Utilitarianism and "Happiness Containers"

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are two names associated with the philosophy of Utilitarianism whose hallmark idea suggests the best action is one that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus assumed that all our experiences can be measured against every other experience. Strangely, Utilitarianism proves to be an extreme band of individualism; it is essentially the ultimate treatise for the individual.

Proponents of Utilitarianism can never have any ties that bind. Bentham and Mill were a bit vague when it came down to exactly whom they were supposed to maximize happiness or reduce suffering for. By the time Mill passed away (he was junior to Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism), he only barely had time to co-exist with the end of slavery[i].

But let us take Utilitarianism to its theoretical limit, and let's put our ethicist hats on and declare as a new norm the maximization of happiness of all humankind. This shall be every person's guiding principle.

Utilitarians remember, need endless processing power; they need formulas, tables, and all the predictive powers all the world’s algorithms can muster because, after all, they must compute how all of us should act. Is the management consulting industry quivering yet? 

But what if all the subjects' pre-existing relationships trip up the analysis? And snags those relationships are. What if they have a child with a neo-natal condition that needs urgently needs surgery, but the child only has a 5% chance of surviving? But then, strewn across the corridor to the ER, there are 30 people with first-degree burns from an electrical fire, all with a 99% chance of surviving. And they are all writhing in excruciating pain. What if they all need the same doctors and hospital staff and space and equipment? What if you have to choose?

The Utilitarian basically has no choice, because notwithstanding any relationships or other sympathies he or she has an equation that will provide the answer. Proximity, kinship, personal relationships even are assigned no value under Utilitarianism.

One can come up with any number of colorful scenarios to illustrate the point about Utilitarianism. But the most damning critique of Utilitarianism is that it ultimately makes people “happiness containers[ii].” The medium of comics often showcases characters who get stripped down, by circumstances, to reveal who they truly are. Batman, after all is just a regular guy without any superpowers. Stripped of the Batmobile, the Batsuit and all the whiz-bang stuff, he is just Bruce Wayne. Though the writers remind us of Batman’s mortality, there is something deep inside of Bruce Wayne, without all the adornments, that is Batman. With Utilitarianism, when humans get stripped down, they are just entries in Microsoft Excel. Taken to the limit of Utilitarianism, people are tupperware to be topped up with happiness.


[i] The end of slavery in The United States. It stubbornly persisted in Brazil, for example, past the end of Mill’s life.

[ii] Hat tip to my NYU Professor Sharon Street for providing this example in a class lecture. It was so vivid that without any chance of recovering my hand-scribbled class notes I recall it in vivid detail.