Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—the ends justify the means. Utility the good to be maximized has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus sadness or pain), though preference utilitarians like Peter Singer define it as the satisfaction of preferences. It may be described as a life stance with happiness or pleasure as ultimate importance.
Originally described by the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number", eventually 'greatest number' was dropped as being too problematic mere addition paradox. Utilitarianism can thus be characterized as a quantitative and reductionistic approach to ethics.
Utilitarianism can be contrasted with deontological ethics (which disregards the consequences of performing an act, when determining its moral worth) and virtue ethics (which focuses on character), as well as with other varieties of consequentialism. Adherents of these opposing views have extensively criticized the utilitarian view, though utilitarians have been similarly critical of other schools of ethical thought.
In general use of the term utilitarian often refers to a somewhat narrow economic or pragmatic viewpoint. However, philosophical utilitarianism is much broader than this; for example, most approaches to utilitarianism consider non-human animals in addition to people.
The origins of Utilitarianism are often traced back as far as the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but as a specific school of thought, it is generally credited to Jeremy Bentham. Bentham found pain and pleasure to be the only intrinsic values in the world: "nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." From this he derived the rule of utility, that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Later, after realizing that the formulation recognized two different and potentially conflicting principles, he dropped the second part and talked simply about "the greatest happiness principle."
Jeremy Bentham's foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day and the father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated according to Bentham's principles, including transcribing and summarizing much of his father's work whilst still in his teens.
In his famous short work, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill argued that cultural, intellectual, and spiritual pleasures are of greater value than mere physical pleasure, because the former would be valued more highly by competent judges than the latter. A competent judge, according to Mill, is anyone who has experienced both the lower pleasures and the higher. Like Bentham's formulation, Mill's utilitarianism deals with pleasure or happiness.
The classic utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill influenced many other philosophers and the development of the broader concept of consequentialism. As a result, there now exist many different accounts of the good, and therefore many different types of consequentialism besides utilitarianism. For example, some philosophers reject the sole importance of well-being and argue that there are intrinsic values other than happiness or pleasure, e.g. knowledge and autonomy.
Utilitarianism has been used as an argument for many different political views. In his essay On Liberty and other works, John Stuart Mill argued that utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the "liberty principle" (or harm principle), according to which "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Prevention of self-harm by other persons was considered expressly forbidden, although Mill states that potential self-harm is a reason for other persons to try to persuade a person not to do so.
Mill claims that he "did not invent the word, but found it in one of Galt's novels, the 'Annals of the Parish,' in which the Scottish clergyman, of whom the book is a supposed autobiography, is represented as warning his parishioners not to leave the Gospel and become utilitarians. With a boy's fondness for a name and a banner I seized upon the word... Mill subsequently named his society of like minded thinkers the "Utilitarian Society", which met for three and a half years.
Act utilitarianism states that, when faced with a choice, we must first consider the likely consequences of potential actions, and from that, choose to do what we believe will generate the most happiness. A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, begins by looking at potential rules of action. To determine whether a rule should be followed, he looks at what would happen if it were constantly followed. If adherence to the rule produces more happiness than otherwise, it is a rule that morally must be followed at all times. The distinction between act and rule utilitarianism is therefore based on a difference about the proper object of consequentialist calculation: specific to a case or generalised to rules.
Rule utilitarianism has been criticized for advocating general rules that will in some specific circumstances clearly decrease happiness if followed. To never kill a human might seem to be a good rule, but this could make defense against aggressors very difficult. Rule utilitarians would then add that there are general exception rules that allow the breaking of other rules if this increases happiness, one example being self-defense. Critics would then argue that this reduces rule utilitarianism to act utilitarianism, and the rules become meaningless. Rule utilitarians respond that the rules in the legal system (i.e. laws) which regulate such situations are not meaningless. For instance, self-defense is legally justified while murder is not.
Rule utilitarianism should not be confused with heuristics (rules of thumb). Many act utilitarians agree that it makes sense to formulate certain rules of thumb to follow if they find themselves in a situation in which the consequences are difficult, costly, or time-consuming to calculate exactly. If the consequences can be calculated relatively clearly and without much doubt, then the rules of thumb can be ignored.
