This article discusses utilitarian ethical theory. For a discussion of John Stuart Mill's book Utilitarianism, see Utilitarianism (book). For the architectural theory, see Utilitarianism (architecture).
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. "Utility" is defined in various ways, usually in terms of the well-being of sentient entities. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action. Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Unlike other forms of consequentialism, such as egoism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all beings equally.
Proponents of utilitarianism have disagreed on a number of points, such as whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism) or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism). There is also disagreement as to whether total (total utilitarianism) or average (average utilitarianism) utility should be maximized.
Though the seeds of the theory can be found in the hedonists Aristippus and Epicurus, who viewed happiness as the only good, the tradition of utilitarianism properly began with Bentham, and has included John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, David Braybrooke, and Peter Singer. It has been applied to social welfare economics, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity.
Benthamism, the utilitarian philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham, was substantially modified by his successor John Stuart Mill, who popularized the word 'Utilitarianism'. In 1861, Mill acknowledged in a footnote that, though "believing himself to be the first person who brought the word 'utilitarian' into use, he did not invent it. Rather, he adopted it from a passing expression in" John Galt's 1821 novel Annals of the Parish. Mill seems to have been unaware that Bentham had used the term 'utilitarian' in his 1781 letter to George Wilson and his 1802 letter to Étienne Dumont.
In Chinese philosophy the Mohists and their successors the "Chinese Legalists" might be considered utilitarians, or at least the "earliest form of consequentialism". The fourth century witnessed the emergence of particular concerns for them, including discussions polarizing the concepts of self and private, commonly used in conjunction with profit and associated with fragmentation, division, partiality, and one-sidelines, with that of the state and "public", represented by the duke and referring to what is official or royal, that is, the ruler himself, associated with unity, wholeness, objectivity, and universality. The later denotes the "universal Way".
However, the Mohists did not focus on emotional happiness, but promoted objective public goods: material wealth, a large population or family, and social order. On the other hand, the "Legalist" Han Fei "is motivated almost totally from the ruler's point of view."
See also: Hedonism
The importance of happiness as an end for humans has long been recognized. Forms of hedonism were put forward by Aristippus and Epicurus; Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the highest human good and Augustine wrote that "all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness." Happiness was also explored in depth by Aquinas. Different varieties of consequentialism also existed in the ancient and medieval world, like the state consequentialism of Mohism or the political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli. Mohist consequentialism advocated communitarian moral goods including political stability, population growth, and wealth, but did not support the utilitarian notion of maximizing individual happiness. Machiavelli was also an exponent of consequentialism. He believed that the actions of a state, however cruel or ruthless they may be, must contribute towards the common good of a society. Utilitarianism as a distinct ethical position only emerged in the eighteenth century.
Although utilitarianism is usually thought to start with Jeremy Bentham, there were earlier writers who presented theories that were strikingly similar. In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume writes:
In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind. If any false opinion, embraced from appearances, has been found to prevail; as soon as farther experience and sounder reasoning have given us juster notions of human affairs, we retract our first sentiment, and adjust anew the boundaries of moral good and evil.
Hume studied the works of, and corresponded with, Francis Hutcheson, and it was he who first introduced a key utilitarian phrase. In An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Hutcheson says when choosing the most moral action, virtue is in proportion to the number of people a particular action brings happiness to. In the same way, moral evil, or vice, is proportionate to the number of people made to suffer. The best action is the one that procures the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers—and the worst is the one that causes the most misery.
In the first three editions of the book, Hutcheson included various mathematical algorithms "...to compute the Morality of any Actions." In this, he pre-figured the hedonic calculus of Bentham.
Some claim that John Gay developed the first systematic theory of utilitarian ethics. In Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality (1731), Gay argues that:
happiness, private happiness, is the proper or ultimate end of all our actions… each particular action may be said to have its proper and peculiar end…(but)…. they still tend or ought to tend to something farther; as is evident from hence, viz. that a man may ask and expect a reason why either of them are pursued: now to ask the reason of any action or pursuit, is only to enquire into the end of it: but to expect a reason, i.e. an end, to be assigned for an ultimate end, is absurd. To ask why I pursue happiness, will admit of no other answer than an explanation of the terms.
This pursuit of happiness is given a theological basis:
Now it is evident from the nature of God, viz. his being infinitely happy in himself from all eternity, and from his goodness manifested in his works, that he could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness; and therefore he wills their happiness; therefore the means of their happiness: therefore that my behaviour, as far as it may be a means of the happiness of mankind, should be such…thus the will of God is the immediate criterion of Virtue, and the happiness of mankind the criterion of the wilt of God; and therefore the happiness of mankind may be said to be the criterion of virtue, but once removed…(and)… I am to do whatever lies in my power towards promoting the happiness of mankind.
Gay's theological utilitarianism was developed and popularized by William Paley. It has been claimed that Paley was not a very original thinker and that the philosophical part of his treatise on ethics is "an assemblage of ideas developed by others and is presented to be learned by students rather than debated by colleagues." Nevertheless, his book The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) was a required text at Cambridge and Smith says that Paley's writings were "once as well known in American colleges as were the readers and spellers of William McGuffey and Noah Webster in the elementary schools." Although now largely missing from the philosophical canon, Schneewind writes that "utilitarianism first became widely known in England through the work of William Paley." The now forgotten significance of Paley can be judged from the title of Thomas Rawson Birks's 1874 work Modern Utilitarianism or the Systems of Paley, Bentham and Mill Examined and Compared.
