In the late seventies, Robert McFall’s physicians discovered that he had cancer.  They knew that he needed a bone marrow transplant or he would die.  They told him that compatible donors would be difficult to locate, and that the only likely prospects would be close relatives.  The search was on.  Family members were tested, and to everyone’s vast relief a suitable match was found:  McFall’s cousin had compatible marrow.  However, donation would be a painful procedure, although the likelihood of life-threatening complications was small.  After thinking it over, McFall’s cousin chose not to cooperate.  Desperate, McFall went to court to force his cousin, listed in the court record by his last name Shimp, to provide the marrow.  The judge was sympathetic, and went out of his way to condemn Shimp’s refusal as “morally indefensible.”  But ultimately the court refused to force Shimp to give up his bone marrow.  It noted the long-standing rule of common law that by-standers (as opposed to people involved in accidents) are not legally required to aid or rescue others.  The only exceptions are cases involving special relationships, as between innkeepers and their guests, carriers and their passengers, and parents and their children (and even in these cases people may not be compelled to take actions that are risky to themselves).  To require aid is incompatible with respect for the individual, the court said.  “For a society which respects the rights of [the] individual, to sink its teeth into the jugular vein or neck of one of its members and suck from it sustenance for another member, is revolting. . . .”[1]

Many of us would agree with the court’s objections to Shimp’s behavior.  Almost everyone thinks we should make certain sacrifices for others, especially family members.  But we can also respect the court’s view that society should not force anyone to undergo medical procedures for the benefit of others.  In almost all cases we think that undergoing medical procedures to help others, such as donating kidneys and other organs, is above and beyond the call of duty, and not the sort of thing people may be compelled to do. 

However, in recent years proponents of a moral theory called utilitarianism have been challenging traditional ideas about the limits of our obligations.  Utilitarianism comes in various forms, but in its classical form it combines two claims.  The first is that the good is pleasure or desire satisfaction or happiness as experienced by any sentient being.  The second claim is the consequentialist thesis that the right choice is the option that maximizes the good.  Utilitarianism (and consequentialism generally) challenges traditional ideas since it says we must do as much good as we possibly can, which is a heavy demand indeed.

In this chapter we will explore some of the attractions and failings of utilitarianism, and examine the case some of its proponents make for saying that our altruistic responsibilities are surprisingly demanding. 



Like Aristotle’s virtue ethics, utilitarianism is a teleological theory, which means that it defines proper behavior in terms of the good.  Although utilitarianism had its roots in the work of Epicurus (341-270 BC), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), and David Hume (1711-1776), it was first clearly stated in its classical form by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).  Bentham suggested that happiness is both the good and the only thing we seek for its own sake, where happiness is understood in the hedonist way, as pleasure and the absence of pain.  Bentham then defined the right action as the one that maximizes the aggregate good of all sentient beings. 

Bentham’s hedonistic version of utilitarianism worried critics from the start.  Consider, for example, how difficult it is to measure levels of pleasure or to determine whether the pleasure you are experiencing is equivalent to the pleasure I am experiencing.  Unfortunately, we cannot build hedonometers, or devices that would detect and measure pleasure.  Also, the hedonist version of utilitarianism is vulnerable to the charge that pleasure and pain are not the only things intrinsically worthy of concern.  For example, being hated by people whom we love is a very bad thing, even if they hide their betrayal from us so successfully that we never find out, and hence never suffer. 

            For these and other reasons, contemporary utilitarians have tended to reject the hedonistic approach in favor of a view called preferential utilitarianism, according to which the good consists in the satisfaction of desires.  If we understand the good this way, we can handle some of the concerns about hedonism, such as the example of betrayal:  assuming that we want to be loved by the people we love, their hatred thwarts our desire, and hence is a bad thing, even if we never undergo the painful experience of discovering our misfortune.

Characteristic of Bentham’s philosophy was his hostility towards the idea of natural rights, or freedoms that may not be limited even in the interest of pressing social concerns:

Natural rights is simple nonsense:  natural and imprescriptible rights [is] nonsense upon stilts.  . . .

However, Bentham did think that protecting certain freedoms could be expedient, and in such cases he called the protected freedoms “rights”: 

As there is no right, which ought not to be maintained so long as it is upon the whole advantageous to the society that it should be maintained, so there is no right which, when the abolition of it is advantageous to society, should not be abolished.[2]

Later utilitarians adopted Bentham’s roundabout way of defining rights.  According to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), conformity to a rule of conduct is our duty only if enforcing the rule will result in the greatest good.  Rights Mill defined in terms of duties:  an individual has the right to do something when and only when others are duty-bound not to interfere.  For example, I have the right to adopt any philosophical position I choose, for it is expedient for society to prevent others from stopping me.

