Some pitfalls of utilitarianism

My aim in this post is to highlight and discuss what I consider to be some potential pitfalls of utilitarianism. These are not necessarily pitfalls that undermine utilitarianism at a theoretical level (although some of them might also pose a serious challenge at that level). As I see them, they are more pitfalls at the practical level, relating to how utilitarianism is sometimes talked about, thought about, and acted on in ways that may be suboptimal by the standards of utilitarianism itself.

I should note from the outset that this post is not inspired by recent events involving dishonest and ruinous behavior by utilitarian actors; I have been planning to write this post for a long time. But recent events arguably serve to highlight the importance of some of the points I raise below.


  1. Restrictive formalisms and “formalism first”
  2. Risky and harmful decision procedures
    1. Allowing speculative expected value calculations to determine our actions
    2. Underestimating the importance of emotions, virtues, and other traits of moral actors
    3. Uncertainty-induced moral permissiveness
    4. Uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive
    5. A more plausible approach
  3. The link between utilitarian judgments and Dark Triad traits: A cause for reflection
  4. Acknowledgments

Restrictive formalisms and “formalism first”

A potential pitfall of utilitarianism, in terms of how it is commonly approached, is that it can make us quick to embrace certain formalisms and conclusions, as though we have to accept them on pain of mathematical inconsistency.

Consider the following example: Alice is a utilitarian who thinks that a certain mildly enjoyable experience, x, has positive value. On Alice’s view, it is clear that no number of instances of x would be worse than a state of extreme suffering, since a state of extreme suffering and a mildly enjoyable experience are completely different categories of experience. Over time, Alice reads about different views of wellbeing and axiology, and she eventually changes her position such that she finds it more plausible that no experiential states are above a neutral state, and that no states have intrinsic positive value (i.e. she comes to embrace a minimalist axiology).

Alice thus no longer considers it plausible to assign positive value to experience x, and instead now assigns mildly negative value to the experience (e.g. because the experience is not entirely flawless; it contains some bothersome disturbances). Having changed her mind about the value of experience x, Alice now feels mathematically compelled to say that sufficiently many instances of that experience are worse than any experience of extreme suffering, even though she finds this implausible on its face — she still thinks state x and states of extreme suffering belong to wholly different categories of experience.

To be clear, the point I am trying to make here is not that the final conclusion that Alice draws is implausible. My point is rather that certain prevalent ways of formalizing value can make people feel needlessly compelled to draw particular conclusions, as though there are no coherent alternatives, when in fact there are. More generally, there may be a tendency to “put formalism first”, as it were, rather than to consider substantive plausibility first, and to then identify a coherent formalism that fits our views of substantive plausibility.

Note that the pitfall I am gesturing at here is not one that is strictly implied by utilitarianism, as one can be a utilitarian yet still reject standard formalizations of utilitarianism. But being bound to a restrictive formalization scheme nevertheless seems common, in my experience, among those who endorse or sympathize with utilitarianism.

Risky and harmful decision procedures

A standard distinction in consequentialist moral theory is that between ‘consequentialist criteria of rightness’ and ‘consequentialist decision procedures’. One might endorse a consequentialist criterion of rightness — meaning that consequences determine whether a given action is right or wrong — without necessarily endorsing consequentialist decision procedures, i.e. decision procedures in which one decides how to act based on case-by-case calculations of the expected outcomes.

Yet while this distinction is often emphasized, it still seems that utilitarianism is prone to inspire suboptimal decision procedures, also by its own standards (as a criterion of rightness). The following are a few of the ways in which utilitarianism can inspire suboptimal decision procedures, attitudes, and actions by its own standards.

Allowing speculative expected value calculations to determine our actions

A particular pitfall is to let our actions be strongly determined by speculative expected value calculations. There are various reasons why this may be suboptimal by utilitarian standards, but an important one is simply that the probabilities that go into such calculations are likely to be inaccurate. If our probability estimates on a given matter are highly uncertain and likely to change a lot as we learn more, there is a large risk that it is suboptimal to make any strong bets on our current estimates.