Apart from restating that happiness as an end is grounded in the nature of God, Paley also discusses the place of rules. He writes:
...actions are to be estimated by their tendency. Whatever is expedient, is right. It is the utility of any moral rule alone, which constitutes the obligation of it.
But to all this there seems a plain objection, viz. that many actions are useful, which no man in his senses will allow to be right. There are occasions, in which the hand of the assassin would be very useful… The true answer is this; that these actions, after all, are not useful, and for that reason, and that alone, are not right.
To see this point perfectly, it must be observed that the bad consequences of actions are twofold, particular and general. The particular bad consequence of an action, is the mischief which that single action directly and immediately occasions. The general bad consequence is, the violation of some necessary or useful general rule…
You cannot permit one action and forbid another, without showing a difference between them. Consequently, the same sort of actions must be generally permitted or generally forbidden. Where, therefore, the general permission of them would be pernicious, it becomes necessary to lay down and support the rule which generally forbids them.
Main article: Jeremy Bentham
Bentham's book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation was printed in 1780 but not published until 1789. It is possible that Bentham was spurred on to publish after he saw the success of Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Bentham's book was not an immediate success but his ideas were spread further when Pierre Étienne Louis Dumont translated edited selections from a variety of Bentham's manuscripts into French. Traité de legislation civile et pénale was published in 1802 and then later retranslated back into English by Hildreth as The Theory of Legislation, although by this time significant portions of Dumont's work had already been retranslated and incorporated into Sir John Bowring's edition of Bentham's works, which was issued in parts between 1838 and 1843.
Bentham's work opens with a statement of the principle of utility:
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… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
In Chapter IV, Bentham introduces a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which has come to be known as the hedonic calculus. Bentham says that the value of a pleasure or pain, considered by itself, can be measured according to its intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness. In addition, it is necessary to consider "the tendency of any act by which it is produced" and, therefore, to take account of the act's fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind and its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind. Finally, it is necessary to consider the extent, or the number of people affected by the action.
Perhaps aware that Hutcheson eventually removed his algorithms for calculating the greatest happiness because they "appear'd useless, and were disagreeable to some readers", Bentham contends that there is nothing novel or unwarranted about his method, for "in all this there is nothing but what the practice of mankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly conformable to."
Rosen warns that descriptions of utilitarianism can bear "little resemblance historically to utilitarians like Bentham and J. S. Mill" and can be more "a crude version of act utilitarianism conceived in the twentieth century as a straw man to be attacked and rejected." It is a mistake to think that Bentham is not concerned with rules. His seminal work is concerned with the principles of legislation and the hedonic calculus is introduced with the words "Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends that the legislator has in view." In Chapter VII, Bentham says: "The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding… In proportion as an act tends to disturb that happiness, in proportion as the tendency of it is pernicious, will be the demand it creates for punishment."
The question then arises as to when, if at all, it might be legitimate to break the law. This is considered in The Theory of Legislation, where Bentham distinguishes between evils of the first and second orders. Those of the first order are the more immediate consequences; those of the second are when the consequences spread through the community causing "alarm" and "danger".
It is true there are cases in which, if we confine ourselves to the effects of the first order, the good will have an incontestable preponderance over the evil. Were the offence considered only under this point of view, it would not be easy to assign any good reasons to justify the rigour of the laws. Every thing depends upon the evil of the second order; it is this which gives to such actions the character of crime, and which makes punishment necessary. Let us take, for example, the physical desire of satisfying hunger. Let a beggar, pressed by hunger, steal from a rich man's house a loaf, which perhaps saves him from starving, can it be possible to compare the good which the thief acquires for himself, with the evil which the rich man suffers? … It is not on account of the evil of the first order that it is necessary to erect these actions into offences, but on account of the evil of the second order.
John Stuart Mill
Main article: John Stuart Mill
Mill was brought up as a Benthamite with the explicit intention that he would carry on the cause of utilitarianism. Mill's book Utilitarianism first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861 and was reprinted as a single book in 1863.
Higher and lower pleasures
Mill rejects a purely quantitative measurement of utility and says:
It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
The word utility is used to mean general well-being or happiness, and Mill's view is that utility is the consequence of a good action. Utility, within the context of utilitarianism, refers to people performing actions for social utility. With social utility, he means the well-being of many people. Mill's explanation of the concept of utility in his work, Utilitarianism, is that people really do desire happiness, and since each individual desires their own happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone, contributing to a larger social utility. Thus, an action that results in the greatest pleasure for the utility of society is the best action, or as Jeremy Bentham, the founder of early Utilitarianism put it, as the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Mill not only viewed actions as a core part of utility, but as the directive rule of moral human conduct. The rule being that we should only be committing actions that provide pleasure to society. This view of pleasure was hedonistic, as it pursued the thought that pleasure is the highest good in life. This concept was adopted by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, and can be seen in his works. According to Mill, good actions result in pleasure, and that there is no higher end than pleasure. Mill says that good actions lead to pleasure and define good character. Better put, the justification of character, and whether an action is good or not, is based on how the person contributes to the concept of social utility. In the long run the best proof of a good character is good actions; and resolutely refuse to consider any mental disposition as good, of which the predominant tendency is to produce bad conduct. In the last chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill concludes that justice, as a classifying factor of our actions (being just or unjust) is one of the certain moral requirements, and when the requirements are all regarded collectively, they are viewed as greater according to this scale of "social utility" as Mill puts it.