Also characteristic of Bentham’s approach was his commitment to strict impartiality as concerns those whom we are to please.  What is important is how much pleasure there is, not who has it, or how it is distributed over time.[3]  Moreover, what makes a creature an object of moral concern is its capacity to experience pleasure and pain.  This means that animals as well as human beings are owed moral consideration, and Bentham was one of the first philosophers in the West to criticize the mistreatment of animals.  Responding to the rather dismissive views of Immanuel Kant concerning animals, Bentham wrote:

A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?  The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?

It counts to their credit that utilitarians have always criticized animal abuse.  In recent years, a growing number of people have pressed for improvements in the treatment of animals, and utilitarianism provides them with a theoretical backing; no doubt, this helps account for the popularity of utilitarianism.  A consequentialist author named Peter Singer has been especially visible in this regard.   Expanding upon Bentham’s attack on animal abuse, Singer suggested that utilitarianism’s implications concerning the moral status of animals are quite radical.  According to Singer, since animals can suffer, Bentham’s slogan “everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one” commits the utilitarian to treating individual animals as the moral equals of individual human beings.  According to Singer, to take an animal’s suffering less seriously than a person’s—simply because the animal is not a person—is arbitrary.  Singer calls this practice ‘speciesism,’ and suggests that it is on a par with racism.[4]

            Utilitarianism has another, related feature that attracts people:  it seems to set a high standard, by comparison to which theories that emphasize individual rights and duties can seem mean and niggardly.  To emphasize the point, Bentham and Mill attempt to equate the disinterested pursuit of utility with the golden rule.  Mill puts the claim this way:  “’To do as you would be done by,’ and ‘to love your neighbor as yourself,’ constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”[5]  Most of us admire people who help relieve the suffering of others, and utilitarianism seems more demanding in this regard than any other moral perspective.  In fact, it is easy to get the impression that anyone who criticizes utilitarianism must be indifferent to suffering.  James Rachels, himself a utilitarian, seems to hold this view, judging from the words with which he ends the chapter on utilitarianism in his influential introduction to ethics:

Could it be. . .that future generations will look back in disgust at the way affluent people in the 20th century enjoyed their comfortable lives while third-world children died of easily preventable diseases?  Or at the way we slaughtered and ate helpless animals?  If so, they might note that utilitarian philosophers of the day were criticized as simple-minded for advancing a moral theory that straightforwardly condemned such things.[6]

To see why classical utilitarianism is so demanding, consider that we can relieve much suffering in the world by helping the needy (and animals)—by working to improve their situations and by giving them goods.  How much is enough?  Well, according to the utilitarian, we must continue our effort until further sacrifices would reduce our ability to help.  We need not compromise our productivity, of course, because that would make us less able to help in the future.  In fact, if we can increase our productivity, we must.  If such high levels of altruism are required, there is really no room for optional altruism.  Any good we can do, we must.  For the classical utilitarian, the case for extreme altruism is overwhelming:

1.                  We are morally required to boost the overall good as high as we can.  (This is the classical utilitarian view.)

2.                  Given the present state of suffering in the world, it is necessary to make extreme sacrifices on behalf of the needy in order to maximize the overall good, giving up everything we have except what we need to work as productively as possible. 

3.                  So we must make these extreme sacrifices.  (Call this view extreme altruism.)

If this argument for extreme altruism is sound, you and I are worse people than we might have thought.  It is true that average Americans will spend about 36% of their income on taxes (and at present rates of increase will spend 50% by the middle of the century),[7] which is a substantial contribution to their community.  These funds help meet the needs of those who are relatively poor in the United States.  According to the Census Bureau, about 13% of the money spent by states in 1996 went to public welfare ($193 billion), a little less than half of what states spent on education ($399 billion).[8]  On average, Americans also contribute about 3% of their annual income to nonprofit organizations, some of which aid poor Americans.[9]  In 1995, a bit over 80% of the $144 billion in contributions made to nonprofit organizations in the United States came from individuals.  However, Americans do little for the poor in other countries, even though the needy there are far worse off than the poor here.  In the United States, about 13% (34.5 million Americans, including 14 million children under the age of six) of us live below the officially designated poverty level, but the average poverty threshold for a family of four in 1998 was $16,660, and $13,003 for a family of three.  Elsewhere, there are 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, and 2.8 billion living on less than 2 dollars a day.[10]  Admittedly, many of them live in rural settings, where earning money is less important since they are able to grow food—an option available to relatively few Americans.  Nonetheless, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, in the world as a whole, over 800 million people are malnourished. 



