The idea that one should make choices in one's life based on the utility of each choice. If, for example, a poor person were asking for money on the street, some would say that it would be more utilitarian to forget about this person. However, it may actually be more utilitarian to help. Other people having a means to live comfortably is perhaps a good thing for us. This may be because it simply makes us feel better or because eventually it leads to drastic social change.

Primary among the arguments against Utilitarianism are that the doctrine ignores/eliminates the concepts of individual rights and justice. (Concepts which, oddly enough, are held dear by the countries this philosophy flourishes in.) Put plainly, a strict classical Utilitarian would have no qualms about sacrificing a single innocent person to serve the greater happiness of a larger number of people. Or, on a smaller scale, say a peeping tom took pictures of a naked woman without her knowing. He consequently derives a great deal of enjoyment, whereas she, all unawares, is completely unaffected. By Utilitarian doctrine, this action was perfectly morally sound.

Thus, in plain terms, Utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that commonsense morality tells us are wrong.
Although some claim that Utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that commonsense morality tells us are wrong when more factors are taken into account, utilitarianism conforms to conventional morality.

In the example of a single person being killed in order to save hundreds, society wouldn't just be trading one person's life for the lives of many others - it would also be forcing all citizens to live with the possibility of being sacrificed for the greater good at any time. That would be a huge burden, and would cancel much of the gain from the sacrifice. So for example, killing one person to save two probably wouldn't be worth it, because it would cast fear on the entire population and only gain one life in exchange. But, killing volunteers to save the country would be worth it, and is in fact done in the military.

In the case of the Peeping Tom who creates goodness (pleasure) by spying on his neighbor, while not causing any perceptible harm, there still must be a possibility that he will get caught, causing very bad feelings for the woman, to know she'd been spied on the whole time, and probably bother her for the rest of her life. This potential harm is so great that it balances out the benefit of peeping. Similarly, if he increased the benefit by spreading the pictures on the internet, it would also increase the potential harm to her, as well as her chance of finding out, making the whole proposition a loss for society on average.

The potential for damage to the peeped is also why looking at 100 year old peeping tom photos is not wrong, while taking them now is.

Jeremy Bentham created the Principle of Utility or Utilitarianism with his essay “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.” The ideas behind Utilitarianism are simple: happiness for the individual is paramount, happiness for the community is a derivative, and governments should attempt to make laws that value this happiness and promote further pleasure. These are the basic fundamentals for a utilitarian way of life, society, and government.

Nature dictates through pleasure and pain. It is inherently human to seek out happiness and shun pain. Thus, the individual will attempt to act in ways that make the individual happy and stay away from elements that cause pain.

A group of individuals comprises a community. Therefore, the sum of the interests of the individuals comprises the interest of the community. The same want for happiness is then transferred to the community. A community will try to achieve a higher happiness and restrict pain.

The actions of these communities to bring about happiness are referred to as laws or dictates of utility. Basically, actions that conform to the principles of utility, actions that further happiness, are the laws of utility. It is the duty of a utilitarian government to promote laws of utility to further the happiness of the subject community.

In order for a government to promote for the general happiness of a community, it must attempt to measure the value of an action. On a personal level, the individual rates the happiness gained from a utilitarian act by the intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity of the happiness. This can go further to rate the fecundity and purity of an act. A government must measure the intrinsic value of happiness using the same six circumstances. However, a seventh arises. This concerns the extent to which the happiness is spread throughout the community.

While strict utilitarian style of government or individual moral code is not expected, it should be kept as a guide so that the thinking process associated with utilitarianism approaches the general character of utilitarianism.

I must respectfully disagree with stanis; if a poor person on the street were to ask for money, forgetting about this person would be utilitarian only if one were actually poorer than this person. If one were substantially more affluent than this person, giving him money would cause less harm to oneself than good to him, and therefore would be the utilitarian thing to do. Such is the principle of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number.

The problems with this are twofold:
1) some external philosophy and/or theology must be used to determine what is "good", and
2) it's more or less impossible to account for every good or bad effect, and its even harder to quantify these effects.