He also notes that, contrary to what its critics might say, there is "no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect… a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation." However, he accepts that this is usually because the intellectual pleasures are thought to have circumstantial advantages, i.e. "greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c." Instead, Mill will argue that some pleasures are intrinsically better than others.
The accusation that hedonism is "doctrine worthy only of swine" has a long history. In Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1 Chapter 5), Aristotle says that identifying the good with pleasure is to prefer a life suitable for beasts. The theological utilitarians had the option of grounding their pursuit of happiness in the will of God; the hedonistic utilitarians needed a different defence. Mill's approach is to argue that the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically superior to physical pleasures.
Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question…
Mill argues that if people who are "competently acquainted" with two pleasures show a decided preference for one even if it be accompanied by more discontent and "would not resign it for any quantity of the other", then it is legitimate to regard that pleasure as being superior in quality. Mill recognizes that these "competent judges" will not always agree, and states that, in cases of disagreement, the judgment of the majority is to be accepted as final. Mill also acknowledges that "many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher." Mill says that this appeal to those who have experienced the relevant pleasures is no different from what must happen when assessing the quantity of pleasure, for there is no other way of measuring "the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations." "It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly-endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constitute, is imperfect."
Mill's 'proof' of the principle of utility
In Chapter Four of Utilitarianism, Mill considers what proof can be given for the principle of utility. He says:
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it… No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness… we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.
It is usual to say that Mill is committing a number of fallacies. He is accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, because he is trying to deduce what people ought to do from what they in fact do; the fallacy of equivocation, because he moves from the fact that (1) something is desirable, i.e. is capable of being desired, to the claim that (2) it is desirable, i.e. that it ought to be desired; and the fallacy of composition, because the fact that people desire their own happiness does not imply that the aggregate of all persons will desire the general happiness.
Such allegations began to emerge in Mill's lifetime, shortly after the publication of Utilitarianism, and persisted for well over a century, though the tide has been turning in recent discussions.
A defence of Mill against all three charges, with a chapter devoted to each, can be found in Necip Fikri Alican's Mill's Principle of Utility: A Defense of John Stuart Mill's Notorious Proof (1994). This is the first, and remains the only, book-length treatment of the subject matter. Yet the alleged fallacies in the proof continue to attract scholarly attention in journal articles and book chapters.
Hall and Popkin defend Mill against this accusation pointing out that he begins Chapter Four by asserting that "questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term" and that this is "common to all first principles." According to Hall and Popkin, therefore, Mill does not attempt to "establish that what people do desire is desirable but merely attempts to make the principles acceptable." The type of "proof" Mill is offering "consists only of some considerations which, Mill thought, might induce an honest and reasonable man to accept utilitarianism."
Having claimed that people do, in fact, desire happiness, Mill now has to show that it is the only thing they desire. Mill anticipates the objection that people desire other things such as virtue. He argues that whilst people might start desiring virtue as a means to happiness, eventually, it becomes part of someone's happiness and is then desired as an end in itself.
The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.
We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which is mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all humans beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them.
The description of ideal utilitarianism was first used by Hastings Rashdall in The Theory of Good and Evil (1907), but it is more often associated with G. E. Moore. In Ethics (1912), Moore rejected a purely hedonistic utilitarianism and argued that there is a range of values that might be maximized. Moore's strategy was to show that it is intuitively implausible that pleasure is the sole measure of what is good. He says that such an assumption:
involves our saying, for instance, that a world in which absolutely nothing except pleasure existed—no knowledge, no love, no enjoyment of beauty, no moral qualities—must yet be intrinsically better—better worth creating—provided only the total quantity of pleasure in it were the least bit greater, than one in which all these things existed as well as pleasure.
It involves our saying that, even if the total quantity of pleasure in each was exactly equal, yet the fact that all the beings in the one possessed in addition knowledge of many different kinds and a full appreciation of all that was beautiful or worthy of love in their world, whereas none of the beings in the other possessed any of these things, would give us no reason whatever for preferring the former to the latter.
Moore admits that it is impossible to prove the case either way, but he believed that it was intuitively obvious that even if the amount of pleasure stayed the same a world that contained such things as beauty and love would be a better world. He adds that, if a person was to take the contrary view, then "I think it is self-evident that he would be wrong."
Act and rule utilitarianism
In the mid-twentieth century a number of philosophers focused on the place of rules in utilitarian thinking. It was already accepted that it is necessary to use rules to help you choose the right action because the problems of calculating the consequences on each and every occasion would almost certainly result in you frequently choosing something less than the best course of action. Paley had justified the use of rules and Mill says:
It is truly a whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion… to consider the rules of morality as improvable, is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly by the first principle, is another… The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal… Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong.
However, rule utilitarianism proposes a more central role for rules that was thought to rescue the theory from some of its more devastating criticisms, particularly problems to do with justice and promise keeping. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, articles were published both for and against the new form of utilitarianism, and through this debate the theory we now call rule utilitarianism was created. In an introduction to an anthology of these articles, the editor was able to say: "The development of this theory was a dialectical process of formulation, criticism, reply and reformulation; the record of this process well illustrates the co-operative development of a philosophical theory."
Smart and McCloskey initially used the terms 'extreme' and 'restricted' utilitarianism but eventually everyone settled on the terms 'act' and 'rule' utilitarianism.
The essential difference is in what determines whether or not an action is the right action. Act utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it maximizes utility; rule utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that maximizes utility.
