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Pursuing happiness is a mistake

The limits of utilitarianism in a pandemic

21 07 15.Pursuing happiness

The pandemic brought up some difficult moral dilemmas. Choosing to do what would maximize human happiness might seem like a no-brainer. But the many unintended or even unknown consequences that measures like lockdowns had complicated matters. An alternative moral outlook, one that asks us to think first about the duties we have towards others and to respect the dignity of every human being would be a better starting point, one that doesn’t lead to treating others as means towards a greater good, argues Amna Whiston.


In July 1884, four Englishmen, sailing to Sydney from Southampton, were stranded at sea for several days without food and water. One night, one of them, a seventeen year old cabin boy, fell ill, after drinking sea water. Two of the sailors decided to sacrifice him for the good of the rest. They had wives and families; the cabin boy was an orphan with no connections. The three remaining sailors were rescued four days later. This incident led to a famous English criminal case, R v Dudley and Stephens. Its ruling established one of the most important precedents in common law stating that cannibalism and necessity for survival cannot excuse murder. Lord Coleridge held that there is never any absolute or unqualified necessity to preserve one’s own life and the judges found that there was no common law defence of necessity to a charge of murder.  Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to the statutory death penalty, but the sentence was commuted to six months in prison.

In light of the moral challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface, some have argued that utilitarianism is the only possible response. Utilitarianism, sidestepping questions around personal motive, offers us a single measure of moral rightness: the maximising of happiness and wellbeing. But as case studies like the above suggest, utilitarianism can be used as a rationale to justify the sacrifice of others for “the common good”.  Luckily, other types of moral deliberation, focussed more on our duties towards others, still have a powerful pull on us.

Relying exclusively on the rationale of moral duties is also suspect.


The intuition and limits of duty

In a typically emotive language of the Victorian times, the courtroom rhetoric about the R v Dudley and Stephens case reiterated that duty, ‘as in the noble case of the Birkenhead, impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others’. Further, ‘a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime’. This courtroom language and art of persuasion had a distinctly Kantian air to it – Kant being the paradigmatic advocate of moral duty as the ultimate guide to action.

There is little doubt that the sailors used the cabin boy as means to their ends with little respect for his humanity – violating the cardinal Kantian moral rule.   The sailors’ motives for their confession were also dubious. For utilitiarians, however, motives make no moral difference: consequences are all that matters. And yet, aren’t we quite good at criticising people’s motives? This psychological fact is evidence that people’s moral reasoning is not always governed by utilitarian calculus. Further evidence is given by fanciful ‘trolley cases’ which show that people make a moral distinction between an act of directly causing harm, and foreseeing, although not directly intending, certain consequences. Diverting a runaway trolley, which is heading down the track toward five workers, by flipping the switch, seems intuitively less objectionable than pushing a large man off the footbridge, killing him in order to save the workers. Hence, there is something deeply objectionable about treating someone merely as means to your ends. As Philippa Foot pointed out, our intuitions are recalcitrant to the thought that the size of the evil must always be our guide. Intentions and motives matter also!

But relying exclusively on the rationale of moral duties is also suspect. Susan Wolf had a point in noting that we should be sorry if our children aspired to become people that always told the truth out of a sense of duty, irrespective of the consequences. Moral saints, as she describes them, whose lives are dominated by morality, lack non-moral qualities that also constitute a good life, such as being witty, having fun or being creative. Importantly, ‘disgusting goody-goodies’, according to Wolf, come in two varieties, (1) happy utilitarian, or ‘saint out of love’, and (2) Kantian, ‘saint out of duty’. We can agree that most people don’t desire to be either kind of moral saints. But given that utilitarians see morality strictly in terms of the overall consequences of action, that type of thinking can sometimes be unpalatable. Lockdowns and other COVID-19 measures were justified on utilitarian grounds: producing the greatest overall well-being, or the least amount of overall suffering. But given the many unknown unintended consequences of these measures, and even the known negative impacts on the lives of millions,  the ideal of a happy utilitarian has less appeal than ever. 

Regardless of whether we agree with Kant that having a morally good motive means doing one’s duty for the sake of duty alone, we all praise people for having good intentions and motives. The sailors’ actions – killing the boy for the good of the rest, and then testifying truthfully only because they believed they would be excused given the survival necessity doctrine – were both morally wrong and morally bad. Under Kant’s framework, intentional killing is morally wrong, and disrespecting a person’s basic human rights and autonomy conflicts with the idea of a morally good motive.  Kant’s belief in the possibility of the good and the right coinciding is found in his description of a ‘friend of man’ who overcome by sorrow could no longer be motivated by the needs of others but continued to do his duty without any inclination. His example illustrates that difficult circumstances can reveal the noble side of humans – acting not out of personal inclination, out of desire, but a sense of duty.

