A Crippling Defeat of Bentham’s Utilitarianism


“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign
masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought
to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the
standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects,
are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in
all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will
serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to
abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while.
The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the
foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of
felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to
question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in
darkness instead of light.”

If we accept that a person as a unit acts to maximize utility, then they
would ultimately always choose according to their individual utility.
But, to maximize utility one must at least exist, and if one exists in the
world, one has to have a family. As a unit, the family would seek to
maximise its total utility – however, is family utility the same as individual
utility? Gestalt theorists might say no. If we accept that the family is
other than the sum of its parts” (as are individuals) then this is where
Bentham’s thesis breaks down, where family utility is not equal to
individual utility. Thus, by virtue of being born into society, one cannot always
act to maximize individual utility, because one must, at times, act to
maximize familial utility, putting personal interests to the side.

Even if family utility were considered the sum of each members’ utility,
then logically the family would act to minimize reproduction (to
concentrate more utility among fewer members), and would focus their
efforts to increase utility among those easiest to please. Those who are at a
disadvantage (for example, they are harder to please) would either be
employed for the pleasure of other members, or they would be discarded.
This dynamic might occur at times, but certainly not all the time, and
arguably not even the majority of the time.

A better theory for how families function, is that a family’s utility does not
equal individual utility (nor else the sum of it). Thus, people are not 100%
driven by pleasure and pain, and are at least part of the time driven by
something beyond themselves (such as family or community). One cannot
act to maximise both their own individual utility and act to maximise familial
utility at the same time all the time. Existence necessitates that we, at times,
act on behalf of our other affiliations (family, society, planet, etc). In this sense
to argue that governments can maximise society’s utility by maximising the
individual utility among the greatest number of people is inadequate and
unresponsive to the needs of society as “other” than the sum of its members.



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