In 1956, Urmson published an influential article arguing that Mill justified rules on utilitarian principles. From then on, articles have debated this interpretation of Mill. In all probability, it was not a distinction that Mill was particularly trying to make and so the evidence in his writing is inevitably mixed. A collection of Mill's writing published in 1977 includes a letter in which he says:
I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences, is to test them by the natural consequences of the particular action, and not by those which would follow if everyone did the same. But, for the most part, the consideration of what would happen if everyone did the same, is the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the particular case.
This seems to tip the balance in favour of saying that Mill is best classified as an act utilitarian.
Some school level textbooks and at least one UK examination board make a further distinction between strong and weak rule utilitarianism. However, it is not clear that this distinction is made in the academic literature.
It has been argued that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be refined by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the "rules" have as many "sub-rules" as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.
Main article: Two-level utilitarianism
In Principles (1973),R. M. Hare accepts that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism but claims that this is a result of allowing the rules to be "as specific and un-general as we please." He argues that one of the main reasons for introducing rule utilitarianism was to do justice to the general rules that people need for moral education and character development and he proposes that "a difference between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism can be introduced by limiting the specificity of the rules, i.e., by increasing their generality.":14 This distinction between a "specific rule utilitarianism" (which collapses into act utilitarianism) and "general rule utilitarianism" forms the basis of Hare's two-level utilitarianism.
When we are "playing God or the ideal observer", we use the specific form, and we will need to do this when we are deciding what general principles to teach and follow. When we are "inculcating" or in situations where the biases of our human nature are likely to prevent us doing the calculations properly, then we should use the more general rule utilitarianism.
Hare argues that in practice, most of the time, we should be following the general principles::17
One ought to abide by the general principles whose general inculcation is for the best; harm is more likely to come, in actual moral situations, from questioning these rules than from sticking to them, unless the situations are very extra-ordinary; the results of sophisticated felicific calculations are not likely, human nature and human ignorance being what they are, to lead to the greatest utility.
In Moral Thinking (1981), Hare illustrated the two extremes. The "archangel" is the hypothetical person who has perfect knowledge of the situation and no personal biases or weaknesses and always uses critical moral thinking to decide the right thing to do; the "prole" is the hypothetical person who is completely incapable of critical thinking and uses nothing but intuitive moral thinking and, of necessity, has to follow the general moral rules they have been taught or learned through imitation. It is not that some people are archangels and others proles, but rather that "we all share the characteristics of both to limited and varying degrees and at different times."
Hare does not specify when we should think more like an "archangel" and more like a "prole" as this will, in any case, vary from person to person. However, the critical moral thinking underpins and informs the more intuitive moral thinking. It is responsible for formulating and, if necessary, reformulating the general moral rules. We also switch to critical thinking when trying to deal with unusual situations or in cases where the intuitive moral rules give conflicting advice.
Main article: Preference utilitarianism
The concept of preference utilitarianism was first proposed in 1977 by John Harsanyi in Morality and the theory of rational behaviour, but preference utilitarianism is more commonly associated with R. M. Hare,Peter Singer and Richard Brandt.
Harsanyi claimed that his theory is indebted to Adam Smith, who equated the moral point of view with that of an impartial but sympathetic observer; to Kant, who insisted on the criterion of universality, which may also be described as a criterion of reciprocity; to the classical utilitarians who made maximizing social utility the basic criterion of morality; and to "the modern theory of rational behaviour under risk and uncertainty, usually described as Bayesian decision theory".:42
Harsanyi rejects hedonistic utilitarianism as being dependent on an outdated psychology saying that it is far from obvious that everything we do is motivated by a desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. He also rejects ideal utilitarianism because "it is certainly not true as an empirical observation that people's only purpose in life is to have 'mental states of intrinsic worth'.":54
According to Harsanyi, "preference utilitarianism is the only form of utilitarianism consistent with the important philosophical principle of preference autonomy. By this I mean the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences.":55
Harsanyi adds two caveats. People sometimes have irrational preferences. To deal with this, Harsanyi distinguishes between "manifest" preferences and "true" preferences. The former are those "manifested by his observed behaviour, including preferences possibly based on erroneous factual beliefs[clarification needed], or on careless logical analysis, or on strong emotions that at the moment greatly hinder rational choice" whereas the latter are "the preferences he would have if he had all the relevant factual information, always reasoned with the greatest possible care, and were in a state of mind most conducive to rational choice.":55 It is the latter that preference utilitarianism tries to satisfy.
The second caveat is that antisocial preferences, such as sadism, envy and resentment, have to be excluded. Harsanyi achieves this by claiming that such preferences partially exclude those people from the moral community:
Utilitarian ethics makes all of us members of the same moral community. A person displaying ill will toward others does remain a member of this community, but not with his whole personality. That part of his personality that harbours these hostile antisocial feelings must be excluded from membership, and has no claim for a hearing when it comes to defining our concept of social utility.:56
More varieties of utilitarianism
Main article: Negative utilitarianism
In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper argued that the principle "maximize pleasure" should be replaced by "minimize pain". He thought "it is not only impossible but very dangerous to attempt to maximize the pleasure or the happiness of the people, since such an attempt must lead to totalitarianism." He claimed that:
there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure… In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway. A further criticism of the Utilitarian formula "Maximize pleasure" is that it assumes a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man's pain by another man's pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all...
The actual term negative utilitarianism was introduced by R.N.Smart as the title to his 1958 reply to Popper in which he argued that the principle would entail seeking the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity.
Negative total utilitarianism, in contrast, tolerates suffering that can be compensated within the same person.
