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UTILITARIANISM

1 Introduction

Utilitarianism
normative

is

moral

an

appealing

theory,

with

and
plenty

highly
of

respected

contemporary

defenders. It can trace its roots back to Ancient Greece, and


the philosopher Epicurus in particular, but is more commonly
associated with the English Victorian philosophers Jeremy
1

From Maxley Brooke (1924). Coin Games and Puzzles. Dover: New York. p. 65

Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Among


contemporary

moral

philosophers

the

most

famous

utilitarian is Peter Singer (others include Samuel Scheffler,


David Brink; Peter Railton, Geoffrey Scarre, Jonathan Glover,
and plenty more).

Historically, utilitarians have been among the most radical of


moral philosophers and have often campaigned for changes
in received attitudes and practices (for instance, Bentham
campaigned for prison reform; John Stuart Mill campaigned
for equality for women; and Peter Singer campaigns for
equality for animals). But what, exactly, is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is the view that our basic moral duty is to


ensure we bring about the maximum quantity of utility.
Utility

is

variously

satisfaction

of

understood

preferences

as

(there

happiness,
are

other

or
ways

the
of

understanding utility too but in these notes well be


focussing on the main two happiness and preference
satisfaction). In a nutshell, utilitarianism says that we owe it
to ourselves and others to create as much happiness in the
world as we can, as well as minimise the amount of
unhappiness.

Lets first look at parallels between utilitarianism and ethical


egoism.

Utilitarianism shares two characteristics with ethical egoism.


What are they?

2 How utilitarianism is different

Hopefully you noticed that utilitarianism is a monistic theory


(so it consists of one basic principle) and is consequentialist
(it

is

the

outcome

that

determines

the

rightness

or

wrongness of an action).

But despite these similarities, the utilitarian thinks the


ethical egoist makes a mistake. The ethical egoist thinks we
ought to maximise our own personal happiness. But the
utilitarian holds that taking the moral perspective involves
recognising that your own happiness is no more or less
important than anyone elses. If maximising your own
happiness is the rational thing to do when you were focussed
only on your own happiness, maximising general happiness

must be the rational thing to do when you recognise that


your own happiness is no more or less important than
anyone elses.

We are going to discuss what happiness might be said to


consist in later in this section.

Reading: Mill, J. S. (1863). Utilitarianism.


London, England: Parker. [An extract]

Summarise Mills outline of utilitarianism.

3 Some attractions of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism (like ethical egoism ) is a simple theory. All of


morality is (supposedly) captured by one principle: maximise
general utility.

But does it provide guidance? Well, many peoples first


response to utilitarianism is to point out that it is difficult to
measure and quantify happiness. To find out what course of

action to follow we need to compare different peoples likely


happiness levels (the problem of comparing happiness is
known as the problem of interpersonal comparisons of
utility). Now, certainly there is a problem here. But I dont
think it is a particularly grave one, for while it may
sometimes be difficult to know the impact ones actions will
have on the happiness of others (or, indeed, oneself) we are
not at a complete loss here, and sometimes it will be obvious
that a particular act will cause more displeasure than
pleasure. To that extent, utilitarianism offers considerable
practical guidance.

A business analogy might be helpful. A business tries to


maximise

profits

and

minimise

costs.

Businesses

are

effectively utilitarians about money. A business will carefully


assess the costs and benefits associated with any given
course of action, and pursue it only if they judge the benefits
to outweigh the costs. Of course, mistakes can and are
made. Sometimes there are hidden or unexpected costs. But
while there is always a degree of uncertainty, it is not
crippling uncertainty. It would be ridiculous to argue that as
it is sometimes unclear which policy will or will not be
profitable, or which path is the most profitable, that we are
therefore at a complete loss. We can still make sensible,

informed guesses and arrive at intelligent strategies. Of


course, theres room for disagreement over what the best
policy is (and this may vary according to circumstances).
Utilitarians do indeed disagree over how best to maximise
happiness

(Bentham,

for

instance,

thought

capital

punishment was not utility maximising whereas John Stuart


Mill thought it was). But the difficulties we have measuring
happiness do not render utilitarianism false nor render it
unusable any more than difficulties establishing the best
way to maximise profits make knowledge of that goal
unhelpful. But anyway, try it out by engaging in the
following exercise.

Reflect on the following cases and see if the instruction


maximise happiness provides you with any guidance.

1. Your sensitive friend Jennifer has just bought a new dress. She looks fairly
awful in it. However, shell be wearing it among friends (at a wedding) and
shes already bought it and worn it so cannot return it to the shop or
afford to buy another. She asks you for your opinion. Should you tell her it
looks great or tell her the truth?

