Peter Singer’s Utility Monster

This image was created by Existential Comics. Beware, the utility monster! Now for those who didn’t get the joke, it’s probably because you don’t know what “utilitarianism” is. The basic idea (to put it rather crudely) is that the course of action that one ought to take is determined by whether it maximizes utility, which is often defined in terms of attaining the maximum happiness while reducing suffering. Peter Singer (Austrian moral philosopher) believes in this ethical system of thought but thinks it can also be applied just as well to animals because any boundary between a human and an animal is simply arbitrary. With that background information, you should see why it’s funny! 

Not only is it funny but there seems to be an element of truth. I reject utilitarianism insofar as it reduces happiness to an emotional state rather than a state of flourishing as Aristotle or Aquinas would hold to. Biblically, I think there is good reason to reject this ethical reasoning because it leads us to believe that it is permissible to sin in order for grace to abound – which is contrary to what Paul says in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not!”. Practically speaking, it is just impossible to objectively weight the suffering and happiness in these emotional states. In fact, it is far easier to weigh your emotional suffering or happiness as higher than another person’s state for the simple fact that one cannot experience that person’s emotional states as if it was theirs.

Even if you could provide some objective measure of calculating happiness and pain, it still would most likely be too complex for the average person. Which may not be a problem because perhaps it may be the case that the truth is more complex than what the common person is accustomed to. Perhaps the real problem is that we can conceive of a creature that derives an excess of pleasure from a certain perverted act (in this case, let’s say rape) that would make it permissible for this creature to rape another even if the other is suffering because the suffering of the victim would be less than the greater pleasure that the rapist derives.  This is clearly an ethically objectionable scenario that none of us should be inclined to accept. But even if you were to accept it, why should our emotional states determine what is right and wrong? That in itself seems arbitrary.


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  1. “I reject utilitarianism insofar as it reduces happiness to an emotional state rather than a state of flourishing as Aristotle or Aquinas would hold to.”

    Question: what exactly makes a state of flourishing superior to mere emotions? And I haven’t met many utilitarians who describe it as ‘mere emotion’. Most of the time at least, there’s a lot more to it than just that. Think of this statement in response to your moral theory:

    “I reject Aquinas’ moral theory because it only merely describes a state of flourishing as opposed to maximizing happiness and stability for the greater good of society.”

    Of course, I would never reply in this way to your or any moral theory, because “flourishing” and “emotions” are both crude descriptions of both moral theories. They’re been adapted and have evolved for thousands of years. Philosophers from across the globe have writtern entire books on the subjects.

    Consider Shelly Kagan’s response to Wiliiam Lane Craig in his debate. Although he doesn’t have ALL the concepts of traditional utilitarianism, I think his reply can apply to your post here. Would love to hear your thoughts on this clip.

    • It has not been strictly defined as an emotional state, but that is what it essentially reduces to. But not just any emotional state, mind you, it must be an emotional state that produces happiness. When I wrote this post, I was working off utilitarianism’s most distinguished advocate, John Stuart Mill, who said:

      the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure (Utilitarianism, ii, 1863)

      Pleasure is an emotional state because it’s something that you feel. Hopefully that help clarifies? :) That video is awesome, it seems like Kagan is unintentionally making use of Aristotelian notions (e.g, capacities, kind of creature, that we’re rational animals, etc). Frankly, it also seems like it has a bit of Kantianism there as far as his use of reason for morality is concerned. Nothing utilitarian seemed to be mentioned there! I’m actually more on Kagan’s side of that debate than I am for WLC’s though. I just don’t agree with WLC’s appeal to divine command ethics. I’m more of a naturalist as far as ethics go (hence, “natural” law).

      • I wasn’t using his response as a response to your ethical theory, but rather what you were saying here. Remember his last sentence?

        [i]If you put it as “complex nervous systems” it sounds pretty deflationary. What so special about a complex nervous system? But of course, that complex nervous system allows you to do calculus. It allows you to do astrophysics… to write poetry… to fall in love. Put under that description, when asked “What’s so special about humans…?”, I’m at a loss to know how to answer that question. If you don’t see why we’d be special… because we can do poetry [and] think philosophical thoughts [and] we can think about the morality of our behavior, I’m not sure what kind of answer could possibly satisfy you at that point.
        …I could pose the same kinds of questions of you… So God says, “You are guys are really, really special.” How does his saying it make us special? “But you see, he gave us a soul.” How does our having a soul make us special? Whatever answer you give, you could always say… “What’s so special about that?”[/i]

        I’m applying this to your example of wondering if the happiness of the rapist outweighs the girls pain. I think people would be at a loss to explain why that’s wrong, especially since the reason you reject it is “mere flourishing” :p. I’d suspect the utilitarianist would respond in a similar way. Kagan’s view is essentially “don’t harm and do help,” if you’re wondering.

