Does utilitarianism "require" extreme self sacrifice? If not why do people commonly say it does?

by Princess_Stargirl 1 min read9th Dec 2014100 comments


Chist Hallquist wrote the following in an article (if you know the article please, please don't bring it up, I don't want to discuss the article in general):

"For example, utilitarianism apparently endorses killing a single innocent person and harvesting their organs if it will save five other people. It also appears to imply that donating all your money to charity beyond what you need to survive isn’t just admirable but morally obligatory. "

The non-bold part is not what is confusing me. But where does the "obligatory" part come in. I don't really how its obvious what, if any, ethical obligations utilitarianism implies. given a set of basic assumptions utilitarianism lets you argue whether one action is more moral than another. But I don’t see how its obvious which, if any, moral benchmarks utilitarianism sets for “obligatory.” I can see how certain frameworks on top of utilitarianism imply certain moral requirements. But I do not see how the bolded quote is a criticism of the basic theory of utilitarianism.

However this criticism comes up all the time. Honestly the best explanation I could come up with was that people were being unfair to utilitarianism and not thinking through their statements. But the above quote is by HallQ who is intelligent and thoughtful. So now I am genuinely very curious.

Do you think utilitarianism really require such extreme self sacrifice and if so why? And if it does not require this why do so many people say it does? I am very confused and would appreciate help working this out.


I am having trouble asking this question clearly. Since utilitarianism is probably best thought of as a cluster of beliefs. So its not clear what asking "does utilitarianism imply X" actually means. Still I made this post since I am confused. Many thoughtful people identity as utilitarian (for example Ozy and theunitofcaring) yet do not think people have extreme obligations. However I can think of examples where people do not seem to understand the implications of their ethical frameowrks. For example many Jewish people endorse the message of the following story:

Rabbi Hilel was asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot and responded "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this--go and study it!"

The story is presumably apocryphal but it is repeated all the time by Jewish people. However its hard to see how the story makes even a semblance of sense. The torah includes huge amounts of material that violates the "golden Rule" very badly. So people who think this story gives even a moderately accurate picture of the Torah's message are mistaken imo.