Introduction to Philosophy/Utilitarianism

Utilitarian theories of ethics judge an action by its consequences; an action is right, or duty, if it brings about the best balance of intrinsic good over intrinsic bad. Thus, utilitarians place an emphasis on the consequences of our actions or policies. Jeremy Bentham formulates this in his famous "Principle of Utility." Utilitarianism is a well-known example of a branch of ethics known as consequentialism, which states that actions are morally judged by the impartially reckoned value of the consequences. That which is good or bad differs between different types of utilitarianism, hedonistic utilitarianism and preference-respecting utilitarianism being the most noteworthy.

History of utilitarianism


Utilitarianism was founded by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by his disciple, John Stuart Mill. Bentham was most interested in the ramifications that a utilitarian ethics would have for the law, and he developed a precise system for correlating a crime's detrimental effect on utility to the severity of its punishment. Mill explored utilitarianism from a more broadly philosophical perspective, and defended it from the critiques of opposing ethicists. Mill did this by taking Bentham's dictum that what was important was the precise amount of happiness and adding a factor of quality, where quality is determined by "competent judges" who are capable of fully enjoying the given pleasure. More than this, however, Mill suggested that some happiness was of such a high quality that any amount of it would be preferable to any amount of a happiness which was of a lesser quality. This thesis is controversial, partially because it is patronizing, but primarily because Mill's reasoning behind introducing it -- that there are some happinesses which are of such a high quality that a well informed and independent jury would always choose some of that happiness over any amount of another -- is far from rigorous and might simply not be the case.

Another 19th Century Philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, re-interpreted utilitarianism along lines which are more commonly used today. He found that the classification of utility as happiness was clumsy and so began to talk about utility as a measure of desire and satisfaction. Thus, something would be good on utilitarian grounds if it satisfied the desires of many people, and bad if it did not, or if it went against their desires.

Two branches of utilitarianism that are still recognized today eventually developed:

Act utilitarianism, or AU, states that if an agent is faced with a moral decision, it is morally obligatory to make the choice that brings the highest total pleasure to everyone affected.

Rule utilitarianism, or RU, states that it is morally obligatory for everyone to act in accordance with the set of moral rules such that if everyone acts in accordance with this set of rules, more pleasure is produced than if everyone acts in accordance with any other set of moral rules.

Utilitarianism today


Peter Singer is a contemporary philosopher whose basic approach to ethics is utilitarian.



Professor James Rachels critiqued the philosophy of utilitarianism, mainly by attacking the following points:

  1. Actions are judged to be right or wrong only on the basis of their consequences
  2. The only consequence that matters is whether happiness or unhappiness results
  3. No one's happiness is more or less important than another's- each are equally important

The first flaw that Rachels identified with Utilitarianism was making happiness the goal that we seek out in our endeavors. While this may be attractive in principle, Rachels claims that it is very flawed in practice. An example proving this is if a friend bad-mouths somebody behind their back, Utilitarianism will claim that it is a moral action, because the person is not aware; Ergo, it did not cause them any harm. Rachels suggests that one should not seek out friends in order to make him or herself happy. Instead, happiness should be a response to what one has achieved or obtained.

Another point that Rachels makes is regarding the dogma of only considering the consequence of an action important, rather than the action itself. For example, if a police officer is accused of abusing somebody based on their race, clearly the best solution according to utilitarianism would be to find the officer guilty, and punish them severely, as this will cause the greatest number of people to achieve happiness. Rachels would refute this by saying that this is not moral, since although more people are happy, one person was ruined without receiving fair representation. Rachels would claim that they should receive a just trial, and be prosecuted according to the law. Another example is if there is a person who has hidden cameras in the washroom, utilitarianism would claim that this is morally right, due to the fact that he didn't cause anybody unhappiness, and increased the happiness of himself. Rachels would deny this, and claim that his actions were immoral.

Rachels also attacks the Utilitarianist argument that everybody is equal, and your own happiness is no more important than anybody else's. He claims that this is completely impractical, as one can usually increase the happiness of somebody else whenever they buy something. For example, if one has $20 that they can either spend on new shoes, or they can donate it to help the poor, obviously donating it will help more people, but is it reasonable to sacrifice the happiness of yourself and your loved ones in order to help complete strangers? Rachels would claim that it is not.

Other often cited criticisms of utilitarianism are that the philosophy doesn't take into account a person's intention. Did a person that took an action intending to maximize happiness do something immoral if the action ends up decreasing happiness? If four people need an organ transplant to live, would it be a moral act to kill one person against his will and transplant his organs into those people so that they will live? If Utilitarianism states that any action that maximizes happiness is good, then killing one person against his will in order to save others would be a moral act.

Reference and further reading