Utilitarianism Redux

1. Introduction ​

Singer’s (1972) maximising consequentialist argument in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” has clear utilitarian motivations. This article examines whether the over-demandingness objection against Singer’s argument calls for his utilitarian motivation to be revised or rejected.

To do so, I will briefly reiterate Singer’s “strong” (241) conclusion in his paper and explain the over-demandingness objection against it (§2), consider the problem of rejecting utilitarianism in Singer’s case of world poverty (§3), and evaluate the satisficing consequentialists’ response to the over-demandingness objection (§4). Ultimately, I argue that for our present case, utilitarianism should be revised, not rejected.

2. Utilitarianism and Singer’s Argument for Maximising Consequentialism ​

Sinnott-Armstrong (2015) notes that classic utilitarians endorse “a complex combination of many distinct [consequentialist] claims” (Consequentialism). One of these claims includes Singer’s maximising consequentialism. Singer’s strong conclusion is

S: that to address world poverty, “we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility – that is, the level at which… one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee” (241).

Thus, Singer’s utilitarian conclusion suggests that people living in wealthier countries who do not maximise utility (i.e. people who do not donate significant portions of their wealth to the point of marginal utility) are doing something morally wrong. ​

Against Singer’s strong conclusion, as Sinnott-Armstrong notes, many philosophers respond with the over-demandingness objection: they argue that S “interferes with the personal decisions that most of us feel should be left up to the individual” (Consequentialism).

In other words, they reject Singer’s maximising consequentialism and argue that certain acts like S are really supererogatory – that is, acts that would be good if one were to do it, but not wrong if one does not. In the next section, I consider a key problem with such an argument against utilitarianism.

3. Carson Against Over-Demandingness ​

As I have suggested, philosophers who reject Singer’s utilitarianism often argue for their intuition

S*: acts like S are supererogatory.

From this, they hold that a moral agent should not be morally blamed if she decides not to do S. However, Carson (1982) points out that arguments for S* are “seriously prejudiced by a concern for our own self-interest” (243); we have an interest both (i) in avoiding the heavy moral obligation of S and (ii) in denying that we are falling short of “what we ought to do in such matters” (ibid.).

Here, I wish to argue that arguments for S* can be easily abused to justify our refusal to donate substantially to charities. Worse still, these arguments might lead to a slippery slope when they are used unreflectively to justify the claim that all acts of donation are supererogatory. Thus, I hold that the unreliability and ease of abuse of the intuition S* are key reasons why we should consider revising utilitarianism instead of rejecting it for our present case; there are hitherto no conclusive grounds for us to reject utilitarianism yet.

Nevertheless, a stronger case for why we should revise utilitarianism would also require an examination of the strength of such a potential revision. In the next section, I evaluate the strength of one such proposal – satisficing consequentialism.

4. The Satisficing Consequentialists’ Response

4.1 Sufficient Utility, Not Maximum Utility

In order to address the over-demandingness objection against Singer’s argument, satisficing consequentialists give up maximising consequentialism. Instead, they hold that we need not always choose to perform actions that maximise utility; we “may sometimes choose what is good enough, without regard for whether what [we] have chosen is the best thing (outcome) available in the circumstances” (Slote 141).

Applied to our case, this means that we need not always give to charity to the point of marginal utility – we just need to make sure that “the money or time that [we] could contribute does create enough good, so it is not just wasted” (Consequentialism, emphasis mine).

Thus, satisficing consequentialists address the over-demandingness objection by holding that it is morally permissible for an agent to donate an amount of money that is below the utility-maximising level. Furthermore, by arguing that it is morally wrong to not donate to charities at a stipulated level of sufficient utility, they prevent the abuse of arguments supporting S* that are used to justify complete refusals to donate to charity.

4.2 Problems with Satisficing Consequentialism and Potential Responses ​

However, satisficing consequentialists face their own problems. An immediate problem seems to be

(1) the difficulty of specifying just how much is enough utility.


(2) Bradley (2006) has argued that satisficing consequentialists are not proposing anything new; their suggestion basically amounts to Singer’s “maximising consequentialism with … [an] exception for cases of great personal sacrifice” (108). ​

Against (1), I suggest that rival theories of morality face more challenging problems than that of specificity. For instance, Alexander and Moore (2016) suggest that deontological theories need to account for how their theory of moral duty could sometimes authorise actions that make the world morally worse off.

Here, I hold that the satisficing consequentialists’ problem in (1) can be more easily resolved. In fact, Rogers (2010) addresses the specificity problem in (1) while simultaneously providing a response to Bradley’s objection in (2). It is beyond the scope of this article to critically assess Rogers’ response to Bradley, but it should be fair to say that satisficing consequentialists have the resources to respond to two of their toughest criticisms.

Moreover, even if satisficing consequentialists were to face irremediable problems, or if they cannot escape from Bradley's charge of triviality in (2), it does not mean that Singer’s argument could not be supported by other more promising versions of sophisticated consequentialist theories. An example might be scalar consequentialism. Scalar consequentialists avoid (2) by default, and it is not immediately clear that (1) directly applies to them, since they hold that the rightness and wrongness of actions come in degrees.

Together with my argument in §3 that the unreliability and ease of abuse of S* give us no good reason to reject Singer’s utilitarian argument, the potential for more sophisticated forms of consequentialism to undergird Singer's argument gives us strong theoretical and practical reasons to revise utilitarianism instead of rejecting it.

The exact form of such a revision, however, is to be worked out subsequently.


Alexander, Larry, and Moore, Michael. “Deontological Ethics”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ethics-deontological/>.

Bradley, Ben. “Against Satisficing Consequentialism”.Utilitas, vol. 18, no. 2, 2006, pp. 97-108. doi:10.1017/S0953820806001877.

Carson, Thomas L. “Utilitarianism and World Poverty”. The Limits of Utilitarianism, edited by Harlan B. Miller and William H. Williams, NED - New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1982, pp. 242–252. Print.

Rogers, Jason. “In Defense of a Version of Satisficing Consequentialism”. Utilitas, vol. 22, no. 2, 2010, pp. 198-221. doi:10.1017/S0953820810000099.

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 3, 1972, pp. 229-243.JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2265052.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/consequentialism/>.


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