What email address or phone number would you like to use to sign in to Docs.com?
If you already have an account that you use with Office or other Microsoft services, enter it here.
Or sign in with:
Signing in allows you to download and like content, and it provides the authors analytical data about your interactions with their content.
Embed code for: utilitarianism
Select a size
There are two main theoretical approaches in the study of ethics: con s equentialism and deontology. (1) Consequentialism is the view that an action is right if and only if it produces good results. (2) Also know n as “duty-based ethics,” deontology stresses that each of us has certain duties – actions that we ought to perform – and that acting morally amounts to doing our duty no matter the consequences.
From the standpoint of consequentialism, what makes an action right or wrong is the result that follow s from it. Deontology, in stark contrast, maintains that some actions are absolutely right or wrong regardless of the results or consequences that follow from them. Whereas consequentialism focuses on the consequences rather than the nature of actions themselves, deontology emphasizes the need to judge whether actions are intrinsically right or wrong (that is, whether they are right or wrong in themselves ) .
The best-known consequentialist ethical theory is utilitarianism which equates morality with the maximization of happiness, well-being, or utility. It is commonly associated with the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and it typically requires people to act in whatever way that will result in the greatest possible amount of well-being. In our normal lives we use utilitarian reasoning all the time; for example, we might give money to charity when seeing that it would do more good for needy people than it would for ourselves.
The Principle of Utility
James Rachels , a contemporary moral philosopher, suggests that classical utilitarianism – the moral philosophy propounded by nineteenth century English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – can be summarized in three propositions: (1) Actions are judged right or wrong solely in virtue of their consequences; nothing else matters. (2) In assessing consequences, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is created; everything else is irrelevant. (3) No one’s happiness is to be counted as more important than anyone else’s; each person’s welfare (or well-being) is equally important.
According to Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, the goal of human action is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. To quote Bentham: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” Or as Mill, Bentham ’ s most famous follower , puts it: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
From a utilitarian point of view, pleasure ( or happiness ) is the only intrinsic good , i.e. the only thing that is good or valuable in itself . Other t hings such as fame, fortune, and freedom may be good, but only to the extent that they produce pleasure or happiness. In philosophical terms, they are instrumental goods because they are useful for attaining the goals of happiness and pleasure. Money, for example, has no intrinsic value; it is not good or valuable in itself. Its value is instrumental, i.e. as a means to an end . A nd the end, as always, is happiness.
Utilitarians reject the idea that actions are intrinsically right or wrong. When we evaluate human acts ( or practices ) , we consider neither the nature of the acts ( or practices ) nor the motive s for which people do what they do. It is the consequence of one’s action that matters morally. According to utilitarianism, we ought to decide which action is best by considering the likely or actual consequence of each alternative. Right actions are those that produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness.
To determine whether an action is right or wrong , utilitarians will consider the amount of overall good or “utility” that is produced. The utility of an action is the amount of pleasure (over pain) that it causes when everyone affected by it is take n into consideration. So, to decide whether or not to do something, it is necessary to calculate whether it will produce the best overall outcome for everyone affected by it. To this end, Bentham developed a “hedonic calculus” to quantify pleasure and pain in such a way that one would be able to compare different courses of action in terms of the utilities they produce, and then choose the one that would result in the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain.
The Principle of Utility, also known as “the Greatest Happiness Principle,” requires that whenever we have a choice between alternative courses of action, we must choose the one that has the best overall consequence for everyone concerned. The principle should be applied impartially, that is, without giving special treatment to ourselves or to anyone else because of race, gender, personal relationship, or other individual differences. Each person’s interest, well-being and happiness should be treated as equally important. Or i n Bentham’s own words: “Each person is to count for one, nobody for more than one.”
Utilitarianism: Classical and Contemporary
In its simplest version utilitarianism holds that one acts in given situations according to what produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number, wherein “happiness” (or “utility”) is defined in terms of pleasure and absence of pain. This version of utilitarianism is usually called “classical utilitarianism” or “hedonistic utilitarianism.” The classical formulation of this moral theory is found in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
Bentham was an English-born student of law and the leader of a radical movement for social and legal reforms based on utilitarian principles. His primary published work was Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which offers a detailed exposition of a form of utilitarianism and an application of it to such matters as criminal and penal law. The title itself indicates his aim – to take the same principles that provide the basis for personal morality as a guide for the formation and revision of law. Bentham dedicated his whole life to reforming the laws and institutions of England along utilitarian lines, with the conviction that morality, as well as law and social policy, should all have the same goal – to promote general happiness and well-being.
