One of my favorite hobbies is correcting misperceptions of utilitarianism. I came across one the other day at this website. The author, Kerby Anderson, introduces us to utilitarianism, analyzes the philosophy, and later critiques it. Let’s skip right to the criticism:
Kerby Anderson: There are also a number of problems with utilitarianism. One problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to an “end justifies the means” mentality. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a true ethical foundation is lost. But we all know that the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia.
Anderson’s assertion that utilitarianism leads to an ends-justifies-the-means-mentality is correct, but the rest of the paragraph is not.
Utilitarianism posits that not only do the ends justify the means, but that they are the only thing that could. There is no other standard by which means are judged than the ends they bring about.
Before we go further, I must point out that I am using the term “ends” as synonymous with “consequences,” which is how I believe “ends” is understood in this context. However, when Anderson speaks of “ends” in this paragraph, he clearly does not mean “consequences” but rather “goals,” which are wholly different.
But notice how Anderson describes utilitarianism earlier in the same essay:
Kerby Anderson: Philosophers refer to it [utilitarianism] as a “teleological” system. The Greek word “telos” means end or goal. This means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result. Whereas Christian ethics are based on rules, utilitarianism is based on results.
His introduction of the etymology of the Greek root “telos” is confusing rather than illuminating because it appears to conflate consequences and goals. Under utilitarianism, an act is judged by the end state it brings about, not by the goal of the actor. Anderson makes this clearer later in the paragraph, but in so doing confuses the reader by supplying two contrasting descriptions of a single theory in consecutive sentences.
Why is this relevant? Because it makes all the difference when evaluating the rightness of Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges.
Anderson says utilitarianism would allow Hitler to justify the Holocaust because he had noble goals. Let us grant that Hitler did indeed have noble goals. So what? Utilitarianism does not care about goals, it cares about results, as Anderson himself says in the essay. Did the Holocaust increase utility or not? That is the question that concerns utilitarians, and no sane utilitarian would say that it did.
The same is true for Stalin’s murders. Does it matter that he was trying to achieve a communist utopia? No. If he had brought about a utopia, could he justify his acts under utilitarianism? Yes, assuming the utopia produced enough happiness to compensate the unhappiness caused in its creation. What I will say is that to the extent an act brings about happiness, that is an argument for the act. Likewise, if the act requires the infliction of suffering (which the Great Purge did) that is an argument against it.
The problem with Hitler and Stalin was not that they employed immoral means to achieve noble goals. It was simply that they did not count all the “ends.” And yet, that is all the difference there need be between laudatory and condemnable acts.
Kerby Anderson: The end never justifies the means. The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.
Sure, happiness is difficult to measure precisely, but that does not mean it is entirely subjective. We have some idea of what tends to make people happy: family, friends, winning at Settlers of Catan, and we have an idea of what makes them unhappy: loneliness, hunger, root canals.
Anderson ends his piece by commenting that utilitarianism’s chief flaw is that it “attempts to provide a moral system apart from God’s revelation in the Bible, but in the end, it does not succeed.” Utilitarianism is no doubt an improvement over God’s revealed morality in the Bible, but then again, that’s not saying very much.