        • I’m not sure how that applies to what I said, though? The context of your quote is “What makes rape wrong? Why are humans so special?” but that’s not what I asked here… I just pointed out that it would seem to not be wrong if you have a scenario where the rapist’s pleasure outweighs the suffering of the victim.

          • Take out all the stuff about making us special and replace it all with what makes rape wrong. The utilitarianist would likely respond to your criticism in the same way; stating that he’s at a loss to explain what makes it wrong after giving reasons as to why it’s wrong. He’ll shift the burden of proof on to you if you claim “well, why is that wrong?” and then say the same to you no matter what you say.

            What scenario would that be?

  2. I think you might find this book on Peter Singer and Christian Ethics of interest http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Singer-Christian-Ethics-Polarization/dp/0521149339

  3. Justin,

    That would only work if the person in question had an “intuitionist” view of ethics but simply had no ontological or methodological means of grounding ethical truths. The utilitarian is claiming to offer such a grounding for their claims and if their own principles lead to absurd ethical conclusions, then it should be rejected on that basis. The argument I provided in the post was a reductio ad absurdum; it wasn’t a matter of asking why rape was wrong. But perhaps after conceding to my reductio, they could question how I ground the wrongness of rape and ask “why is that wrong then?” but they couldn’t argue that “based from your ethical system, it entails that rape is permissible”.

    I think you’re finding my objection to be, “Okay, you offered reason X for why Y is wrong, but why think that X shows why Y is wrong? What justifies X?” and so ad infinitum. However, that’s not my objection. Rather, I’m saying, “Okay, you offered reason X for why Y is wrong. Assuming that’s the case, what if scenario A occurs such that X no longer applies? Y wouldn’t be wrong, it would be right.” That’s a different point altogether, you see? But if your point is how I would respond just in general to your scenario, then I would of course appeal to natural law and argue that the “essences” of things are the all determining factor of what makes something good for a thing. No further explanation necessary. It would be like asking “Why think that A is A?”. It just ‘is’ A per the law of identity.

    • Rape is, by definition, always wrong. It’s the same with things like murder. Of course you can dispute if something was rape or how “bad” the rape itself was(for example, a girl regretting drunken sex vs. raping children), but I don’t think your criticism really harms the naturalists view. Now, if we’re comparing the rapists pleasure vs the persons suffering? I don’t think there’s a discussion on that one if you’re at all rational. It seems to me the criticism I’m using still applies here, since you’re essentially still using the same criticism I’m talking about. The utilitarianist just needs to reword it slightly.

      “Okay, how can we be sure if the rapists pleasure outweighs the persons suffering? Well, I’m at a loss to answer that. Eventually, we just need to accept which outweighs what since it’s impossible to objectively apply. This goes for any moral theory, whether it be DCT or natural law, since eventually we need to accept that things like a soul or flourishing objectively define and ground something. That’s the only way we can even get off the ground, else there’s not point in debating if your only objection is wondering if a rapists pleasure outweighs the persons pain. Does the person getting raped feel pain and suffering? The answer seems obvious to me. If we agree on the definition of rape, then there’s no dillemma.”

      Now, of course, I believe classical utilitarianism is interesting but mostly false. I agree that it needs some further grounding, but I don’t agree that this is a good criticism of it.

      • There appears to be a misunderstanding between us! I’m not critiquing the naturalist view as such, I’m just critiquing a particular ethical system. Could you clarify on why you think comparing the rapists pleasure vs the victim’s suffering isn’t worth discussing? Feel free to be as honest as you like (e.g, by stating why you don’t think anyone who’s rational would discuss it). But anyways, I don’t think you’re understanding me right. It’s not as if I am saying “How do you account for the wrongness of rape, Mr Naturalist?” and then he says, “Well, I’m at a loss to answer that, but we both know it’s wrong. Your view has to stop somewhere too. You just can’t explain it any further than some appeal to flourishing”. Rather, I’m asking a Utilitarian, “Given your views Mr Utilitarian, how is it that rape is wrong if the principle of maximal utility makes it possible to make rape right? Your view goes contrary to our intuitions.” Maybe that clarifies things better?

        I’m actually interesting in why you think classical utilitarianism is false if you have time to explain!

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