Utilisme en verdelingsvragen

Een van de bekende kritieken op het utilisme is dat het geen recht kan doen aan morele vragen op het gebied van rechtvaardigheid en verdeling. Volgens Rawls komt dit tekort van het utilisme voort uit het feit dat het utilisme geen recht kan doen aan de fundamentele gescheidenheid van personen. In plaats daarvan behandelt het utilisme de maatschappij als een geheel waarvan het nut verhoogd moet worden. De vraag naar de verdeling van nut (geluk, welvaart) verdwijnt dan automatisch uit beeld.

Ondanks Rawls' kritiek hebben utilisten op verschillende manieren aandacht besteed aan vragen van rechtvaardigheid en verdeling van welvaart. Sidgwick bijvoorbeeld meent dat weliswaar maatschappelijke situaties in de eerste plaats beoordeeld moeten worden op de totale hoeveelheid maatschappelijk nut maar dat bij gelijk maatschappelijk nut de situatie met een gelijkere verdeling van welvaart te verkiezen is.
Andere utilisten hebben betoogd dat het klassieke utilisme - met zijn nadruk op het grootste geluk voor het grootse aantal - al leidt tot een rechtvaardige een gelijkmatige verdeling van welvaart. Hare bijvoorbeeld noemt hier twee redenen voor. De eerste is dat een rijk iemand gemiddeld minder toegevoegd nut zou ervaren van een inkomenstoename van bijvoorbeeld 100 euro dan een arm iemand. Dit verschijnsel staat bekend in de economie als afnemend marginaal nut. (De term marginaal nut verwijst naar de toename van het nut bij een toename van bijvoorbeeld het inkomen). Een inkomensverbetering voor arme mensen leidt daarom eerder tot een maximalisering van het maatschappelijk nut dan een inkomenstoename voor mensen die al rijk zijn. De andere reden die Hare noemt is dat inkomensongelijkheid leidt tot jaloezie en daarmee tot negatief nut.

Het bovenstaande betekent niet dat utilisten inkomensverschillen afwijzen. Inkomensverschillen zijn toegestaan als ze per saldo leiden tot meer maatschappelijk nut, bijvoorbeeld omdat ze mensen aanmoedigen harder te werken. Op grond van dergelijke overwegingen komt de utilist Brandt tot het volgende verdelingsprincipe dat utilisten volgens hem zouden moeten onderschrijven: "The real income … after any taxes should be equal, except (a) for supplements to meet special needs, (b) supplements recompensating services to the extent needed to provide desirable incentives and allocate recourses efficiently, and (c) variations to achieve other socially desirable ends such as population control" (Brandt, Theory of the Good and the Right, p. 310).

John Rawls

John Rawls

J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, section 5.

The striking feature of the utilitarian view of justice is that it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals any more than it matters, except indirectly, how one man distributes his satisfactions over time. The correct distribution in either case is that which yields the maximum fulfillment. Society must allocate its means of satisfaction whatever these are, rights and duties, opportunities and privileges, and various forms of wealth, so as to achieve this maximum if it can. But in itself no distribution of satisfaction is better than another except that the more equal distribution is to be preferred to break ties. It is true that certain common sense precepts of justice, particularly those which concern the protection of liberties and rights, or which express the claims of desert, seem to contradict this contention. But from a utilitarian standpoint the explanation of these precepts and of their seemingly stringent character is that they are those precepts which experience shows should be strictly respected and departed from only under exceptional circumstances if the sum of advantages is to be maximized. Yet, as with all other precepts, those of justice are derivative from the one end of attaining the greatest balance of satisfaction. Thus there is no reason in principle why the greater gains of some should not compensate for the lesser losses of others; or more importantly, why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many. It simply happens that under most conditions, at least in a reasonably advanced stage of civilization, the greatest sum of advantages is not attained in this way. No doubt the strictness of common sense precepts of justice has a certain usefulness in limiting men's propensities to injustice and to socially injurious actions, but the utilitarian believes that to affirm this strictness as a first principle of morals is a mistake. For just as it is rational for one man to maximize the fulfilment of his system of desires, it is right for a society to maximize the net balance of satisfaction taken over all of its members.

