Not All Happiness is Created Equal

Eliot Kersgaard
10 min readNov 8, 2019

Most persons are so absorbed in the contemplation of the outside world that they are wholly oblivious to what is passing on within themselves. The premature death of millions is primarily traceable to this cause. Even among those who exercise care, it is a common mistake to avoid imaginary, and ignore the real dangers. And what is true of an individual also applies, more or less, to a people as a whole.”

-Nikola Tesla, Autobiography, Chapter 2

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

The Setup

Let us imagine a creed of people with a singular passion, over which they obsess so diligently, practice so precisely, that from it they derive the utmost pleasure and happiness. Let their passion hold their lives so deeply that even thirty seconds of its performance would provide utility for years or decades. The bliss would persist so long, and be so complete, that it would assuredly outweigh any pain which its creation wrought, despite the fact that these trenchant folk derive their pleasure from the quick, painless extermination of innocent people.

My intuition about this case, and, I believe the stance that would be taken by most deontologists, is that the actions of the cult are deeply reprehensible. The utilitarian, and many other consequentialists, however, would argue that our intuitions about this case are mistaken. On what grounds, if any, can intuition be trusted in this case?

Foundations of Utilitarianism

Moral rule, we must concede, is a strange property indeed. Our intuition is a powerful guide in the pursuit of moral rules and it is wise to at least examine our intuitions when studying cases such as these and determine whether they have any reasonable foundation. Mill writes, “questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct” (Mill, Utilitarianism). Any debate about moral theory must be one about first principles, over which our intuition is our final guide.

First, we must outline the utilitarian approach which contradicts our moral intuitions, for without this contradiction the example is trivial. Mill outlines the utilitarian…