information you gained from reading the rest of this section. Second, turn it around on them. Respond with “How can slavery create the greatest good?”. Act confused and force them to defend the idea that slavery is good. Most decent opponents will drop the argument, and bad ones will be looking terrible to the judge as they stammer out explanations of why slavery creates the most good for society.

            To briefly conclude, “util justifies slavery” is a weak argument. It’s often warrantless, and even when warranted is easily refuted. Debaters should stop relying on this argument as a response to utilitarianism and should instead dig into literature surrounding utilitarianism and consequentialism to find stronger attacks (or you could just scroll down and read about the good responses).

The Button Example

Thankfully, I rarely hear this response used in debate rounds anymore. I still decided to include it in this article as I think it’s a prime example of a bad response to utilitarianism. It’s also easily refuted, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The button example works as follows: “Imagine you’re in a room with two buttons, one that kills 1,000,000 people, and one that kills 999,999 people. If you had to press a button which one would you press?”. The debater who asks this question then argues that Utilitarianism doesn’t value human life, as it would allow you to kill large numbers of people to save one life. Fortunately, there’s a simple answer. Just when asked this question just respond, “I would pick the button that kills less people, isn’t that would you would do?”. This effectively shifts the conversation back to your opponent, and makes it look like they’re the ones who want to kill people. If you’ve never heard this response, consider yourself lucky.

The Utility Monster

Robert Nozicks utility monster has no place in a debate round. It’s a vaguely interesting thought experiment at best and does little to disprove utilitarianism. The utility monster is a creature that gains infinite utility from consuming things. So Nozick argues that under utilitarianism we would have to structure society to feed the monster everything (including ourselves) regardless of how much suffering it created for humanity, as the pleasure (utility) gained by the monster would always outweigh the suffering.

This has a lot of problems. First, the utility monster isn’t real. This is the best, and simplest response you can make. It’s also sufficient as the utility monster can’t exist. We don’t build our ethical theories around made up monsters. If we did, we should build them around the Libertarian monster. It eats Libertarians while respecting their liberty and rational agency. Second, Nozick ignores a key aspect of utilitarianism, marginal utility. It’s explained early in the article, but to let Peter Singer explain it again,

Singer 93

There is a still more controversial inegalitarian implication of the principle of equal consideration of interests. In the example involving earthquake victims, although equal consideration of interests leads to unequal treatment, this unequal treatment produces a more egalitarian result. By giving the double dose to the more seriously injured person, we bring about a situation in which there is less difference in the degree of suffering felt by the two victims than there would be if we gave one dose to each. Instead of ending up with one person in considerable pain and one in no pain, we end up with two people in slight pain. This is in line with the principle of declining marginal utility, a principle well-known to economists, which states that the more someone has of something, the less she will gain from an additional quantity of it. If I am struggling to survive on 200 grams of rice a day, and you provide me with an extra 50 grams per day, you have improved my position significantly; but if I already have a kilo of rice per day, I won’t care much about the extra 50 grams. The same is true of money: $100 means a lot to someone for whom it is equivalent to his weekly income, but it means very little to a billionaire. When marginal utility is taken into account, the principle of equal consideration of interests inclines us towards an equal distribution of income – disincentive effects aside – and to that extent the egalitarian will endorse its conclusions. What is likely to trouble the egalitarian about the principle of equal consideration of interests is that there are circumstances in which the principle of declining marginal utility does not hold or is overridden by countervailing factors.

This is a fact about how distributing resources works. Ignoring it will lead to weird stuff happening, in the same way ignoring gravity while calculating whether you can survive jumping off a building.

Torture

This response pops up occasionally, it’s right on the edge of being a meh response, but it’s too weak to hit that level. The argument goes like this “Utilitarianism justifies torture”. Sometimes it’s phrased as “Utilitarianism can justify torture”. The warrant typically includes examples of terrorists who have hidden bombs around the city, and police who need to find those bombs to save lives. I think there are two simple responses. Use the first if you’re pro torture, and the second if you’re anti-torture. First, if torture could save thousands of lives then yes, it’s okay. You haven’t uncovered a flaw with utilitarianism so much as you’ve found its strength. Second torture doesn’t work and causes harms to the torturer. Mark A. Costanzo 2009 “The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate”

Costanzo 09

Torture is one of the most extreme forms of human violence, resulting in both physical and psychological consequences. Torture has been used for thousands of years, and is still widespread, occurring throughout much of the world (Amnesty International, 2009). Research has shown that torture can have enduring negative effects on both survivors and perpetrators, and is ineffective for obtaining reliable information in interrogation. Although many international laws and codes have been established to prohibit torture, its widespread use continues as part of internal conflicts within nations, as well as in international conflicts. The issue of torture has most recently stirred debate with respect to interrogation practices used by the United States.

