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How Could Julian Savulescu Still Be a Utilitarian

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Guest post: Professor Valentin Muresan, University of Bucharest

Professor Julian Savulescu writes: “People think I am a utilitarian, but I am not. I, like nearly everybody else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding” .

Why does he need to confess? He tells us: ethical utilitarianism is in crisis because of several misunderstandings. One is that recent research in moral psychology shows that utilitarian judgments do not reflect so much the old noble “impartial concern for the greater good of all” but are rather correlated with psychopatic and egoistic tendencies . Consequently, he feels that the Utilitarianism used to set up empirical research on moral psychology is not fit for the job, and should be abandoned or improved. Philosophy is important for moral psychology, but this does not mean that we don’t need a better philosophy. Julian Savulescu’s solution was to try to abandon the camp of utilitarianism, looking instead for an external refuge in a weak form of “easy rescue consequentialism”.

What I want to show is that although he currently speaks about Utilitarianism in general, he has in view only a version of Utilitarianism, the most vulnerable one. This type of utilitarianism was already criticised from various perspectives, the main line of attack being that “it is too demanding”. This shortcomming has also a variety of aspects. The solutions resulted from the criticisms addressed by Julian Savulescu to the weak points of the official utilitarian doctrine configure tacitely the draft of an improved utilitarianism which satisfy all the requirements raised by critics and is very similar to Mill’s utilitarianism. Therefore, even if Julian Savulescu criticized Utilitarianism, there is no need to abandon the utilitarian camp.

What kind of utilitarianism?

What does “Utilitarianism” mean in Savulescu’s blog post? His use of the capital “U” suggests he is referring to utilitarianism in general, to the whole utilitarian paradigm. Looking more closely, however, we can see that he has in mind merely the most elementary form of utilitarianism, what I shall call the “simple act-utilitarianism”, usually called “act-utilitarianism”. I added the word “simple” because there is also a classical “two-levels act-utilitarianism”, which is J.S.Mill’s doctrine, and which is not “simple” at all, but sophisticated.

Julian Savulescu and his colleagues are aware that in the literature of moral psychology, to which they are contributing constantly, one “assumes a simple form of what philosophers call Act Utilitarianism”, a view “broadly similar” to the utilitairianism practiced by Peter Singer. If we select some other form of utilitarianism, for example rule utilitarianism, “it would not be obvious” that, to be called “utilitarians”, we should push the fat man before the trolley in order to save five people . More exactly, if there were a socially accepted moral rule which forbids, on utilitarian grounds, the act of killing (as there is one), it will be obvious that, to be called “utilitarians”, we should not push the fat man before the trolley in order to save five people.

Therefore, the utilitarianism criticized by them is simple act-utilitariansm, not Utilitarianism in general. Simple Act-utilitarianism can be summarised with a few quotes: “According to classical utilitarianism we should always aim to maximize aggregate welfare (Bentham, Mill). Utilitarianism is a radically impartial view; it tells us to consider things as if ‚from the point of view of the universe’ (Sidgwick) without giving any special priority to ourselves, or to those dear or near to us. Instead we should transcend our narrow, natural sympathies and aim to promote the greater good of humanity as a whole. It is also a highly demanding moral view requiring us to make very great personal sacrifices […]” for reaching a greater good.

If we read Mill, another classical utilitarian, we don’t recognize the kind of utilitarianism described above. For Mill, a good utilitarian should not always aim [i.e. aim for each action] to maximize the aggregate welfare. Instead, there are actions which are always morally forbidden even if, in a particular case, their consequences may be beneficial. And this is so because the moral criterion of an action is not directly the maximisation of welfare of that action, but rather the fact that “the action is of a class which, if practiced generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of obligation to abstain from it” (Util. II, 19). Therefore, the criterion used to judge the morality of individual actions is their belonging to a class of actions covered by moral rules which, if generally followed, assure, on the whole, the impartial maximization of happiness.

Julian Savulescu and colleagues are right to abandon simple act-utilitarianism. The question is why they adopted it as a standard form of utilitarianism? And another question is if the available alternative is only to leave utilitarianism? Or, may be, there is a way to leave utilitarianism, but remain however inside its domain?

A morality of self-sacrifice

Simple act-utilitarianism is a doctrine that encourages the view that self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others, in order to reach a greater good, are moral duties. This is the strongest form of Savulescu’s “too demanding” utilitarianism. If the end is good, the means may be horrible.

Moreover, a simple act-utilitarian assesses singular actions. Following the principle that actions are right in proportion to their tendency to promote general well-being, all actions which increase general happiness (and are praiseworthy for that), are duties. Therefore simple act-utilitarianism does not accept supererogatory actions. If sacrificing one person in order to save 5 increases general happiness, then this particular murder is a duty.

Let be an act of great courage which saved hundreds of lives. This is not an obligatory act because one cannot obligate people to be heroes. It is not forbiden because it is a praisworthy and meritorius act. It cannot be but a morally indifferent action (it is beyond the sphere of obligation), permitted both to be performed and not to be performed. It is a supererogatory action, the agent bering free to choose of performing it. It maximises general happiness but is morally indiferent. There is a standard of altruistic well-being – claimed Mill – beyond which our actions are not morally obligatory, but meritorious (CW, X: 337). For a morally educated person this difference is not merely verbal: she will not have the same internal refusal to act as when she is confronted with an immoral action; and she will not be obliged by society to do that thing under the threat of punishment. You are not in danger of becoming morally obliged to murder in order to achieve a greater good.

