There is a strain of thought that is common to many: the right thing to do in any circumstance is to maximize utility for the greatest number of people. Of course, not many people use the umbrella term utility, but rather they tend to say “happiness” or “pleasures.” Utility is a placeholder for some good that one wants to maximize. The theory that the moral, or right, thing to do in any situation is to maximize utility for the greatest number of people is known as utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism was first developed and taken to its logical and political extremes by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the only thing of value in life was pleasure, and the only thing of disvalue was pain. In this way, Bentham identified “utility” with pleasure, and “negative utility” with pain. For Bentham, we should always seek to maximize utility for the greatest number of people. Of course, for him, we should also minimize pain.
The way this looks is something like this. Suppose that you have only $5 to spare and are deciding who to give it to. You have two options: the first is Jeff Bezos, and the second is the homeless man whom you pass by each day on your street corner. Who should you give it to? On Bentham’s view, you should give it to the homeless man, because it will bring him more utility (pleasure), than it would Jeff Bezos. When you have millions of dollars, $5 just doesn’t make much of a difference. When you have nothing, it means the world to you.
Bentham’s view has three features. It is consequentialist, hedonistic, and impartial. A consequentialist theory of what one ought to do holds that the right thing to do is determined by the consequences of one’s actions and only that. So if you are trying to decide what to do, morally speaking, the consequentialist says that you should try and figure out what the consequences of your actions will be. What state of affairs will your action bring about? In the homeless case, your action would bring about a state of affairs where the most pleasure arises in the world, and so on Bentham’s view, it is the right thing to do. Can you think of what a non-consequentialist theory might say? In other words, what else matters morally speaking, do you think, other than consequences?
The theory is hedonistic because it says that the only things that matter when it comes to what we value as human beings is pleasure and avoidance of pain. A good question to begin asking yourself is, is that true? Can you think of anything that is of value which isn’t pleasure and pain avoidance?
The theory is impartial because it says that everyone’s interests count the same. Often held to be a virtue of utilitarianism, the claim is that your pleasure, my pleasure, and your friend’s pleasure all count equally. Suppose that you have to decide whether to give $5 to a stranger or your friend, and the stranger has $4 in his bank account and your friend $5. On the utilitarian view, you should give the money to the stranger, not your friend, since it maximizes utility. You might have thought that the fact that your friend is your friend would make it permissible for you to give the money to him (imagine we switch the case and its your mother or brother, if you don’t find the case compelling), but the utilitarian says that everyone’s interest in pleasure counts equally, and so you can’t give in a partial manner. You can’t prefer one person’s pleasure over another’s because of your relationships with them. Everyone’s interests count the same. Do you think that impartiality is a the best way to think about moral decision-making?
As mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways of hashing out what counts as utility, and these reflect different utilitarian views. For example, Bentham’s pupil John Stuart Mill was another famous utilitarian, and he drew a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. For Mill, there is a difference between quantity of pleasure, and quality of pleasure. He thought you should maximize the latter.
Mill thought that some kinds of pleasures were just better than others, in a distinctive way. Take for example how a McDonalds cheeseburger will bring you some pleasure (I assume).For him, no amount of Mickey D’s burgers will ever bring you the pleasure you can get from creating art, reacting to art, or perhaps winning an olympic championship. The cheeseburgers are a lower kind of pleasure, and creating art a higher kind. Mill thought we should maximize higher level pleasures. So, while Mill was also a hedonist in the sense outlined above, he differed from Bentham is what he took utility to mean. If you were a utilitarian, what would you want to maximize? What would you take “utility” to be?
The last thing to remember about utilitarian is that there are generally two kinds, known as act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism says that what would maximize utility is if everyone considered the consequences of their particular actions, while the rule utilitarian thinks that what would maximize utility would be to follow a certain rule all the time.
For example, suppose that it were just true that if everyone followed the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — it would maximize overall utility in the long run. In this way, even though some particular actions might not maximize utility — you might follow the golden rule when someone doesn’t want you to (e.g you like cheeseburgers and want one as a gift, but your friend doesn’t, and you buy one for him anyway) — the overall utility that would be aggregated from following the rule would be best.
The act utilitarian says, “no, that isn’t right! What would maximize overall utility would be to always consider what would maximize happiness for each particular action you take.” Act utilitarnism is a bit more difficult, then, because it requires more effort in your moral decision-making process. Following a rule is easier than deciding what to do on every occasion to act.
The most common objection to utilitarianism is that it permits that some few people be treated horribly in order to maximize the happiness of others. For example, suppose utility would be maximized if a third of the population were enslaved? Or suppose that if you tortured someone for their entire life, it would cure cancer. On the utilitarian view, these actions wouldn’t just be permissible, they would be obligatory. The core of these objections, then, is this: Utilitarianism allows for someone to do anything to you so long as it maximizes the utility of the greatest number of people. Does this implication sit well with you? If you were a utilitarian, how would you reply to these objections?
As we go through the different moral theories, you’ll notice that there are three questions that every theory purports to answer:
(1) what is the important good that we human beings seek (or should seek) to obtain.
(2) What makes an action right or wrong?
(3) What is the moral target of concern?
For the utilitarian, what are the answer to these questions? (See below for answers)
On the History of Utilitarianism:
Jeremy Bentham’s work:
John Stuart Mill’s work:
(2) When the action maximizes pleasure for the greatest number of people
(3) The consequences of an action