The robustness of a given probability estimate is thus a key factor to consider when deciding whether to act on that estimate, yet it can be easy to neglect this factor in real-world decisions.

Underestimating the importance of emotions, virtues, and other traits of moral actors

A related pitfall is to underestimate the significance of emotions, attitudes, and virtues. Specifically, if we place a strong emphasis on the consequences of actions, we might in turn be inclined to underemphasize the traits and dispositions of the moral actors themselves. Yet the traits and dispositions of moral actors are often critical to emphasize and to actively develop if we are to create better outcomes. Our cerebral faculties and our intuitive attitudinal faculties can both be seen as tools that enable us to navigate the world, and the latter are often more helpful for creating desired outcomes than the former (cf. Gigerenzer, 2001).

A specific context in which I and others have tried to argue for the importance of underlying attitudes and traits, in contrast to mere cerebral beliefs, is when it comes to animal ethics. In particular, engaging in practices that are transparently harmful and exploitative toward non-human beings is harmful not only in terms of how it directly contributes to those specific exploitative practices, but also in terms of how it shapes our emotions, attitudes, and traits — and thus ultimately our behavior — going forward.

More generally, to emphasize outcomes while placing relatively little emphasis on the traits of humans, as moral actors, seems to overlook the largely habitual and disposition-based nature of human behavior. After all, our emotions and attitudes not only play important roles in our individual motivations and actions, but also in the social incentives that influence the behavior of others (cf. Haidt, 2001).

In short, if one embraces a consequentialist criterion of rightness, it seems that there are good reasons to cultivate the temperament of a virtue ethicist and the felt attitudes of a non-consequentialist who finds certain actions unacceptable in practically all situations.

Uncertainty-induced moral permissiveness

Another pitfall is to practically surrender one’s capacity for moral judgment due to uncertainty about long-term outcomes. In its most extreme manifestations, this might amount to declaring that we do not know whether people who committed large-scale atrocities in the past acted wrongly, since we do not know the ultimate consequences of those actions. But perhaps a more typical manifestation is to fail to judge, let alone oppose, ongoing harmful actions and intolerant values (e.g. clear cases of discrimination), again with reference to uncertainty about the long-term consequences of those actions and values.

This pitfall relates to the point about dispositions and attitudes made above, in that the disposition to be willing to judge and oppose harmful actions and views plausibly has better overall consequences than a disposition to be meek and unwilling to take a strong stance against such things.

After all, while there is significant uncertainty about the long-term future, one can still make reasonable inferences about which broad directions we should ideally steer our civilization toward over the long term (e.g. toward showing concern for suffering in prudent yet morally serious ways). Utilitarians have reason to help steer the future in those directions, and to develop traits and attitudes that are commensurate with such directional changes. (See also “Radical uncertainty about outcomes need not imply (similarly) radical uncertainty about strategies”.)

Uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive

A related pitfall is uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive, whereby empirical uncertainty serves as a stumbling block to dedicated efforts to help others. This is probably also starkly suboptimal, for reasons similar to those outlined above: all things considered, it is probably ideal to develop a burning drive to help other sentient beings, despite uncertainty about long-term outcomes.

Perhaps the main difficulty in this respect is to know which particular project or aim is most important to work on. Yet a potential remedy to this problem (here conveyed in a short and crude fashion) might be to first make a dedicated effort toward the concrete goal of figuring out which projects or aims seem most worth pursuing — i.e. a broad and systematic search, informed by copious reading. And when one has eventually identified an aim or project that seems promising, it might be helpful to somewhat relax the “doubting modules” of our minds and to stick to that project for a while, pursuing the chosen aim with dedication (unless something clearly better comes up).

A more plausible approach

The previous sections have mostly pointed to suboptimal ways to approach utilitarian decision procedures. In this section, I want to briefly outline what I would consider a more defensible way to approach decision-making from a utilitarian perspective (whether one is a pure utilitarian or whether one merely includes a utilitarian component in one’s moral view).