Negative preference utilitarianism avoids the problem of moral killing with reference to existing preferences that such killing would violate, while it still demands a justification for the creation of new lives. A possible justification is the reduction of the average level of preference-frustration.
Others see negative utilitarianism as a branch within modern hedonistic utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate" utilitarian metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism.
Pessimistic representatives of negative utilitarianism can be found in the environment of Buddhism.
Motive utilitarianism was first proposed by Robert Merrihew Adams in 1976. Whereas act utilitarianism requires us to choose our actions by calculating which action will maximize utility and rule utilitarianism requires us to implement rules which will, on the whole, maximize utility, motive utilitarianism "has the utility calculus being used to select motives and dispositions according to their general felicific effects, and those motives and dispositions then dictate our choices of actions."
The arguments for moving to some form of motive utilitarianism at the personal level can be seen as mirroring the arguments for moving to some form of rule utilitarianism at the social level. Adams refers to Sidgwick's observation that "Happiness (general as well as individual) is likely to be better attained if the extent to which we set ourselves consciously to aim at it be carefully restricted." Trying to apply the utility calculation on each and every occasion is likely to lead to a sub-optimal outcome. Applying carefully selected rules at the social level and encouraging appropriate motives at the personal level is, so it is argued, likely to lead to a better overall outcome even if on some individual occasions it leads to the wrong action when assessed according to act utilitarian standards.
Adams concludes that "right action, by act-utilitarian standards, and right motivation, by motive-utilitarian standards, are incompatible in some cases." The necessity of this conclusion is rejected by Fred Feldman who argues that "the conflict in question results from an inadequate formulation of the utilitarian doctrines; motives play no essential role in it…(and that)… Precisely the same sort of conflict arises even when MU is left out of consideration and AU is applied by itself." Instead, Feldman proposes a variant of act utilitarianism that results in there being no conflict between it and motive utilitarianism.
Because utilitarianism is not a single theory but a cluster of related theories that have been developed over two hundred years, criticisms can be made for different reasons and have different targets.
The main objection to utilitarianism is the inability to quantify, compare, or measure happiness or well-being. Ray Briggs writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
One objection to this interpretation of utility is that there may not be a single good (or indeed any good) which rationality requires us to seek. But if we understand “utility” broadly enough to include all potentially desirable ends—pleasure, knowledge, friendship, health and so on—it's not clear that there is a unique correct way to make the tradeoffs between different goods so that each outcome receives a utility. There may be no good answer to the question of whether the life of an ascetic monk contains more or less good than the life of a happy libertine—but assigning utilities to these options forces us to compare them.
Utility understood this way is a personal preference, in the absence of any objective measurement.
Utility ignores justice
As Rosen has pointed out, claiming that act utilitarians are not concerned about having rules is to set up a "straw man". Similarly, Hare refers to "the crude caricature of act utilitarianism which is the only version of it that many philosophers seem to be acquainted with." Given what Bentham says about second order evils it would be a serious misrepresentation to say that he and similar act utilitarians would be prepared to punish an innocent person for the greater good. Nevertheless, whether they would agree or not, this is what critics of utilitarianism claim is entailed by the theory. A classic version of this criticism was given by H. J. McCloskey:
Suppose that a sheriff were faced with the choice either of framing a Negro for a rape that had aroused hostility to the Negroes (a particular Negro generally being believed to be guilty but whom the sheriff knows not to be guilty)—and thus preventing serious anti-Negro riots which would probably lead to some loss of life and increased hatred of each other by whites and Negroes—or of hunting for the guilty person and thereby allowing the anti-Negro riots to occur, while doing the best he can to combat them. In such a case the sheriff, if he were an extreme utilitarian, would appear to be committed to framing the Negro.
By "extreme" utilitarian, McCloskey is referring to what later came to be called "act" utilitarianism. He suggests one response might be that the sheriff would not frame the innocent negro because of another rule: "do not punish an innocent person". Another response might be that the riots the sheriff is trying to avoid might have positive utility in the long run by drawing attention to questions of race and resources to help address tensions between the communities.
In a later article, McCloskey says:
Surely the utilitarian must admit that whatever the facts of the matter may be, it is logically possible that an 'unjust' system of punishment—e.g. a system involving collective punishments, retroactive laws and punishments, or punishments of parents and relations of the offender—may be more useful than a 'just' system of punishment?
Some argue that it is impossible to do the calculation that utilitarianism requires because consequences are inherently unknowable. Daniel Dennett describes this as the Three Mile Island effect.Dennett points out that not only is it impossible to assign a precise utility value to the incident, it is impossible to know whether, ultimately, the near-meltdown that occurred was a good or bad thing. He suggests that it would have been a good thing if plant operators learned lessons that prevented future serious incidents.
Russell Hardin rejects such arguments. He argues that it is possible to distinguish the moral impulse of utilitarianism (which is "to define the right as good consequences and to motivate people to achieve these") from our ability to correctly apply rational principles which will among other things "depend on the perceived facts of the case and on the particular moral actor's mental equipment." The fact that the latter is limited and can change doesn't mean that the former has to be rejected. "If we develop a better system for determining relevant causal relations so that we are able to choose actions that better produce our intended ends, it does not follow that we then must change our ethics. The moral impulse of utilitarianism is constant, but our decisions under it are contingent on our knowledge and scientific understanding."
