Utilitarianism “That action is best, which procures thegreatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” Suppose you are on an island with a dying millionaire. Withhis final words, he begs you for one final favor: “I’ve dedicatedmy whole life to baseboll and for fifty years have gotten endlesspleasure rooting for the New York Yankees. Now that im dying, I want to give all my assets, $2 million, to take Yankees.”Pointing to a box containing money in large bills, he continues: “Would you take this money back to New York and give it to the Yankees’ owner so that he can buy better players?” Youagree to carry out his wish, at which point a huge smile of reliefand gratitude breaks out on his face as he expires in your arms.
After traveling to New York, you see a newspaper advertisement placed by your favorite charity, World Hunger Relief Organization, pleading for $2 million to be used to save 100,000 people dying of starvation in Africa. Not only will the $2 million save their lives, but it will also purchase equipment and the kinds of fertilizers necessary to build a sustainable economy. You decide to reconsider your promise to the dying Yankee fan, in light of this advertisement. What is the right to do in this case?
Some traditional moral principles: “Let your conscience be your guide.” “Do whatever is most loving.” “Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Utilitarianism claims that happiness is the only good, and that an action is right if it leads to the greatest happiness of all those it affects, if it maximises happiness. Utilitarianism is all about the maximization of goodness in society, that is the greatest goodness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is the dominant version of teleological ethics. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can only weigh the morality of an action after knowing all its consequences.
Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an act dependent upon the motive of the agent; for, according to the Utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive. Utilitarianism is an effort to provide an answer to the practical question “What ought a man to do?” Its answer is that he ought to act so as to produce the best consequences possible. Unlike ethical egoism, utilitarianism is a universal teleological system.