Overview of Utilitarianism:
does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that."
Utilitarianism is a child of the Enlightenment originating primarily in England. This body of ethical theory very much reflects a philosophical response to the intellectual challenges posed by the rise of industrialization, individual self-determination, democratic self-governance, and the casting aside of subservience to any tyrannical sovereign, whether that be an imperial monarch (e.g., the American Revolution and King George IV) or a theocratic monarch (e.g., the Reformation and the Pope of Rome).
like Freud's dictum, "all behavior is motivated," the
"principle of utility" at the heart of this ethical theory insists that the
desire for happiness motivates human conduct. While
assigning primary emphasis to the desire for happiness was nothing new—for,
after all, it is central to both Plato's and Aristotle's ethical theories
as well as Thomas Aquinas' view of natural law—the response provided by
utilitarian philosophers was very different from that advanced by their predecessors. In general, utilitarians are united in the assertion that
only consequences count (hence, the term "consequentialism" is used as
a synonym for utilitarianism). Furthermore, utilitarians steadfastly maintain that the ethical value of conduct
is determined solely by assessing its consequences. For
these philosophers, what makes conduct ethically wrong is not that the
conduct is proscribed as bad by some sovereign's dictum—for example, a
papal encyclical, a Supreme Court verdict, or public opinion—but the effects
that an individual's conduct has upon other
The origins of utilitarianism...
Jeremy Bentham (1742-1832) is identified as the founder of utilitarian thought. He argued in A Fragment on Government (1977) and The Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1970) that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the two "masters" ruling human conduct (in the psychological sense mentioned earlier of "motivators"). In so far as this provides a foundation upon which to construct an ethical theory, Bentham posited that human beings resolve their ethical questions in light of maximizing the amount of pleasure they experience while minimizing the amount of pain.
For Bentham, the terms "happiness" and "pleasure" are synonymous. He considered ethically good conduct as that which expands an individual's as well as a community's liberty by adding to the sum total of its pleasure (what later was termed maximizing the "Greatest Happiness Factor" [GHF]). Conduct is unethical, then, because it limits an individual's as well as a community's liberty and general welfare by subtracting from the GHF.
Bentham's use of a mathematical metaphor is purposeful. His intent was to formulate a set of guidelines which an agent could use to determine whether the value of conduct—that is, the amount of pleasure or pain it would bring—was ethically right to the extent that it produced a net increase of pleasure. In this way, Bentham avoided advocating strict hedonism—maximizing one's own pleasure and minimizing one's own pain without giving one whit about anyone else—but instead a form of "hedonistic utilitarianism" which maximized the overall amount of pleasure and minimized the overall amount of pain.
Just as Plato's student, Aristotle, used some of his teacher's ideas and rejected others in formulating his ethical paradigm in The Nicomachean Ethics, so too Bentham's godson, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), accepted his godfather's overall approach to the pleasure principle—what some called a "pig's philosophy" because of its crude emphasis on sensual, bodily pleasure—but refined it by rejecting Bentham's notion that all pleasures are similar, differing in quantity. If Bentham was the "father" of utilitarianism, Mill was its "chief polemicist." In Utilitarianism (1975) and On Liberty (1975), Mill argued that there are qualitative differences characterizing various pleasures. Thus, an agent can distinguish between higher order and lower order pleasures.
Numerous examples assert the sensibility of this assertion:
Mill understood the ethical difficulty he was grappling with, namely, that when an agent weighs consequences it is much easier to determine the amount of pleasure than the amount of happiness that conduct will bring. However, pleasure is arguably the least suitable standard for accurately determining utility; yet, if one is to use happiness as the standard, happiness is more difficult to quantify. What Mill did was to refocus discourse (in effect, to recalibrate GHF) by focusing upon the desire for happiness rather than mere pleasure. As Mill argues in Chapter Two of Utilitarianism: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." Today, this philosophical approach to ethics is called "eudemonistic utilitarianism."
The subsequent development of utilitarianism...
The important ethical matter raised by utilitarianism is not simply that humans ought to prefer what increases overall happiness and how this is determined by weighing the consequences. In addition, utilitarianism raises a more substantive question: The consequences of what?