2. You

are

in

country

where

euthanasia

(mercy

killing)

is

legal

(Switzerland). Your friend is terminally ill and is clearly suffering terribly.

She wishes her misery to end but is unable to kill herself. She requests
that you kill her by turning off her life support machine.

3. Theres a runaway train trolley heading towards five happy workmen on a


railway track. Theres no way of warning them. If the trolley hits them
theyll all be killed. However, you are stood at an intersection and can
divert the trolley by pulling a lever. Unfortunately there is one happy
workman on the other line. If you divert the trolley it will strike him
instead, killing him. What should you do?

4. You are the president of the USA. You know a bomb has been planted
somewhere in a busy shopping precinct, but you have no idea which one.
The terrorist responsible for planting the bomb has been caught but he is
not giving up any information. Your secret services want to be given
permission to administer a truth-drug to him. The drug is completely
reliable. The only problem is the drug has a side effect: it induces tortuous
suffering for several hours. Should you give the go ahead?

4 Intuitively plausible?

I think it is fairly clear what utilitarianism would judge you


ought to do in the above cases. And utilitarianism seems to
deliver acceptable judgements ones you can acknowledge
might well be correct. It seems morally right to lie in the
dress case. It seems morally right to divert the trolley (does
to me and to most people, anyway). The final case is more

controversial. But it is at least plausible that it is right to


administer the drug (which is not the same as saying that it
is a decision that should be taken lightly, and a good
utilitarian will almost certainly want the person who makes
the decision to be very uncomfortable about doing so,
precisely in order to ensure that this kind of decision is only
ever taken in extreme circumstances).

Utilitarianism also provides a plausible rationale for these


judgements. The reason you ought to lie about the dress is
because telling the truth would cause someone suffering.
The reason you ought to divert the trolley is because in doing
so you minimise the amount of harm done (only one person
loses their life rather than five) and likewise in the truthdrug case.

But

perhaps

there

are

other

cases

where

applying

utilitarianism will yield more troubling verdicts.

Consider the following thought experiments and say what


you think utilitarianism will judge the right course of action to be in
each case.

1. You need a root canal filling in a tooth. There are two dentists in town.
Both are equally professional and equally competent (you can trust them
both only to give you treatment you really need). However, one of these
dentists is a sadist and derives pleasure from the discomfort of others.
(Rest assured, his professionalism prevents him from subjecting patients
to any unnecessary pain but root canals involve some unavoidable
discomfort). So, your level of discomfort will be the same whichever
dentist you visit. If youre a Utilitarian, which dentist ought you to visit?

2. You are a surgeon in a hospital. Mr Seinfeld, a fit but unpopular man,


has come into casualty with a broken toe. Mr Mitchell is a very popular
man and would be fit and well if it were not for a serious heart condition
that will kill him unless a replacement heart is found soon. Mr Webb is
another very popular man and he too would be fit and well were it not
for his dodgy liver. He needs a new liver and will die unless he receives a
replacement. Both Mr Mitchell and Mr Webb will, if they receive their
replacement organs, be returned to full health and will be able to
continue their upstanding, sober, virtuous lives. Mr Seinfelds heart and
liver fit the bill. If youre a Utilitarian surgeon should you kill Mr Seinfeld
so that you can give Mr Mitchell his heart and Mr Webb his liver?

3. You have $15 surplus money. You could go to the cinema and watch the
latest blockbuster or you could donate the money to a charity working in
the third-world. If you spend the $15 on yourself, youll derive some
pleasure from watching the film. But if you donate the $15 to charity itll
alleviate a considerable amount of suffering. In fact, shouldnt you give
all of your spare money away and furthermore, shouldnt you spend all
of your spare time ministering to the poor and needy? Wouldnt that be a
more utile use of your time?

5 Indirect utilitarianism

Are

the

judgements

you

reached

in

the

above

cases

intuitively acceptable? You must judge. But perhaps (and


maybe you already considered this in your answers to the
above) we are applying the theory too crudely. Above I
asked you to directly apply the Utilitarian principle
maximise happiness

to each

case.

But

perhaps

we

shouldnt apply utilitarianism directly all of the time. For


instance, if the direct application of the utility principle
means that surgeons will be inspired to routinely dismember
people in order to provide organs for some greater number
of patients this will cause widespread feelings of insecurity
and will make for less happiness overall (even if on a
particular occasion the utility profile favours taking such
action).