L ike many other great minds in the nineteenth century, Bentham was enamored with the accomplishments of science and held out high hopes for the scientific method’s ability to solve moral and social problems. In his book, Bentham developed what he called a “hedonic calculus,” a quantifiable scheme whereby levels of pleasure and pain could be rigorously and accurately assessed to determine the consequential effects for the various alternatives in a moral decision. The choice that produced the most pleasure or the least pain, as evaluated using various criteria such as intensity, duration, and propinquity, identified the correct moral course of action.
Supporters of Bentham ’ s views included James Mill, a distinguished Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist , but it was James’ son, John Stuart Mill, who would become the leading voice of the utilitarian movement after the founder’s death.
By the time he was twenty, John Stuart Mill had read Bentham and become a devoted follower of his philosophy. The basic ideas of utilitarian moral theory are summarized in Mill’s short work Utilitarianism (1861), in which he offered his own account of the theory. Mill sought to formulate a version of utilitarianism that built on the strengths of Bentham’s rigorous thinking but also included more thoughtful accounts of well-being, moral motivation, and the role of moral rules in utilitarian reasoning about moral problems. Mill was also a strong supporter of personal liberty, and in his pamphlet On Liberty (1859) he argued that the only reason for society to interfere in personal freedom was to prevent harm to others.
While both Bentham and Mill equate d the good with pleasure or happiness, more contemporary approaches are premised on alternative conceptions of what is intrinsically good or valuable. Over the years, there has been much discussion amongst moral philosophers as to what is meant by “ happiness ” and whether there are other ideas of the good that are preferable to the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
A notable example is the “ideal utilitarianism” proposed by the English philosopher G. E. Moore (1873–1958), a highly influential British philosopher of the early twentieth century. By Moore’s account, goodness is an intrinsically indefinable quality or property that may issue from many experiences such as contemplation, gaining new knowledge, or aesthetic enjoyment. He suggested that we should strive to maximize ideal values such as freedom, knowledge, justice and beauty. The world, in his view, may not be a better place with more pleasure in it, but it certainly will be a better place with more freedom, more knowledge, more justice, and more beauty.
As utilitarianism continued to develop in the twentieth-century, its hedonistic foundations were abandoned in favor of “preference satisfaction” and other conceptions of the good, although the morality of actions would still be judged by their consequences. “Preference utilitarianism” argues that the good should be conceived as satisfaction of preferences, since people may want things other than, and perhaps in conflict with, their pleasure or happiness, for example, knowledge, understanding, achievement, autonomy or to practice their religion, which might deny them pleasures.
Utilitarianism was, and still is, a progressive moral and political philosophy. Jeremy Bentham and his followers called into question the established social, legal and political institutions of their times. For instance, they believed that if the established criminal justice system was not working well, then it ought to be changed. Social, legal and political institutions, in their view, should be judged by their effectiveness in promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
One of the strengths of utilitarianism is that it has given morality a clear purpose – to promote general welfare. At the same time, utilitarianism offers a logical and reasonable solution to ethical decision-making , namely that we should perform the action that maximizes overall happiness. Another attractive feature of utilitarianism is that as a doctrine of impartiality , it insists that the interest and well-being of everyone be taken into consideration and given equal weight, regardless of their race, gender, and other individual differences .
Both Bentham and Mill were progressive thinkers whose thoughts were ahead of their times . Bentham believed , for example, that the boundaries of moral concern should be extended to embrace nonhuman animals. He argued that inasmuch as animals can feel pleasure and pain just as humans do, we have good reason s to treat them no worse than we treat our fellow humans. Mill’ s progressive thoughts found expression in his support for women’s liberation. In his work On the Subjection of Women (1869) , he called for the emancipation of women by criticizing those social and political institutions that impeded women from developing talents that would contribute to the good of society.
Although Bentham and Mill we re in agreement that the ultimate purpose of morality is to make society a better place for everyone , there wa s one significant difference between them. According to Bentham, in making moral judgments and decisions w e ought to consider only the amount or quantity of pleasure brought about by various acts. Mill, on the other hand , proposes that, we should consider not only the amount of pleasure , we should also take into consideration the kind or quality of pleasure as well.