Infinitarian Paralysis

This argument can be overwhelming and complex the first time you see it. You can read the full paper here, but a brief summary is that if the universe is infinite, than [then] aggregate theories of consequentialism fail, as you can’t have infinity plus or minus one. For example, if I have an infinite number of apples, and I throw away 100 apples, I still have an infinite number of apples. The complexity of the argument is what makes it sound strong, but unfortunately, it’s based on some flawed assumptions. First the universe isn’t infinite, it’s infinitely expanding. This means that at any single point in time it’s finite. Secondly, there can be different sized sets of infinity (read more here), meaning we can still change the size of the infinite set. These responses are pretty strong, which is why this ends up on the bad argument list, rather than the meh argument list.

Meh Responses

The Doctor Example

The doctor example is classic thought experiment designed to refute utilitarianism. Basically, the experiment goes like this, a doctor has 4 patients who need new organs, and one patient with a minor injury (broken leg). The doctor can kill the patient and give their organs to the 4 other patients. Essentially, this experiment comes down to the question of whether it’s moral to kill to save more lives. The main problem with this response is that it’s kind of long and can get confusing. This is especially true when using it with a parent judge, or really any judge who isn’t already familiar with the example. The other problem with this example is that it doesn’t prove that utilitarianism is wrong, so much as it shows a distasteful side effect of utilitarianism. This is true of most of the above responses (Infinitarian paralysis is the exception) as well. Finally, the biggest problem is that this really only works as a thought experiment. It works off the assumption that the doctor never gets caught, and that the public never finds out. If we eliminate those assumptions, the utilitarian can make a compelling case that the doctor shouldn’t kill the patient and use their organs. To give an example, maybe the lowering of trust in the medical system would outweigh saving 4 lives (it likely would, just look at what happened when people stopped trusting vaccines). So, while the doctor example is an interesting thought experiment, it doesn’t work well in an LD round, as it’s easy to respond to, and hard to explain. This earns it a spot on the meh list.

The Judge / Not Enforcing of policies

            This is another common thought experiment, similar to the doctor example above. To explain, imagine a judge has the option to convict an innocent person. The judge knows they’re innocent, but by convicting them and sentencing them to death, a riot that would kill many people and cause property damage would be stopped. It would seem that utilitarianism requires that the judge convict an innocent person, which would mean that utilitarianism leads to an unjust/immoral outcome. Fortunately, this attack runs into a similar flaw to the doctor example, it’s based on assumptions that the public never finds out, that this is a one-time incident, and that there are no other harmful long-term effects from convicting an innocent person. In the real world none of these assumptions are likely to be true, and thus the response fails. Or as Robert Goodin 1995 “Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy” 1995 p. 70 – 71 explains

Goodin 95

The reason utilitarian policy makers are precluded from violating the rights of the innocent, as a matter of policy, is that policies soon become public knowledge. If nothing else, they are easily inferred from past practices. Once news of such a policy gets out, people revise their expectations in the light of it—in the case of criminal punishment, their expectations of being punished even if not guilty. There are major utilitarian payoffs to be had from sustaining certain sorts of expectations and from avoiding others, settled policies of one sort or another are characteristically required to produce socially optimal effects in both directions. That is one reason for utilitarian policymakers to abide by settled policies, even when greater utility gains might be achieved in any given instance by deviating from them.

            This brings us to another variation of the thought experiment. Instead of a judge convicting an innocent person, it centers around a government not enforcing certain laws or policies. First this happens all the time and is known as prosecutorial discretion. It’s actually an important part of how the U.S. justice system is supposed to function. But secondly, it falls into the same trap as the above argument. You can even respond with the same card.

            Like the doctor example, this seems like a strong response against utilitarianism, and often it works quite well in round, especially on CJS topics. Unfortunately, it can be confusing when poorly explained, takes a decent amount of time to set up, and can be quickly refuted. So, while it’s not terrible, it’s also not a strong response.

