What is utilitarianism?
In his brief essay Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill provides a very succinct account of the Utility Principle.
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.
(Mill, Utilitarianism, 55)
However, this deceptively simple principle is not the whole story. Utilitarianism is a broad tradition of philosophical and social thought, not a single principle. The central utilitarian idea is that morality and politics are (and should be) centrally concerned with the promotion of happiness. While Mill's principle is one expression of this basic idea, there are many others. In particular, Mill's principle focuses our attention on particular actions. As we shall see, utilitarians have often been more interested in evaluating codes of moral rules or systems of political institutions.
Why study utilitarianism?
If you are taking an introductory ethics course, then you will probably be asked questions about utilitarianism. If you want to pass the course,
this gives you a reason to study utilitarianism. Fortunately there are other - nobler - reasons to study utilitarianism. Throughout the past two centuries, the utilitarian tradition has been very influential - not just within philosophy but in the more obviously practical disciplines of politics and economics. As a result of this influence, utilitarian assumptions and arguments abound in modern economic and political life, especially in public policy. If we want to understand the social world we inhabit, an understanding of the utilitarian tradition is essential.
In introductory ethics courses, utilitarianism is often presented as a deeply counter-intuitive theory - one which some philosophers accept despite its lack of intuitive appeal. As we shall see in Chapter 5
, there are good reasons for this. Utilitarianism can face very severe intuitive problems. However, the central utilitarian idea also has considerable intuitive appeal. What could be more obvious than the thought that, in both our daily lives and our political deliberations, we should strive to make people's lives go better? What else should we want - to make people miserable?
Negative reactions to utilitarianism are often based on misunderstandings. Jeremy Bentham gave utilitarianism a bad name. And he knew it. Although Bentham sometimes used the name "principle of utility", he preferred the longer but more accurate "greatest happiness principle". The focus on "utility" suggests a dour, serious view, opposed to frivolity or fun. In everyday English, to describe a building as "utilitarian" is to say that it is merely functional. It gets the job done, but gives no one any pleasure or enjoyment. Sometimes utilitarians have encouraged this misunderstanding. But, properly understood, the utilitarian tradition points in the opposite direction. Pleasure, enjoyment and fun are all components of happiness. So they are all things that utilitarians want to promote. (Indeed, as we shall see in Chapter 4
, utilitarian philosophers are often accused of being too
interested in pleasure.)
Plan of the book
Introductions to utilitarianism typically take one of two forms. Some discuss the classical utilitarians from a purely historical
perspective, without attempting to connect their work with subsequent developments in moral philosophy At the other extreme, problem-based ethics courses are often entirely ahistorical,
so that utilitarianism is
presented as an abstract moral principle that miraculously emerged from the philosophical ether. My approach lies between these two extremes. I aim to present utilitarianism as a living tradition, as opposed to either an outdated view of merely historical interest or an ahistorical set of abstract principles.
offers a brief history of the utilitarian tradition, showing how shifts in historical context have changed the priorities of utilitarian thinkers. We begin with a brief account of the precursors of classical utilitarianism, contrasting the conservative theological utilitarianism of William Paley with the radical atheism of William Godwin. The bulk of the chapter explores the evolution of classical utilitarianism from Bentham through J. S. Mill to Henry Sidgwick. The aim of the chapter is to illustrate both the current relevance of the classical utilitarians, and the extent to which their concerns differ from our own.
Over the past two hundred years, utilitarian thinkers have offered many justifications for their views. These are explored in Chapter 3
. One central theme is that the style of these "proofs" has often been driven more by the prevailing philosophical orthodoxy of the time than by any internal debate within the utilitarian tradition. As a result, the chapter proceeds chronologically It also includes potted summaries of broader developments in English language philosophy over the past two hundred years, from the early work of Bentham, through Mill's empiricism, the philosophical intuitionism of Sidgwick, and the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the analysis of moral language; to recent attempts to vindicate utilitarianism using the various methods of contemporary philosophy. (The broader philosophical history here deserves several books of its own. So my aim is merely to give a taste of the relationship between moral philosophy and broader philosophical trends. Other books in the Acumen Understanding Movements in Modern Thought
series provide more detail on specific movements in modern philosophy.) We close by asking how these changes in underlying philosophical emphasis have affected the content
of utilitarian morality. I argue that the shift away from attempts to construct deductive proofs of the utilitarian principle has increased the importance of the alleged counterintuitive consequences of the utilitarian principle. This paves the way for subsequent chapters.
Perhaps the most important question dividing utilitarians is the definition of happiness or "well-being" or "utility" or "whatever makes life worth living". (The fact the utilitarians vise all these different terms - and more besides - is an indication of the complexities involved. ) Chapter 4
follows the debate from the classical utilitarians through to contemporary thinkers. We focus on three main alternatives: hedonism
(a good life consists of pleasure), preference theory
(a good life consists of getting what you want), and objective list theory
(a good life consists of various things that are valuable in their own right, such as knowledge or achievement). Although historical material is introduced where relevant, our main interest is in the positions themselves, not on the thinkers who first propounded them.
also introduces us to the methods of modern moral philosophy, especially the use of "thought experiments" to test a moral theory. The chapter ends with a discussion of the moral significance of the welfare of animals, and its connection to the well-being of humans. This issue is interesting in its own right, but it is also an excellent way to illustrate the differences between competing theories of human
Introductory ethics courses often begin with the implausible consequences of utilitarianism. Here are two classic examples.
