Utilitarianism

PHIL222 - Week 2 Lecture

Introduction

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that concerns itself with the consequences of an action. It is widely considered the most famous form of consequentialist ethics. A basic tenet, or belief, of utilitarianism is the idea of the Greatest Happiness Principle, or GHP. The GHP states that a result, or consequence, of an action, is only good if it provides the most good or happiness to the most people as is possible. In other words, an action is only right if it conforms to the GHP and provides the best results for the most people. An action is wrong if it does the opposite, and results in unhappiness.

John Stuart Mill wrote, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

History

To understand Mill’s version of utilitarianism, a brief history is required to put Mill’s version into context with other ethical theories that are similar in scope.


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842), was a philosopher, born and raised in England, during the Industrial Revolution. A student of empirical (you only know what you experience) thinkers, Bentham derived a system of consequential ethics--a theory in which actions are judged on whether they result in the most pleasure. Bentham’s work was grounded in ideas of hedonism, which means that a person is only guided by obtaining pleasure for themselves. For Bentham, happiness equated to pleasure.


Bentham adopted this practice but revolutionized it by deriving that pleasure is best not only for yourself, but for everyone; in essence, the right thing to do is the thing that results in the most pleasure, therefore happiness, for every person. In an attempt to measure this, Bentham developed a system of Utility Calculus to determine whether something was pleasurable.


In light of perceived issues with this new pattern of thinking about ethics, a student of Bentham’s theories redeveloped the system. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the son of one of Bentham’s direct students, sought to redevelop Bentham’s Utility into what is largely regarded today as the “classic” theory of Utilitarianism. The perceived issues were many-fold. Why would an ethical system solely be derived around obtaining pleasure? Who could calculate the future outcomes of actions? And, finally, who would have the time to figure these things out if you were pressed to make a choice? Mill’s analysis of these problems, written in the book Utilitarianism (1861-1863), further defined the Utilitarian model into what we know it as today.


Photo: Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Concepts of Utilitarianism

Consequentialism = The theory that an action is morally right or wrong based entirely from the consequences (ends). An action is morally good if it maximizes the outcomes from all available choices for the action. In all other cases, the action is wrong.


The basic ideas of Utilitarianism are:


  • Happiness = Pleasure (and the absence of pain)
  • Unhappiness = Pain (and the absence of pleasure)


Mill wrote in Chapter 2 of his book Utilitarianism, “namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” In other words, happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value for a system of ethics to be derived. All other things are secondary to this first principle.


Other principles are proposed and are derived from the first principle. These principles are clarified in Mill’s “updated” version of Bentham’s Utility theory. Both men were proponents of equality for all, the abolition of slavery (as this was seen as a great inequality), equality for women, and a revision of punishment systems. Bentham strongly supported the notion of criminals being reformed, rather than just locked away.


Mill’s ethics of utilitarianism became a model of equality that later supported the abolition of slavery in the United States. Based on the principles of “the most good for the most people,” proponents of Utility were able to reason that, if the desired outcome is the most happiness for the most people, then people must be delivered that measure of happiness uniformly. If this was the model on which ethics were derived, then one must concur that every person should be able to achieve the same ends, and if that were the case, then all people must, therefore, be equal.


Both Bentham and Mill were proponents of women's rights as well. Mill and his wife worked together on his creation The Subjection of Women (1869), a groundbreaking work in favor of women’s rights in which he wrote, “the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.”

Based on these ideas, the principle: “Everyone’s happiness counts equally” was derived.

OBJECTIONS TO UTILITARINISM

To further define Jeremy Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill analyzed the “perceived” objections to Bentham’s moral theories. In Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, “What Utilitarianism Is,” Mill defines both Objections to the current system, and then answers that further refined utility as the moral theory as it is viewed today. Note that other revisions and interpretations have been made, but Mill’s take on moral correctness remains the classic vision of Utilitarianism based on his model of answering the objections to the old theory.


Am I a Pig? The Doctrine of Swine Objection.


One of Bentham’s original ideas is that Happiness = Pleasure. Does this mean that we only live for pleasure? Are we like a pig wallowing in the mud and eating slop? Mill’s insight about this and answer to the objection, sets up a hierarchy of pleasure, where intellectual pleasures take precedence over lower, base pleasures.


Objection: Is there more to life than just mere cheap pleasures? Am I nothing more than an animal?


Reply: Mill’s Utilitarianism requires that we are aware of everyone’s happiness, not just our own. Also, there is more to living than just hedonistic pleasure. Pleasures that consider “higher faculties” are of better quality than physical pleasures. This reply to the objection sets up Mill’s hierarchy.


Mill said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”


Can I Do This? The Too High for Humanity Objection.


Essentially, can we live up to the standards of always making sure there is the best outcome.


Objection: Utilitarianism states we should always consider the maximum level of happiness that can be achieved from each action. To act in this way would require more effort than is possible for a human being.


Reply: Mill makes note that there is a difference between intentions and motives. Intentions tell you what you should do to maximize happiness, whereas motives explain why you feel it is important to do something. Mill says that outcomes are more important than motives. Also, Mill realizes that you cannot always help people, and that you have very little chance to affect them most of the time. What you should do is behave in such a manner that avoids typically bad results.


Mill said, “no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them. ...the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent.”


If Pressed, Can I Make a Choice Quickly? The Not Enough Time Objection.


Objection: Simply put, there is not enough time to calculate all of the utility outcomes in an urgent situation. Without time to make a decision, processing utility outcomes is too demanding.


Reply: This is like saying you don’t have time to be a Christian because you can’t look up every action in the Bible beforehand. Mill would prefer that people base their actions on known and collective human experience. Society shows us preferred, habitual behaviors that maximize utility outcomes; we should do our best to follow these patterns when pressed to make a choice of action. In other words, we follow set rules, like "Don’t lie and cheat." "Don’t steal." "Obey the rules." "Don’t hurt others," etc.


Mill said, “…that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind [has] been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent.”

Two Types of Utilitarianism

There are two major types of Utilitarianism: Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. For Mill, act utilitarianism is the preferable method by which each individual judges their actions, filtering them with the Greatest Happiness Principle in mind to produce the best ends for the most people. Paternalistic laws (jaywalking, wearing your seatbelt, safety rules) follow rule utilitarianism because they set laws that, if not broken, will produce good results.


Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism


  • Act utilitarianism says one should evaluate each action for whether or not it has higher utility than alternatives
  • Rule utilitarianism says you should formulate rules which would have high utility if universally followed; your job in any given situation is to follow the rules.

Key Terms

Consequential Ethics

Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham

John Stuart Mill

Act vs Rule Utilitarianism

Morals

Conclusion

John Stuart Mill’s revision of Utilitarianism has helped us define a consequentialist theory of ethics that defines what it is to be moral, and live a moral life. This is defined by measuring the outcomes of any given action so that the highest level of happiness is achieved by the most people. Because this goal strives for equality, it serves that all people are likewise equals. In addition, utilitarianism supports democracy. By living a life that is considerate of the results, we can live a more happy and productive co-existence with each other.