Utilitarianism traditionally understood is a moral doctrine that bids one to act in such a way as to maximize total happiness if it’s act-utilitarianism, or at least to act according to those rules the recognition of which promotes total happiness if it’s rule-utilitarianism.
Act-utilitarianism suffers from the crushing objection that “total happiness” is spread over billions of people for a million years in the future. What do I know of such things?
Evil can come out of good, and good out of evil in a bewildering variety of ways. No man is God, capable of calculating the consequences of his actions perfectly.
Moreover, at every moment for each person there is presumably a single best thing he can do. Failure to do that one best thing is then immoral. But then individual liberty disappears 100%. There is no such thing as choice of pleasures, if the best action can be objectively determined (such as by some impartial observer).
Then there is the difficulty comparing utilities intersubjectively.
Rule-utilitarianism (RU) seems more plausible at first glace, but further digging shows it to be worthless.
The first problem with RU is that no moral proposition, such as “murder is wrong” can be proved by showing that it’s contrary to the precepts of rule-utilitarianism. (Recall my proof of self-ownership, e.g.:
Where am I weighing lives or pleasures against each other?)
The second problem is that the laws informing any actual society do not command anyone to do anything. They do not compel any specific action to be performed.
Even the “you shall not do X” type injunctions are not demanded of the individual but take the form “if you do X, then you will be punished.”
Consider now a society with private property and a free market. We all agree that this society is, if not the happiest of all, then at least grows in happiness faster than any other. This society says, for example: “Anyone can become a successful entrepreneur.” But it merely provides incentives to people to become entrepreneurs! It does not say: “You, Henry Ford, ought to become an entrepreneur.” The utilitarianism for a community consists in so structuring property rights and incentives as to make it attractive for people to contribute to society. Utilitarianism commands not an entrepreneur but a voter to create a society in which an individual’s creative initiative is harmonized with the common good. Then the voter sits back and watches the theater of the world unfold its play. The laws and incentives, having been set up, await people to be affected by them.
Utilitarianism has no advice to give to Henry Ford as to his choice of vocation.
RU then is not a moral doctrine, because a moral doctrine prescribes duties to individual human beings, yet the RU-moralist’s job is done as soon as the correct laws (such as those made with good will and full awareness of economics) are in place; these laws modify the citizens’ behavior; who then yang-act while affected by the yin-laws in quantitatively unfathomable ways.
In addition, classical RU seems to hold that maximum total happiness is fixed. If we are good people, then we’ll squeeze the most out of the “world resources” or some such thing. This is the neoclassical economistic delusion that focuses solely on the equilibrating part of the market process. In fact, under free markets, there prevails constant and utterly unpredictable improvement in total consumer happiness. It’s therefore not overall happiness that we need to maximize but the speed at which overall happiness increases. This, however, too, can be attempted only on the level of general laws that foster economic progress without compelling any specific action on anyone’s part.
Utilitarianism then cannot reasonably demand that entrepreneur Smith act (either generally or in any specific way) to maximize total happiness; it can only demand that congressman Jones make such laws that Smith and his fellow market actors are gently steered into acting for the sake of society while pursuing their own self-interest.