Summary of Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870.jpg

“… 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.”
~John Stuart Mill

  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 nineteenth-century 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 utilityhuman 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 twentieth-century 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 it, as 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, canceling 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 decreases 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 death his wife will mourn but 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 determine 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 utility, say dropping the bomb in an unpopulated field as a show of force, then 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.

4. Mill and Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill, a protegé of Bentham and Mill’s father James Mill, became the most eloquent spokesman for utilitarianism. Mill was one of the most fascinating individuals in the history of Western philosophy. A child prodigy, he studied Greek and mathematics from the age of three and read all of Plato’s dialogues in Greek by his early teens. Mill’s classic work, Utilitarianism, sets forth the major tenets of the doctrine and reformulates many of Bentham’s ideas.

In Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, Mill noted that utilitarianism had concentrated upon the quantity of pleasure but it did not address any qualitative differences in pleasure. Mill feared the emphasis on pleasure would reduce utilitarianism to hedonism, a doctrine he considered “worthy of swine.” He argued that some pleasures are qualitatively better than others, that the “higher” mental pleasures are superior in quality to the “lower” physical pleasures. How do we know this? Those who have experienced both kinds of pleasure show a decided preference for the higher ones, Mill stated, and this demonstrates that the higher pleasures are preferable.  But are they really?

Mill admitted that nonhuman animals sometimes appear happier than human beings, but this is misleading. To paraphrase his famous quote: better an unhappy human than a happy pig; better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. If the fool or pig disagree, Mill continued, it is only because they have not experienced higher pleasures. The major difficulty with Mill’s view was its appeal to a standard other than happiness in order to make a distinction between kinds of happiness. But if there is another value besides happiness, then we have abandoned the idea that happiness is the only good.

In Chapter 4, Mill began by defining the desirable end of all human endeavors. The only thing desirable is happiness, and all other valuable things are only means to the end of happiness. Bentham had wavered as to whether happiness or pleasure was the only good. In this more lucid version, happiness replaced pleasure as the moral standard. In this way, Mill avoided the charge that utilitarianism is hedonism in disguise.

Mill then proceeded to offer his famous “proof” of utilitarianism. We prove that something is visible by the fact that people see it and we prove that something is audible by the fact that people hear it. In the same way “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.” For Mill, the simple fact that people desire happiness establishes it as desirable.

Of course merely because people desire happiness, the opponents of Mill replied, does not show that it is the only desirable thing. Mill answered that other goods like virtue or wealth really are means to happiness. But his opponents pointed to another difficulty with Mill’s proof. It rests upon a confusion between what people do desire and what they ought to desire. There mere fact that people actually desire happiness does not show, so critics of utilitarianism maintained, that happiness really should be desired. But Mill maintained that no other proof of the desirability of happiness was possible than to point out the fact that humans naturally desire it.

Mill also makes it clear that only the consequences matter. You do the right thing by maximizing utility, by saving your friends from drowning whether you do it for love or money. After all, the net utility is merely the sum of individual utilities, and if you are happy, all the better. Why, Mill wonders, should we do our duty if it makes us unhappy? Amarillo Slim, a famous professional poker player, expressed Mill’s position succinctly when he replied to someone who criticized his occupation: “Would the world really be better off if I was miserable pumping gas?”

  1. Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Let us now turn to the question of whether utilitarians consider individual actions or classes of actions when deciding to maximize utility. Neither Bentham or Mill addressed this question, but contemporary philosophers have made a distinction between two types of utilitarians. Act utilitarians ask “which individual action, from the available alternatives, maximizes utility?” Rule utilitarians ask “which rule, when generally adopted, maximizes utility?” Oftentimes there is no difference between the prescriptions of the two types of utilitarians; at other times, there is a great difference. We will illustrate this basic difference with a number of examples.

Imagine that we are stopped at a red traffic light at three in the morning. Looking both ways as far as possible down the road we are about to cross, we see no cars in sight. It suddenly occurs to us that we should not remain stopped. Why? Because by running the red light we will save our mother a minutes worry, the country a little gas and pollution, and ourselves a little annoyance.  Furthermore, we will get home sooner rather than later, decreasing the possibility that we or others will be injured in an accident. The net utility will be increased by our action and so, according to an act utilitarian, we should do it.

