Utilitarianism (Part 1)

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 10, 2015. )


“…the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

  1. Utility and Happiness

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832),  who lived in London during the Industrial Revolution, was a philosopher and social reformer who wished to alleviate the period’s dreadful living conditions. Poverty, disease, overcrowding, child labor, lack of sanitation, and miserable prison and factory conditions inspired Bentham to be an agent of social reform. He graduated from Oxford at the age of fifteen and used his prodigious gifts as social critic and legal and constitutional reformer. He became the leader of a group of individuals, including James Mill (1773 – 1836) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), who espoused the principles of a moral philosophy called utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was an influential force in eighteenth and nineteenthcentury England, and Bentham personally influenced the British legislature to adopt virtually all of his proposals.

The guiding principle of Bentham’s thought was the principle of utility: human actions and social institutions should be judged right or wrong depending upon their tendency to promote the pleasure or happiness of the greatest number of people. A popular formulation of the principle is “promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Bentham himself defined the principle of utility as “that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Bentham was not clear as to whether the principle referred to the utility of individual actions or classes of actions, but he was clear “the party whose interest is in question” refers to “anything that can suffer.” Thus, utilitarianism was the first moral philosophy to give a significant place to nonhuman animals.

Utility measures the happiness or unhappiness that results from a particular action. The net utility measures the balance of the happiness over the unhappiness or, in other words, the balance of an action’s good and bad results. To compute the net utility, we subtract the unhappiness caused by an action from the happiness it causes. If an action produces more happiness than unhappiness, a positive net utility results. If it produces more unhappiness than happiness, a negative net utility results.

When deciding upon a course of action utilitarians take the following steps. First, they determine the available courses of action. Second, they add up all the happiness and unhappiness caused by each action. Third, they subtract the unhappiness from the happiness of each action resulting in the net utility. Finally, they perform that action from the available alternatives which has most net utility. (Technically, this is “act” utilitarianism, to be distinguish from another type shortly.)

If all of the available actions produce a positive net utility, or if some produce positive and some produce negative net utility, utilitarians perform the action that produces the most positive utility. If all the available actions produce a negative net utility, then they perform the one with the least negative utility. In summary, utilitarians perform that action which produces the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness from the available alternatives. Thus, the first key concept of utilitarianism is that of maximizing utility or happiness.

It is important to note that computations of the net utility count everyone’s happiness equally. Unlike egoists, who claim that persons should maximize their own utility, utilitarians do not place their own happiness above that of others.  For example, egoism recommends that we insult others if that makes us happy, but utilitarianism does not. For utilitarians, the happiness we experience by insulting them is more than balanced by the injury they endure. Analogously, robbing banks, killing people, and not paying our taxes may make us happy, but these actions decrease the net utility. Therefore, utilitarianism does not recommend any of them.

Utilitarianism is a doctrine which grips the imagination of most twentiethcentury people. Nearly all newspaper columnists, politicians, social reformers, and ordinary citizens believe that we should “make the world a better place,” “increase social justice,” “promote the general welfare,” “establish equality,” or “create the greatest happiness for the most people.” Utilitarian thinking underlies most of these phrases, and many individuals believe they are morally obligated to increase the happiness and decrease the unhappiness in the world.

  1. The Consequences

The second key concept of utilitarianism is that we judge moral actions by the consequences they produce. The only thing that counts in morality is the happiness and unhappiness produced by an action. In other words, according to utilitarianism, the ends justify the means. It does not matter how you do itwhat means you takeas long as you increase the net utility. In most cases, as we have already mentioned, the action that utilitarians recommend mimics the recommendations of other moral theories. For instance, given the choice of telling Sue that she looks beautiful or terrible, we would usually maximize utility by telling her the former. Similarly, given the choice of granting or denying her request for a loan, we would usually maximize utility by granting her request. However, if she will probably use the money to buy drugs, become intoxicated and then beat her children, we should deny her request. On the other hand, if Bob will use our money to feed his children, we should probably loan it to him. We should always perform that action that will, most likely, increase the happiness and decrease the misery of all involved.

