Utilitarianism and Justice

Module 4: Must a utilitarian defend the sacrifice of innocents whenever this maximises utility? Does this provide grounds for rejecting utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of morality that asserts that an action is only morally right if it is the one that produces the most utility. A utilitarian must therefore defend the sacrifice of innocents whenever it leads to the greatest net utility. To many of us this is morally objectionable, so to account for this attempts have been made to modify the utilitarian doctrine so that it rejects the sacrifice of innocents and aligns more closely with our pre-theoretical moral beliefs. This scenario exposes a number of issues that utilitarianism fails to address which ultimately provide grounds for rejecting utilitarianism.

A possible defence for the utilitarian is to attempt to refine utilitarianism into a more acceptable doctrine that would allow one to simultaneously defend the sacrifice of innocents while maintaining utilitarian values. Some examples of this include rule utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism and Mill’s higher and lower pleasures.
First suggested by Mill (1863), rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that proposes that individuals follow a set of moral rules that generally lead to outcomes that produces the most utility. This means that rather than calculating the moral worth of each action as it is encountered, one would instead refer to the applicable rule that generally lead to the best outcome. This is advantageous in that it is impossible to accurately calculate the precise moral worth of any given action, as the future effects of an action cannot be precisely predicted. Rather than referring to time consuming methods such as Bentham’s hedonic calculus, rule utilitarianism would make ethical decision making quicker and simpler, in turn allowing for more time to maximise utility. Secondly, rule utilitarianism better accommodates principles of justice, as it allows...