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Nozick’s Challenge to Utilitarian Ethics

Based on the concept of utilitarianism espoused by Jeremy Bentham (1789), utilitarian ethics holds that the rightness of any course of action entirely depends on the value of its consequences, and that the usefulness such action can be rationally estimated by calculating benefits and harms. On the premise that enjoyment or pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, utilitarianism believes that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action give the greatest benefit. Therefore, utilitarian ethics dictates that one should always perform the action that produces the greatest overall quantity of good. (as cited in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” Robert Nozick (1974) launched his argument on the psychological implausibility of utilitarianism aptly illustrated in a machine that can be programmed with a variety of happy experiences and, through brain stimulation can produce any series of experiences one may desire.

"Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? [...] Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening [...] Would you plug in?" (pp. 42-43)

By repeatedly asking the question “would you plug in?”, Nozick underscores the rationality of deciding whether to plug in or not. If one cares only for pleasure that the quality of experience the experience machine promises, then it would be irrational for him not to plug in (Arneson, 1999). Refusal to plug in indicates that one has other aims or desires other than pleasure and enjoyment. But utilitarian ethics implies that the best possible decision would be to plug in.

Nozick’s critical strategy involves an isolation approach where he isolates pleasure as the only thing valuable in life, with other desires being subservient. Since nothing else matters except pleasure being the sole intrinsic value, a life of pleasures made possible through an experience machine, for example, would be a great life. However, intuitively, such a life would not be great. Therefore, pleasure is not the intrinsic value

Utilitarian considerations seem to ignore the inviolable rights of individuals. Thus, Nozick argues that it is wrong to violate one person’s rights to produce a greater good. For example, to kill one person to avoid the killing of a few would be wrong. Following Kantian ethics, Nozick also upholds that individuals must be treated as ends in themselves not as “mere means,” or tools. Based on the inherent value of all persons, ethics should instead be founded on respect for another person’s life and autonomy and dictate that human action and decision should consider individual value responsive to people’s value, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish (Nozick, 2001, p.281).


Arneson, R. J. (1999). Human flourishing versus desire satisfaction. Social Philosophy and Policy, 16, 1. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://philosophy.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/flour4.pdf.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Nozick, R. (2001). Invariances: The structure of the objective world. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy. Jeremy Bentham. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/b/bentham.htm

Cultural Relativism

Anchored on the cogency of a particular culture in molding the moral values and beliefs of its members, cultural relativism holds that all cultures, however diverse they may be, are of equal value and that every culture adopts its own ethical or moral system to regulate the behavior of its members. Cultural relativism proposes that since there exists no universal moral code or value standards that holds true for all cultures, a group’s system of beliefs, morals, customs and actions should be understood in the light of the social perspective in which “cultural learning” (Herskovits, p. 93) took place. Mannheim (1936, p. 125) asserts that a person’s way of thinking is structured by “social position" and “cultural setting”. Since cultural norms determine the way in which people view what is morally acceptable and unacceptable, what may be considered right or good in one culture may be considered wrong or bad in another culture (Tilley, 1994, p. 1). For example, the self-mutilation and human sacrifice practice of Mayan civilization or the polygamous traditions of some cultures are to be evaluated based on specific cultural realms.

Frank Boas’ work on anthropological research engendered the term cultural relativism based on his broader definition of culture encompassing not just religious beliefs, art and music but also the entire gamut of individual and collective “mental and physical reactions and activities” in relation to their “natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself, and of each individual to himself” (Boas, 1963, p. 149). This perspective that all cultures are equally legitimate expressions of human existence inspired a progression of methodical approaches to in-depth cultural analysis that treated cultures at their distinctive terms and merits. Perhaps, this and the emergence of objective ethnography that came to blows with “ethnocentrism” could be considered as the most significant contributions of cultural relativism (Glazer, 1994).

The disadvantages of cultural relativism are propounded by its critics who claim that adopting a neutral moral or ethical position on certain events based on the relativist notion that all truth is objective would be precarious to the conduct of world affairs. For example, cultural relativism would discourage us to pass judgment on significant world events or on those that repulsed the moral sense of humankind such as the Nazi holocaust, the ethnic genocide in East Timor, or incest traditions of some religious sects. The pejorative effect would of having no “moral court of appeals” would be to resort to “power” or “might” Holmes, 1984, pp. 17-18). The cultural relativist’s assertion that all truth is local also fails to address the fact of cultural overlapping where people live in more than one cultures and therefore are influenced by differing moral perspectives. In a way, cultural relativism also discourages cultural reform because it implicitly upholds negative customs and traditions.
However, Kluckhohn (1994, p.43) insists that cultural relativism does not deny “moral absolutes” and does not warrant savage behaviors but instead allows a proper analysis of the “appropriateness” of negative customs in relation to how they fit the cultural context.


Boas, F. (1963).The mind of primitive man. New York: Collier Books.
Glazer, M. (1994). Cultural relativism. The University of Texas-Pan American. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from http://www.utpa.edu/faculty/mglazer/Theory/cultural_relativism.htm
Herskovits, M. (1973). Cultural relativism: Perspectives in cultural pluralism. New York: Vintage Books.

Holmes, A. (1984). Ethics. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Kluckhohn, C. (1944). Mirror for man. Greenwick, CT: Fawcett.
Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and utopia. New York: Harcourt, Brace
Tilley, J. (1994). Cultural relativism and tolerance. Lyceum. Volume VI, No. 1. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from http://lyceumphilosophy.com/Lyceum-6-1.pdf.

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