"Act utilitarianism" argues that an agent must look at the consequences of one's conduct when attempting to determine its ethical value. In essence, act utilitarianism maintains that an agent must always engage in conduct that will maximize the GHF. A tremendously alluring and seductive principle, act utilitarianism enables an agent to avoid Pharisaic deification of rules—the "letter of the law"—so that one can deal with exceptions to the rules on the merits presented by individual cases—the "spirit of the law."
Take, for example, the oftentimes cited case of the member of the Gestapo who asks a prisoner interred in a concentration camp if he has seen any Jews who have escaped from their jail cells. If the prisoner who is a devout Jew knows the location of any such escapees, then he must follow the seventh commandment prohibiting bearing false witness and tell the member of the Gestapo the location of the fleeing Jews.
Or, ought he?
An act utilitarian would have absolutely no problem not telling the lie because, in doing so, he would be increasing the GHF, with the exception of the Gestapo's happiness of course. When confronted with such a situation, an agent utilizing utilitarian theory would calculate the effect of the act and conclude that not telling the lie promotes a net increase in the GHF. Furthermore, the decision supports commonsense ethics, namely, it is permissible to lie in some instances and may well be required in this instance.
As this case suggests, act utilitarianism raises some troubling difficulties not the least of which is permitting what otherwise would be unethical behavior in certain instances.
Hinman identifies some of these difficulties in the following case:
For the act utilitarian, convicting the hobo is justified even though he had not committed these crimes. Why? Because his conviction would increase the GHF.
But, is the conviction just?
To illustrate this point, both Foot (1966) and Thomson (1976) present variations on a commonly cited case, this one focusing upon organ transplantation. The general proposition is as follows:
For the act utilitarian, the transplants are justified because they maximize GHF, that is, five lives have more utility than does one life.
Many ethicists believe that, while the benefit of utilitarianism is found in its emphasis upon consequences and increasing overall GHF, when an agent looks only at the consequences of each individual act, the agent potentially can abuse act utilitarianism in order to justify conduct that conflicts with justice or other essential values that common sense ethics intuitively accepts. So, rather focus upon individual acts, these ethicists advocate adopting rules that agents should use in particular circumstances. "Rule utilitarianism" claims that agents ought to act in accord with those rules that will produce the greatest amount of the GHF for society as a whole.
Taken at face value, rule utilitarianism avoids justifying conduct that supports such unethical acts such as convicting innocent people of crimes and killing human beings in order to harvest organs. But, act utilitarians disagree, noting that rule utilitarians either must maintain that the rules be upheld at all costs—even if an individual rule produces bad consequences—or else to allow for exceptions to the rules. Quite logically, this is nothing other than advocating a more covert form of act utilitarianism.
For his part, Rawls (1971, 1999) attempts to rein in both excesses, arguing that limits need to be imposed upon the range of possible rules that can be adopted in the actual practice of ethical decision making (for example, limits determined by the requirements of justice, consensual agreement, by human rights, etc.). "Practice utilitarianism" asserts that rules are more specific than practices and may encompass many rules. Sounding much like Aristotle (1958) who argued that an agent brings theory and skill to bear in actual practice situations, Rawls notes that there are certain practices that ought to guide agents as they deliberate about a course of conduct.
Take, for example, Rawl's discussion about the practice of punishment.
A society absent the institutions and practices of punishment, Rawls maintains, would appear to produce less GHF than a society possessing those institutions and practices. Note, however, that specific acts of punishment are not prescribed; instead, they are determined and not on utilitarian grounds but on the basis of retributive justice. Social institutions—like courts and governmental administrative agencies—mete out specific punishments depending upon the severity of the offense not the GHF that is increased by imposing a punishment.
Utilitarianism asserts that although punishment causes pain for the criminal, a world with both crime and the punishment produces more GHF than a world with the crime but not the punishment. Rawls nuances this argument, however, asserting that human beings are never justified to violate rights simply for the sake of happiness or any value other than rights. What Rawls allows for is some violations of rights in order to prevent more egregious violations of rights (1971, p. 42).
Since Bentham and Mill first proposed utilitarianism, others have asserted that there are other standards to judge utility. Moore (1988) proposed in Principia Ethica the ideals of beauty, truth (knowledge), and pleasure, what he called "ideal utilitarianism." In Social Choice and Individual Values, Arrow (1970) has argued that individual preferences provide the standard for judgment, what is called "preference utilitarianism." Although ethicists have canonized no single candidate as the standard of utility, it does appear that allowing for a multiplicity of standards does permit a form of pluralism that widens rather than narrows the concept of utility. The problem, of course, is to determine which standard an agent should apply and in what context so as not to fall into the trap set by strict rule utilitarianism.