Does utilitarianism really demand better behavior than the moral tradition?  To help us decide, let us consider two examples. 

The Case of the Ruthless Mayor.  The first example involves a city that is in turmoil over an unsolved crime.  It appears to be a hate crime, and is causing rioting and bloodshed that is getting worse and worse.  Suppose you are the mayor of this city, and you soon come to realize that the perpetrator has probably fled and is not going to be caught.  You also realize that if an innocent person confessed to the crime, people would be satisfied that the criminal had been apprehended, and city life would return to normal.  However, no volunteers have come forward.  But then you realize that you can force someone to take the blame, and if she doesn’t cooperate you can frame her.  In doing so, you will end the turmoil, and maximize the aggregate good.  Now, it might well be admirable (albeit misguided) for some innocent person to confess, but is it admirable for you to force one to?  Not at all.  It benefits many people, but it is a despicable act of naked aggression that harms someone terribly.[11]

The Organ ‘Donor’ Case.  The second example draws attention to the fact that on any given day, people die because suitable donor organs are unavailable.  Suppose that scientists solve compatibility problems, so that anyone’s healthy organs can be successfully transplanted.  Suppose you are a physician, and you realize that one healthy individual can distribute all of his organs among several needy people, thus saving their lives.  You also notice that no one is volunteering.  However, you are in a position to kill a healthy person who refuses to donate, and save several people using his organs, thus increasing the total good as much as possible.  Perhaps it would have been admirable for someone to give up his life for others.  But is it admirable for you—or a state official, or anyone else—to kill an unwilling victim to accomplish the same end?  Is it what is best for all concerned?  Or is it plain murder?

These two examples, which are standard fare in the critical literature, show that classical utilitarians are committed to the objectionable general principle that harming people, even in grievous and fatal ways, is justified so long as it is offset by good we do others.  But can’t we say at least this much on behalf of utilitarians:  when they demand sacrifices by individuals, the harm done is always offset by good others accrue?  If so, then utilitarians can try to convince us that the people who refuse to make the sacrifices are displaying a petty disregard for others.  However, it is not true that harm sanctioned by utilitarianism is always offset by good enjoyed by others.  And this brings us to another troublesome consequence of utilitarianism:  in some circumstances we must kill people against their wills in order to minimize their suffering.  Let us spell this out.

The Case of the Chronic Sufferer.  Consider that there are people who suffer from mental or physical pain and who cannot make themselves happy, and whom others cannot make happy.  Many of them can function, and still want to live, perhaps out of a sense of duty.  Our hearts go out to such persons, and we are frustrated that we cannot solve their problem.  But the utilitarian formula suggests that we treat them as wrongdoers, even if unintentional ones, since their unhappiness brings down the aggregate good.  Worse, utilitarianism supports a grisly and abhorrent general policy for handling such persons:  kill them, for when their unhappiness is ended, it is no longer added in the computation of the total happiness, and so the sum rises.  (Why not just drug them into a stupor rather than killing them?  Well, the utilitarian formula suggests that killing them is better since preserving the lives of drugged people is a drain on medical resources and hence a source of substantial disutility.)  Of course, there will be exceptions, for we must weigh into our calculations the utility of family members—which might count in favor of the killing, or against it.  Notice, however, that the utilitarian formula favors killing these suffering people even if their deaths do not help others.  We needn’t suppose that others will be made happier by their deaths (although that will be one more nail in the coffin, so far as the utilitarian calculus is concerned).  When others do not benefit, the utilitarian cannot say that good enjoyed by others offsets the horror of the killings, nor portray those who refuse to die as petty and selfish.  By continuing their existence, all the unhappy are doing is lowering the sum.  Does that really matter?  Can it possibly justify the general policy of eliminating the chronically unhappy against their wills?  Why is this abstract quantity called total good so important?

Objectionable Impartiality Cases.  There is another reason to resist the utilitarian view:  it forces us to be strictly impartial as concerns those whose good we are to maximize.  This has two especially worrisome consequences.  First, requiring strict impartiality implies that it is wrong to give special consideration to our interests and those of our friends and loved ones.  As we noted when we discussed ethical egoism, this demand seems unacceptable, since it can require us to give up pursuits that, in our view, make our lives worth living.  Suppose, for example, that although I am not especially good at it, and will never make a contribution, I am driven to make paintings, and yet I have a clear talent as a biologist, and am already on the verge of seeing ways to boost crop productivity.  I can do far more good as a biologist, and so choosing my career on impartial grounds requires that I pursue biology, even though my life will feel empty unless I am an artist.  Godwin’s example provides another illustration:  suppose you must choose between saving your mother (or someone else who plays a central role in your life) or a stranger.  The latter happens to be an archbishop who contributes more to the greater good than your mother does.  According to the utilitarian, you must ignore your family ties and save the archbishop.  Yet no one except a doctrinaire utilitarian (and perhaps the archbishop!) would agree.