So, applying the principle of utility directly could easily be


counter-productive. Perhaps the strategy most likely to
maximise happiness involves adhering to certain rules of
thumb

(dont

lie,

dont

punish

the

innocent,

dont

dismember people, etc.). If maximising happiness is our goal


then we might do well to all but forget about the principle of

utility in everyday life, and only remember to apply it in


cases where it is blindingly obvious that following the rule of
thumb will yield a colossal amount of disutility, or in cases
where our rules of thumb conflict (and so cease providing us
with guidance; in such cases we must consult the master
principle, but otherwise we must leave it well alone). The
everyday moral rules of thumb that constitute commonsense morality contain the wisdom of ages and should only
very rarely be overruled (if youre interested in this strategy
see R. M. Hares book Moral Thinking and R. G. Freys article
Act-utilitarianism in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory
(La Follette, ed.)).

Note that by employing this kind of indirect strategy the


utilitarian can explain why our motives are very important.
Granted, our motives do not ultimately determine the
rightness or wrongness of our deeds, but nevertheless our
motives provide evidence of our character, and certain
character traits and dispositions are more conducive to the
maximisation of happiness than others. So it turns out to be
vitally important that we cultivate certain dispositions and
not others, and condemn those who act from certain motives
even if, on a particular occasion, their badly motivated deed
produces more pleasure than harm.

I leave it to you to assess whether indirect utilitarianism can


achieve intuitively palatable results or indeed, whether we
ought to simply reject some of our common sense intuitions
in deference to the judgements of utilitarianism. (Note:
many utilitarians will point out that we really shouldnt place
too much confidence in our common-sense moral intuitions:
they might embody prejudice. We should regularly audit
our common sense judgements to make sure theyre really
promoting maximum happiness.)

So, maybe either by indirect application or rejecting some


commonsense moral intuitions (or a judicious use of both
strategies) utilitarianism can achieve an acceptable level of
intuitive plausibility.

Reading:

Ryder,

R.

(2009).

Painism

versus

Utilitarianism. Think, 821), 85-89.

What do you think of Ryders criticism of utilitarianism and do you


think his amended version is an improvement?

Reading: Regan, T. (2003). Animal rights, human


wrongs. Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield.
[An extract]

What is Regans argument and do you think it highlights a


serious flaw in utilitarianism?

6 Utility

What, exactly, does utility consist in? Utility is normally


understood as happiness. But not all utilitarians agree
either about what happiness consists in, or whether utility
should be understood in this way at all. It would be beyond
the scope of this section to distinguish between all the
different varieties of utilitarians, so well focus on the most
prominent. Well distinguish between hedonistic utilitarians
and preference utilitarians.

7 Hedonistic utilitarianism

Hedonistic utilitarianism is the view that utility consists in


happiness.
utilitarian

But

what

Jeremy

does

Bentham

happiness

consist

(1748-1832)

in?

thought

The
that

happiness consists in pleasure and the absence of pain. So,


according to him, our moral duty is to create the most
amount of pleasure and minimise pain.

Bentham devised a useful hedonic calculus to help you


figure out the utility profile of prospective courses of
action:

Intensity: the more intense the pleasure your action


causes, the better.

Duration: the longer the pleasure lasts, the better.

Fruitfulness: a pleasure that opens up opportunities for


further pleasure is to be preferred to one that does not.
For instance, educating yourself might be pleasurable
in itself and it opens up the possibility of future
pleasures, whereas taking drugs probably doesnt.

Likelihood: when trying to figure out what to do, we


must not just focus on the amount of pleasure an
option will yield, we must also factor in the likelihood
that it will yield it. Putting all your savings on a horse

will yield considerable pleasure considerable utility


if the horse wins. Youll not have to go to work
anymore. However, it is unlikely to win, so probably
better to make do with less utility, than take the risk of
having even less for the vain hope of a great gain.

Note that what matters is the quantity and intensity of a


pleasure, not its source. Some people get pleasure going to
the opera. Others get pleasure playing on their Xbox
computer machines. I love listening to quality europop such
as the musical stylings of September (Petra Marklund). My
partner prefers Mozart and Beethoven. But each is as
valuable as the other if the quantities of pleasure being
generated are the same. (Bentham applied this thought to
sexual morality and arrived at the, then scandalous, view
that homosexual relationships are just as valuable and
worthwhile as heterosexual ones. He also thought, and this
is something that contemporary utilitarian Peter Singer has
rigorously defended, that animal pains and pleasures matter
and that our duty to minimise suffering means radically
altering our practices with respect to animals).

What do you think: is it the pleasure-yield that counts and


not the source? Try and think of an example where it seems the
source matters

John Stuart Mill thought Benthams account of happiness


was faulty. Mill was a hedonist too, but he thought that the
quality of a pleasure matters in addition to its quantity.
Pleasures from certain sources are of a lower quality than
others. Animal pleasures (eating, drinking, sex) are of a
lower quality than intellectual pleasures. For instance, the
overall amount of pleasure derived from having sex may be
the same as from reading a good novel, but the pleasure
derived from reading a good novel is of a better quality.
What was his reason for thinking this? Well, he held that
anyone who has experienced both kinds of pleasure will
judge the higher pleasures to be superior.

