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Utility monster

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Title: Utility monster  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Utilitarianism, Robert Nozick, Mere addition paradox, Average and total utilitarianism, Thought experiments in ethics
Collection: 1974 Introductions, Thought Experiments in Ethics, Utilitarianism
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Utility monster

The utility monster is a thought experiment in the study of ethics created by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 as a criticism of utilitarianism.


  • The thought experiment 1
  • Commentary by Nozick 2
  • Social implications 3
    • Free speech 3.1
    • Population 3.2
  • See also 4
  • References 5

The thought experiment

A hypothetical being is proposed who receives much more utility from each unit of a resource they consume than anyone else does. For instance, eating a cookie might bring only one unit of pleasure to an ordinary person but could bring 100 units of pleasure to a utility monster. If the utility monster can get so much pleasure from each unit of resources, it follows from utilitarianism that the distribution of resources should acknowledge this. If the utility monster existed, it would justify the mistreatment and perhaps annihilation of everyone else, according to the doctrine of utilitarianism.

This thought experiment attempts to show that utilitarianism is not actually egalitarian, even though it appears to be at first glance.

There is no way of aggregating utility which can circumvent the conclusion that all units should be given to a utility monster, because every different system has a monster and defeating one utility monster creates another. For example, in Rawls' maximin or difference principle, maximin sets a group's aggregate utility as that of the being with least utility. Thus, giving units to the utility monster fails to change the group's utility unless the utility monster has the least utility. Even if the utility monster has the least utility, maximin would only prefer allocating units to the monster until it catches up with the member that has next-to-least utility. This would defeat the "happy" utility monster of average utility. But if the person who has the least utility gains only a tiny amount of utility from each unit of resources, they may never catch up with the next person, so they can similarly consume all of the resources in the world. It can be shown that all consequentialist systems based on maximizing a global function are subject to utility monsters.

Commentary by Nozick

In the words of Robert Nozick:

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility.[1]

Social implications

Free speech

The utility monster has been invoked in debates about free speech. Advocates for laws against hate speech, flag-burning and blasphemy have been accused of becoming utility monsters in order to increase society's willingness to support their policies.[2]


The utility monster has been invoked in debates about population. Derek Parfit's mere addition paradox suggests that additional humans would add to total happiness, even if expanding population decreases average happiness. Opposite reasoning yields the "repugnant conclusion" that the world would be better off with one extremely happy person. Parfit suggests that Nozick's utility monster is misleading because it appeals to our intuitions about a being which experiences more than a million times the utility of a very well-off ordinary person, which is, he thinks, inconceivable.[3] The implication being a more common sense continuous scale of happiness change, from great to nil, based on scarcity of units: the happiness increasing from an additional unit of resource only inversely proportional to the existing pool of units.

See also


  1. ^ Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), 41.
  2. ^ [1] Attack of the Utility Monsters The New Threats to Free Speech, Jason Kuznicki,CATO institure, 2009.
  3. ^ Derek Parfit, "Overpopulation and the quality of life", in The Repugnant Conclusion, J. Ryberg and T. Tännsjö, eds., 2004.
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