A second consequence of the strict impartiality required by utilitarianism concerns animals.  As we suggested in Chapter 2, the fact that animals have interests is grounds to acknowledge that we owe them consideration.  We do not have to accept utilitarianism to object to animal abuse.  But few of us will accept the utilitarian view that it is wrong to treat human beings better than animals, as, for example, when we save a person rather than several mice.  Bentham was correct when he rejected the notion that rationality is the only feature relevant to whether a creature is an object of moral concern.  But he was wrong in assuming that the capacity to suffer is the only relevant feature.  Also significant are the following:  being a moral agent, being self-aware, and having interests. 

Over the years, utilitarians have offered a wide range of responses to their critics.  Let us consider the most important of these.



Many classical utilitarians abandoned their view in favor of substantially different versions of their account; let’s see if the newer approaches avoid our criticisms.  Bentham’s view was that, on each occasion, we are to choose the action that has the best overall consequences.  This doctrine is now called act utilitarianism.  A newer version is called rule utilitarianism.  Instead of focusing on individual acts, as the old version does, the new learns from Kant, and defines itself in terms of policies or types of acts.  It identifies general rules that maximize the good if everyone accepts them, and says that we are obligated to conform to these rules in all cases.  Mill himself flirted with rule utilitarianism; however, he never backed away from the view that, strictly speaking, act utilitarianism determines the right thing to do, not rule utilitarianism.  Act utilitarianism is the final arbiter of morality, Mill thought, but he hinted that people normally will serve the collective good best by adopting a two-tiered system:  applying expedient and familiar rules or principles in normal situations, and submitting these to the test of utility-maximization only when new considerations arise or the principles clash or need justification.[12]  To determine whether to add or subtract a rule of conduct we ask whether it increases utility.  When choosing how to act, however, we put aside the question of utility, and steer by the rules that maximize utility.[13]  Rules are chosen on one level, where utility is the deciding consideration, while actions are chosen on a separate level, where the rules are the deciding consideration.

Abandoning the original form of utilitarianism in favor of the two-tiered system seems to help us deal with some standard counterexamples, such as the overzealous mayor.  On particular occasions framing an innocent person might maximize the good.  However, a policy of framing innocent people would not, if for no other reason than that the policy will be public knowledge, and framing people is impossible if everyone is aware of what is going on, as Kant might have noted.

Some say two-tiered utilitarianism also helps with our concerns about impartiality.  Perhaps it is expedient to encourage people to adopt policies by which they give special attention to their families and friends, as well as policies by which they are partial towards their own projects and interests.  If so, the two-tiered system can deal with our cases requiring objectionable impartiality:  you may become an unproductive but happy artist rather than a productive yet despondent biologist, and you may save your mother rather than the good archbishop. 

Let us note in passing, however, that if they deal with out counterexamples by dropping the requirement of impartiality, rule utilitarians will undermine the case for extreme altruism.  If we may pursue the interests of ourselves and our loved ones and neglect the interests of strangers, then we need not be extreme altruists.  Apparently, utilitarians must choose between offering a plausible version of their view, or defending extreme altruism.  They cannot do both.

Even if the new utilitarians can handle the Case of the Ruthless Mayor and cases involving objectionable impartiality, their worries are not at an end.  There are many more criticisms to be made.

The Exceptions Objection.  One problem is that two-tiered utilitarianism seems ad hoc as compared to act utilitarianism:  what is distinctive about the utilitarian view is the idea that (boosting) the total good is what matters, but if utility maximization is so important, why shouldn’t we make exceptions to expedient rules when we can bring about even more utility?  For example, even if it is true that, generally, utility is maximized when people put their families ahead of strangers, we can do still better by putting the occasional (especially needy) stranger ahead of our family.  So why isn’t it right to do so?

Utilitarians usually respond to the Exceptions Objection by saying that people are too biased and ignorant to work out expedient exceptions to rules, especially when pressed for time.  If they try, the effort will backfire, and overall utility will decrease.  This response places the utilitarian in danger of defending absolutism (as defined in the previous chapter), thus undermining one of the chief attractions of the view.   But whether we accept the (rather demeaning) response or not, the fact remains that utilitarians cannot solve all their problems by forbidding us to make exceptions to expedient rules, which brings us to a second concern about the two-tiered system.