The most natural way, then, of arriving at utilitarianism (although not, of course, the only way of doing so) is to adopt for society as a whole the principle of rational choice for one man. Once this is recognized, the place of the impartial spectator and the emphasis on sympathy in the history of utilitarian thought is readily understood. For it is by the conception of the impartial spectator and the use of sympathetic identification in guiding our imagination that the principle for one man is applied to society. It is this spectator who is conceived as carrying out the required organization of the desires of all persons into one coherent system of desire; it is by this construction that many persons are fused into one. Endowed with ideal powers and sympathy and imagination, the impartial spectator is the perfectly rational individual who identifies with and experiences the desires of others as if these desires were his own. In this way he ascertains the intensity of these desires and assigns them their appropriate weight in the one system of desire the satisfaction of which the ideal legislator then tries to maximize by adjusting the rules of the social system. On this conception of society separate individuals are thought of as so many different lines along which rights and duties are to be assigned and scarce means of satisfaction allocated in accordance with rules so as to give the greatest fulfilment of wants. The nature of the decision made by the ideal legislator is not, therefore, materially different from that of an entrepreneur deciding how to maximize his profit by producing this or that commodity, or that of a consumer deciding how to maximize his satisfaction by the purchase of this or that collection of goods. In each case there is a single person whose system of desires determines the best allocation of limited means. The correct decision is essentially a question of efficient administration. This view of social cooperation is the consequence of extending to society the principle of choice for one man, and then, to make this extension work, conflating all persons into one through the imaginative acts of the impartial sympathetic spectator. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.


John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

When we call anything a person's right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion. If he has what we consider a sufficient claim, on whatever account, to have something guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it. If we desire to prove that anything does not belong to him by right, we think this done as soon as it is admitted that society ought not to take measures for securing it to him, but should leave him to chance, or to his own exertions. Thus, a person is said to have a right to what he can earn in fair professional competition, because society ought not to allow any other person to hinder him from endeavoring to earn in that manner as much as he can. But he has not a right to three hundred a-year, though he may happen to be earning it; because society is not called on to provide that he shall earn that sum. […] To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought? I can give him no other reason than general utility. (Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 5).

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1)

Henry Sidgwick


There is one more point that remains to be noticed. It is evident that there may be many different ways of distributing the same quantum of happiness among the same number of persons; in order, therefore, that the Utilitarian criterion of right conduct may be as complete as possible, we ought to know which of these ways is to be preferred. This question is often ignored in expositions of Utilitarianism. It has perhaps seemed somewhat idle as suggesting a purely abstract and theoretical perplexity, that could have no practical exemplification; and no doubt, if all the consequences of actions were capable of being estimated and summed up with mathematical precision, we should probably never find the excess of pleasure over pain exactly equal in the case of two competing alternatives of conduct. But the very indefiniteness of all hedonistic calculations, which was sufficiently shown in Book ii., renders it by no means unlikely that there may be no cognisable difference between the quantities of happiness involved in two sets of consequences respectively; the more rough our estimates necessarily are, the less likely we shall be to come to any clear decision between two apparently balanced alternatives. In all such cases, therefore, it becomes practically important to ask whether any mode of distributing a given quantum of happiness is better than any other. Now the Utilitarian formula seems to supply no answer to this question: at least we have to supplement the principle of seeking the greatest happiness on the whole by some principle of Just or Right distribution of this happiness. The principle which most Utilitarians have either tacitly or expressly adopted is that of pure equality---as given in Bentham's formula, ``everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one''. And this principle seems the only one which does not need a special justification; for, as we saw, it must be reasonable to treat any one man in the same way as any other, if there be no reason apparent for treating him differently
(Henry Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics, Book IV, Chapter I, Section 2)

R.M. Hare


in Sen & Williams, p. 26-27 (gedeeltes)
R.M. Hare, Ëthical theory and utilitarianism”, in Sen, A. and Williams, B. (eds) (1982) Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 26-27

Some further notes on this suggestion will be in place here. First, it is sometimes alleged that justice has to be at odds with utility. But if we ask how we are to be just between the competing interests of different people, it seems hard to give any other answer than that it is by giving equal weight, impartially, to the equal interests of everybody. And this is precisely what yields the utility principle. It does not necessarily yield equality in the resulting distribution. There are, certainly, very good utilitarian reasons for seeking equality in distribution too; but justice is something distinct. The utilitarian is sometimes said to be indifferent between equal and unequal distributions, provided that total utility is equal. This is so; but it conceals two important utilitarian grounds for a fairly high degree of equality of actual goods (tempered, of course, as in most systems including Rawls's, by various advantages that are secured by moderate inequalities). The first is the diminishing marginal utility of all commodities and of money, which means that approaches towards equality will tend to increase total utility .The second is that inequalities tend to produce, at any rate in educated societies, envy, hatred and malice, whose disutility needs no emphasizing. I am convinced that when these two factors are taken into account, utilitarians have no need to fear the accusation that they could favour extreme inequalities of distribution in actual modern societies. Fantastic hypothetical cases can no doubt be invented in which they would have to favour them; but, as we shall see, this is an illegitimate form of argument.