Contemplate another example. The President has requested that we turn down our thermostats to save heating oil. Unfortunately, our grandmother’s arthritis is aggravated by a cold apartment. We reason as follows: if grandmother keeps her heat high, she will not contribute significantly to the country’s oil problem. Moreover, she will feel much better and so will we. She will be more comfortable physically, and we will not have to listen to her complain about arthritis, government corruption, or greedy oil companies. Her physical state positively affects her mood. Her good mood makes us and our family happier. An act utilitarian advises grandmother to keep her heat on high.

Finally, ponder this simple case. The sign on the college lawn says “keep off the grass.” Officials at the college have determined that the college looks better, and attracts more students, with nice lawns. Now suppose you are in a hurry to complete some task that will make you and others happier, assuming that you complete it sooner rather than later. Assume also that cutting across the lawn saves a significant amount of time. Again, act utilitarians reason that their little footprints do not make a significant difference in the appearance of the college lawn, and since we can make so many other people happy by cutting across the lawn and completing our task sooner rather than later, we should do so.

Now consider these three cases from a rule utilitarian perspective. In every case, the rule utilitarian asks, “what if we made a general rule of these actions?” In other words, “what if everybody did these?” (This is the Kantian question, but Kant wants to know about the consistency, not the consequences, of rules.) Rule utilitarians want to know if rules maximize utility or bring about good consequences. Take the first case. It should be clear that if everyone disobeys traffic lights the consequences are disastrous. Given the choice between a rule that states “always obey traffic lights” or one that says “sometimes obey traffic lights,” the first rule, not the second one, maximizes utility. Rule utilitarians argue that the net utility will decrease if persons are more selective about their obedience to rules. They might begin to disobey traffic lights at 11 p.m., whenever there are no cars in sight, or whenever they think they can beat the oncoming cars!

A comparable analysis applies in the other two case. The rule, “do not turn up your thermostat to save heat for the country” maximizes utility compared with the rule, “turn up your thermostat if you’re cold despite what the President requests.” Similarly, the rule “do not walk on the grass” maximizes utility compared with the rule, “do not walk on the grass except when you are in a hurry.” Therefore, in all of these cases act and rule utilitarians prescribe different actions. Act utilitarians perform the action that maximizes the utility, rule utilitarians act in accordance with the rule that, when generally adopted, maximizes utility. They both believe in maximizing utility but are divided as to whether the principle of utility applies to individual acts or general rules.

The issue between act and rule utilitarians revolves around the question, “is the moral life improved by practicing selective obedience to moral rules?” The act utilitarians answer in the affirmative, the rule utilitarians in the reverse. Rule utilitarians believe the moral life depends upon moral rules without which the net utility decreases. Act utilitarians believe that whether moral rules are binding or not depends upon the situation. Thus, act utilitarians treat moral rules as mere “rules of thumb,” general guidelines open to exceptions, while rule utilitarians regard moral rules as more definitive. We will look at problems for both formulations of utilitarians in a moment. Let us now look at the most general problems for utilitarianism.

6. The Problems with Happiness

A first difficulty with using happiness as the moral standard is that the concept of the net utility implies that happiness and unhappiness are measurable quantities. Otherwise, we cannot determine which actions produce the greatest net utility. Bentham elaborated a “hedonistic calculus” which measured different kinds of happiness and unhappiness according to their intensity, duration, purity, and so on. Some say that it is impossible to attach precise numerical values to different kinds of happiness and unhappiness. For example, it may be impossible to assign a numerical value to the happiness of eating ice cream compared to the happiness of reading Aristotle. Still, we can prefer one to the other, say ice cream to Aristotle, and, therefore, we do not need precise numerical calculations to reason as a utilitarian.