The Bad Rules Objection.  The problem is that objectionable rules sometime maximize utility, and hence receive the endorsement of the two-tiered system.  In fact, we have already mentioned two cases in point.  Like the old, the new form of utilitarianism supports the general policy of killing chronic sufferers who want to live, since this policy boosts the aggregate utility.  The new form also endorses the actions of the overly ambitious physician in our Organ ‘Donor’ Case.  To argue to the contrary, the rule utilitarian would have to argue that

(1) killing healthy individuals and giving their organs to people who cannot otherwise be saved

is objectionable because it produces less overall good than a policy of

(2) letting the potential donors live and the potential organ recipients die. 

However, isn’t it far more plausible to say that policy (1) produces the most good overall?  It is true that many healthy people will be upset at the prospect of being the next ‘donor’, and some will die.  But is fear as bad as the deaths of the potential recipients and their consequent loss of happiness?  Aren’t fewer deaths better than more deaths?  And wouldn’t many unhealthy people be enormously relieved to know that if they need organs they will get them?  Is the objection to killing healthy people for the sake of the dying really that it would not promote the overall good?  Or is it that individuals are forcibly sacrificed—used—for the sake of others, as Kant might say? 

            Can utilitarians respond to The Bad Rules Objection?  Well, they certainly try.  Let us examine the most common rejoinders. 

First, they might say that only real cases should be used to assess utilitarianism, not fanciful examples involving far-fetched situations.  For a brief time, this gambit might allow them to postpone facing the objectionable policy of killing for ‘donor’ organs, but the solution to organ compatibility is not far in the future.  In any case, our other objection stands:  chronic sufferers are not creatures in the pages of science fiction; they are real people, and utilitarianism sanctions the policy of killing them against their will. 

Second, utilitarians might argue as follows:  “The Bad Rules Objection is viable only if the policies mentioned--killing the chronic sufferers and organ ‘donors’--really are bad rules.  Why say they are?  Isn’t it because they are contrary to common sense?  But why not say that the fault lies in common sense rather than in the policies?  Common sense isn’t infallible, and even if a policy is contrary to common sense it does not follow that the policy is bad.” 

As this response illustrates, utilitarians may raise suspicions about the probative power of common sense.  However, their critics will ask how we are supposed to test theories unless we rely on common sense examples.  Realizing they need to respond to this reasonable question, some utilitarians seem to offer the following answer:  if accepting a theory maximizes the good, it is the best theory!  Of course, this answer simply begs the question:  unless we are already card-carrying utilitarians, or attempting to show that utilitarianism is self-refuting, we will not test the truth of utilitarianism by asking whether its acceptance maximizes the good. 

Other utilitarians appear to think that their ideal—maximizing the good—is compelling enough that it needs no (or little) defense, so compelling, in fact, that none of its implications could possibly serve as counterexamples, no matter how contrary to common sense, and that it is common sense we must adjust instead.  And indeed, we have seen that maximizing the good would relieve a great deal of suffering, which is an attractive goal.  But we have also seen that utilitarianism has unattractive implications weighing against it.  Is the utilitarian ideal so forceful it should override our commonsense intuitions?  Or is its force the result of misunderstanding its nature?  The second option is worth considering; let us see if we can locate a misleading interpretation of utilitarianism that might be responsible for its appeal to many people. 



Utilitarianism can appear to call on us to do the best for all concerned, which is an attractive, if demanding, ideal.  Some people might even resist commonsense objections to this ideal.  But here is the point:  Do the best for all concerned is not the utilitarian’s ideal!  (Nor is it the consequentialist’s.)  To be sure, Do what is best for all concerned is not a completely straightforward policy; however, the main idea seems plain enough.  To do the best for one person is to benefit her as much as possible.  To do the best for all of us is to benefit each of us as much as possible collectively.  More precisely, it is to apply the following policy:  

(a)                When you can improve someone’s situation without worsening someone else’s, do so, and keep doing so until no one can be made any better off without making someone else worse off.[14]  (Call this policy optimizing.)

It is easy to confuse this with the principle of utility, which is:

(b)               Maximize the good.  (Call this policy aggregating.)