Mill distinguishe s between two types of pleasures. The lower, or elementary, ones are derived from activities such as eating, drinking, and sexuality. The higher, or refined, pleasures, on the other hand, are derived from scientific, intellectual, spiritual and creative activities. Mill argued that the higher, refined pleasures are superior to the lower ones: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” In other words, not only do we crave bodily pleasures, we also need love, friendship, as well as intellectual, artistic and spiritual fulfi l lment.
While “happiness” can have different meanings for different people , c omplexities a lso arise in defining happiness in te r ms of related concepts such as “interest” and “well-being.” For example, Peter Singer, a contemporary utilitarian thinker, suggests that we should focus on interests instead of pleasures or happiness because some pleasures are not really in our best interest. A good example is substance ab use, which may produce pleasure in the shorter term, and yet it is obviously not in anyone’s long-term interest to be addicted to cocaine or heroin.
The trouble with utilitarianism, however, goes much deeper than disagreement over how to define happiness, or whether it can be replaced by other conceptions of the good . The following are some of the most common objections leveled against utilitarian reasoning:
(1) A common criticism of utilitarianism concerns the difficulties in measuring and calculating utility . Whether we focus on quantity or integrate quality considerations, it is still nearly impossible to predict which act is likely to bring the best overall consequence. In order to perform calculation s and evaluate consequences , we must determine who to include and how far into the future we have to consider . Doing so can be frustratingly difficult as we may not have the time, skill or knowledge required to make informed decisions .
(2) According to utilitarian reasoning, you should always perform the act which is likely to maximize overall utility. Suppose you are on your way to the movies when someone points out that the money you are about to spend could be used to provide food for starving children in Africa. Th ere is little doubt in your mind that these children need food more than you need to see a movie. A nd a s long as someone is suffering, a utilitarian would say that we ought to do our best to help . The problem is: a moral theory so demanding as utilitarianism is likely to be counterproductive because few people can live up to its requirements.
(3) Utilitarians insist that everyone’s welfare should be treated as equal. In other words, the theory does not allow us to privilege our own happiness over that of others. In practice, however, very rarely do we take into equal consideration everyone’s happiness before we act. We often think that our own happiness and the happiness of the people who matter most to us should take precedence . Our common sense tells us, for example, that we ought to care for our own children more than we care for other people ’ s children.
(4) Another objection to utilitarian reasoning is that in some cases it seems to run counter to our ordinary intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. For example, when we make a promise to do something, we feel that we are bound by th at promise. However, a utilitarian m ight say that i f more happiness is likely to result from breaking the promise, even by a marginally small amount, then there is no point in keeping that promise . M ost of us tend to reject utilitarian reasoning by asserting that unless the effect of keeping a promise is disproportionately bad, we ought not to break it.
(5) A related criticism is that u tilitarians only pay attention to the future consequences of actions to the neglect of what happened in the past. We normally think that past events should be taken into consideration when making moral decisions . We think of it as our duty, for example, to repay the money that we borrowed from others. We all agree that people who committed serious crimes should go on trial and be put in jail . And few of us doubt that companies that marketed unsafe or unhealthy products to the general public should be liable to compensate the victims for their loss or suffering.
(6) One of the implications of utilitarianism is that an individual’s rights can be sacrificed for the “greater good” or for the benefit of others. Invading the privacy of a celebrity , for instance, can be justified as long as it brings happiness to a large crowd of voyeurs . And a gang rape may be deemed a good thing if the pleasures of all the rapists, when added together, outweigh the suffering of the victim. By subordinating privacy and other individual rights to the Principle of Utility, utilitarianism ignores considerations of justice, which demand that strict limits be place on actions that might violate other people ’ s rights .
A criticism that has often been brought against utilitarianism is that it lends justification to apparently unethical action s – cheating, stealing or even killing innocent people – as long as doing so is likely to maximize happiness in some particular case or situation. For instance, if it could be shown that publicly hanging an innocent man would have the direct beneficial effect of reducing violent crime by acting as a deterrent, then a utilitarian would say that doing so can be morally justified . Such a conclusion, needless to say, is repugnant to our sense of justice.
