Utilitarianism is a type of moral theory (that is meant to help us know how to identify right and wrong actions). Utilitarianism states that an action is right only insofar as it maximizes good consequences, and it is wrong only insofar as it fails to do so (or causes bad things to happen). (Go here for more information.) There are different types of utilitarianism. Classical utilitarianism states that happiness or pleasure is the only good thing (at least in some ultimate sense), and that suffering or pain is the only bad thing (at least in some ultimate sense), but other utilitarians argue that desire satisfaction is the only good thing (at least in some ultimate sense). There are other differences as well. Many people have argued that utilitarianism fails to account for good actions that are beyond the call of duty because they think that utilitarianism states that our duty is to do ideally good actions. However, one of the founders of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, did think there were actions that went beyond the call of duty and he might have explained how utilitarianism could be compatible with actions being beyond the call of duty. I will discuss the idea of actions being beyond the call of duty, why people think utilitarianism fails to account for those actions, and how utilitarianism might actually be compatible with those actions.
Are there any supererogatory actions?
Supererogatory actions are those that go beyond the call of duty. For example, heroic actions are thought to be supererogatory rather than something we should demand of everyone. Are there any supererogatory actions? I think that is a very plausible view considering various intuitive examples of supererogatory actions, such as the following:
- A millionaire gives nearly all her money to the poor. She would have enjoyed keeping her money, but other people will benefit from her generosity.
- A scientist devotes nearly every waking moment to finding cures to various diseases. The scientist does not have much of any free time to enjoy herself.
- A man spends nearly every waking moment of a year caring for his sick parents. His brothers and sisters decided not to help care for their parents.
Is it good for millionaires to give nearly all their money to the poor? That seems plausible. Are they all obligated to do such a thing just because it’s good? That seems counterintuitive.
Is it good for a scientist to devote her life to helping others? Seems like it to me. But are all people obligated to devote their entire life to helping others without having much free time to enjoy themselves? That would seem counterintuitive.
Is the man who cared for his sick parents doing something good? That seems right. But is he obligated to do it? Maybe he is obligated to some extent, but it seems wrong to say she is obligated to do it all by himself without the help of his siblings.
Although I don’t know that we can prove that supererogatory actions exist once and for all, I do think it is a strongly intuitive view, and the rejection of that view is counterintuitive.
Why think utilitarianism lacks supererogatory actions?
It is often said by utilitarians that we ought to do what maximizes goodness, or that the right thing to do is whatever maximizes goodness, or that we are obligated to do whatever maximizes goodness. If we are obligated to maximize goodness, then that is our duty. Think about what you are doing with your life. Do you spend every waking moment making the world a better place? Are you spending all your time feeding the hungry, making people happy, and elevating suffering in every conceivable way? Probably not, and I think there’s a good chance that you could do better. We could try harder to help people and spend more time doing it. We could spend our money in less selfish ways and volunteer for charities more than we do. If utilitarianism states that we are obligated to make the world a better place as much as we possibly can, then no action would ever be supererogatory. However, it seems wrong to demand people spend every waking moment helping people. That seems too demanding.
Does utilitarianism require us to reject that some actions are supererogatory?
Some types of utilitarianism could very well be too demanding and require that we maximize goodness as much as is humanly possible, but not every utilitarianism needs to be so extreme. We can agree that actions are right and wrong only insofar as they maximize goodness or fail to do so (which is the main idea behind utilitarianism), and we can still find ways to account for the existence of supererogatory actions. First, we can consider if saying we ought to maximize goodness necessarily means we are obligated to do it. Second, we can consider if saying an action is right necessarily means we are obligated to do it. Third, we will consider a possible solution based on some statements given by John Stuart Mill.
(1) Some people might think “We are obligated to do x” means the same thing as “we ought to do x” and “it is right to do x.” However, these phrases are not necessarily equivalent. They might mean somewhat different things. I don’t think saying we ought to do something necessarily means we are obligated to do it. Saying we ought to do something could mean that it is a good thing to do, and that it is preferable to certain alternatives. What we ought to do could also be considered to be reasonable, and we might say we ought not do actions that are unreasonable. A utilitarian might suggest that we could consider all our options when we want to know what we ought to do, and the actions that sufficiently maximize happiness would be something we ought to do. For example, when a person insults us, we might wonder if we should kill her, insult her back, do nothing, or what. Killing her would be a loss of goodness insofar as all her future happiness would be lost, and she could no longer help other people, so it would end up being an action that causes a destruction of goodness rather than maximizing it, so we can rule that out. We could wonder if insulting her back or doing nothing (or some other action) would maximize goodness the most, but that could be difficult to know for sure.
(2) I don’t think saying that an action is right necessarily means we are obligated to do it either. Saying an action is wrong does seem to indicate that we are obligated not to do it, like when we say that murder is wrong, stealing is generally wrong, etc. However, I think it can be appropriate to say that a person did the right thing, even when it was not an ideal action. A person who makes a mistake might still be said to have done the right thing based on the actual information that person based their decision on. For example, a teacher who refuses to let a five-year-old student go home with an adult claiming to be the student’s aunt is likely doing the right thing when they were never told by a parent to let the student go home with the aunt. I think that is true, even if the parent simply forgot to tell the teacher that the aunt would be taking the student home.
We could also think there are degrees of right and wrong. Perhaps a range of actions are all morally right, and only some of those actions will maximize goodness the most. A person might choose to volunteer at one soup kitchen rather than another, even if one would likely maximize happiness slightly more than the other. It would seem overly harsh to say she did the wrong thing when she volunteers for the soup kitchen when we find out it would likely maximize happiness slightly less than the other.
