Utilitarianism is a moral theory that states that the morally right action maximizes happiness or benefit and minimizes pain or harm for all stakeholders. What counts is the sum of all happiness caused by the action minus the sum of all harm. Proponents of classic utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism is still one of the most used theories in today’s ethics.
Imagine that you are faced with a decision and have a range of options available to you. Which one should you choose? Let’s say, you are a doctor in a hospital and two patients are lying in front of you, both in need of the one ventilator that’s available: one is young and strong, just began his university studies before he suddenly fell ill. His prognosis is good: If he gets the ventilator, he will probably make it and have a long life afterwards. The other is an older man, now the president of a big computer company, a philanthropist supporting many charities, but his health is not so good. Even if he survives on this ventilator, he’ll eventually die from one of his other ailments, perhaps this year, perhaps next. There’s no way to know for sure.
What will you do? Who of the two should get the chance to live?
The basic premise
Utilitarianism tries to answer this question in a way that doesn’t require us to believe anything: we don’t need God, we don’t need to follow the Bible, we don’t even need to believe Kant or Aristotle.
We only need to agree on one single premise: that all human beings ultimately want to be happy.
If we can agree to this, then it follows naturally that the best action would be the one that maximises the happiness of all who are concerned: those whom my decision will affect. This is what Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) called “utilitarianism”: the principle that we should aim to maximise “utility,” which is nothing else but “happiness over unhappiness and pleasure over pain” (Bentham).
We only need to agree on one single premise: that all human beings ultimately want to be happy.
But here the trouble with utilitarianism begins. Obviously, my two patients are not going to agree on whose survival makes them happier. The one who survives will be happy, the other unhappy (and dead). So we’ll have to consider a few more factors. Their families, for example. Let’s say, the young one has a big family, who all love him, and they will be devastated if he dies. The older company president is an orphan, has never had any attachments, lives alone and cares only for his work. Now it seems easier to see where most happiness will be generated. But what if we also take the charities into account? What if we also count the users of the software that the president’s company is making? But then, what about their children? The older man, who has never married, doesn’t have any children. The young man doesn’t either, but he might. So all this quickly gets pretty complex.
But the problems don’t stop there.
For example, can we be sure that maximising happiness is always going to be the right choice?
Let’s say you have an old relative whom you visit in the elderly care home once a week, every Tuesday. This visit means a lot to them, and you always try to be punctual and not to miss any visits. And Tuesday is the only day you can get off work in time to visit them, so everything is fine. But then, one day, it so happens that some of your best friends surprise you with an invitation. It’s your birthday, they say, and they’re right. You had completely forgotten that your birthday fell on a Tuesday this year. Not only that, but they’ve also already organised a birthday party for you, ordered a cake, and invited everyone you know. They’ll all be coming to a fabulous party in your flat on that Tuesday, and they’ll be devastated if you don’t show up.
What now? If you count the number of people who’d be happy or unhappy, the party clearly trumps your old relative. If you go to the party, you make one person unhappy. If you go to your relative, you make twenty or thirty unhappy. Utilitarianism would say you should go to the party. But is this really the most moral course of action?
And it gets more extreme. Think of organ transplants. Organs are scarce, and many patients in need of transplants have to wait for months to get one. Many die waiting because the right organ cannot be found in time. Now, one person has two kidneys, one liver, two lungs, one heart, and a number of other bits that might come in handy. Why not kill the first healthy guy who comes along the street, take out his organs and distribute them to six or more patients whose lives would be saved? In a utilitarian calculation, this would compute as morally right.
So it seems that maximising happiness is not all that matters. We feel that there are other values that we have to take into account: our promise to that old relative who waits for us to visit. The life and the rights of the unsuspecting man whose organs we would like to have. And thousands of similar concerns that we try to juggle in our everyday decision making. But if this is true, then utilitarianism must be wrong.
Kant’s ethics is based on the value of one’s motivation and two so-called Categorical Imperatives, or general rules that must apply to every action.
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” Bentham wrote. “It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
But maybe there are more than two masters, after all.
The basic idea of utilitarianism can be fleshed out in different ways.
One question is when we should make the utilitarian calculation: Should we calculate every single action (“act utilitarianism”) or say that some kinds of actions (like stealing or lying) are, as a rule, actions that tend to diminish overall happiness (“rule utilitarianism”)? Although rule utilitarianism makes things easier to calculate, it has its own problems, as we will see below.