The weaknesses of the classical version of utilitarianism have led some philosophers to develop a n alternative theory based on the Principle of Utility. Borrowing from John Stuart Mill’s important insight that happiness is usually “more successfully pursued by acting on general rules… than by measuring the consequences of each act,” the new version of the utilitarian theory applies the utility principle to general rules rather than individual acts. Hence, a distinction can be made between “act utilitarianism” (the old theory) and “rule utilitarianism” (the new theory):
Act utilitarianism applies the Principle of Utility to each possible act . We calculat e the amount of happiness that will result from each act and then choose the one that we believe will generate the most happiness . In most circumstances, truth-telling, respecting property and not harming others are likely to have the best consequences and so maximize utility. However, in some rare circumstances, lying, stealing , or even killing might have better overall consequences than other alternative s and so would be the right action s , according to act utilitarianism, for which the end justifies the means.
Rule utilitarianism applies the Principle of Utility not to acts but to moral rules . W e ought to act in accordance with those rules that will produce the greatest overall amount of utility for society as a whole. The right rules are those that, if generally followed, would promote the greater good of society . And the r ight actions are those that comply with the right rules. Lying, stealing, and killing generally have bad consequences, and therefore rules prohibiting the se actions can be justified on utilitarian grounds. Thus, according to r ule utilitarian ism, after considering the expected outcomes of following various rules, we should select the one with the best overall consequences, and then adhere to it.
T he best way to promote general welfare , according to rule utilitarianism, is to act in accordance utility -maximizing rules . Going back to the previous example, any rules that allow innocent people to be unjustly punished tend to produce more unhappiness than happiness. Thus, rule utilitarianism demands that we adopt the rule “Never punish the innocent” because this w ill result in the greatest happiness for the whole society . Actions that violate the rule can never be morally justified, whether or not there might be particular instances in which punishing the innocent would produce more happiness than unhappiness.
Consider another scenario:
You are a doctor who has five patients under your care. One needs to have a heart transplant, one needs two lungs, one needs a liver, and the last two need kidneys. Now into your office comes a healthy bachelor needing a flu shot. Doing a utility calculus, there is no doubt in your mind that you could do more good by injecting the healthy man with a sleeping-inducing drug and using his organs to save your five patients.
A n act utilitarian might say that the act of “ killing one man to save five others ” is morally justified because it produces the greatest happiness in this particular situation. A rule utilitarian , on the other hand, would ask: “What general rules of conduct tend to promote the greatest happiness?” or “What rules should we follow if happiness is to be maximized?” Individual acts are then judged right or wrong according to whether they are acceptable or unacceptable by these rules.
In the above example, there are at least three reasons to oppose act utilitarian reasoning: (1) I t is unjust to sacrifice the life of an innocent person who does not deserve to die . (2) K illing the young man clearly violates his right to life. (3) T he general public will lose trust in the medical profession if they a re aware that unsuspecting patients have been murdered in hospitals and their organs harvested for transplant s . Given these objections, a rule utilitarian would argue that the act of “killing one to save five” can never be morally justified. All doctors, as the argument goes, must abide by the rules laid down in the medical code of ethics which strictly prohibit the removal or transplant of organs without patients’ consent.
Let us consider one last example. In August 1945, the US Air Force made history by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two bombs killed nearly 200,000 civilians and reduced both cities to rubble. The effect of the radiation, over an enormous area, continued for decades afterwards. President Truman defended his decision to bomb the Japanese cities by arguing that nothing less than this would have brought about the surrender of Japan, whose High Command had announced its intention to continue the war until the last soldier was dead. As it turned out, Japan surrendered immediately on seeing the incredible devastation caused by those bombs.
Can we say, in hindsight, that sacrificing civilian lives can be justified on utilitarian grounds? Does the end (stopping the war) really justify the means (murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians)? If you were a rule utilitarian, would you support or oppose the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Anne Thomson (1999) Critical Reasoning in Ethics: A Practical Introduction, Routledge, Chapter 6.
Barbara MacKinnon & Andrew Fiala (2015) Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues (8th edition), Cengage Learning, Chapter 5.
ty . And the r ight actions are those that comply with the right rules. Lying, stealing, and killing generally have bad consequences, and therefore rules prohibiting the se actions can be justified on utilitarian grounds. Thus, according to r ule utilitarian ism, after considering the expected outcomes of following various rules, we should select the one with the best overall consequences, and then adhere to it.
T he best way to promote general welfare , according to rule utilitarianism, is to act in accordance utility -maximizing rules . Going back to the previous example, any rules that allow innocent people to be unjustly punished tend to produce more unhappiness than happiness. Thus, rule utilitarianism demands that we adopt the rule “Never punish the innocent” because this w ill result in the greatest happiness for the whole society . Actions that violate the rule can never be morally justified, whether or not there might be particular in