1. Some advocates of the utilitarian principle were quick to suggest that the ultimate aim of NU would be to engender the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity, as this ultimately would effectively minimize suffering. NU would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick
2. Newer, moderate versions of NU do not attempt to minimize all kinds of suffering but only those kinds that are created by the frustration of preferences. In most supporters of moderate NU the preference to survive is stronger than the wish to be freed from suffering, so that they refuse the idea of a quick and painless destruction of life. Some of them believe that by time the worst cases of suffering will be defeated and a world of minor suffering can be realized. The principal agents of this direction can be found in the environment of transhumanism
Supporters of moderate NU who do not believe in the promises of transhumanism would prefer a reduction of the population (and in the extreme case an empty world). This seems to come down to the position of radical NU, but in moderate NU the world could only be sacrificed to prevent extreme suffering and not to avoid the pain of a pinprick. And from the preference for an empty world does not follow a corresponding political claim. Such a claim would definitely (and in analogy to radical NU) be counterproductive. Pessimistic supporters of moderate NU therefore tend towards a retreat oriented way of living.
3. Finally there are theoreticians who see NU as a branch within classical utilitarianism, rather than an independent theory. This interpretation overlooks Derek Parfit's “Repugnant Conclusion” NU is precisely characterized by overcoming this theoretical weakness of classical utilitarianism.
Total utilitarianism advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the total utility of its members. This type of utilitarianism falls victim to the Repugnant Conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort. In other words, according to the theory, it is a moral good to breed more people on the world for as long as total happiness rises: a state, dubbed by Derek Parfit as the repugnant conclusion, in which there is an enormous population of members whose individual lives are barely worth living.
Average utilitarianism, on the other hand, advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population. It avoids Parfit's repugnant conclusion, but causes other problems like the Mere Addition Paradox. For example, bringing a moderately happy person in a very happy world would be seen as an immoral act; aside from this, the theory implies that it would be a moral good to eliminate all people whose happiness is below average, as this would raise the average happiness.
This view can be contrasted with deep ecology, which holds that an intrinsic value is attached to all forms of life and nature. Because most forms of life are unable to experience anything akin to pleasure and/or discomfort, utilitarianism denies any moral status to organisms like trees or oysters, or to natural entities like a river; their only value being in the benefit they provide for sentient beings. Similarly, utilitarianism places no intrinsic value on biodiversity.
In order to overcome perceived shortcomings of both systems, several attempts have been made to combine utilitarianism with Kant's categorical imperative. For instance, James Cornman proposes that in any given situation we should treat as "means" as few people as possible, and treat as "ends" as many people as are thus then consistent with those "means". He refers to this as the "Utilitarian Kantian Principle".
Other consequentialists may consider happiness an important consequence, but in addition argue that consequences such as justice or equality should also be valued, regardless if they increase happiness or not.
It has been suggested that sociobiology, the study of the evolution of human society, provides support for the utilitarian point of view. For example, in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argues that fundamentally utilitarian ethical reasoning has existed from the time primitive foraging bands had to cooperate, compromise, and make group decisions to survive. He elaborates: "In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole." Thus, consideration of others' interests has long been a necessary part of the human experience. Singer believes that reason now compels the equal consideration of all people's interests:
"If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings."
This conclusion that everybody's interests should be considered equally when making decisions is a core tenet of utilitarianism.
Singer elaborates that viewing oneself as equal to others in one's society and at the same time viewing one's society as fundamentally superior to other societies may cause an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This is the sense in which he means that reason may push people to accept a broader utilitarian stance. Critics (e.g., Binmore 2005) point out that this cognitive dissonance is apparently not very strong, since people often knowingly ignore the interests of faraway societies quite similar to their own. They also note that the "ought" of the quoted paragraph applies only to someone who has already accepted the premise that all societies are equally important. Singer has responded that his argument in Expanding the Circle wasn't intended to provide a complete philosophical justification for a utilitarian categorical imperative, but merely to provide a plausible explanation for how some people come to accept utilitarianism.
Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, makes this statement: "Darwinism was an application to the whole of animal and vegetable life... which was an integral part of the politics and economics of the Benthamites a global free competition, in which victory went to the animals that most resembled successful capitalists."
