Utilitiarianism, should we value the individual?

A common criticism of utilitarianism is that it de-values the individual human person.  In essence, utilitarianism sees all persons as being morally equal AND it says we should do the thing that brings about the greatest net increase in utility — taking all the pleasures and pains of all impacted persons into account.

The inevitable result is that a person can be asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  To be more precise, a person can be morally required to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  The term “sacrifice” is intentionally vague at this point… because it covers intellectual, emotional and physical impacts, depending up on the situation.

So, a person can be asked to compromise their integrity for the good of the group.  This seems to be the case when someone is expected to fight a war they thing is wrong (see chapter 4 of my dissertation on selective conscientious objection ). If the reasoning behind requiring the soldier to fight is that they should be expected to sacrifice their own moral principles for the good of their country, then that’s a utilitarian objection.

Rule utilitarians will argue that it’s the place of the society to make rules that, if followed, will increase utility by protecting individual values, liberties and goals.  The general idea is that protecting these things will make for a better society, one in which people will flourish.

The problem with rule utilitarianism is two-fold..

1) What happens when following a rule decreases utility under one set of circumstances?  Their answer has two options, neither of which is strong — a) overall, following the rule brings about an increase in happiness and/or a decrease in pain.  The individual or particular circumstances are an outlier in the grand scheme of things and are counted as a “minus”, but overall the rule increases utility so it should be followed — what this says, in essence, is that even when utility is going to decrease in this instance –the persons in that particular situation are required to sacrifice for a long-term good.  or b) in this instance rule utilitarianism doesn’t apply and act utilitarianism can be used to justify breaking the rule… in this case, valuing the individual / particular situation is justification for collapsing rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism…

 

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