Savulescu formulates this idea by saying: “Utilitarianism would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others”. “Utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices”. In the Trolley Dilemma “it is right to sacrifice the one to save five”. Simple act-utilitarianism is too demanding because it justifies any action, no matter how wrong, as a duty, if it has, even as a side effect, comparatively good consequences. It also transforms rare, exceptional deeds, that might otherwise be the acts of heroes or of martyrs, into common duties which ought to be requested of everybody. They are transformed from a gift into a debt. There is no pardon given for being only human. Everyone must act as a saint. It is easy to imagine the dangers of a society built on such a rule: it is open to unbelievable abuses. For an “easy rescue consequentialist” in contrast, these exceptional, risky actions are not obligations. It is enough to say the cost is too great- even if the result would also be great.

From the point of view of Mill’s utilitarian theory, in the Trolley Dilemma, both available actions are immoral (because both are murders), therefore both should be forbiden. But the agent cannot abstain, he has to do something; and he choses the action with the greater balance of good over evil: kill 1 in order to save 5. Mill can assess actions simultaneously from the point of view of several “arts”. Although his action is not morally justified, it is justified from the point of view of the art of expediency. It is an expedient (increases general happiness), but immoral action.

The same conclusion is valid for self-sacrifice. For a Millian, self-sacrifice is not a duty, whatever the conditions. To sacrifice your life for the greater good of the community is an admirable supererogatory action – but a morally indiferent one. “The (Millian) utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. But it refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good” (Util. II, 17). Supererogatory actions, beyond the sphere of duty, are free actions, performed at the choice of the agent.

One says that utilitarianism is too demanding. This is not a new objection: 150 years ago, other critics of utilitarianism said the same thing: that the utilitarian standard “is too high for humanity” (Util., II, 19). And answers were formulated. In fact, it is simple act-utilitarianism that is too demanding and not Mill’s utilitarianism, which raised against act-utilitarianism similar objections to those formulated by Julian Savulescu.

How can Julian Savulescu still be a utilitarian?

When Professor Savulescu denies he is a utilitarian, he denies, in fact, that he is a simple act-utilitarian. His farewell to Utilitarianism does not necessarily means he has to adopt a non-utilitarian ethical paradigm, as he actually seems to do. To abandon utilitarianism, even if possible, suggests the loss of a battle. Utilitarianism is there, even if it is in a crisis. Julian Savulescu may stay inside Utilitarianism, but not in that part of it where he lived before, and try to find a more humane form of it.

But what do we learn from his criticism? If we take piece by piece the criticism addressed to simple act-utilitarianism, we shall see that each is accompanied, in an explicit or implicit manner, by a positive counterpart, the sum of these constructive counterparts recomposing the puzzle of a kind of new utilitarian doctrine, very similar to Mill’s one. It is a sophisticated utilitarianism, difficult to catch in a formula. By criticising utilitarianism as “too demanding”, he contribute to the “articulation” of the utilitarian paradigm, and therefore to its evolution, not to its abandonment. When he says “I am not a utilitarian”, Savulescu obviously denies he is a simple act-utilitarian but allows us to believe that he still could be a utilitarian in a broader sense.

Mill’s utilitarianism, or something similar, resist the objections directed at simple act-utilitarianism. For example, instead of assuming we must have an intangible purpose to improve the life of “humanity as a whole”, the Millian-like paradigm comes with the much more modest “private utility” (i.e. the happiness of the group of people who are directly affected by the action) (Util. II, 19). Instead of claiming a “radical impartiality”, we have instead “special moralities” inside the family, between friends, with clients etc. These are partial special duties which, if respected, will increase the utility on the whole by protecting such important social relationships. These biased relations become moral duties when they impartially maximize general happiness. In Mill’s utilitarianism, to favorise and to show preference towards something would not be prohibited (Util. V, 9). Instead of imposing as standard obligations the meritorious acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, we recognise them instead as supererogatory free actions (Util. II, 15).

Savulescu’s criticism of simple act-utilitarianism takes us in the same direction as the criticisms addressed by the Millian sophisticated utilitarians to the Benthamian orthodoxy. To change the great Utilitarian paradigm is as difficult as a religious conversion. Among other things, it takes time and effort. But to go from simple act-utilitarianism to a more sophisticated form of Millian utilitarianism, or something similar, means only to “articulate” the same general Utilitarian paradigm, not to leave it completely.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. “People think I am a utilitarian, but I am not. I, like nearly everybody else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding” . I certainly do not reject Utilitarianism because it is too demanding. I find it wrong headed with more than a smack of religiosity about it. You are probably right that, “To change the great Utilitarian paradigm is as difficult as a religious conversion.” It is a pity we cannot leave it completely, but I think the growth of Government House Utilitarianism in the form of applied ethics institutions and research departments staffed with professionals and expert ethicists will ensure its power base for sometime to come.

  2. I think implicit in Savulescu’s argument was a denial of the coherence of rule utilitarianism. It’s never been obvious to me that one can get a coherent system from Mill’s work.

    Parfit’s moral theory in On What Matters is more coherent, because it’s not fundamentally utilitarian. He justifies moral principles because of their consequences, but the reason we have to accept those rules is not their consequences, but the fact that no one could reasonably reject them. Of course, you’re free to still call this utilitarianism, if you wish. Parfit says it’s only partly consequentialist, but any decent moral theory is going to give some weight to consequences, and so might still be called “partly consequentialist.” I’m not sure where these terminological disputes get us.

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