One difficulty with utilitarianism includes the comparison of happiness between different people. Many of the early utilitarians hoped that happiness could somehow be measured quantitatively and compared between people through felicific calculus, otherwise known as the hedonic calculus, although no one has ever managed to construct a detailed one in practice. It has been argued that the happiness of different people is incommensurable, and thus felicific calculus is impossible, not only in practice, but even in principle. Defenders of utilitarianism reply that this problem is faced by anyone who has to choose between two alternative states of affairs where both impose burdens to the people involved. If happiness were incommensurable, the death of a hundred people would be no worse than the death of one. Triage is an example of a real world situation where utilitarianism seems to be applied relatively successfully.
An oft-cited "dilemma" of utilitarianism is that the pleasure of a sadist should have the same importance as the pleasure of an altruist. Supporters of utilitarianism note that in practice almost no decision will be made to cater to the sadist. While creating pleasure for an altruist simultaneously helps other people, creating pleasure for a sadist simultaneously hurts other people. Furthermore, many utilitarians feel that the sadist's pleasure is superficial and temporary, thus it is detrimental to the sadist's long term well-being. Therefore, in practice, the pleasure of a sadist almost never has any significant weight in a utilitarian calculation. By principle, Mill argues that as a sadist does not take into account the value of another's happiness (utility) his in this context should not be considered. One argument is that since sadists are few in number, the ignorance of their system of pleasure is another continuation of utilitarianism, where the set of those involved refers to itself. This was an early objection to utilitarianism, and in On Liberty John Stuart Mill argued that a citizen obeying the concept of utilitarianism could not possibly wish ill on another individual for his own personal pleasure while in the aggregate, cruelty could create a 'net' happiness, the individual's sadism is reprehensible under the utilitarian ethos.
Utilitarians, however, are not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. Utilitarians simply try their best to maximize happiness (or another form of utility), and to do this, make their best estimates of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it might make sense to follow an ethical rule which has promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians will also note that people trying to further their own interests run into situations in which the consequences of their decisions are very unclear. This does not mean that they are unable to make a decision.
Anthony Kenny argues against utilitarianism on the grounds that determinism is either true or false. If it is true, then we have no choice over our actions. But if it is false then the consequences of our actions are unpredictable, not least because they will depend on the actions of others whom we cannot predict.
Utilitarianism has been criticized for only looking at the results of actions, not at the desires or intentions which motivate them, which many people also consider important. An action intended to cause harm but that inadvertently causes good results would be judged equal to the result from an action done with good intentions. However, many utilitarians would argue that utilitarianism applies not only to results, but also to desires and dispositions, praise and blame, rules, institutions, and punishment. For instance, bad intentions may cause harm (to the actor and to others) even if they do not result in bad acts. Once this is recognized, supporters argue that utilitarianism becomes a much more complex, and rich, moral theory, and may align much more closely with our moral intuitions.
Furthermore, many utilitarians view morality as a personal guide rather as a means to judge the actions of other people or actions which have already been performed. In other words, morality is something to be looked at when deciding what to do. In this sense, intentions are the only thing that matter, because the consequences cannot be known with certainty until the decision has already been made.
Utilitarians may argue that justification of slavery, torture or mass murder would require unrealistically large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering to the victims. Utilitarianism would also require the indirect impact of social acceptance of inhumane policies to be taken into consideration; for example, general anxiety and fear might increase for all if human rights are commonly ignored.
Act and rule utilitarianisms differ in how they treat human rights themselves. Under rule utilitarianism, a human right can easily be considered a moral rule. Act utilitarians, on the other hand, do not accept human rights as moral principles in and of themselves, but that does not mean they are rejected altogether. First, most act utilitarians, as explained above, would agree that acts such as enslavement and genocide always cause great unhappiness and little happiness. Second, human rights could be considered rules of thumb; although torture might be acceptable under some circumstances, as a rule it is immoral. Finally, act utilitarians often support human rights in a legal sense, because utilitarians support laws that cause more good than harm
Mill's argument for utilitarian is as follows: Pleasure is the only thing desired; therefore pleasure is the only thing desirable. Critics argue that this is like saying that things visible are things seen, or that the only things audible are things heard. A thing is 'visible' if it can be seen, and 'desirable' if it ought to be desired. Thus 'desirable' is a word presupposing an ethical theory - we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired. However, this criticism denotes the word 'desirable' as 'able to be desired' rather than 'worth being desired' and does not take into account the moral assessment that must take place in order to categorise something as 'desirable' which does not occur when categorising the same thing as 'visible' or 'audible'.