From the beginning, utilitarianism has recognized that certainty in such matters is unobtainable and both Bentham and Mill said that it was necessary to rely on the tendencies of actions to bring about consequences. G. E. Moore, writing in 1903, said:
We certainly cannot hope directly to compare their effects except within a limited future; and all the arguments, which have ever been used in Ethics, and upon which we commonly act in common life, directed to shewing that one course is superior to another, are (apart from theological dogmas) confined to pointing out such probable immediate advantages…
An ethical law has the nature not of a scientific law but of a scientific prediction: and the latter is always merely probable, although the probability may be very great.
Act utilitarianism not only requires everyone to do what they can to maximize utility, but to do so without any favouritism. Mill said, "As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." Critics say that this combination of requirements leads to utilitarianism making unreasonable demands. The well-being of strangers counts just as much as that of friends, family or self. "What makes this requirement so demanding is the gargantuan number of strangers in great need of help and the indefinitely many opportunities to make sacrifices to help them." As Shelly Kagan says, "Given the parameters of the actual world, there is no question that …(maximally)… promoting the good would require a life of hardship, self-denial, and austerity…a life spent promoting the good would be a severe one indeed."
Hooker describes two aspects to the problem: act utilitarianism requires huge sacrifices from those who are relatively better off and also requires sacrifice of your own good even when the aggregate good will be only slightly increased. Another way of highlighting the complaint is to say that in utilitarianism, "there is no such thing as morally permissible self-sacrifice that goes above and beyond the call of duty." Mill was quite clear about this, "A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted."
One response to the problem is to accept its demands. This is the view taken by Peter Singer, who says: "No doubt we do instinctively prefer to help those who are close to us. Few could stand by and watch a child drown; many can ignore the avoidable deaths of children in Africa or India. The question, however, is not what we usually do, but what we ought to do, and it is difficult to see any sound moral justification for the view that distance, or community membership, makes a crucial difference to our obligations."
Others argue that a moral theory that is so contrary to our deeply held moral convictions must either be rejected or modified. There have been various attempts to modify utilitarianism to escape its seemingly over-demanding requirements. One approach is to drop the demand that utility be maximized. In Satisficing Consequentialism, Michael Slote argues for a form of utilitarianism where "an act might qualify as morally right through having good enough consequences, even though better consequences could have been produced." One advantage of such a system is that it would be able to accommodate the notion of supererogatory actions.
Samuel Scheffler takes a different approach and amends the requirement that everyone be treated the same. In particular, Scheffler suggests that there is an "agent-centered prerogative" such that when the overall utility is being calculated it is permitted to count our own interests more heavily than the interests of others. Kagan suggests that such a procedure might be justified on the grounds that "a general requirement to promote the good would lack the motivational underpinning necessary for genuine moral requirements" and, secondly, that personal independence is necessary for the existence of commitments and close personal relations and that "the value of such commitments yields a positive reason for preserving within moral theory at least some moral independence for the personal point of view."
Robert Goodin takes yet another approach and argues that the demandingness objection can be "blunted" by treating utilitarianism as a guide to public policy rather than one of individual morality. He suggests that many of the problems arise under the traditional formulation because the conscientious utilitarian ends up having to make up for the failings of others and so contributing more than their fair share.
Harsanyi argues that the objection overlooks the fact that "people attach considerable utility to freedom from unduly burdensome moral obligations… most people will prefer a society with a more relaxed moral code, and will feel that such a society will achieve a higher level of average utility—even if adoption of such a moral code should lead to some losses in economic and cultural accomplishments (so long as these losses remain within tolerable limits). This means that utilitarianism, if correctly interpreted, will yield a moral code with a standard of acceptable conduct very much below the level of highest moral perfection, leaving plenty of scope for supererogatory actions exceeding this minimum standard."
The objection that "utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons" came to prominence in 1971 with the publication of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. The concept is also important in animal rights advocate Richard Ryder's rejection of utilitarianism, in which he talks of the "boundary of the individual", through which neither pain nor pleasure may pass. However, a similar objection was noted in 1970 by Thomas Nagel (who claimed that consequentialism "treats the desires, needs, satisfactions, and dissatisfactions of distinct persons as if they were the desires, etc., of a mass person"), and even earlier by David Gauthier, who wrote that utilitarianism supposes "that mankind is a super-person, whose greatest satisfaction is the objective of moral action. . . . But this is absurd. Individuals have wants, not mankind; individuals seek satisfaction, not mankind. A person's satisfaction is not part of any greater satisfaction." Thus, the aggregation of utility becomes futile as both pain and happiness are intrinsic to and inseparable from the consciousness in which they are felt, rendering impossible the task of adding up the various pleasures of multiple individuals.
A response to this criticism is to point out that whilst seeming to resolve some problems it introduces others. Intuitively, there are many cases where people do want to take the numbers involved into account. As Alastair Norcross has said, "suppose that Homer is faced with the painful choice between saving Barney from a burning building or saving both Moe and Apu from the building…it is clearly better for Homer to save the larger number, precisely because it is a larger number… Can anyone who really considers the matter seriously honestly claim to believe that it is worse that one person die than that the entire sentient population of the universe be severely mutilated? Clearly not."
It may be possible to uphold the distinction between persons whilst still aggregating utility, if it accepted that people can be influenced by empathy. This position is advocated by Iain King, who has suggested the evolutionary basis of empathy means humans can take into account the interests of other individuals, but only on a one-to-one basis, "since we can only imagine ourselves in the mind of one other person at a time." King uses this insight to adapt utilitarianism, and it may help reconcile Bentham's philosophy with deontology and virtue ethics.
