You are a Utility Monster
Robert Nozick created his ‘utility monster’ thought-experiment to show a fatal flaw in Utilitarianism.
Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose…the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.
The Stakes vs Fiction
Utilitarian Ethical theory attempts to create a rigorous, basic, formula for determining good actions from bad. If humanity found that it reliably works as an ethical theory, we could put an end to all manner of ethical debates.
Note in finance, some people cheat the law, and embezzle money. Edge-cases exist where nobody feels sure if an action violated the law, but in most cases, we can see where someone has stolen money through illegal book-keeping, or other methods, and where they have not. If Utilitarian theory could provide a similar set of rules for ethical behaviour, it could revolutionize government, removing massive chunks of subjectivity from any society which attempted to live by that code.
One might as well argue that Kant’s Categorical Imperative cannot work, because the leprechauns in Opposite-Land enjoy being miserable, so they really would will that doing bad things become a universal law.
With this much to gain on the table, I we can’t abandon Utilitarianism simply due to a fairy-tale example. We should demand, at the least, a counter-example based in reality.
We are Utility Monsters
Returning to the mundane realm, I have found a utility monster - myself.
Utilitarians general put far more weight on humans than other animals. They often don’t eat meat, because the enjoyment of bacon cannot outweigh the kind of torture that factory-farmed pigs endure. But despite valuing the experiences of pigs, chickens, and (some might argue), ants, Utilitarians always value the experiences of animals less than humans, one way or another.
Given the choice between saving one human, or n wild pigs, I don’t know how many pigs would tip the scales in their favour, but I’d be surprised to hear any real Utilitarian name a number less than 1,000.
In fact, Utilitarians typically allow for animal testing, if the cause grants enough expected utility. If we can give 10,000 rats cancer to provide a 1% chance of halting the growth of 1 type of cancer, Utilitarian theory would generally allow for the result.
Of course, we cannot expect rats to agree - most rats are not perfect Utilitarians. This does not detract from the fact that dead rats in return for a living human works fine, and should not surprise us.
If someone builds a robot, they should build it with the intentions of following Utilitarianism, and the robot should agree to sacrifice any well-being it could be said to have for the best possible benefit for humans.