But utilitarian aggregating is very different from optimizing.  To optimize, we must limit ourselves to benefiting people.  By contrast, nothing in the utilitarian policy rules out harming people in terrible ways (recall the organ donation case).  It says the only thing that matters is making the aggregate good as great as possible; if we can increase this total by grievously harming individuals, too bad for them.  A policy that makes you worse (even worst) off is not what is best for you.  Hence maximizing the aggregate good is one thing, and doing what is best for all concerned is clearly quite another.

All right, perhaps some are drawn to utilitarianism because they think it requires optimizing.  But does this mean we have to give it up?  Why not just reinvent utilitarianism yet again, understanding it now as the view that we are morally required to optimize? 

Doing so certainly seems to constitute progress, but problems remain.  One difficulty is that the policy of optimizing still seems to favor killing chronic sufferers who prefer to live.  From the standpoint of utility, aren’t the chronic sufferers better off dead, so that killing them is a way to optimize?  Yet sufferers have the right to remain alive if they want to, and it would be wrong for us to override their decision.

A second difficulty arises once we remind ourselves about what we are trying to accomplish in devising an ethical theory.  Traditional moral philosophers were trying to work out principles that specify minimally acceptable conduct.  They sought principles that lay out duties we must meet in order to protect the interests of others (including principles that require aid of others in certain circumstances), and rights others must respect in order to protect our interests.  Devising these principles was the central task of ethics as they understood it.  Obviously, these principles would not tell us what conduct is best, either for the individual or for everyone.  Answering the question, What makes our lives go best? is another, separate task for the ethicist.  People will no doubt try to live the best lives they can, and many will try to help others do the same.  But it is not wrong to aim for less, and there is such a thing as going above and beyond the call of duty.  When we do more good than we must, we perform praiseworthy deeds called supererogatory acts. 

Utilitarians give the impression that they, too, want to identify what sort of conduct is minimally acceptable, for they claim to tell us what is “right” and “wrong.”  But if we understand the utilitarian answer in terms of optimizing, something seems seriously askew.  Do the best for all concerned seems bizarre as an answer to the question, What is the least it is permissible to do?  Can the least we may do be the very best we can do?  Anyone who answers the traditional question by saying Do the best for all seems to misunderstand the question.  Nonetheless, it is always possible to revise the tradition, or to begin a new one.  We can abandon the traditional task of specifying minimally acceptable conduct.  Perhaps that is the way to understand utilitarianism.



Whether we accept utilitarianism or not, utilitarians may still be correct when they say that we must do everything we can to relieve suffering in the world.  The thesis we have called extreme altruism can be defended on other grounds, as James Rachels has made clear. 

Rachels offers a way to defend extreme altruism without appealing directly to utilitarianism.  He says that when people stand by as others die, they assume that a particular sort of omission, namely not doing something that would prevent a death, is, in itself, not as morally objectionable as a particular kind of act, namely killing someone.  In fact, however, the assumption is false.  After all, in both cases the result is a death, so surely whatever reasons we might have for not killing bar us from omitting to save.  In itself, letting people die is as wrong as killing, Rachels says, and this equivalence thesis, as he calls it, taken together with the fact that we must not kill innocent people, implies that we must save everyone we can.  Indeed, because killing the innocent is terrible, so is not rescuing the starving,[15] so we must contribute to famine relief all the money we do not need to meet our minimal needs.  Thus it is gravely wrong for a parent to buy her son a pricey pair of shoes that catches his eye, or to send her daughter to an expensive private college, or even to send in a pledge to National Public Radio. 

            Rachels is aware that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between cases involving killing and cases involving letting die.  There are cases in which the distinction is clear enough—shooting someone fatally is a killing, and removing a respirator at a patient’s request is letting the patient die—but sometimes a killing in one context is a letting-die in another.  For example, if Mary the physician puts Fred on a respirator, then later takes him off at his request, Mary lets Fred die.  But things are quite different if Fred’s greedy niece Betty sneaks in, turns off the respirator, and watches uncle Fred die:  Betty has killed Fred.  In both cases a respirator is turned off, but we are killers when we thwart the efforts of someone saving a life (assuming that those efforts would otherwise have succeeded). 

Is Rachels correct when he says that people who refrain from giving all they can to famine relief think that killing is, in itself, worse than letting die?  Perhaps some of us do, but upon reflection most of us acknowledge that sometimes an omission that permits a death is as serious as an act of killing.  Imagine, for example, that a physician in charge of treating her rich uncle really wants him to die so that (like her sister Betty) she can inherit his estate, and suppose she omits to provide some treatment knowing that without it he will die.  Her omission is as morally objectionable as killing him would be.  Or suppose a physician were late for a golf game, and simply abandoned her patient, who them died from a treatable complication.  Her omission would be comparable to a decision to drive drunk, knowing that someone could be killed.