In making ethical judgments, all forms of utilitarianism reflect the ideology of self-determination, that is, human beings are self-governing rational animals. Furthermore, they reflect the ideology of democracy because they require the agent to consider all persons as equal. Moreover, all forms of utilitarianism require the agent to consider the good of everyone impacted by any decision made by the agent. Contrary to natural law theory where the good always overrules the bad, all forms of utilitarianism assert that the net advantages or disadvantages of a chosen course of conduct count more than any individual person the conduct will affect.
The predominance of utilitarianism...
The GHF, which asserts that people seek happiness and avoid pain, has been central to ethical reasoning for at least several centuries. In ethical debate, one cannot easily dismiss the concept that good conduct should promote the most number of good consequences for individuals and communities as well if only because so many people believe that "the greatest good for the greatest number" is an infallible principle. Likewise, many people believe that any conduct producing more bad consequences than good consequences should be avoided. The corollary, "the least bad for the fewest number," is believed to be equally infallible. Over the past two hundred years, the allure and seduction of utilitarianism has led many people to a irresistible conclusion: "as long as what I do doesn't hurt anyone else, then it's got to be okay." Utilitarianism has proven not only to be an alluring but also a seductive philosophy perhaps because it is so commonsensical.
Because of its alluring and seductive characteristics, utilitarianism may also be the predominant ethical theory invoked by many, if not most, American citizens as they approach making ethical decisions.
Decisions about important national policies have historically exhibited a decidedly utilitarian calculus. President Harry S. Truman, for example, used a utilitarian calculus when deciding to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The course of conduct Truman chose, he firmly believed, would produce the most good consequences for the most people. The decision to wage war in Iraq in 2003 was also based upon a utilitarian calculus. President George W. Bush decided to undertake a course of conduct that emphasized bombing the Iraqi regime into submission while minimizing collateral damage, taking the war on terrorism to the terrorists themselves rather than fighting them on American soil, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and increasing the overall happiness and security of the American people.
Titans of commerce and industry also use a utilitarian calculus when making decisions about selecting the best course of conduct to achieve a corporation's goals and objectives. A corporation's health obviously affects many people as well as numerous communities that depend upon the corporation for steady employment and sustainable streams of tax revenues. Providing shareholders a decent return on their investment also figures prominently in the calculus. These factors cannot be neglected and, in fact, must be maximized to the greatest extent possible when CEO's make decisions, that is, to increase the greatest amount of good consequences for the most people and the corporation while minimizing the bad consequences as much as is possible.
Utilitarianism is also the ethical choice for many ordinary citizens who constantly attempt to determine the effects of their actions upon others. While it may be unethical to lie, many citizens calculate whether or not to lie based solely upon the consequences. For example, people oftentimes find themselves trapped because they have committed themselves to several concurrent obligations. Confronted by the conflicting obligations, these people will calculate the consequences of lying to one or more parties in order to get out of the bind in which they find themselves. Who should be lied to? Note the utilitarian calculus involved in making the decision: "Which lie will increase the amount of happiness for the most people and minimize the amount of pain that all would suffer?"
Problems with utilitarianism...
Utilitarianism has proven to be an alluring and seductive philosophy especially for those who seek to liberate themselves and others from the shackles of what they consider to be tyrannical regimes. From the days of J. S. Mill until today, this philosophy has proven itself resilient not a simplistic scheme that agents apply mechanically in ethical dilemmas but a very complex argument about how human beings should conduct themselves in order to discover happiness.
As alluring and seductive an ethical theory as utilitarianism is, it does present many political and social difficulties when applied to the concrete circumstances that people normally associate with virtuous living.
Take the case of monogamous homosexual genital relations (or what opponents have for generations called "sodomy").
