Utilitarianism – Key Scholars Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) G.E. Moore (1873 –1958) Karl Popper (1902 –1994) Richard Brandt (1910–1997) R.M. Hare (1919–2002) Peter Singer (1946– )
According to Bentham, the most moral acts are those that maximise pleasure and minimise pain. This has sometimes been called the ‘utilitarian calculus’. An act would be moral if it brings the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain.
Bentham said: ‘An act is right if it delivers more pleasure than pain and wrong if it brings about more pain than pleasure.’
By adding up the amounts of pleasure and pain for each possible act we should be able to choose the good thing to do.
Bentham’s Utility Bentham’s Utilitarianism is a universal hedonism – the highest good is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Actions are judged as a means to an end. What is right is that which is calculated to bring about the greatest balance of good over evil, where good is defined as pleasure or happiness. Bentham’s view is described as Act Utilitarianism. Bentham argued that we should be guided by the principle of utility and not by rules.
Act Utilitarianism What would be the problems if everyone acted as an Act Utilitarian all the time? Are all actions only good because they have good results?
Greatest Happiness Principle Mill said: ‘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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.’ ‘Some kinds of pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others, it would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is not also considered as well as quantity.’ Here Mill differs from Bentham’s quantitative approach.
Quality of Pleasure According to Mill, quality of pleasure employs the use of the higher faculties. He is answering the objection to Bentham’s approach that utilitarians are just pleasure-seekers. Mill says that the quality of pleasure that satisfies a human is different from that which satisfies an animal. People are capable of more than animals, so it takes more to make a human happy. Therefore, a person will always choose higher quality, human pleasures, and reject all the merely animal pleasures.
Quality of Pleasure Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of the beast’s pleasures. …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 side of the question.
Questions: Suppose a surgeon could use the organs of one healthy patient to save the lives of several others. Would the surgeon be justified in killing the healthy patient for the sake of the others? You are an army officer who has just captured an enemy soldier who knows where a secret time bomb is planted. If it explodes it will kill thousands. Will it be morally permissible to torture the soldier so that he reveals the bomb’s location? If you knew where the soldier’s children were, would it also be permissible to torture them to get him to reveal the bomb’s whereabouts?
What is right or wrong for one person in a situation is right or wrong for all.
Each person desires his own happiness. Therefore each person ought to aim at his happiness.
Therefore everyone ought to aim at the happiness of everyone.
Universalisability To move from each person to everyone is a fallacy. Mill makes this move because he wants to justify ‘the greatest number’. This can mean that Utilitarianism demands that people put the interests of the group before their own interests, and Mill compares this to the Golden Rule of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12) Mill also separates the question of the motive and the morality of the action. There is nothing wrong with self-interest if it produces the right action.
Rule Utilitarianism Another aspect of Mill’s approach is the idea that there need to be some moral rules in order to establish social order and justice – but the rules should be those which, if followed universally, would most likely produce the greatest happiness. Mill has been seen as a Rule Utilitarian in contrast to Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism – though Mill never discussed Act or Rule Utilitarianism in these terms.
Act v. Rule Utilitarianism The distinction is to do with what the principle of utility is applied to. According to Act Utilitarianism the principle is applied directly to a particular action in a particular circumstance. According to Rule Utilitarianism the principle is applied to a selection of a set of rules which are in turn used to determine what to do in particular situations.
Weaknesses of Act Utilitarianism It is difficult to predict the consequences. There is the potential to justify any act. There is difficulty in defining pleasure. There is no defence for minorities. It is impractical to say that we should calculate the morality of each choice.
Weak & Strong Rule Utilitarianism Rule Utilitarianism enables us to establish rules which will promote the happiness of humanity and will generally be right in most circumstances (e.g. telling the truth, keeping your promises). Strong Rule Utilitarians believe that these derived rules should never be disobeyed. Weak Rule Utilitarians say that although there should be generally accepted rules or guidelines, they should not always be adhered to indefinitely. There may be situations where the better consequence might be achieved by disregarding the rule.
Weaknesses of Rule Utilitarianism It is difficult to predict the consequences. It is difficult to define what constitutes happiness. There is no defence for minorities. To invoke rules means that the approach becomes deontological not teleological. Followers of Rule Utilitarianism can either be strict rule-followers or rule-modifiers. Strict rule-followers can be irrational: obeying the rule even when disobeying it will produce more happiness. Rule-modifiers can end up being no different from Act Utilitarians.
Henry Sidgwick Sidgwick argues that the balance of pleasure over pain is the ultimate goal of ethical decisions. His argument is closer to Bentham than to Mill, as he questions how it is possible to distinguish between higher and lower order pleasures, and how we can distinguish one higher order pleasure from another. However, Sidgwick does argue that the process of deciding is intuitive – we make self-evident judgements about what we ought to do.
He argued that justice is the similar and injustice the dissimilar treatment of similar cases: ‘whatever action any of us judges to be right for himself, he implicitly judges to be right for all similar persons in similar circumstances’.
So it is wrong for person A to treat person B in a way in which it would be wrong for B to treat A, simply on the grounds that they are two different individuals and without there being any difference in their circumstances or their natures.
Saying that people must act according to just laws raises the issue of which laws are just and sits uncomfortably with the principle of utility and the Act Utilitarian position.