Thus, the idea of some that utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that "commonsense morality" dictates are wrong. Misused, it can be. But it can also help in some very hairy ethical situations.

Utilitarianism can be traced, according to some1 , to Plato’s Protogoras. It is a moral theory based upon the attainment of a specific end, normally happiness, pleasure or absence of pain. Utilitarianism is based upon a Utility Principle, which defines what makes an action the right or wrong action.

J. S Mill in his essay “Utilitarianism” sets up the principle of utility thus: “Utility…holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”2. In this statement he is explicitly not referring just to the happiness of the individual actor, but the aggregate sum of happiness.

Immediately, it seems reasonable to ask what motivates this principle as the basis of our moral code. Mill points out that “questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof”3 . Happiness is uncontroversially admitted as a good, desirable state. As all mankind desire happiness, the best way of achieving this is for everyone to strive to maximise happiness wherever possible.

How would this principle be applied to decision-making? Most actions will have an effect on global4 happiness. Say an action A will increase global happiness by 50 units, B will increase global happiness by 100 units, C will have no effect, and D will decrease happiness by 10 units. Action B is the best, the most right action to perform. While A would not be wrong, it would be less right than B, but still more right than C or D.

For simplicity’s sake, we will consider the ‘most right’ action to be the right action in any given situation. The formulation of our utility principle will be something like this:

UP: An action is right just in case it is the action that causes the largest possible increase in global happiness from those actions available.

A brief interjection is necessary here to explain what is meant by happiness. Mill sees happiness, in this sense, as “pleasure, and the absence of pain”5 , so both causing pleasure and limiting pain are the ‘right’ thing to do.

A major problem with the Utility principle is that its application is only possible if the state of pleasure and pain can be compared from one person to another. Without entering into a full discussion of the merits of various theories of mind, it seems at least possible that pleasure and pain are fundamentally non-comparable between different people. While it is certainly coherent to say that my left hand hurts more than my right hand, it may not mean anything to claim that my broken arm hurts more than your broken leg. If this is true, the Utility Principle would be incoherent.

If it is granted that one person can be experiencing more pleasure etc. than another, the next problem to raise its head is that of the epistemological difficulties the calculation brings with it. How can someone possibly determine the relative pleasures gained from, say, playing loud music for a party of ten people on a Saturday night?

This objection does not render the UP useless. It does, however, limit its effective execution when faced with a difficult case. Faced with the choice of putting out my cigar in an ashtray or my hand, ceteris paribus, UP tells me to avoid my own pain. If the choice is between someone else’s hand and an ashtray, UP again suggests the ashtray. If my only available stubbing options, however, were my hand or someone else’s hand, I would be much more of a problem. I would have to assess which of us would feel most pain at this action, which would practically be impossible, although I may decide that the pain of guilt from hurting someone else would swing it, and burn myself. If instead of myself I had to choose between two people to burn, UP is even less useful.

But perhaps this is a very minor problem. In the above case, our own intuitions about what is the right action are unclear too. The UP seems to be generating the answers that we apply in everyday life, including the unclear cases.

There are, however, cases where the UP seems to generate answers that intuition would say are wrong. The most obvious example is murder. There seems to be nothing wrong with murdering unhappy people, provided it upsets nobody else; in fact, it may be a moral requirement to murder those homeless people who are unhappy, and have no family so would not be missed. This certainly seems problematic.

Other cases are easy to generate. For example, public torture for amusement, like the Roman practice of feeding people to beasts in the circus, is also a moral obligation.

The Utilitarian may say at this point that the principle would be of little use unless it sometimes generated unexpected results; that the above cases are true, happiness-maximising situations and are true. It is our expectations that are wrong. But allowing these cases in our moral code seems so counter-intuitive that the objection still seems valid.

There are deeper epistemological problems, relating to the formulation of the UP. As it stands, the above UP only refers to what sorts of actions are right, rather than how people should act. Every action has a multitude of consequences heading out into the future, and there is therefore impossible to determine the amount of happiness an action will cause indirectly for thousands of years. In other words, there is no way of knowing how much happiness an action caused until the end of time. At this point, it would then be necessary to evaluate all the counterfactual actions that could have been performed and determine if they would have produced more happiness. This is epistemologically impossible, so the moralist will never know what to do to maximise happiness.