A second difficulty is that it may be impossible to have “interpersonal” comparisons of utility. Should we give Sue our Aristotle book or Sam our ice cream? Does Sue’s reading pleasure exceed Sam’s eating pleasure? There is no doubt that different things make different people happy. For some, reading and learning is an immense joy, for others, it is an exceptional ordeal. But we can still maximize utility. We should give Sue the book and Sam the ice cream, or if we can only do one or the other, we make our best judgment as to which action maximizes utility. Besides, we agree about many of the things that make us happy and unhappy. Everyone is happy with some wealth, health, friends, and knowledge. Everyone becomes unhappy when they are in pain, hungry, tired, thirsty, and the like. We do not need precise interpersonal comparisons of utility to reason as a utilitarian.

Despite Mill’s proof of utilitarianism, a third difficulty concerns doubts about the overriding value of happiness. Is it more valuable than, for example, freedom or friendship? Would we sacrifice these for the net utility? We would maximize utility by dropping “happiness pills” into everyone’s drinks, but this doesn’t mean we should do it. Shouldn’t individuals be free to be unhappy? And if we believe this, isn’t that because we think freedom is a value independent of happiness? We might even refuse to take happiness pills even if given the choice because they limit the freedom to be unhappy.

Or suppose we promise to meet a friend but, in the meantime, some little children ask us to play with them. It may be that playing with the children maximizes utility. After all, our friend is popular and will probably make other arrangements after waiting a while. But maybe we should keep our promise. Maybe promise keeping or the friendship it engenders are valuable independent of the total happiness. These examples suggest that happiness is not the only value.

Most contemporary utilitarians have abandoned the idea that happiness is the only value. They have retreated from claims about absolute values to claims about individual preferences. (See for example Gauthier’s view.) The type of utilitarianism which argues that we should maximize an individual’s subjective preferences is called preference utilitarianism. The problem with this type of utilitarianism is that some subjective preferences might be evil.

A fourth difficulty is that utilitarianism considers only the quantity of utility, not its distribution. Should you give $100 to one needy person or $10 each to ten needy persons? The second alternative might be better even if the first one creates the most utility. Concerns about the total happiness have troubled many commentators and some have suggested that we consider the “average utility.” But this version has problems too. Do we want a society where the average income is very high, say $1,000,000, but many people live in destitute poverty, or one where the average income is much lower, say $50,000, but no poverty exists? In fact, the idea of the welfare state assumes that money has a diminishing utility it doesn’t benefit the rich as much as the poor and thus the enforced government transfer of money from the rich to the poor is justified. But isn’t it possible that individuals who work hard for their money deserve it, whether or not forcefully taking it maximizes utility? This analysis reveals another fundamental difficulty with utilitarianism. Everything is sacrificed to the net utility. But should all moral acts be judged by the consequences they produce?

  1. The Problem with Consequences

The most important difficulty for utilitarianism is that it emphasizes consequences exclusively. Utilitarians claim that “the ends always justify the means,” and therefore we can do anything to maximize utility as long as the consequences are good. For example, imagine that our neighbor opens our mail every day before we get home and then meticulously closes and replaces it with such skill that we cannot tell it has been opened. He derives great satisfaction from this activity and we never find out about it. When we are out-of-town and give him the key for emergencies, he rummages through our mail and personal effects, carefully replacing them before we return. He finds these activities immensely pleasurable, we never find out, and the net utility increases. An act utilitarian says he acts morally. But isn’t there something wrong here? Should our privacy be sacrificed to the net utility?

Act utilitarians are willing to sacrifice privacy, rights, or even life itself to the net utility. Imagine a country sheriff who has been charged with finding the perpetrator of a recent homicide. The powerful elite of the town inform the sheriff that if he does not find the murderer, they will kill the inhabitants of the local American Indian reservation since they believe an American Indian committed the crime. The sheriff has no idea who committed the murder, but he does believe that framing some innocent individual will avert the ensuing riot which will almost certainly kill hundreds of innocent people. In other words, the sheriff maximizes utility by framing an innocent victim.

Now according to an act utilitarian, this analysis is certainly correct. Nonetheless, most individuals think something is terribly mistaken with framing innocent persons. But why? If we don’t frame the innocent victim, hundreds of people will die. True, something may foul our plan. For example, someone may find out that the victim has been framed. But this just repeats a critique of utilitarianism that we never know the consequences for certain which we have already answered. All the sheriff can do is the best he can. That is all anybody can do. And remember, if we do not frame the innocent victim, the blood of hundreds of other innocent victims is in our hands.