According to utilitarian philosophy, society has no right to proscribe homosexual genital relations between consenting adults and perhaps more so between homosexual persons in monogamous homosexual relationships. After all, these relations serve to increase happiness for the homosexual persons engaging in them. Furthermore, these relations do not decrease the happiness of others with the exception, of course, of those oppose homosexuality, in general, and its expression though genital relations, in particular. Any rational calculus leads inevitably to the conclusion that the GHF is increased by homosexual genital relations. Opponents, however, appeal to the unproven belief that God has condemned homosexuality, in general, and homosexual genital relations, in particular. In addition, opponents assert that the state must enforce this prohibition, an ethical decision based not upon reason but faith. Utilitarians counter that faith requires an appeal to a theocratic sovereign rather than an appeal to reason and hence, the state has no right to proscribe this behavior since the GHF is increased by using the utilitarian calculus and, therefore, homosexual genital relations between monogamous homosexual persons are ethical. Some utilitarians argue further that monogamous homosexual persons should be accorded the same status in law as monogamous heterosexual relations, thus condoning what is called "gay marriage."
Likewise, in the case for legalizing marijuana.
There is little doubt that smoking marijuana increases the sense of euphoria and happiness of those who smoke pot. Furthermore, using the utilitarian calculus, smoking pot in the privacy of one's home does not decrease the GHF but actually serves to increase it. The state, therefore, has no right to proscribe what is ethically justifiable conduct. Those who argue against this conduct for a variety of reasons, including research findings that marijuana destroys brain cells and is a "gateway" drug to more lethal drugs and narcotics, have successfully enacted laws against smoking pot. Utilitarians assert, however, these people are acting unethically because they are decreasing the GHF cloaked in the disguise of upholding what is an essentially contested concept (Gallie, 1968, pp. 157-191), namely, "the common good."
There are also those who have pushed utilitarianism to include considering the consequences of conduct not only for human beings but also for animals—take People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for example—asserting that the latter have certain inalienable rights as do the former. Some others have used utilitarianism to advance political agendas, for example, to place limits upon free speech, to stop oil and gas exploration in certain natural habitats (e.g., The Sierra Club, members of the Green Party), as well as to ban the use of weapons of mass destruction. Still others have used utilitarianism to argue against SUVs, to promote public transportation, and to end world hunger.
In light of the many social and political implications of utilitarianism, ethicists have responded in a variety of ways.
Locke (2009), for example, argues that groups advancing utilitarian ethics to support their social and political agendas, in general, and PETA, in particular, advance a very weak subjectivist argument and re-write history to support this weak argument. He recalls Rand's objective basis for individual, human rights to explore why these do not pertain to nonrational animals. Locke notes:
Pressing a bit farther, Rice (1995) refocuses discussion upon the ethical implications of utilitarianism by mounting a substantive challenge that criticizes the theory's definition of personhood. Using the euthanasia movement as a means for his criticism, Rice notes:
Taken to its logical conclusion, the utilitarian definition of personhood "is much like Germany in the 20's and 30's—the barriers against killing are removed" (Stanton, 1985, p. 82, cited in Rice, 1995, pp. 296-297).
In light of Rice's challenge to utilitarianism based upon its definition of personhood, five difficulties with the theory must be satisfactorily resolved.
First: one must ask whether it is possible for agents to calculate all consequences of each act for every person for all time. Obviously, that is impossible although it is entirely possible for an agent to derive a good hypothesis that spells out the necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be ethically right and one ought to do.
Consider the game of golf. "Paralysis by analysis" is the bane of any person who wants to play the game well. The calculus: good golfers consider the lie of the ball and its position on the course and conduct their golf swing as they have trained themselves to; they do not stop and consider every element of the swing as they set themselves up to hit a golf ball. The conclusion: a well struck golf ball.
Consider also investing in the stock market. Most people know that the best criterion of an investment in equities, bonds, and mutual funds is total return, that is, return on investment (ROI). But, most investors recognize at the same time that they do not have all of the information needed to make the best possible decision. The calculus: to balance risk and reward, most investors choose to invest in an index fund or a balanced mutual fund. The conclusion: a return on investment that is sufficiently good.
Arguing against adopting this strict utilitarian position, Railton (1984) asserts that the principle of utility is intended to be a criterion defining what one ought to do not a decision procedure.