Since the right action depends upon our assessment of the consequences, we must know what the consequences of our actions will be. Some object that the theory fails precisely because this is not possible. And it is true that we never know absolutely what will happen as a consequence of our action. We may think the consequence of loaning Bob some money will be to cheer him up, but he might buy a gun and commit suicide! We may think the consequence of shooting Sue will be to hurt or kill her. But her subsequent paralysis might serve as the motivation for a successful writing career! In fact, any of our minuscule choices might alter human history, but we are only responsible for consequences we can reasonably anticipate. We anticipate the consequences as best we can and proceed to act accordingly. Thus, the fact that we can never be absolutely certain of the consequences of an act does not undermine utilitarianism.

We can now summarize our discussion thus far. Moral actions are those that produce the best consequences. The best consequences are those that have the most net utility, in other words, those that increase happiness and decrease unhappiness. When calculating the net utility everyone’s interests count equally. The two key concepts of utilitarianism are happiness and consequences.

  1. Examples of Utilitarian Reasoning

Consider this complex situation. Our teacher arrives the first day of class and makes the following announcement. “Let’s not have class all semester! We will not inform the authorities and we will keep it a secret. None of us will do any work. I will not have to teach, and you do not have to study. I will give you each an ‘A,’ and you can give me excellent teaching evaluations. All of us will be happy and the net utility  increased. Any questions? Class dismissed!” On the one hand, the action appears to maximize utility. No one has to work and no one is hurt. On the other hand, consider that the students are nursing students who need to learn the class material in order to function as competent nurses. If they do not learn the material, it is easy to see that they will be incompetent nurses. A society of incompetent nurses decreases the net utility and therefore, in this case, cancelling class decreases net utility.

Note again how utilitarianism differs from egoism. If the teacher and the students were egoists, and would rather skip class than work, there would be no class. On the contrary, utilitarians assume that the net utility dereases if no teaching and learning take place. Remember, utilitarians usually prescribe exactly what other moral theories do. They forbid killing, lying, cheating, and stealing and prescribe helping others, working hard, and doing good deeds.

However, there are times when utilitarianism prescribes more controversial actions. Consider euthanasia. The natural law tradition, which has exerted more influence on Western ethics than any other, maintains that it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent persons even if they are suffering. But suppose Joe Smith is terminally ill, in excruciating pain, and asks his wife, his trusted comrade of fifty years, to shoot him. Since he is more affected by his illness than anyone else, it is reasonable to assume the net utility will increase by his death. There will be some unhappiness caused by his deathhis wife will mournbut she would rather he die than suffer.

According to the utilitarian, if his wife shoots him as he requests, she does the moral thing. This analysis applies whether he killed himself or had his physician assist him. Here is a case in which what many of us believe to be immoral is, on utilitarian analysis, perfectly acceptable. In this case, the pain and suffering of the relevant parties determines the proper course of action for a utilitarian.

Examine some other controversial cases. Many cultures have practiced infanticide, the willful killing of innocent children. Often their rationale was that the lack of available food for all children required that the youngest and most dependent be sacrificed for the group. On a utilitarian analysis, this is perfectly acceptable because one death is preferable to many. The same kind of thinking might have justified the use of atomic weapons in World War II. Assuming the choice was between “x” number of deaths as a result of dropping atomic bombs and “4x” number of deaths as a result of a land invasion of Japan by American troops, the utilitarian choice was clear.

If other options were available that had a greater net utilitysay dropping the bomb in an unpopulated field as a show of forcethen that action should have been performed. We may object that in the case of infanticide or atomic bombs, “innocence” has a moral significance which overrides the utilitarian conclusion. But, according to the utilitarian, maximizing utility determines the proper action.

We’ll continue the discussion tomorrow.

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