This is a situation in which a moral theory conflicts with our moral intuition. We ordinarily assume we shouldn’t frame innocent people. But maybe that is just ordinarily? And this is an extraordinary situation. Nevertheless, most of us think something is terribly wrong here. Maybe the theory can be reformulated to handle these cases?  

8. The Problems with Rule Utilitarianism

Problems of this sort are precisely what led to the formulation of rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarians claim that the rules “never violate a person’s privacy” or “never frame innocent persons” maximize utility compared with the rules “sometimes violate a person’s privacy” or “sometimes frame innocent persons.” But rule utilitarianism is beset by its own unique difficulties.

The first problem is whether utilitarian rules allow exceptions. To illustrate, consider that the moral rule “never kill the innocent” maximizes utility compared to the rule “always kill the innocent,” and thus a strict rule utilitarian adopts the former, from these two choices, without exceptions. But the rule “never kill the innocent except to save more innocent lives” might maximize the utility better than either of the other two rules. If it did, a  strict rule utilitarian would adopt it without exceptions. But this is not the best possible rule either. The best possible rule is “never kill innocent people except when it maximizes the utility to do so.” But if that is the best possible rule, how is rule utilitarianism any different from act utilitarianism?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that different interpretations of rule utilitarianism exist. In what we will call a strong rule utilitarianism, moral rules have no exceptions. In what we will call a weak rule utilitarianism, rules have some exceptions. The more exceptions we build into our moral rules, the weaker our version of rule utilitarianism becomes. But if we build enough exceptions into our moral rules, rule utilitarianism becomes indistinguishable from act utilitarianism.

Think about the traffic light again. A strict rule utilitarian says “do not go through traffic lights” because, compared with most other rules, this rule maximizes utility. If we compare it with the rules “go through traffic lights when you want to,” or “go through traffic lights if you’re pretty sure you won’t cause an accident,” it fares well. But compare it with the rule: ”do not go through traffic lights except in situations where it maximizes the utility to do so.” A rule utilitarian should find this rule acceptable because it is the best conceivable rule. But if rule utilitarians act according to this rule, then their theory is indistinguishable from act utilitarianism.

Strong rule utilitarians can avoid this problem by not allowing exceptions to rules. They argue that if we make exceptions in individual cases, then the net utility will decrease because individuals naturally tend to be biased because they make exceptions that favor themselves. The act utilitarians counter by calling rule utilitarians superstitious “rule-worshipers.” If it maximizes the utility to do “x,” then why obey a rule that prescribes “y?” This issue could be resolved with some modified rule utilitarianism that would allow exceptions but not collapse into the situational character of act utilitarianism. The attempt to formulate such rules completely has met with mixed success.

The second problem with rule utilitarianism is that it tells us to abide by the rules that maximize the utility if generally accepted. Suppose they aren’t generally accepted? If we still abide by them we make useless sacrifices. Imagine that public television is conducting their annual fundraising campaign. A rule utilitarian reasons that if everyone abides by the rule “give what you can to public television,” the net utility will be increased. But suppose no one else contributes and public television goes broke? Then the individual that contributes has made a useless sacrifice. These objections show that many difficulties plague rule utilitarianism.

  1. Conclusion

The two key concepts in utilitarian thinking—happiness and consequences—are problematic. Whereas deontology places moral value on something intrinsic to the agent his/her intentions utilitarianism places moral value on something extrinsic to the agent the action’s consequences in terms of happiness produced. For deontologists, the end never justifies the means; for utilitarians, the end always justifies the means. Note that both theories are based on a principle. For Kant, the principle is the categorical imperative and for Mill, it is the principle of utility. The ultimate principle of natural law is to promote the good or natural and in contract theory, it is to do what is in our own interest. But maybe all of these theories are too formal and precise. Is there any theory of moral obligation that is less reliant on objective, abstract, moral principles, and more contingent upon subjective, concrete, human experience? The answer would be an existential ethics.