Whether one takes Benthams view or Mills, theres a


problem for hedonistic accounts (though exactly how serious
a problem is a matter of debate).

Read the famous quote below from philosopher Robert Nozick


(supposedly the inspiration behind the film the Matrix). Then explain
why you would/wouldnt plug-in. What would a hedonistic Utilitarian
say you ought to do?

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any
experience you desired. Superduper neuro-psychologists could stimulate
your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel,
or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be
floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug
into this machine for life, pre-programming your lifes experiences? If you
are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose
that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many
others. You can pick and choose from their large smorgasbord of such
experiences, selecting your lifes experiences for, say, the next to yours.
Of course, while in the tank you wont know that youre there; youll think
it is all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences
they want, so theres no need to stay unplugged to serve them. Ignore
problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in. Would
you plug in?2

Robert Nozick (1974). Anarchy State and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, pp. 42-43

In 1954 Olds and Milner of McGill University implanted


electrodes in rats brains. The electrodes were wired up
to a lever in the rats cage. If the rat pressed the lever
an electric current would be passed into the rats brain.
Olds and Milner had originally assumed that the current
would cause the rats pain.
In fact, they had inadvertently
discovered the pleasure centres of
the brain. Every time the rats
pressed the lever they received a
burst of pleasure. So they kept
pressing their levers. And pressing
8
them. And pressing them.
In fact, they were so obsessed with pressing the lever
they neglected to eat and drink and eventually died of
exhaustion!!
Surely a hedonist utilitarian should be on the phone to
Olds and Milner right away asking to be plugged in.
Obviously, one would want some kind of arrangement of
drips so that one stays alive. But assuming we could rig
all of that up, a life of endless pleasure awaits us. Surely
this is the ultimate goal of the hedonist utilitarian. Sound
good? (Me: actually, it kind of sort of does! Wheres the
phone!)

8 Preference utilitarianism

According to the preference-satisfaction account of utility


what matters is not having pleasurable experiences per se
but having our desires or preferences satisfied.

So, our life is going maximally well when all our preferences
are being met. Note: It isnt the satisfaction that comes from
having ones preferences met that makes ones life go better
(not on the preference-satisfaction account anyway). It is
just the brute fact that our preferences are being met.

According to preference utilitarianism our duty is to satisfy


as many preferences as possible (both our own and those of
others) and minimise the frustration of preferences.

What would a preference utilitarian say about hooking up


to the experience machine?

Hopefully your answer to the above exercise was something


like the following. Living a life hooked up to an experience
machine would leave many of our preferences unsatisfied:
our

preferences

to

actually

do

the

things

we

are

experiencing. We do not just want to experience falling in


love, or experience having a successful career, we actually
want to do those things. So, while hooking up to the
experience machine would satisfy your preference for the
experience of falling in love etc., it would not satisfy your

preference to actually fall in love with someone. (Note: If


were in the experience machine then we dont realise that
lots of our preferences are not being met. But that doesnt
matter. They are not being met regardless of whether we
realise

this

or

not.)

For

this

reason

some

think

the

preference account of utility is preferable (ha ha) to the


hedonistic account. It seems to combine the simplicity of the
hedonistic

view

while

accommodating

most

peoples

aversion to a future spent plugged into an experience


machine.

The hedonistic and preference accounts of utility are not the


only accounts of utility. But they are the most prominent. In
practice, it will rarely make a difference which version of
utilitarianism one subscribes to.

9 Still a contender

We

havent

finished

with

utilitarianism

yet.

Well

be

returning to it when we look at different approaches to


punishment.

But

despite

all

the

criticisms

that

are

made

against

utilitarianism (and there are a lot), it remains an attractive

moral theory that continues to win committed support from


philosophers.

The one thing you cant accuse a utilitarian of is prejudice. It


is a no nonsense approach, which is seen by many as crude
and

insensitive.

themselves

to

Nevertheless

get

distracted

utilitarians
by

dont

irrelevancies

allow

such

as

tradition and prevailing attitudes and are always ready and


willing to subject received views to a consequentialist audit.
(Historically, utilitarians have nearly always been the first
among

moral

philosophers

to

highlight

what

we

now

acknowledge to be moral mistakes such as prejudices


against races, women, homosexuals, and more recently,
animals.)

So

historically

utilitarianism

has

provided

remarkable degree of moral insight.

Optional Reading: Kymlicka,W.


(1990).Contemporary political philosophy. London,
England: Clarendon. [An extract]