The philosopher John Taurek also argued that the idea of adding happiness or pleasures across persons is quite unintelligible and that the numbers of persons involved in a situation are morally irrelevant. Taurek's basic concern comes down to this: we cannot explain what it means to say that things would be five times worse if five people die than if one person dies. "I cannot give a satisfactory account of the meaning of judgments of this kind," he wrote (p. 304). He argues that each person can only lose one person's happiness or pleasures. There isn't five times more loss of happiness or pleasure when five die: who would be feeling this happiness or pleasure? "Each person's potential loss has the same significance to me, only as a loss to that person alone. because, by hypothesis, I have an equal concern for each person involved, I am moved to give each of them an equal chance to be spared his loss" (p. 307). Parfit and others have criticized Taurek's line, and it continues to be discussed.
Calculating utility is self-defeating
An early criticism, which was addressed by Mill, is that if time is taken to calculate the best course of action it is likely that the opportunity to take the best course of action will already have passed. Mill responded that there had been ample time to calculate the likely effects:
...namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent…It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment.
More recently, Hardin has made the same point. "It should embarrass philosophers that they have ever taken this objection seriously. Parallel considerations in other realms are dismissed with eminently good sense. Lord Devlin notes, 'if the reasonable man "worked to rule" by perusing to the point of comprehension every form he was handed, the commercial and administrative life of the country would creep to a standstill.'"
It is such considerations that lead even act utilitarians to rely on "rules of thumb", as Smart
What is Utilitarianism?
The dictionary definition of Utilitarianism is: ‘The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principal of conduct.’ When making a moral decision, we should look at the outcome of an action. Whatever brings the greatest happiness to the most people is the morally ‘right’ decision. It is a consequentialist principal where the majority rules. It is also relative as each situation is looked at differently and will have a different outcome. Utilitarianism is known as the theory of utility. The meaning of utility is usefulness. Each action is judged by its usefulness in bringing about desired consequences. The word utility was first used to describe a group of social reformers. They attempted to make laws and practices of use-useful to people.
It was Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711-76) who introduced utility into ethics. However, he was not viewed as a Utilitarian. The well known phrase associated with Utilitarianism was produced by Francis Hutcheson. He said:
“The nation is best which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, and that worst which in like manner occasions misery.”
This is the basis of Utilitarianism yet, like Hume, Hutcheson was also not regarded as a Utilitarian.
One of the main exponents of Utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher who was particularly concerned with social conditions of his time. Oxford University saw him graduate at just 16 and become a barrister. He was responsible for the reforms of prisons, and education, influenced by the French and American Revolutions. Bentham, a strong atheist who was very much opposed to the monarchy wrote a book in 1789 named ‘The principles of Morals and Legislation’. He believed that all people should be treated equally and what is right for society relies on what makes the individual happy. Happiness is determined in terms of pleasure.
Bentham was a hedonist – pleasure seeker. His aim was to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure is the sole good or intrinsically good, and pain is the soul evil or intrinsically evil.
“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.”
The intent of this was to maximise pleasure. An action is morally right if it generates the greatest pleasure for the majority and the least pain. This idea of pleasure and pain is known as the Hedonic Principal. Bentham said that if you wanted to find out which of your actions would bring about the greatest happiness, then you could measure pleasure. The quantity of pleasure can be measured according to Bentham using the Hedonic Calculus. The following criteria are used for measuring pleasure: duration, intensity, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. It does not matter if an action goes against the law, at least the result will be maximum pleasure.
One of the earliest Utilitarians to live by this principle was Epicurus – he stated that “Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life.”
He believed that a good life was one with pleasure and the absence of pain.
The other exponent of Utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill. He had a strict upbringing having very little contact with the outside world. He was around intelligent people a lot of the time as his father’s friends consisted of philosophers, politicians, and economists-one being Bentham. He joined the Utilitarian Society, which met at Jeremy Bentham’s house – this is where Mill became interested in the theory. Two of his important books were ‘On Liberty’ in 1859 and ‘Utilitarianism’ in 1861. Mill wanted to modify Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism to make it more acceptable.
There were a number of things Mill did to change Utilitarianism. Bentham suggested that all pleasures were of equal value, no pleasures were higher or lower than others. This evoked criticism so the main point he made was that of changing qualitative pleasure to quantitative pleasure. He divided pleasure into two, higher and lower. The higher pleasures were associated with the mind, and the lower pleasures with the body. Once the basic lower pleasures of the body (food, water etc.) have been reached, we can then go in search of higher, intellectually challenging pleasures.
“Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Mill also linked Utilitarianism with Christian morality. He connected the theory with the teachings of Jesus. He said that the ‘ideal perfection of utilitarian morality’ was abiding by the ‘Golden Rule’-‘Do onto others as you have them do to you.’ This made many more people accept Utilitarianism as it linked with their religion. Rules were introduced into Utilitarianism by Mill. The rules introduced were ones that generally brought about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. For example, Mill argued that society needs the principal of truthfulness as it brings the most happiness on the long run.
There are three types of Utilitarianism, Act, Rule, and Preference. Act Utilitarianism is where you look at the consequences of each individual action and asses which brings the most good. Act Utilitarians like Bentham do not see the need for rules when deciding morality, each situation is different. Rule Utilitarianism does not look at individual acts but the usefulness of a rule in morality. Mill was an Act Utilitarian and applied rules that usually bring the most good to situations. Strong Rule Utilitarians never break rules, and Weak Rule Utilitarianism keep rules in mind yet are prepared to break them if necessary. Preference Utilitarianism is where the preferences of those involved are taken into account when making the decision. The morally right thing to do in any situation is one that satisfies most people’s preferences.