So most of us would not accept the unqualified view that “killing is worse than letting die.”  In some circumstances, such as when we are involved in certain relationships, we have a special obligation to preserve others’ welfare, and our neglect can be so seriously wrong as to invite comparison to a killing.  The relationships are ones in which the lives of some people are entrusted to others; examples include the physician-patient relationship, and the parent-child relationship.  This is not to say that a physician cannot, under any circumstances, allow her patient to die, for a patient might wish to refuse treatment, in which case he will release his physician from her obligation to provide care she otherwise would have provided. 

A more accurate statement of our position, then, is that unless I have a special obligation to preserve your welfare, omitting to help you is not to be compared with killing you.  Where such an obligation does not exist, my neglect is, at worst, an ordinary violation of my general duty to provide emergency assistance, which is a much less serious moral failing than a killing.  In order to defend his equivalence thesis, Rachels must convince us that we have an obligation to everyone that is as demanding as parents’ responsibility for their children.  But this claim presupposes that morality requires that we treat others in a strictly impartial way, which is a thesis we have questioned.  Rachels’ defense of extreme altruism is therefore unconvincing. 



1.                  According to J. S. Mill, sometimes enforcing an otherwise useful rule of conduct will backfire, or have no useful effects.  In such cases we should not speak of a duty to abide by the rule.  Instead, conformity to a rule of conduct is our duty only if enforcing the rule will result in the greatest good—that is, only if enforcing the rule is right.[16]  (Mill’s terminology is misleading and confusing, since it implies that we are not always duty-bound to perform actions that are morally required.  Only some beneficial acts are ‘duties,’ yet failing to do as much good as possible is always morally wrong.[17])  But can’t we be accountable for tasks even when it is onerous to force us to avoid doing them?  Imagine super criminals, who cannot be stopped without killing thousands of innocent people:  apprehending such villains may well entail more harm than good, but does this support the idea that the criminals have done nothing wrong? (And can Mill get away with saying that the criminals are not duty-bound to cease their wrongful behavior?)

2.                  Peter Singer defends a strong obligation to assist others on the basis of the following principle:  “if we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.”[18]  Critically assess this principle.  Can it support a plausible argument for extreme altruism?  Why or why not?

3                    What does Singer’s principle suggest when applied to people in Shimp’s situation—that is, to people who are suitable donors of bone marrow?  Does it require that they make the donation?  Does it require that all of us donate one of our kidneys if by doing so we can save a life?  Does it permit a physician to kill a healthy but unwilling ‘donor’ so as to save several people who need organs?

4                    Can rule and/or act utilitarianism require healthy people to give up their lives so as to provide tissues needed to save several others?  If no one is willing to offer herself up, can it sanction killing unwilling donors?

5                    Is it possible for a consequentialist to reject Rachels’ equivalence thesis?  What should a consequentialist say about the significance of the acts versus omissions distinction?  Explain.

6                    Rachels says that “there are the same reasons for and against letting die as for and against killing,” therefore, “killing and letting die are morally equivalent—neither is preferable to the other.”  Critically assess his position. 

7                    Critically assess the following argument:  it is far easier to control how we act than it is to control the things we omit to do.  So we are always responsible for how we act, but only sometimes responsible for how we omit to act.

8                    Should society punish failures of generosity?  If so, which kinds?  Explain.

9                    Critically assess the following argument:  even if people are obligated to help the needy in reasonable ways, they have the right to choose whom to help.  Hence they should be allowed to designate how the money taken from them in taxes is to be spent. 

10                Respond to the following argument: Shimp did not act immorally, because undergoing a painful surgical procedure to save a life is an act of considerable self-sacrifice.  Had he helped his cousin, we would have praised his generosity, and expected his cousin to be grateful.  This suggests we think that Shimp was being asked to do more than his duty, for it is inappropriate to praise people merely for doing their duty, and inappropriate to condemn people for not doing more than they must.

11                Suppose Schmitt the nazi holds a gun to your head and tells you that unless you push Lucy in front of an oncoming train he will shoot you.  May you kill Lucy?  (Is killing an innocent bystander who is not threatening you self-defense?  May you do anything whatever to save your own life?)  Now suppose Schmitt tells you that unless you kill Lucy he will kill 20 innocent bystanders, and that he will spare them if you do kill Lucy.  May you kill Lucy?  Is it your duty?  What would the utilitarian say?  What would the Kantian say?  Whose view is more plausible?




