The Problem of Endless Joy: Is Infinite Utility Too Much for Utilitarianism?

J. L. A. Garciaa1 and M. T. Nelsona2

a1 Rutgers University

a2 University of Leeds and Hampden-Sydney College

What if human joy (more technically, utility) went on endlessly? Suppose, for example, that each human generation were followed by another, or that the Western religions are right when they teach that each human being lives eternally after death. If any such possibility is true in the actual world, then an agent might sometimes be so situated that more than one course of action would produce an infinite amount of utility (or of disutility, or of both). Deciding whether to have a child born this year rather than next is a situation wherein an agent may face several alternatives whose effects could well ramify endlessly on such suppositions, for the child born this year would be a different person—one who preferred different things, performed different actions, and had different descendants—from a child born next year. It has recently been suggested that traditional utilitarianism stumbles on such cases of infinite utility. Specifically, utilitarianism seems to require, for its application, that all experience of pleasure and pain cease at some time in the future or asymptotically approach zero.2 If neither of these conditions holds, then the utility (and disutility) produced by each of two alternative actions may turn out to be infinite, and utilitarianism thus loses its ability to discriminate morally between them.