Utilitarian Philosophy and The Holocaust

The pursuit of happiness is a goal many of us strive for in life. John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer both attempt to tie happiness, in respect to the community or world, to morality. The model of Utilitarianism is too extreme and brings more questions than it answers. I will explain Mill’s and Singer’s utilitarian positions and my own critique of it.

Mill starts with his own critique of the virtue philosophers. “Our moral faculty, according to all those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not for perception of it in the concrete.” (Mill pg. 6) By rejecting virtue philosophers’ ideas that acting on our impulses correctly and morally, Mill was able to lead to his view of morality through consequentialism. No matter what the intentions, if the outcome was good, it was a morally good choice. “… the Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill pg. 10) With the Greatest Happiness Principle, Mill brings the utilitarian calculus into his ethics, of deciding based on what would bring the most amount of happiness and the least amount, or largest reduction, of pain. He also believed that people are born neutral in our ideas of morally right and wrong. Education is what brings about moral correctness. This education must persist throughout society in order to bring about a morally right society. Mill doesn’t seem extreme, but he also didn’t live through some extreme and trying times.

Peter Singer takes after Mill, being a utilitarian and a consequentialist. In the story of Bob and his Bugatti, Singer shows how self-centered people can be on an extreme level. Bob can throw a switch to save a child or do nothing and keep his financial security through the rest of his life. “Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.” (Singer) Singer goes to show that we wouldn’t agree with Bob’s decision despite making the same type of decision every day and following in Bob’s footsteps. While we, most-likely, don’t have a five-million-dollar car at risk, we would lose our movie theatre and nice dinner money. Why buy a fifty-dollar dinner when I can eat for five dollars at home and donate the other forty-five to charity. All our excess that we use for pleasure should be taken and used for the unfortunate. It is our collective responsibility to help the world by doing this. By doing this, we return to the Greatest Happiness Principle proposed by Mill. We can increase more happiness around the world by donating our excess to others that don’t have any food. rather than using that excess on ourselves to make one night happier for two people. Singer takes Mill’s ideas and shows a more extreme outlook.

Utilitarian philosophy is all about making people happier and reducing pain. Mill and Singer do not give any guidance on how to achieve this, only that this must be achieved. In many examples, we would not agree with Singer and Mill. If someone is disabled and will only know pain in their life, Mill and Singer would advocate that they die. It would bring about the least amount of pain to everyone involved and it may seem right to some. This is not our choice to make for the person in pain. What are we to do when someone is disabled and can’t increase the happiness in society and only brings pain to those who are around them? Utilitarianism has no boundary and is only guided by the consequences of someone’s actions. Singer mentions the use of excess to donate to those who are less fortunate than ourselves. He fails to see the shortcomings of society as the issue of why these people are in poverty or starving. While there are people out there who can donate every excess penny, they have and fix multitudes of problems in one fell swoop, Singer would claim they aren’t moral, despite having provided jobs and improving the economy around them, they did not give away their excess wealth to improve the happiness of the world. Singer, who was born in 1946, also fails to address any kind of historical evidence of utilitarianism. While the Holocaust in Nazi Germany was tragic, it didn’t serve a true purpose unless it increased the happiness of Germany, or Hitler to be exact, and decreased their pain. If the Holocaust did utilitarian calculus correctly and made the population of Germany in 1938 (68 million) happy while 6 million Jews died to make that happiness possible, then a utilitarian would agree that what happened was morally right. I cannot write a critique like this and ever stand by a utilitarian argument like this.

While Mill and Singer both wanted the world to be a better place, they wanted it to happen in whatever way possible, if it got the result that they wanted. Utilitarianism works in small, controlled areas where high risk things, like people’s lives, aren’t at risk. Utilitarianism according to Mill and Singer breaks down at the extremes and is not a practical way to live a life. Setting boundaries and ensuring that Utilitarianism never crosses a set line would destroy the philosophy; however, this is needed to make it into a viable philosophy.

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Utilitarian Philosophy and The Holocaust. (2022, Sep 27). Retrieved June 13, 2024 , from
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