Classical Utilitarianism, Justice and Distribution

The Rescue Case dilemma and Utilitarianism

Imagine you are a doctor having to decide between saving one person from death and five people from death, all things remaining equal, which side would you choose? This is a famous moral dilemma inspired by Phillipa Foot in one of her essays where she investigated the morality of abortion. Her thought experiment, famously known as the ‘trolley dilemma’, has sparked ongoing debate since. This problem points directly to the theory of utilitarianism which permeates through our daily decision-making processes and political discourse. For instance, modern-day economics based on utility theory is tremendously influenced by utilitarianism. Now, I will attempt to provide a brief genealogy and explanation of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism was first systematically developed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is considered as the founding father of modern utilitarianism, although its fundamental elements can date back to ancient Greece. According to Bentham, the right action is the one that ‘maximises the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Notably, this principle contains two crucial elements: the theory of the good and the theory of the right. The theory of the good stipulates what is fundamentally, intrinsically good, while the theory of the right stipulates what we ought to do with the good. To construct a moral theory, these two elements are indispensable.

Hedonism - the theory of good

According to utilitarianism, pleasure is considered intrinsically good and hence, the avoidance of pain becomes the logical consequence in pursuit of pleasure. As Bentham puts it provocatively at the opening of his influential project:

‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection to pain and pleasure will only serve to demonstrate and confirm it.’ (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

The word ‘hedonism’ is derived from ancient Greek for ‘pleasure’. Hedonism claims that only pleasure has moral value and only pain has moral defects. On Bentham’s account, pleasure refers to ‘benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all equivalent in the present case) or (this being the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered. For instance, food, family, friendship and love are usually considered desirable and valuable cross-culturally. Hedonism further claims that they are considered good only insofar as they have the tendency to produce pleasure in us - they are only instrumental to the ultimate good we strive for, which is pleasure. However, hedonism is not a theory that advocates selfishness as it emphasises one’s own pain and pleasure are no more significant than anyone else’s.

Consequentialism - the theory of right

We have so far determined the ultimate good that we are striving for. It seems intuitive now to consider what we ought to do with the good. Consequentialism claims that the moral value of an action is solely determined by the outcome that it brings. More precisely, the right action is the one that brings the maximum number of the good. To put consequentialism in the context of utilitarianism, it implies that the right course of action is the one that maximises the amount of pleasure.

Thought Experiments

1. An attack on the theory of the right

Utilitarianism takes an aggregative view on pleasure and pain. When we make a moral judgement, we ‘add up’ the pain and the pleasure of both sides and choose the outcome that produces the greatest amount of pleasure, or, equivalently, the least amount of pain. In the rescue case, a utilitarian would add up the pain of five deaths and compare the sum with the single death, and then they will come up with the moral verdict that we are morally obligated to save the five since it brings the least amount of pain. This might seem intuitive to a moral agent.

However, is it really the case? Imagine you have to decide between saving one billion people from experiencing a minor headache and saving one individual from an excruciatingly painful agony but cannot do both. Now, let’s suppose that the total sum of pain from the one billion people experiencing a minor headache outweighs the pain from the one individual suffering from this agony, should we say that we are still morally obligated to save the many? I think no sensible people would believe so. I suppose that many onlookers would even claim that we are morally obligated to save the one rather than the many. This strong intuition can be explained by Taurek’s sympathy theory I have just explained:

What matters is not the loss of the individuals but the loss to the individual

After all, there is no one, across time and space, who will suffer a pain equivalent to a billion headaches. This is a pain that we conjured up without any physical manifestations. If there is no one suffering it, why should we take this imaginary pain into our moral calculations? On the other hand, there is indeed one person who will suffer a real agony if we don’t save him. When we consider what will happen to him and what will happen to any single one of the billion people, our moral compass tells us to save the one. We don’t consider what the billion people will together suffer. Rather, we fixate our attention on what each one of them, as an individual, will suffer. As Taurek puts it, we ‘empathise’ with them as a single individual.

This line of reasoning can be applied to the rescue case. There is no single individual who is about to suffer a pain equivalent to five deaths. What will happen to them, as an individual, is the same. Therefore, you cannot morally require me to save the many. Admittedly, the greater number could be a good reason for me to choose to save the five, but it shouldn’t be considered a moral defect if I choose to save just one person. I am morally permissible to save either side. Taurek even argues that in this case the only morally right thing to do is to toss an unbiased coin. The reason is that if you select a group, then you must justify your reason to save this group rather than the other. It is not possible to give a satisfiable justification. Therefore, you run into the risk of moral defect if you actively choose one group.

This is a valid concern about the theory of the right. Is it always right to maximise the sum of the pleasure or minimise the sum of the pain? My answer to this question would be a straight no.

2. An attack on the theory of the good

We have investigated the flaw of the theory of the right of utilitarianism. Now let’s consider the theory of the good. Bentham unapologetically claims that the only moral good is pleasure and the only moral defect is pain. The morality of everything else is only derived from their tendency to produce pleasure or pain. Loving companionship, for example, is deemed morally pleasant only insofar as it causes us to feel a sense of pleasure.

However, there might be something else, other than pleasure or pain, that should enter our moral calculations. One formidable challenge that utilitarianism faces is its irreconcilability with justice. David Hume, an influential Scottish philosopher, argues that justice is an artificial virtue. This means that the morality of justice is created artificially by human according to social conventions and social norms. Notably, every single observance to the law of justice does not invariably result in pleasure. To the contrary, justice can sometimes induce pain. For example, if you owe someone a large sum of money, it is the just thing to do to repay the loan on time. Even If you are aware that your creditor will use your repaid money to buy guns and mass-shoot people (and he can’t buy it unless you repay the money), repaying what you owe to others is always the morally right thing to do. It doesn’t matter whether your repayment would result in some further pain or pleasure.

Concluding remarks

Utilitarianism consists of two indispensable components: its theory of the good and theory of the right. In terms of the theory of the right, aggregative views of pain and pleasure fail to recognise the individuality of potential sufferers, resulting in some counter-intuitive outcome in some cases. In terms of the theory of the good, pleasure and pain alone are not the only origins of morality. Justice, though its single observance may result in some pain, still guides our morality in common life.

In the next part, I will attempt to present real-life manifestations of utilitarianism and its applications in modern economic theories.


Bentham, J., & Lafleur, L. J. (1948). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. New York, N.Y., Hafner Pub. Co.

Foot, P. (1967) ‘The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect’, Oxford Review, 5.

Hume, D. (1978) Treatise of human nature (L. A. Selby-Bigge, Ed.; 2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, "Consequentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Taurek, J.M. (1977) ‘Should the numbers count?’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 6(4), pp. 293-316.




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