How Demanding is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (at least some forms of it) is often criticized for being too demanding for the individual. It seems to entail, for instance, that if you have a surplus of welfare you should compensate those who have a deficit until you are equal in welfare. In reality this, of course, often means transfer of money or other physical resources, because it is usually assumed that the more money you have, the less extra welfare you get from more money, while those who have very little money get more welfare for every unit of money that get transferred to them. (I think this seems intuitively plausible to most people. Imagine that you live on the streets and manage to obtain about € 10 a day. An additional € 20 a day would make a huge difference to your quality of life, while an addition of € 20 to a salary of € 180 a day would not be a similar improvement in welfare.)

But how demanding is utilitarianism, or hedonism, really? That rich people have a duty to give to the poor seems very reasonable to that theory, but do those who are slightly above the median income face heavy obligations as well? Before discussing the real world, let’s imagine the following scenario:

You are walking through the desert. You believe that you will find water, food and shelter within three days. You are carrying three water bottles, each containing enough water to keep you alive for one day. You know that it is likely that you will meet other people wandering lost in the desert, you also know that some of them carry about the same amount of water as you, but some have less or no water at all. If you meet someone who have less water than you, are you obliged to give that person some of your water, until you have an equal amount?

In a world of “perfect compliance” with hedonism, this might be so, because then you would be sure that if you yourself start to run out of water, you can count on someone else to provide for you. But if you are not sure whether the second person you meet will behave morally to you, then it would be rather foolish to give a lot of your water to the first person. And you might not be sure if the first person is a moral person either. Perhaps he or she won’t reciprocate in the same manner at a later occasion when the tables have turned. An altruist should, in other words, be careful when helping an egoist, even if the egoist happens to be poorer than the altruist.

The point of the story is that in a world of less than complete compliance with the altruism that hedonism entails, it is not reasonable that everyone should, for instance, give away all of their monetary surplus above the median wage each month in order to equalize resources (and, presumably, happiness). For one thing, it is reasonable that everyone should be able to pile up some savings for rainy days, especially if one has an irregular income. Again, you need money for emergencies, since you can’t always count on your neighbors to help you (of course, a robust welfare state – keeping in mind that welfare states get less and less robust these days – can cover for some emergencies, like being suddenly prevented from working on account of illness). It is also reasonable that you have some money left for your own pleasures – the world would not be a very enjoyable place if we are to live like monks as long as there are people who are worse of than ourselves, and some pleasure and relaxation is probably needed to keep up the psychological motivation to be altruistic.

Thus, I would not say that hedonistic utilitarianism is extremely demanding (as, for instance, Liam Murphy claims in his book Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory). But it is, at least, moderately demanding. It does not demand that we give until all are equal or that the “ordinary worker” should renounce all pleasures and comforts in life; but it does demand that when your life is starting to get settled and comfortable then you should not expect any more material improvement for yourself. Indulging yourselves with, for instance, more cars, more trips abroad, designer clothing or furniture, fancy jewelry, swimming pools, dining in fine restaurants, cosmetic surgery et cetera would simply be immoral. (And if you renounce a lucrative career – as a surgeon, lawyer or engineer, for instance – just because you would have to give away a lot of your money, that would, of course, also be immoral.)

Two points should be added: 1. These demands for material redistribution does not entail that redistribution must take place in a haphazard and unorganized fashion. Preferably it would mostly be done through the tax system, which means that your prime obligation might be to vote for parties that are committed to effective redistributive policies (although this does not mean that you are completely off the hook when it comes to voluntary charity). 2. We should keep in mind that the more people live up to this standard of altruism the less we would all have to sacrifice. If most people in affluent countries were to live in accordance with it, then most of the world’s (material) problems would be solved long before we would have to live like monks.


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