It may be possible to develop a case where the right thing to do can be definitely determined; for example, if a person Z has 2 choices :

1) extinguish all life by releasing a flesh-eating virus that guarantees a painful death for everyone

2) extinguish all life by releasing a pleasure virus that guarantees an orgasm and then sudden painless death for everyone

Then action 2 appears to be the happiness-maximising action. But this is a special case because both actions are ‘endgamescenarios, where after the action and its known consequences, there can be no more happiness-affecting events. If action 2, instead of releasing a pleasure virus, was

2) have a beer

Then it is be no means clear which action is happiness maximising. Maybe if Z has his beer then in ten years time someone will release a more painful flesh-eater that wipes out the entire (and larger) population in a worse way. So for every real case, the epistemological problem remains.

A Utilitarian response to both the murder and torture examples and the epistemological problem is Rule Utilitarianism (RU), as opposed to the Act-Utilitarianism (AU) we have been discussing. RU is sometimes seen as the older of the two6 , and requires a Rule Utility-Principle

RUP: An action is right just in case it conforms to a set of rules which universally followed will tend to generate more happiness then any other set of rules.

This principle will tell us not to murder tramps, because if nobody murders, that is happiness maximising. It will say a similar thing about torture, prosecuting the innocent, keeping promises et al. It also means that the utilitarian doesn’t have to sit in confusion trying in vain to find the action that is certainly right; rather, he needs only to learn the rules.

But if an action appears to be happiness-maximising (like tramp-killing or public torture), then the rule preventing these things is working against the general principle of Utility. J. J. C Smart notes that in these, “to refuse to break a generally beneficial rule in those cases in which it is not most beneficial to obey it seems irrational and to be a case of rule-worship7.

Stronger still is the problem of divisions; how fine-grained should the rules be? If there is a specific rule for every situation, then our RU has collapsed back into AU. Smart suggests that the only plausible rule in an RU system is “maximise probable benefit” 8, the basic Act-Utilitarian position.

Rule Utilitarianism also fails to rescue Utilitarianism from epistemological barriers. In order to formulate any kind of general rule about happiness-maximisation, the same consequence and counterfactual assessments will need to be made as the Act-Utilitarian.

One further claim against utilitarianism is that it appears to fail to account for responsibility. If, when trying to cause large-scale unhappiness (like adding Cholera to London’s water supply) a person accidentally causes happiness (like adding Vitamin C to the water by mistake), then she has done the right thing as much as someone who set out to protect London from scurvy. Both would be equally praiseworthy, as their actions were identical.

On closer inspection this may be a misnomer. All the UP tells us is what the right action is. What it doesn’t do is have the added premise “People should perform the right action”. Perhaps the action-premise should be “people should try perform the right action”, or “people should do the thing that appears to them as the right action”. This would allow blame and praise to be attached to people, and puts the emphasis on effort to conform to the UP, rather than merely conforming by chance or accident.

Now, this admission creates a new principle above the Utility Principle; it sets intent as more important than results in evaluating a person’s actions. Arguably, this new combination is incoherent, or at least totally uninformative; it is equivalent to saying :

“The right thing for a person to do is to try and do the right thing.”

Of course, the problem of praise and blame is not unique to utilitarianism; it is equally valid in any ends-based morality. It is not a fatal blow to any of these theories, merely a counter-intuitive observation. Rather than biting the bullet, it seems best to side-step the whole issue of intent.

Posing now the question “Is it reasonable to settle moral questions by reference to the Utility Principle?”, two assumptions that underlie the principle itself need to be made clear. First, that happiness is the ultimate goal of humanity. Second, that it is metaphysically possible to compare pleasure and pain states between different people.

Granting those two assumptions, there are the major epistemological problems that come with any practical application, which are so massive as to render any attempt to find the right action no more than a random guess. And even ignoring these problems, there are still the uncomfortable counter-cases sanctioning murder of unhappy people, and anything that enough people enjoy.