Ideal Utilitarianism A Utilitarian theory which denies that the sole object of moral concern is the maximising of pleasure or happiness. In G.E. Moore’s version of Ideal Utilitarianism in Principia Ethica 1903, it is aesthetic experiences and relations of friendship that have intrinsic value, and therefore ought to be sought and promoted. Consciousness of pain, hatred or contempt of what is good or beautiful, and the love, admiration or enjoyment of what is evil or ugly are the three things that have intrinsic disvalue and should therefore be shunned and prevented.
Ideal Utilitarianism It was Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) in The Theory of Good and Evil (1907) who first used ‘ideal utilitarianism’ for non-hedonistic utilitarianism of this kind.
Negative Utilitarianism The term Negative Utilitarianism was coined by Sir Karl Popper. The concept of negative utilitarianism was foreshadowed earlier e.g. in the work of Edmund Gurney (1847-88). It has obvious affinity with Buddhism. However, it has been argued that Negative Utilitarianism could lead to mass euthanasia, although this implication has been disputed.
Negative Utilitarianism Popper’s ‘negative utilitarian’ principle is that we should act to minimise suffering rather than maximise pleasure. Classical utilitarian philosophers such as Sidgwick had explicitly argued for the moral symmetry of happiness and suffering. Complications aside, they supposed that increases in happiness, and reductions in suffering, are essentially of equal value when of equal magnitude.
Negative Utilitarianism Popper disagreed. He believed that the practical consequences of the supposed moral symmetry were also dangerous. “Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle: the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.”
Negative Utilitarianism “I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Both the greatest happiness principle of the Utilitarians and Kant’s principle, promote other people’s happiness..., [and] seem to me (at least in their formulations) fundamentally wrong in this point, which is, however, not one for rational argument.... In my opinion... human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.” Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1952)
Negative Utilitarianism Popper believed that by acting to minimise suffering, we avoid the terrible risks of ‘utopianism’, by which he had in mind the communist and fascist dictatorships of the twentieth century. “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” A staunch advocate of the ‘open society’, Popper defended ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than grandiose state planning.
Negative Utilitarianism Ironically, the full realisation of a negative utilitarian ethic depends inescapably on the ‘utopian’ planning that Popper abhorred. Only a global bio-engineering project of unparalleled ambition could bring about the eradication of suffering throughout the living world - not piecemeal social engineering. In seeking to liberate the world from the tyranny of pain, Negative Utilitarianism is no less ‘totalitarian’ in its policy implications than communism or fascism, albeit vastly more compassionate.
Preference Utilitarianism An Act Utilitarian judges right or wrong according to the maximising of pleasure and minimising of pain. A Rule Utilitarian judges right or wrong according to the keeping of rules derived from utility. A Preference (or Interest) Utilitarian judges moral actions according to whether they fit in with the preferences of the individuals involved. This approach to Utilitarianism asks: What is in my own interest? What would I prefer in this situation? Which outcome would I prefer?’ However, because Utilitarianism aims to create the greatest good for the greatest number, it is necessary to consider the preferences of others in order to achieve this.
R M Hare Hare argues that in moral decision-making we need to consider our own preferences and those of others. ‘equal preferences count equally, whatever their content’. People are happy when they get what they prefer but this may clash with the preferences of others. Hare says we need to ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’ and try to imagine what someone else might prefer. We should treat everyone, including ourselves, with impartiality – he also argues for universalisability.
Singer suggests that people should take the viewpoint of an impartial spectator combined with a broadly utilitarian approach.
‘Our own preferences cannot count any more than the preferences of others’ and so, in acting morally, we should take account of all the people affected by our actions.
For Singer, the ‘best possible consequences’ means what is in the best interests of the individuals concerned.
He is not considering what increases pleasure and diminishes pain.
This principle of equal consideration of preferences or interests acts like a pair of scales – everyone’s preferences or interests are weighed equally.
Richard Brandt Richard Brandt talks about the preferences someone would have if they had gone through a process of cognitive psychotherapy and explored all the reasons for their preferences and rejected any they felt were not true to their real values. He argued that the morality someone would then accept would be a form of Utilitarianism – with their preferences free from any psychological blocks and them in full possession of all the facts. Such a person would not, therefore, be influenced by advertising.
It is straightforward and based on the single principle of minimising pain and maximising pleasure and happiness.
It relates to actions which can be observed in the real world.
Its consequentialism is also a strength, as when we act it is only natural to weigh up the consequences.
Utilitarianism’s acceptance of the universal principle is essential for any ethical system.
The idea of promoting the ‘well-being’ of the greatest number is also important.
Preference Utilitarianism also gives the valuable principle of being an impartial observer. It is important to think about others’ interests or preferences as long as one also includes behaving justly.
Weaknesses of Utilitarianism It is good to consider the consequences of our actions, but these are difficult to predict with any accuracy. Utilitarianism can also be criticised because it seems to ignore the importance of duty. An act may be right or wrong for reasons other than the amount of good or evil it produces. Utilitarianism can also advocate injustice. Another weakness is the emphasis on pleasure or happiness. If I seek my own happiness it is impossible for me to seek general happiness and to do what I ought to do.
Weaknesses of Utilitarianism The qualitative and quantitative approaches pose problems, as all we can really do is guess the units of pleasure – how do we measure one pleasure against another? Utilitarianism does not consider motives and intentions and so rejects the principle of treating people with intrinsic value. Utilitarianism can be seen as too impersonal and does not consider the rights of individuals in its attempt to look for the ‘greater good’.
Summary Utilitarianism has some major weaknesses as far as duty, justice, motives, intentions and consequences are concerned, and the principles of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ and ‘treating people as a means to an end’ are rather dubious moral principles.