More variants differ in how they determine what is a good outcome (“preference utilitarianism”) and whether we try to maximise benefit or minimise harm (“negative utilitarianism”). Finally, variants can differ in how exactly they aggregate happiness measurements over a population: should we seek to maximise the happiness of a few, or to distribute happiness evenly, even if, in that case, we would lower the total happiness?
In act utilitarianism, each individual action is evaluated on its own merit, and the decision to perform that action is based solely on the amount of happiness that it will produce. This means that there are no set rules or guidelines to follow, and each situation must be evaluated independently.
One of the strengths of act utilitarianism is its flexibility. Since each situation is evaluated on its own merit, it allows for a wide range of actions to be considered moral, as long as they produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. This means that act utilitarianism can be adapted to a variety of situations and contexts.
One might, for example, judge a bodily injury differently depending on whether it is the result of an attack, a surgical intervention or the voluntary exercise of an extreme sport. These three cases are significantly different in how they would see the moral implications of an injury, and rightly so.
But act utilitarianism also has some weaknesses. The main one is that it can be difficult (or impossible) to determine in advance what actions will produce the greatest amount of happiness in the future. It is hard to predict the consequences of our actions, and sometimes what we believe will produce the greatest amount of happiness may actually result in more harm than good.
Another criticism of act utilitarianism is that it can sometimes lead to actions that are morally questionable. For example, if torturing one person would produce enough happiness to outweigh the suffering caused by the torture, then act utilitarianism would suggest that the torture is morally justified.
Finally, one must often act quickly in real life, which does not always leave enough time for the agent to perform a precise calculation of expected future benefits. When I’m involved in a traffic accident and I have to quickly decide whether to crash my car into another car or drive off the road to avoid this, I won’t have the luxury of evaluating all my options calmly in order to reach a decision. The same is also true of less dramatic situations. For example, I catch a student cheating in a minor school exam. Should I confront them right there during the examination, or later, after the fact, or perhaps not at all because they are a disadvantaged student who has been unlucky and having mental health issues lately and who is in danger of being expelled from school if caught?
So, although act utilitarianism seems to be the purest form of utilitarianism, it is often impractical to use in real life.
Ethics is the study of how we ought to behave, and why. There are many different theories of ethics, which we briefly discuss in this article.
Rule utilitarianism is a variant of utilitarianism that focuses on the moral value of rules rather than individual actions. This theory holds that an action is morally right if it conforms to a rule that, if generally followed, would lead to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
The key feature of rule utilitarianism is that it provides a more stable and predictable moral framework than act utilitarianism. Rather than evaluating the morality of each individual action, rule utilitarianism looks at the moral value of following certain rules. This allows individuals to make decisions based on well-established moral standards rather than having to constantly weigh the consequences of each action.
The key feature of rule utilitarianism is that it provides a more stable and predictable moral framework than act utilitarianism.
One strength of rule utilitarianism is that it promotes social stability and consistency. By following established rules that promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people, individuals are able to work towards a common goal and avoid societal chaos. Additionally, rule utilitarianism allows individuals to make moral decisions without having to fully understand the complex consequences of their actions. One could even see many of a society’s laws as justified through rule utilitarian considerations.
However, one weakness of rule utilitarianism is that it can sometimes lead to a lack of flexibility in moral decision-making. By focusing on following established rules, individuals may overlook the unique circumstances of a case (like the cheating student we saw before) that might require us to deviate from established moral standards.
Additionally, rule utilitarianism can be subject to the same criticisms as act utilitarianism in terms of the difficulty in predicting the consequences of actions. For example, while it might be true that lying often leads to less benefit for everyone, surely this is not always the case. One can imagine many situations in which a “white lie” might be objectively beneficial and not cause any harm. But how would rule utilitarianism allow for that?
Preference utilitarianism is a variation of utilitarianism that focuses on promoting the satisfaction of individual preferences rather than some abstract idea of the “general good.”
Unlike rule utilitarianism, which focuses on conforming to established rules, preference utilitarianism prioritizes the fulfillment of individual desires and aspirations. This approach recognizes that people have unique preferences and values, and that these preferences should be considered when making moral decisions. What is good for or valuable to one person does not need to be for another.
