One of Utilitarianism’s notable critics is the famous legal theoretician, John Rawls. Rawls’ objection to the notion of impartiality arises from the philosophical system’s blanket application of its principles to the entire social plane. For example, just as an individual weighs the gains and losses in the preset against that estimated in the future, so a society could measure satisfactions and dissatisfactions between different individuals. And through this endeavor the principle of utility is applied in a natural way: “a society is properly arranged when its institutions maximize the net [or average] balance of satisfaction.” ((Rawls 1971:24), as quoted in Scarre 21).
Universalism has been a historically significant feature in Utilitarian discourse. Of the central maxim of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, universalism concerns with the latter half, namely, ‘the greatest number’. As universalism seeks to promote the distribution of happiness as widely as possible, it can be deemed as an extension of the Enlightenment project, which too purports to expand the boundaries of moral concern. Utilitarians underscore the moral weight of this principle through this explication:
“Any person, no matter how poor, or powerless, or socially marginal, no matter how remote from the centers of influence and privilege, may, by invoking moral principles, assert a claim or express a grievance in the language of a system to which nobody, however rich, powerful, or well-bred, may claim immunity” (Scheffler 1992:12, as quoted in Scarre 23).
This rationale had such an intuitive appeal that universalism had become a pillar of Utilitarian philosophy by the middle of18th century. Such prominent intellectuals as Helvetius, had called on the government of France to create legislation that would “produce a happiness which was universelle as well as égale.” (Helvétius, as quoted in Crisp 13) Across the English channel, in Scotland, philosopher Francis Hutcheson proclaimed that “‘that action is best which secures the greatest happiness of the greatest number’” (Selby-Bigge, as quoted in (Crisp 14). The list of supporters also included criminal law thinker Cesare Beccaria. Jeremy Bentham spoke eloquently of how it is the duty of the government to “create a fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law” (Bentham, as quoted in Crisp 14). John Stuart Mill even took the Biblical analogy in his defense of the ethical fortitude of universalism and by extension utilitarianism. (Scarre 23) In short, universalism states that each individual’s interests count equally, and thus in moral terms there is no segregation among the citizens.
While universalism sounds self-evidently correct and beyond scrutiny, a rigorous analysis of all its implications will question this status. There is a simple technical reason why it is flawed, namely, we cannot logically pursue the double maximand of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, for we mostly confront situations where the choices are between “one action which will provide a lesser utility for a larger population and another which will produce a larger utility for a smaller number. In such circumstances it is not possible simultaneously to produce the greatest happiness and to benefit the greatest number.” (Crisp 18) Even Jeremy Bentham, one of the founding fathers of Utilitariansm, retrospectively acknowledged this problem and hence moderated the core principle to simply that of ‘greatest happiness’, forgoing the insistence on the ‘greatest number’.
• Crisp, Roger. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1997.
• Grote, John. An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy. Bristol, England: Thoemmes, 1990.
• Scarre, Geoffrey. Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1996. .