I think two key facts must inform any plausible approach to utilitarian decision procedures:

  1. We have massive empirical uncertainty.
  2. We humans have a strong proclivity to deceive ourselves in self-serving ways.

These two observations carry significant implications. In short, they suggest that we should generally approach moral decisions with considerable humility, and with a strong sense of skepticism toward conclusions that are conveniently self-serving or low on integrity.

Given our massive uncertainty and our endlessly rationalizing minds, the ideal approach to utilitarian decision procedures is probably one that has a rather large distance between the initial question of “how to act” and the final decision to pursue a given action — at least when one is trying to calculate one’s way to an optimal decision (as opposed to when one is relying on commonly endorsed rules of thumb or intuitions). And this distance should probably be especially large if the decision that at first seems most recommendable is one that other moral views, along with common-sense intuitions, would deem profoundly wrong.

In other words, it seems that utilitarian decision procedures are best approached by assigning a fairly high prior to the judgments of other ethical views and common-sense moral intuitions (in terms of how plausible those judgments are from a utilitarian perspective), at least when these other views and intuitions converge strongly on a given conclusion. And it seems warranted to then be quite cautious and slow to update away from that prior, in part because of our massive uncertainty and our self-deceived minds. This is not to say that one could not end up with significant divergences relative to other widely endorsed moral views, but merely that such strong divergences probably need to be supported by a level of evidence that exceeds a rather high bar.

Likewise, it seems worth approaching utilitarian decision procedures with a prior that strongly favors actions of high integrity, not least because we should expect our rationalizing minds to be heavily biased toward low integrity — especially when nobody is looking.

Put briefly, it seems that a more defensible approach to utilitarian decision procedures would be animated by significant humility and would embody a strong inclination toward key virtues of integrity, kindness, honesty, etc., partly due to our strong tendency to excuse and rationalize deficiencies in these regards.

There are many studies that find a modest but significant association between proto-utilitarian judgments and the personality traits of psychopathy (impaired empathy) and Machiavellianism (manipulativeness and deceitfulness). (See Bartels & Pizarro, 2011; Koenigs et al., 2012; Gao & Tang, 2013; Djeriouat & Trémolière, 2014; Amiri & Behnezhad, 2017; Balash & Falkenbach, 2018; Karandikar et al., 2019; Halm & Möhring, 2019; Dinić et al., 2020; Bolelli, 2021; Luke & Gawronski, 2021; Schönegger, 2022.)

Specifically, the aspect of utilitarian judgment that seems most associated with psychopathy is the willingness to commit harm for the sake of the greater good, whereas endorsement of impartial beneficence — a core feature of utilitarianism and many other moral views — is associated with empathic concern, and is thus negatively associated with psychopathy (Kahane et al., 2018; Paruzel-Czachura & Farny, 2022). Another study likewise found that the connection between psychopathy and utilitarian moral judgments is in part explained by a reduced aversion to carrying out harmful acts (Patil, 2015).

Of course, whether a particular moral view, or a given feature of a moral view, is associated with certain undesirable personality traits by no means refutes that moral view. But the findings reviewed above might still be a cause for self-reflection among those of us who endorse or sympathize with some form of utilitarianism.

For example, maybe utilitarians are generally inclined to have fewer moral inhibitions compared to most people — e.g. because utilitarian reasoning might override intuitive judgments and norms, or because utilitarians are (perhaps) above average in trait Machiavellianism, in which case they might have fewer strongly felt moral inhibitions to overcome in the first place. And if utilitarians do tend to have fewer or weaker moral restraints of certain kinds, this could in turn dispose them to be less ethical in some respects, also by their own standards.

To be clear, this is all somewhat speculative. Yet, at the same time, these speculations are not wholly unmotivated. In terms of potential upshots, it seems that a utilitarian proneness to reduced moral restraint, if real, would give utilitarian actors additional reason to be skeptical of inclinations to disregard common moral inhibitions against harmful acts and low-integrity behavior. In short, it would give utilitarians even more reason to err on the side of integrity.


For helpful comments, I am grateful to Tobias Baumann, Simon Knutsson, and Winston Oswald-Drummond.

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