Critics have also asked why one should follow utilitarianism instead of egoism. A legal system might punish behavior which harms others, but this incentive is not active in a situation where one can personally gain by breaking it and others cannot punish this. However, one egoist may propose means to maximize self-interest that conflicts with the means proposed by another egoist. As a result, they are behooved to compromise with one another to avoid conflict, out of self-interest. The means proposed may incidentally coincide with those prescribed by utilitarianism, though the foundational ethical imperative would not, of course, be utilitarian.
Another reason for an egoist to become a utilitarian was proposed by Peter Singer in Practical Ethics. He presents the paradox of hedonism, which says that if your only goal in life is personal happiness, you will never be happy; you need something to be happy about. One goal which Singer feels is likely to bring personal happiness is the desire to improve the lives of others. This argument is similar to the one for virtue ethics.
Marx's accusation is twofold. In the first place, he says that the theory of utility is true by definition and thus does not really add anything meaningful. For Marx, a productive inquiry would have to investigate what sorts of things are good for people; that is, what our nature (which he believes is alienated under capitalism) really is. Second, he says that Bentham fails to take account of the changing character of people, and hence the changing character of what is good for them. This criticism is especially important for Marx, because he believed that all important statements were contingent upon particular historical conditions. Marx argues that human nature is dynamic, so the concept of a single utility for all humans is one-dimensional and not useful. When he decries Bentham's application of the 'yard measure' of now to 'the past, present and future', he decries the implication that society, and people, have always been, and will always be, as they are now; that is, he criticizes essentialism. As he sees it, this implication is conservatively used to reinforce institutions he regarded as reactionary. Just because in this moment religion has some positive consequences, says Marx, doesn't mean that viewed historically it isn't a regressive institution that should be abolished.
Marx's criticism is more a criticism of Bentham's views (or similar views) of utility, than utilitarianism itself. Utilitarians would not deny that different things make different people happy, and that what promotes happiness changes over time. Neither would utilitarians deny the importance of investigations into what promotes utility.
Marx's criticism applies to all philosophy which does not take explicit account of the movement of history (against dialectics). While he's right that all things change, and that it is necessary to take account of this when making practical judgements, this doesn't mean that it isn't useful to have a theory which gives some means to evaluate those changes themselves.
Also, utilitarianism was originally developed as a challenge to the status quo. The demand that everyone count for one, and one only, was anathema to the elitist society of Victorian Britain.
Contemporary philosophers such as Cora Diamond and Matthew Ostrow have critiqued utilitarianism from a distinctly Wittgensteinian perspective; according to these philosophers, utilitarians have expanded the very meaning of pleasure to the point of linguistic incoherence. The utilitarian groundlessly places pleasure as his or her first principle, and in doing so subordinates the value of asceticism, self-sacrifice or any other "secondary" desire. Of course, the utilitarian will deny this contention altogether, claiming that ascetics also seek pleasure, but have merely chosen an alternative path in which to achieve it. Yet such an argument is implicitly tautological ("What is it that people want? Pleasure. But what is pleasure? What people want."). The utilitarian therefore has no ultimate justification for primarily valuing pleasure, other than to say that "this is the way it should be." In this critique, utilitarianism is thus ultimately reduced to a form of dishonest ethical intuitionism, unable to recognize or acknowledge its own groundlessness. Or in the words of Wittgenstein, utilitarianism is blind to its "own metaphysical impulse" (a trap which Deontology also undoubtedly falls victim to).
One criticism is that many other schools cannot even in theory solve real world complex ethical problems when various inviolable principles collide, like triage or if the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the right decision.
A criticism of Kantianism is leveled by R. M. Hare in Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian? He argued that a number of different ethical positions could fit with Kant's description of his Categorical Imperative, and although Kant did not agree with this assessment, utilitarianism could be among them.
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