Consider how some actions seem more wrong than another as well. Choosing to spend too much of our time watching television might be wrong to some extent, but choosing to spend that amount of time putting sugar in the gas tanks of random cars would be worse (and could be said to be more wrong).
(3) At one point Mill seems to suggest that we are only obligated to do something insofar as it would be appropriate for others to punish us for not doing it. He said, “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience” (Utilitarianism, Chapter 5).1 In that case obligation is reducible to justified punishment (with punishment being interpreted in a very broad sense, which would even count criticizing behavior for being unethical as being punishment). When should we criticize people for failing to act in ethical ways? Well, we should do it when we have a good reason to think it will maximize goodness (or at least help promote goodness to some extent). The main idea is that criticizing people (or punishing people) for acting in unethical ways can help motivate people to act in more ethical ways. Also, incarcerating a person in prison might help the person to act in more ethical ways by making it much more difficult for her to do unethical actions (such as using violence against other people). Keeping a person in a prison cell might be one of the best ways to keep some violent criminals from using violence against others.
There are actions that would fail to maximize happiness to some extent that should not be punished or criticized. For example, it would not be appropriate to punish people for enjoying themselves now and then rather than trying to help people every waking moment. In that case we could promote goodness more than duty would require because we would not be obligated to maximize happiness in some extreme way.
What Mill says here might sound incompatible with what was said about utilitarianism above (which could be interpreted as being act utilitarianism). Didn’t we say that an action is wrong insofar as it fails to maximize goodness? That is different from saying that an action is wrong insofar as it is appropriate to punish the person for doing the action. Perhaps Mill assumes that every action that fails to maximize happiness in an ideal sense is also an action that we are justified in criticizing or punishing (because doing so would help maximize happiness). However, this seems too extreme and far-fetched.
David Brink is among those who finds Mill’s way of making supererogatory actions compatible with utiliarianism to be at odds with Mill’s view of utilitarianism (act utilitarianism). Brink says Mill’s view of punishment seems to require what he calls sanction utilitarianism. He says:
Because this account of duty defines the rightness and wrongness of an act, not in terms of its utility, as act utilitarianism does, but in terms of the utility of applying sanctions to the conduct, it is an indirect form of utilitarianism. Because justice is a species of duty, it inherits this indirect character. Because it makes the deontic status of conduct depend upon the utility of sanctioning that conduct in some way, we might call this conception of duty, justice, and rights sanction utilitarianism. Because sanction utilitarianism is a species of indirect utilitarianism, it is inconsistent with act utilitarianism. The introduction of indirect utilitarian ideas in Chapter V of Utilitarianism… reveals a fundamental tension in Mill’s thought about duty.2
Brink then tells us that sanction utilitarianism and act utilitarianism have incompatible claims about what actions are right:
- Sanction Utilitarianism states, “Any act is right iff and because it is optimal to apply sanctions to its omission (the indirect claim).”3
- Act Utilitarianism states, “Applying sanctions is right iff and because doing so is optimal (the direct claim).”4
(2) is inconsistent with (1).
The different strands in Mill’s utilitarian conception of duty require disentangling. In his central exposition of the utilitarian standard in Chapter II, Mill commits himself to act utilitarianism in multiple passages. In that same chapter, he focuses on the felicific tendencies of actions and assigns a significant role to rules within moral reasoning, both of which have been taken to commit him to a rule utilitarian doctrine. However, these claims are reconcilable with direct utilitarianism and so provide no good reason to depart from a traditional act utilitarian reading of that chapter. But in Chapter V Mill does introduce indirect utilitarian ideas in the doctrine of sanction utilitarianism. It is hard to reconcile these direct and indirect elements in Mill’s conception of duty.5
I can see why Brink says this based on a literal reading of what Mill said. Mill says an action is wrong insofar as it fails to maximize goodness, then says its not wrong unless it’s worth punishing. We might also assume along with Brink that all actions that aren’t morally wrong are morally right. However, Mill might have also made his point in a way that just wasn’t careful enough. There are at least two ways that I think we can make sense out of what Mill was saying without leading to Sanction Utilitarianism or the contradictory views of rightness (or wrongness):
- The term ‘wrong’ could be ambiguous. It might mean different things depending on the context. There might be a sense that actions are wrong insofar as they fail to maximize the good, and actions can be wrong in a different sense insofar as it is our duty not to do them. Actions that are wrong for not maximizing goodness are not necessarily something we are morally obligated to refrain from doing. One definition of ‘wrong’ could be “it fails to maximize goodness” and another definition could be “we are obligated not to do it.” There is often an overlap between these two definitions, which might encourage people to equate them both. We are only obligated to refrain from doing wrong actions because they fail to maximize the good. However, actions that fail to maximize the good to only a small extent is something that doesn’t seem worth punishing.
- Maybe he shouldn’t have used the term ‘wrong’ at all. He could have just said that actions that are wrong are not necessarily actions we are obligated to refrain from doing, but we are obligated not to do something when someone would be justified in punishing us for doing it. We ought to maximize goodness, but that doesn’t mean we are obligated to do so.
This relates back to my original point that the way we equate moral terminology might not be as simplistic as we might think. Saying “you ought to do x,” “doing x is right,” and “you are obligated to do x” might all mean somewhat different things.
I don’t know for sure what Mill had in mind, but I do think his ideas concerning obligations and punishment can be a solution that can show utilitarianism to be compatible with supererogatory actions. We could say that actions are right insofar as (or to the extent that) they maximize goodness, and wrong insofar as (or to the extent that) they fail to maximize goodness (and cause bad things to happen). We can also say that we are obligated to do something when someone would be justified in punishing us for not doing it (in a broad sense of ‘punish’). Those two statements do not seem to be contradictory.
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