You: are the sheriff in an isolated wild-west town. A murder has been committed. Most people believe that Bob is guilty, but you know he is innocent. Unless you hang Bob now, there will be a riot in town and several people will die. Utilitarianism says you must hang Bob, because the loss of his life is outweighed by the value of preventing the riot.
On your desk is an envelope addressed to a reputable charity seeking donations to save the lives of victims of a famine or other natural disaster. Utilitarianism says you should give all your money to this charity, as each dollar will produce more happiness in their hands than you could possibly produce by spending it on yourself.
Opponents argue that utilitarianism requires you to do something that is either clearly wrong (in the sheriff case) or clearly not obligatory (in the envelope case). Chapter 5
explores these objections. We begin by setting out a whole array of other alleged counter-examples, and asking what they have in common. We focus on a suggestion of John Rawls utilitarianism's main fault is that, because it focuses on aggregate utility, it ignores or undervalues the separateness of persons.
explore a range of utilitarian replies. This leads us to examine the role of intuitions
in moral philosophy, following on from our discussion of the method of reflective equilibrium in Chapter 3
. Why does it matter if utilitarianism has intuitively undesirable consequences? The chapter ends by noting that this cluster of objections does not seem to have worried classical utilitarians - especially Bentham and Mill. Perhaps the answer is to return to classical utilitarianism.
asks if utilitarians can make their theory more intuitively appealing by changing its scope.
Should utilitarians be primarily interested in the evaluation of acts - or should they focus instead on rules, character, motives or institutions? We will see that many of the differences between classical utilitarianism and contemporary utilitarianism can be explained by the shift from Bentham's focus on the evaluation of institutions to the modern focus on the evaluation of acts. We focus especially on contemporary rule- utilitarianism
- the theory that, instead of calculating the consequences of each individual act, you should aim to follow the best utilitarian code of rules. We ask what that code might look like, and assess its intuitive plausibility.
focuses on another feature of utilitarianism that is attracting considerable attention in current moral theory: the fact that utilitarianism assumes that the only rational response to value is to promote
it - to produce as much as possible of whatever is valuable. Indeed, this consequentialist
principle is often presented as the defining feature of the whole utilitarian tradition, with classical utilitarianism being just one form of consequentialism. Utilitarianism is
consequentialism (morality promotes value) plus
welfarism (value is aggregate human welfare). We ask whether utilitarians can improve the appeal of their theory by departing from consequentialism. We also explore alternative responses to value, particularly the notion of honouring or respecting value (made famous - among philosophers - by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant), and a variety of alternative responses advocated by contemporary virtue ethicists, such as expressing value, embodying value, nurturing value and so on.
One enduring criticism of utilitarianism has always been that, as it rests upon precise calculations of utility, it is unworkable. Chapter 8
explores this objection, with a focus on the following questions. Can happiness be measured? Does utilitarianism presuppose that happiness can be measured? How does utilitarianism deal with uncertainty? What guidance does utilitarianism offer in the real world?
Finally, Chapter 9
explores two emerging debates in contemporary utilitarianism - the possibility of a genuinely global ethic, and the
nature of our obligations to future generations. The underlying theme of the chapter is that utilitarianism has always been, and continues to be, most interesting and most relevant when applied to changing social circumstances, or to issues that have been under-appreciated by other moral theories.
The early utilitarians
Utilitarian ideas are found in many philosophers down the centuries from the ancient Greeks through to the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment (especially David Hume and Adam Smith). However, utilitarianism only became clearly identified as a distinct philosophical school in the late eighteenth century The three most prominent early utilitarians published their major works within a few years of one another: William Paley in 1785, Jeremy Bentham in 1789, and William Godwin in 1793. All three thinkers shared the values of the Enlightenment - a Europe-wide intellectual and cultural movement characterized by faith in human reason, opposition to arbitrary authority in law, government or religion, and belief in progress. Today Bentham is the most famous. At the time, however, he was much less well known than Paley and Godwin, who both reached a comparatively wide audience.
William Paley (1743-1805), a minister in the Church of England, offered utilitarianism as a way to determine the will of God. God, being benevolent, would want us all to act in the way that best promotes the general happiness. While he was radical on some issues, notably his fierce opposition to slavery, Paley's general tendency was conservative, especially regarding property. The best way to promote the general happiness was to follow the established laws of property.
In the nineteenth century, despite Paley's conservatism, utilitarianism was associated with political extremists and atheists. This was due
to the influence of William Godwin (1756-1836) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Godwin was a social and political radical, who defended an extreme version of utilitarianism: a completely impartial morality with no place for special obligations or attachments to our nearest and dearest. Godwin delighted in presenting his views in terms designed to shock his contemporaries. Here is one notorious example.
The Archbishop and the chambermaid
You are trapped in a burning building with two other people. One is an Archbishop who is "a great benefactor of mankind" and the other is a chambermaid. You only have time to save one person from the fire. What should you do?
Godwin concludes that you should save the Archbishop, as his life is of more value to human happiness than the chambermaid's. This remains true even if the chambermaid is your own mother - or yourself!
It is not a coincidence that theological utilitarians tend to be more conservative than secular utilitarians. If the universe has been designed by a utilitarian God, then we should obviously expect it to be already very well organized to ...