One of the key advantages of preference utilitarianism is that it allows for more flexibility in moral decision-making. For example, one might judge differently what “benefit” means for a Christian hermit, a practitioner of Islam, a Buddhist monk or a US insurance salesman.
Preference utilitarianism is not without its criticisms. One potential issue is that it can be difficult to determine whose preferences should be given priority in a given situation. For example, what should be done in cases where the preferences of one person conflict with those of another?
Another potential criticism is that preference utilitarianism may not always promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people, as it is more focused on individual satisfaction than overall outcomes. Often, our own preferences conflict with the general good. For example, I might value driving my own car, but this conflicts with the society’s interest to reduce pollution and traffic accidents; I might want to eat cheaply available meat, but this might harm the animals and the environment; and so on.
Must we really accept every personal preferences as a morally relevant value, or can we exclude particular preferences from the utilitarian calculation?
Another issue is what to do about immoral preferences. Someone might really like torturing animals, for example, or having other immoral preferences that make them happy. Must we really accept every personal preferences as a morally relevant value, or can we exclude particular preferences from the utilitarian calculation? But if start excluding preferences, where do we stop? Should, for example, the preference of trans athletes to compete in women’s sports, be honoured or not? It is difficult to decide.
Finally, our preferences are not always rational. I might prefer orange juice over milk, and coffee over orange juice. I also prefer tea over coffee. But I’d always take milk instead of tea if offered this choice. This set of preferences is contradictory, but people are like that. We value a happy family, but we also value a stellar career – and sometimes these values may not be achievable at the same time because they conflict with each other, even if both are held by the same person.
Negative Utilitarianism is a moral theory that prioritizes the reduction of suffering over the promotion of happiness. According to this theory, the primary moral duty is to minimize the amount of harm in the world, rather than maximizing pleasure. Negative Utilitarianism is based on the belief that the prevention of suffering is more important than the promotion of happiness.
Negative Utilitarianism can be seen in everyday life when people make decisions that prioritise the prevention of harm. For example, a person might choose to donate money to a charity that works to alleviate suffering rather than spend that money on a luxury item for themselves. In this way, Negative Utilitarianism can be seen as a way of prioritising the needs of others over one’s own desires.
One criticism of Negative Utilitarianism is that it can be difficult to determine what constitutes harm and suffering, as well as how to measure and compare the amount of harm that different actions might cause. Another criticism is that Negative Utilitarianism can be too demanding, requiring individuals to sacrifice their own happiness and pleasure in order to prevent harm.
If we take Negative Utilitarianism seriously, we might conclude that killing everyone quickly and painlessly is the required thing to do.
And finally, as philosopher R.N. Smart has pointed out in 1958, if we take Negative Utilitarianism seriously, we might conclude that killing everyone quickly and painlessly is the required thing to do. After all, every life includes episodes of pain and unhappiness, and if our priority is to eliminate that pain, then painlessly terminating lives would look like the morally right decision. More realistically, this can be seen as an argument against having children: if one can foresee that one’s children will experience some amount of suffering and pain, which is likely, then Negative Utilitarianism would advocate not having children at all and thus saving them that suffering.
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Different versions of the utilitarian calculation
More variants of utilitarianism have sprung up due to the question how one is to calculate the “overall happiness” of a number of people.
Let’s say that we look at a population of 5 individuals, who, before any action is taken, each have a happiness of 2 (on a scale on 1-10), so that their total population happiness initially is 10. Now we could give one of them a huge amount of money, thus bringing one individual up to, say, 7. Or we could divide that money (the equivalent of 5 units of benefit) and give everyone one unit – so that now all are at 3 units of happiness. Which action would be morally right?
We can tweak these numbers and achieve different outcomes that all seem plausible to varying degrees. Still, we haven’t answered the question whether the equal distribution itself is a valuable thing or not. Is it better to share a mild benefit among all, or to give one of these people a really good life at the expense of all the others?
Far from being a purely academic calculation, this kind of thought experiment is at the root of many political choices we make. Capitalist societies would tend to not see the equal distribution of happiness as valuable, while socialist systems might endorse the equal distribution at the expense of the greater happiness of particular individuals. In social practice, distributing happiness in this way is precisely what taxation does, so questions on how much taxes the rich should pay and how we should tax financially successful companies are very similar to the example we saw above.