Why do philosophy courses still include utilitarianism? Why is it regarded as a contender?
There is literally no evidence that any utilitarian principle is true. There never has been and, after hundreds of years of its failing to appear, there is no reason to think that there ever will be.
Bentham attacked a straw man to make his own theory appear credible in comparison. His bete noir was intuitionism. He contended that there was no way to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions. But he ignored the intuitionist explanation that intuitions were unreliable when they were contaminated by error or ignorance with respect to what lawyers call material facts.
It is impossible for utilitarians to undermine that reply to his objection because utilitarian judgments can also be contaminated by error or ignorance. They have the same problem, and need the same solution, as intuitionists.
The best explanation for the rise of utilitarianism is English politics: parliament found its “alternative facts” useful in its struggle with the judiciary over whether judges could invalidate legislation.
Utilitarians like Peter Singer declare that we should reason with ourselves. But there is a difference between using reason to apply the utilitarian calculus and using it to justify its application. It is easy to do the former but impossible to do the latter.
Utilitarianism has counter-intuitive results. In the trolley cases, our intuitions tell us to direct the trolley so that it kills one stranger on one track rather than five on another but that we should not throw a fat man in front of the trolley to stop it. Even if we can convince ourselves that we should sacrifice the fat man, we cannot convince ourselves that we should throw ourselves or our children in front of the trolley. But utilitarianism is just as insistent that we sacrifice ourselves or our children as it is that we sacrifice corpulent strangers.
The fact that utilitarians see no difference between the two types of trolley cases reveals the crudeness of their thinking. We have a different relationship to the fat man than we have to the stranger on the track. If we throw the former onto the track, we commit ourselves to conceding that it would be all right for others to do the same to us or our offspring. We do not acquire the same commitment when we switch the trolley to a different set of tracks. Given the odds and our ignorance of the identity of the individuals involved, we are happy to commit ourselves straightforwardly to minimizing the loss of human life in those circumstances.
The fact that utilitarians are committed to sacrificing themselves or their children for strangers puts them at odds with evolution. The commitment would reduce their viability or fertility – their fitness – and utilitarians need to explain how morality could persist in an evolutionary world if their theory were true. In other words, they need to explain why they are not as crazy as creationists.
The one thing utilitarians are good at is churning out results by applying their theory. Thus, it provides jobs for philosophers – easy jobs. And keeping it on the curriculum gives philosophers something to talk about in classes. But the jobs are not worth doing. And the teaching is counter-productive insofar as it serves to discredit morality as an idea and to make it easier for psychopaths to pass.