All you can do is calculate

This response sounds really good the first time you hear it. That and the fact that it can be easily explained are the only reason it makes the meh list. The argument goes like this, “All utilitarian’s can do is calculate what the best action to take is, since there could always be a better action”. The problem with this, is that we can assume that taking some action is always better than calculating. Or in the words of Russel Hardin 1990 “Morality within the Limits of Reason” p.4

Hardin 90

One of the cuter charges against utilitarianism is that it is irrational in the following sense. If I take the time to calculate the consequences of various courses of action before me, then I will ipso facto have chosen the course of action to take, namely, to sit and calculate, because while I am calculating the other courses of action will cease to be open to me. It should embarrass philosophers that they have ever taken this objection seriously. Parallel considerations in other realms are dismissed with eminently good sense. Lord Devlin notes, “If the reasonable man ‘worked to rule’ by perusing to the point of comprehension every form he was handed, the commercial and administrative life of the country would creep to a standstill.” James March and Herbert Simon escape the quandary of unending calculation by noting that often we satisfice, we do not maximize: we stop calculating and considering when we find a merely adequate choice of action. When, in principle, one cannot know what is the best choice, one can nevertheless be sure that sitting and calculating is not the best choice. But, one may ask, how do you know that another ten minutes of calculation would not have produced a better choice? And one can only answer, you do not. At some point the quarrel begins to sound adolescent. It is ironic that the point of the quarrel is almost never at issue in practice (as Devlin implies, we are almost all too reasonable in practice to bring the world to a standstill) but only in the principled discussions of academics.

You probably shouldn’t read the full card unless you have a lot of time to waste in round though.

The Good Responses (and some answers to them)

What is Good or What is happiness

            This is the first of the good response against utilitarianism. It generally starts in cross-ex with the question of “What is good” (not much hbu?), “What is pleasure”, or “What is well-being” depending on how you define utilitarianism. This line of questioning is hard to respond to, but there are responses. First, it’s important to remember that while the questions are hard to answer with a specific concrete definition, you wouldn’t want to do that anyways. If you give a concrete definition, your opponent will likely pick a vague word in that definition and ask you to define it. Your best response to these questions is to say that you don’t need a definition of good, pleasure, or well-being, because they’re intuitive concepts. We know that a person dying is a bad thing, even if we can’t directly define good. We also know that it’s unlikely to create pleasure, or well-being, even if we can’t define these terms. Simply put, we may not know how to define these words, but we still know them when we see them. Finally, some opponents may argue that we can have conflicting conceptions about what is good, and while this is true, it’s a fair answer to say that’s what we debate about. Your opponent always has the ability to show why your impacts are actually bad (or good) things, and this is just part of debate. It’s not a fatal flaw of utilitarianism.  This is a good response to utilitarianism because it’s easy to explain, time efficient, and hard to respond to. Even though I think the response to it is quite strong, there’s certainly a case for the other side of the argument.

Culminating ends

Culminating ends is one of the strongest responses against utilitarianism, and consequentialism in general. It makes the FW unable to resolve things, making it unusable in round, and the responses to it can waste a lot of time in a round. Thankfully it’s not the simplest argument to explain, so a lot of the round will end up being spent on it.

            To explain the argument, whenever we act, we start a chain of actions, which can culminate in ways that are unexpected and impossible to predict. For example, say I save a drowning child. On face this action seems like it would maximize good, but imagine this child goes on to commit a genocide. I’ve inadvertently caused a genocide making my action bad. Because it’s impossible to predict what exactly will happen, we can’t weigh impacts or determine whether any act is good or bad.

            To respond I highly recommend you read the section titled “Which Consequences? Actual vs. Expected Consequentialisms” on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophies consequentialism page. It explains different ways of determining consequences in a lot more detail than I’m going to go into here. To briefly summarize it (because let’s be real you clicked the link, then decided it was too long), the goodness of actions can be determined based on foreseen, or foreseeable consequences. This effectively gets around the culminating ends response and should be planned for at the frame work level. For example, having a value criterion of maximizing expected well-being allows you to refer to you V/C and not have to explain this mess, while looking like you’re a moving target. Also, here’s a card explaining foreseeable ends. Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, “Consequentialism” 2015

Sinnot-Armstrong 15

Other responses claim that moral rightness depends on foreseen, foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences, rather than actual ones. Imagine that Bob does not in fact foresee a bad consequence that would make his act wrong if he did foresee it, but that Bob could easily have foreseen this bad consequence if he had been paying attention. Maybe he does not notice the rot on the hamburger he feeds to his kids which makes them sick. If foreseen consequences are what matter, then Bob’s act is not morally wrong. If foreseeable consequences are what matter, then Bob’s act is morally wrong, because the bad consequences were foreseeable. Now consider Bob’s wife, Carol, who notices that the meat is rotten but does not want to have to buy more, so she feeds it to her children anyway, hoping that it will not make them sick; but it does. Carol’s act is morally wrong if foreseen or foreseeable consequences are what matter, but not if what matter are intended consequences, because she does not intend to make her children sick. Finally, consider Bob and Carol’s son Don, who does not know enough about food to be able to know that eating rotten meat can make people sick. If Don feeds the rotten meat to his little sister, and it makes her sick, then the bad consequences are not intended, foreseen, or even foreseeable by Don, but those bad results are still objectively likely or probable, unlike the case of Alice. Some philosophers deny that probability can be fully objective, but at least the consequences here are foreseeable by others who are more informed than Don can be at the time. For Don to feed the rotten meat to his sister is, therefore, morally wrong if likely consequences are what matter, but not morally wrong if what matter are foreseen or foreseeable or intended consequences.