Second: one must ask whether utilitarianism fulfills its promise to promote happiness. For example, if one is to assert that marriage is a covenant defined by the spouses' mutual trust and fidelity, then utilitarianism presents some very serious problems. Take the case of an extramarital affair. An untrustworthy and unfaithful spouse engages in the affair to increase one's happiness in a variety of ways. But, this presumes that the trustworthy and faithful spouse does not have knowledge of the affair. The calculus: the trustworthy and faithful spouse's happiness is not decreased while the untrustworthy and unfaithful spouses total amount of happiness is increased. Thus, the GHF evidences that the affair is entirely ethical. The conclusion: the extramarital affair is ethical. Yet, commonsense ethics would declare otherwise.
Third: one must also wonder just how possible it is for a human being to divine far enough into the future to know with any degree of certainty whether the course of conduct chosen will indeed increase happiness. In the example of the extramarital affair, the entire calculus hinges upon the assumption that the other spouse will not become knowledgeable of the affair. It seems likely, however—merely judging by the number of extramarital affairs uncovered throughout the centuries—that this affair is also likely to be uncovered. Is this sufficient evidence to warrant the spouse not to increase one's happiness by engaging in the extramarital affair? But, is it not equally possible that many unforeseen events might also intervene (e.g., the affair is terminated amicably; the death of one's spouse) such that worrying about what the future may bring is simply nothing more than wasted energy, that is, an overall net decrease in GHF? The calculus: one cannot predict the future with great accuracy and the probability of the trustworthy and faithful spouse's happiness being decreased is probably unlikely. The conclusion: the extramarital affair is most likely ethical. Again, commonsense ethics would declare otherwise.
Fourth: one must wonder about how the consequences are to be assessed. Since the spouse was not completely happy in the marriage but didn't necessarily want it to terminate in a divorce which, in all likelihood, would have only increased the unhappiness of both spouses, is not keeping the marriage intact a good consequence for both spouses? What, however, if the spouses had children? Would a divorce lead to a net increase in the GHF for everyone involved? The calculus: remaining in the marriage decreases the untrustworthy and unfaithful spouse's happiness but this can be more than offset by the happiness engendered by engaging in the extramarital affair. Furthermore, if there are children, their happiness would be increased by having their parents remain together, perhaps even if the children had knowledge of the affair. The conclusion: the extramarital affair is ethical.
One must also wonder—if only because, as the example of the extramarital affair suggests, utilitarianism equates happiness with the good—whether utilitarianism promotes hedonism rather than virtue. Is it not the case when making ethical decisions according to the utilitarian calculus that agents must use the ends to justify the means in such a way that just about any conduct can be justified as long as the balance of good outcomes is larger than the balance of bad outcomes?
This leads to a fifth difficulty, namely, one must wonder whether utilitarianism demands too much of people. Living in a materialistic culture driven by consumerism, many people today purchase a variety of items intended to increase individual GHF but are really not necessary. Purchasing these items would appear to maximize GHF. But, what if these people were to donate the money they would spend on what they want and don't really need? And what about the waste of natural resources and its implications for the rest of the earth's population? Likewise, many people select a career based upon the perceived happiness it will bring, perhaps as this can be quantified in terms of income. However, would not GHF be maximized if people would select a career that would qualitatively enrich the lives of others even if those careers pay less (for example, teaching, nursing, social services, public administration)? And, how about couch potatoes? Would not GHF be maximized if they got off the couch and offered themselves for community service? As these examples and many others indicate, utilitarianism obliges human beings to what otherwise should be considered optional. Or, should they?
Utilitarianism emerged as English philosophers struggled to liberate ethical discourse from traditional appeals to authority rather than reason, especially any authority accorded to sovereigns by some sort of divine right. Rather than justifying ethical decisions by appealing to the crown, the throne, to personal preference or, worse yet, to God, utilitarians have aimed since the 17th century at least to judge the value of conduct strictly in terms of its consequences.
For Mill, human beings seek ends to the extent to which they provide happiness. As he presented this idea in Utilitarianism, "each person's happiness is a good to that person." However, for Mill, this is not ethical egoism in the sense that " 'the general happiness' must be a good to the aggregate of all persons" (Chapter 4). The maximization of individual and collective happiness is the end to be achieved when human beings engage in ethical decision making.
In the end, if the allure and seductive powers of utilitarianism prove persuasive for the majority of the nation's citizens and the opponents of utilitarianism fail to advance strong rational arguments to counter its appeal, utilitarianism may well prove itself to be a long-term political and social project that ultimately re-engineers the natural law foundations of American jurisprudence.