Utilitarianism is used in many societies, especially in politics. We encounter it every time we make a democratic vote. Our government rule by majority without the consent of the minority. Right and wrong are relative to the people involved and the things that give them pleasure. Utilitarianism is there to ensure that this pleasure is present and is maximised to its full potential.
What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism as a moral theory?
As with all moral theories, there are strengths and weaknesses. Although they are both Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill disagreed with each other on some matters. Many different people have their own interpretations of Utilitarianism and some may not agree with the strengths and weaknesses but here are some of the major arguments connected with the theory.
The major criticism of Utilitarianism is that it is extremely hard to predict the results of an action. The outcomes of all situations are hard to predict, so how can we possibly apply the rule of the greatest happiness for the greatest number if we do not know who will benefit most? It is also difficult to decide whether an outcome is morally good or bad. People have contrasting opinions on what they think is right or wrong. It really depends on the person who is making the decision, a lot of pressure is then put on that person’s shoulders. How can we define happiness? The decision-maker may have a different perception on happiness than others-causing conflict. “One man’s happiness is another man’s pain.” Without an absolute definition of happiness, it is hard to arrive at a ‘right’ decision.
Different decisions may result in different kinds of pleasure. Is long term or short term pleasure more valuable? For example, when deciding whether to take an ecstasy tablet at a club. Taking the pill may give you a lot of short-term pleasure, but in the long term, it may cause more harm than good. Not taking the tablet would involve fewer risks and would avoid potential pain. Even here, you cannot predict the results of your decision, as there is no way of telling the effect the ecstasy has on you until you have tried it. Bentham would look for the long-term pleasures, as this is what Hedonists seek. Also, we do not know how long the result will last for.
Hume argued for this statement:
“The effects of an action form part of a chain that stretches into the indefinite future. Here is always the possibility that a very positive result of an action may subsequently lead to very negative consequences.”
How do we decide which pleasure the majority would prefer? This refers to preference Utilitarianism where the action is taken that is most favourable to the majority.
The rules of Utilitarianism allow people to do things, which are usually considered immoral. This is the idea of “The end justifies the means”. If an action brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then whatever needs to be done to obtain this is just. This means that even serious rules are permitted, Often requiring the breaking of the law. Utilitarianism requires people to put their personal feelings and ties aside and act on the absolute rule of the theory. Prior commitments a person may have should not influence their decision, although when decisions need to be made quickly, the reflex action would be to act on human instinct (e.g. save their family).
Bentham’s theory is suggesting that good and happiness are the same thing. G.E. Moore argued that moral terms such as good cannot be defined. It is wrong to define good as happiness as this is creating the naturalistic fallacy. He believed that by defining good, important aspects or meanings are missed out, so by not defining them, they stay as they are. Utilitarianism sees that everybody’s duty is to do what is best for the majority. It is allowing for the well being of the majority to rule over the minority. Just because the majority benefit, it does not mean that the action is the morally correct thing to do.
Despite all the arguments against Utilitarianism, there are some valid points for the theory. It is widely accepted, many countries run by means of democracy. Our political leaders are elected through the ballot box, the majority overriding the minority. This however does not automatically mean that they are the most suited people for the job. Utilitarianism allows people to contemplate the situation before making the decision. This time prevents people from making hasty, unethical judgements, as it encourages thought before action.
The aim of the theory is to produce happiness and pleasure. These are two desirable things as Utilitarianism says that pleasure is the sole good and pain is the soul evil.
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters-pleasure and pain”
A theory that promotes pleasure must be a good thing as most people see pleasure as desirable over pain. The intention of Utilitarianism was not to create immorality but to please to maximum number of people possible. Surely it is better for a hundred people to be happy than five. There are other ethical theories that have many rules you have to learn and abide by. Utilitarianism has one simple absolute which can be applied to all situations with a positive outcome. In times of difficulty, it eases people out of difficult situations. They cannot be blamed for making the wrong decision if they claim it was for the happiness of the majority
Prejudices the decision maker may hold are eradicated in Utilitarianism, as they have to stick to the main rule. There is some leeway for emotions in moral decision making according to Rule Utilitarianism. This strand of the theory allows respect for the rules that are created to better our society. Even these rules do not have to be kept all the time if you are a weak rule Utilitarian. Some people would see this kind of Utilitarianism more compassionate than Act Utilitarianism. One of the main strengths is that it prevents the few people that think they better the rest from dictating society. Utilitarianism acts as a good weapon for reform.
Utilitarianism is a theory that Christians can relate to. Mill brought it closer to the Christian church by introducing Rule Utilitarianism. This would be closer to the principals Jesus lived by. For example, it was against the Jewish law to work on the Sabbath but when people were in need, Jesus bent this rule and healed them. The largest connection Christianity has with Utilitarianism is the death of Jesus. He was crucified and died for the sins of mankind-sacrificing himself for the majority. However, Utilitarianism does accept evil where Christianity most certainly does not.
Philosophers like Bentham and Mill worked hard to produce a theory that could aid us make complex decisions with a desirable outcome. The different types of Utilitarianism make it easier to live by, yet it is hard not to let our emotions override our actions. Despite the many flaws in the theory, it is simple and easy to apply. Our legal and political system work by the theory and are not corrupt, so why shouldn’t our morality?
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