Wearing masks and complying with the rules of social distancing may be justified for utilitarian reasons -  positively contributing to the ideal of maximising happiness and well-being in the word. But at the same time, we can question whether it is this utilitarian ideal that typically motivates people when complying with the protective measures. The pandemic has heightened people’s sense that we are all in this together. Arguably, many of us are guided by the thought that, as citizens, we have certain moral and legal duties, and that doing our duty entails respect for the equal moral worth of other human beings.


The limits of utilitarianism

Of course, utilitarianism is not averse to egalitarian concerns.  Indeed, a utilitarian invitation to consider the value of happiness, and the disvalue of suffering, was instrumental to the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, which improved the quality of many people’s lives. However, J.S. Mill’s cautionary notes that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied are still here to haunt us. What kind of pleasures and happiness are worth pursuing? Should we always place happiness above all other values? Can lies be justified if the name of public interest? Can we happily ignore intrusion on our privacy? And how about equality, autonomy, and people’s individual rights?

Once we find ourselves in the moral domain, the truth that unites us is about what we all have in common and what we equally share with others: the dignity of humanity.

In a recent paper, Julian Savulescu et al. have argued that given the global threats to health and well-being posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, utilitarianism is the only relevant ethical theory, claiming that in a pandemic there are no egalitarians.  I believe that this is too strong. They rightly point out that while utilitarianism was originally conceived as a progressive liberating theory which defended the idea that everyone’s well-being counted equally, under pandemic conditions it may be impossible to treat all citizens equally: our failure to be guided by utilitarian rules could lead to huge preventable loss of life, they argue. One example concerns the resources used to treat patients whose quality of life is poor and whose life expectancy is relatively short, where these resources could be used to treat people who have much longer life expectancy. Treating all people equally, in such situations, would negatively affect the amount of benefits and goods produced: the length and quality of life extended is what matters on this view.

This analysis, nonetheless, entails a questionable premise that morality can be reduced to overall happiness and well-being. It may be practically rational during a pandemic to acknowledge the necessity to prioritize the needs of the many, guided by an understanding of how to produce the greatest good. But apart from the fact that there is an incredible amount of uncertainty about how to achieve this aim, the strict social restrictions which have prevented many deaths from COVID-19 come with a long trail of morally problematic consequences.

Many people’s lives have been negatively affected and additional lives lost in efforts to fight the pandemic. This is something which Savulescu et al. themselves recognise; lockdown measures may have not been as effective as expected, at least with regards to the aim of minimising harm and maximise benefits. Lockdown measures didn’t make us more utilitarian. Rather, these measures illuminated the limits of a utilitarian perspective. Many vulnerable members of our society, especially in terms of physical as well as mental health, were overlooked in the pandemic crisis.


No easy answers, but a different starting point

The current pandemic hasn’t made it easier to resolve these moral dilemmas. But once we find ourselves in the moral domain, the truth that unites us is about what we all have in common and what we equally share with others: the dignity of humanity. This consideration alone ought to be present in our minds before we even begin to address the difficult issue about how to measure the comparative values of different lives. Thus, in the pandemic crisis it is Kant’s moral egalitarianism that we should turn to first, in advance of considering specific values that provide us with practical reasons.  As long as we respect the intrinsic value of human dignity, we can resolve difficult moral dilemmas in a way in which we would not treat people merely as means to our ends.

What Kant makes us realize is that if we take our sense of moral duty seriously enough, we are more likely to actually get it right. It is what Kant describes as the ‘practical love of human beings’, this moral feeling which points us in the right direction, not an externally imposed rule which prescribes actions that are expected to maximise what is good for all. It will be interesting to see what will happen when the COVID-19 related legal restrictions are lifted, but we should not be surprised to see some people continuing to wear masks out of a sense of duty.

Following a utilitarian rule is often presented as the most rational thing to do. But the failure to acknowledge our feelings of deep connection to others, our  moral feelings of respect and the idea that we all matter equally would be the greatest failure of rationality.




Foot, P. (1967). ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’. Oxford Review. 5, 5-15.

Herman, B. (1981). On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty. The Philosophical Review , 90 (3).

Kant, I. (1964) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (H.J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper Torchbooks (original work published 1785).

Kant, I. (1998). Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Original work published 1793).

Korsgaard, C. (2009). Natural Motives and the Motive of Duty: Hume and Kant on Our Duties to Others.  Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 1(2): 9-36.

Mill, J.S. (2002). Utilitarianism. Hackett Publishing Co (original work published 1863).

Savulescu, J; Persson, I’ Wilkinson, D. (2020), ‘Utilitarianism and the pandemics’ Bioethics 34 (6):620-632.

Stratton-Lake, P. (2000) Kant, Duty and Moral Worth, London: Routledge.

The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens.

Wolf, S. (1982). Moral Saints. Journal of Philosophy, 79:8, 419-439.

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edgar roa 19 July 2021

Glad to see this post, I like the content of this forum.
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