On Utilitarianism

Bentham, Jeremy.  Anarchical Fallacies, Article II.  Reprinted in Luper, Steven. ed.  Social Ideals and Policies.  Mountain View:  Mayfield Press, 1999.

-----.  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1823).  Burns J. and Hart, H. L. A., eds.  London:  Athlone Press, 1970.

Frey, R. G.  Utility and Rights.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Goodin, Robert.  “Utility and the Good.” In A Companion to Ethics.  Singer, Peter, ed.  Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1991.

Hare, R. M.  Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1981.

Jamieson, Dale, ed.  Singer and his Critics.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999.

Lyons, David.  Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1965).

Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism (1863).  Reprinted in Luper, Steven, ed.  Social Ideals and Policies. Mountain View:  Mayfield Press, 1999.

Rachels, James.  “The Debate Over Utilitarianism.”  In The Elements of Moral Philosophy.  Third Ed.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Sidgwick, Henry.  The Methods of Ethics (1874).  London:  Macmillan, 1907.

Sen, Amartya and  Williams, Bernard.  Utilitarianism, For and Against.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard.  Utilitarianism and Beyond.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1982.


On the Obligation to Provide Emergency Relief

Aiken, William, and LaFollette, Hugh.  World Hunger and Moral Obligation.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Dower, Nigel.  “World Poverty.”  In A Companion to Ethics.  Singer, Peter, ed.  Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1991.

Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya.  Hunger and Public Action.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1989.

Fishkin, James.  The Limits of Obligation.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1982.

Goodin, Robert.  Protecting the Vulnerable.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lappe, Frances Moore, and Collins, Joseph.  World Hunger:  Twelve Myths.  San Francisco:  Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1982.

O’Neill, Onora. “Hunger, Needs, and Rights,” in Problems of International Justice.  Luper, Steven, ed.  Boulder:  Westview Press, 1988.

-----.  Faces of Hunger.  London:  Allen & Unwin, 1986.

Rachels, James.  “Killing and Starving to Death,” Philosophy 54 (1979) 159-171.

Shue, Henry.  Basic Rights:  Subsistence, Affluence, and U. S. Foreign Policy.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1980.

Singer, Peter.  “Rich and Poor.”  In his Practical Ethics.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Unger, Peter.  Living High and Letting Die:  Our Illusion of Innocence.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1996.


[1]McFall v. Shimp, 10 Pa.D. & C. 3d 90 (1978).

[2]Anarchical Fallacies, Article II, reprinted in S. Luper, ed., Social Ideals and Policies (Mountain View:  Mayfield Press, 1999), p. 243.

[3]The point is emphasized by Mill, too, in Chapter II of Utilitarianism, Oskar Piest, ed. (Indianapolis:  Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), p. 22:  “As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

[4]Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation,” in Moral Problems, James Rachels, ed. (New York:  Harper and Row, 1975).

[5]Utilitarianism, Chapter II, Oskar Piest, ed. (Indianapolis:  Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), p. 22. 

[6]The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Third Ed., (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1999), p. 122-1.

[7]Gene Epstein, “Taxing Times,” Barron’s 79, no. 25, June 21, 1999, p. 27.

[9]Najeeb Halaby, “It’s Time for Charities to Get More Benefit from the Donation Buck, The Christian Science Monitor 88, no. 20, Dec. 22, 1995, p. 19.


[11]Unlike the remaining cases, the Case of the Ruthless Mayor only works against the hedonist version of classical utilitarianism, not the preferential version.  The preferential utilitarian says desire satisfaction is what counts, but most people in a town outraged by a crime want the real criminal punished, which is not accomplished by framing an innocent person.

[12]See, for example, the end of Chapter II of Utilitarianism, and Mill’s treatment of principles in Chapter V.  It is later utilitarians who develop the two-tiered system fully.  See, for example, R. M. Hare, Moral Thinking (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1981).

[13]Mill, for one, did not advocating putting considerations of utility completely aside when deciding how to act.  He thought it best that we cultivate in people “a direct impulse to promote the general good,” making it “one of the habitual motives of action. . . .”  (Chapter II, p. 23.)

[14]Economists use the term Pareto optimal to refer to situations in which no one can be made any better off without making someone else worse off, after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923).

[15]James Rachels, “Killing and Starving to Death,” Philosophy 54 (1979) 159-171, p. 159.

[16]Utilitarianism, Chapter V, reprinted in Social Ideals and Policies, p. 148.

[17]Utilitarianism, Chapter II, reprinted in Social Ideals and Policies, p. 140.

[18]Singer, “Rich and Poor,” in his Practical Ethics, Second Edition (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993).