Reducing people down to numbers

            The last response is the strongest accusation against utilitarianism. I’ll use a card to explain the argument, as I feel like I haven’t given the Anti-Util crowd much offense in this article. Christopher H. Schroeder “Rights against Risks” 1986

Schroeder 86

The anxiety to preserve some fundamental place for the individual that cannot be overrun by larger social considerations underlies what H.L.A. Hart has aptly termed the “distinctively modern criticism of utilitarianism,” 58 the criticism that, despite its famous slogan, “everyone [is] to count for one,” 59 utilitarianism ultimately denies each individual a primary place in its system of values. Various versions of utilitarianism evaluate actions by the consequences of those actions to maximize happiness, the net of pleasure over pain, or the satisfaction of desires. 60 Whatever the specific formulation, the goal of maximizing some measure of utility obscures and diminishes the status of each individual. It reduces the individual to a conduit, a reference point that registers the appropriate “utiles,” but does not count for anything independent of his monitoring function. It also produces moral requirements that can trample an individual, if necessary, to maximize utility, since once the net effects of a proposal on the maxim and have been taken into account, [making] the individual is expendable. Counting pleasure and pain equally across individuals is a laudable proposal, but counting only pleasure and pain permits the grossest inequities among individuals and the [*509] trampling of the few in furtherance of the utility of the many. In sum, utilitarianism makes the status of any individual radically contingent. The individual’s status will be preserved only so long as that status contributes to increasing total utility. Otherwise, the individual can be discarded.

Basically, the individual doesn’t matter except for their ability to generate utility. If they don’t generate utility, or you could generate more utility by getting rid of them, then you would be forced to do that under utilitarianism.

            I think there are a few responses a utilitarian can make to this attack. First, one could argue that this is inherent to all theories of justice/ethics. It’s just the way we ignore the individual is different. Some examples include Rawl’s stripping away a person’s humanity behind the veil of ignorance, Kant prohibiting lying even if it would save lives, or Nozick allowing for systemic poverty and suffering in the name of individual rights. Second, one can use Cummiskey’s argument that this is what’s required by our humanity. David Cummiskey “Kantian Consequentialism” 1990

Cummiskey 90

We must not obscure the issue by characterizing this type of case as the sacrifice of individuals for some abstract “social entity.” It is not a question of some persons having to bear the cost for some elusive “overall social good.” Instead, the question is whether some persons must bear the inescapable cost for the sake of other persons. Robert Nozick, for example, argues that “to use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has.” But why is this not equally true of all those whom we do not save through our failure to act? By emphasizing solely the one who must bear the cost if we act, we fail to sufficiently respect and take account of the many other separate persons, each with only one life, who will bear the cost of our inaction. In such a situation, what would a conscientious Kantian agent, an agent motivated by the unconditional value of rational beings, choose? A morally good agent recognizes that the basis of all particular duties is the principle that “rational nature exists as an end in itself”. Rational nature as such is the supreme objective end of all conduct. If one truly believes that all rational beings have an equal value, then the rational solution to such a dilemma involves maximally promoting the lives and liberties of as many rational beings as possible. In order to avoid this conclusion, the non-consequentialist Kantian needs to justify agent-centered constraints. As we saw in chapter 1, however, even most Kantian deontologists recognize that agent-centered constraints require a non- value-based rationale. But we have seen that Kant’s normative theory is based on an unconditionally valuable end. How can a concern for the value of rational beings lead to a refusal to sacrifice rational beings even when this would prevent other more extensive losses of rational beings? If the moral law is based on the value of rational beings and their ends, then what is the rationale for prohibiting a moral agent from maximally promoting these two tiers of value? If I sacrifice some for the sake of others, I do not use them arbitrarily, and I do not deny the unconditional value of rational beings. Persons may have “dignity, that is, an unconditional and incomparable worth” that transcends any market value, but persons also have a fundamentalequality that dictates that some must sometimes give way for the sake of others. The concept of the end-in-itself does not support the view that we may never force another to bear some cost in order to benefit others.

To simplify, because all people have equal human dignity, respecting this dignity means that it can be okay to sacrifice a life to save more lives. These two responses should be sufficient to respond to the argument, and good enough to convince the judge.

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