A Rule-based Utility Principle can skip the epistemological problems, but they are merely shifted from the moral actor to the rule-maker. And the rules of the RUP can ban murder etc. on the grounds that such actions are normally happiness-diminishing. But if the purpose of the system is to maximise happiness, it seems ludicrous to follow a rule that prevents just that. And there is the tendency for rule systems that are too general or too specific to collapse back into simple Act-Utilitarianism.

So it appears to be difficult to say that the Utility Principle is a reasonable way to settle moral questions. Even if it is reasonable to use any form of UP, it is certainly impractical and – in all but the most bizarre cases – impossible.

1 Mill, J. S “Utilitarianism”, p1
2 ibid. p6
3 ibid. p32
4 In the sense of total, rather than anything to do with the Planet Earth
5 Mill, J. S “Utilitarianism”, p6
6 Brandt, R “The Real and Alleged Problems of Utilitarianism”, p373
7 Smart, JCC, excerpt from Utilitarianism for and Against under the title “Act-Utilitarianism and rule- Utilitarianism”, p371
8 ibid. p372

Written for my philosophy degree, this essay was my first "First" mark.

John Stuart Mill’s standard for moral evaluation of actions is that an action is judged as morally right in proportion to the amount of happiness it engenders. This is the essence of Mill’s definition of Utilitarianism, or what he also calls the “Greatest Happiness Principle”. The name itself, the Greatest Happiness Principle, quite clearly illustrates what Mill’s belief is.

Mill, like his influence Jeremy Bentham, equated goodness and happiness with pleasure, and badness and unhappiness with pain. Mill was of the opinion that human well-being was linked with the balance of pleasure over pain in an individual’s life. The effect of this is that an increase of pleasure in a person’s life will result in an increase in their happiness. Since Mill identifies happiness with goodness, acts which result in happiness are therefore seen as good acts. It is possible to think of acts that prevent pain as neutral, as they cause neither pleasure nor pain, however, Mill disagreed with this view and suggested such acts are basically the same thing as acts which cause pleasure because they both have a positive influence on human well-being. The opposite is of course true with acts that serve to prevent a person’s pleasure, but are not necessarily harmful in themselves.

Since Mill thought the balance of pleasure over pain was the key to human well-being, the only way to ensure human well-being would be to maximise the pleasure in people’s lives. The only way to do this would be by performing good acts. Mill therefore believed that good acts were morally right.

Unlike the normal view of Utilitarianism, Mill proposed there to be degrees of right acts, rather than just one right act, in a given situation. The normal Utilitarian view would say that in any one scenario, the act which would engender the most happiness, i.e. the act which maximises happiness, would be THE right act and every other act would be wrong. The difference between Mill’s view and the other perspective lies in Mill’s belief that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness”. Here Mill is saying that although there is an act which maximises happiness in a given situation, other acts which promote some other level of happiness are not automatically wrong acts, just “less right”, but still right nonetheless. It is also worth mentioning that Mill’s Utilitarianism is concerned with increases in the net happiness of the whole world, not just the individual happiness of each person. Hence issues regarding a personal sacrifice for the “greater good” are an area of debate.

An aspect of Mill’s ideas which may lead to ambiguity, is that he does not define exactly what “goodness”, “happiness”, or “pleasure” are, nor does he provide any idea of what constitutes these concepts. So when making a decision about what the ethically right thing to do is, how can one be sure that happiness is being maximised? To know for oneself is easy, but the trouble lies in knowing what will make others happy. Mill claims that his principle fits with that most fundamental of Christian rules (what Mill calls the “golden rule”); “to do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself”. Mill suggests that this is a purely Utilitarian outlook. However, Roger Crisp raises the point that interpretation of this golden rule can be problematic since a masochist, for example, would be compelled to inflict pain upon others, thus going against Utilitarian ideals. The issue is that happiness is such a subjective concept that often it could be hard, if not impossible, to say what will make one person happy and what will not.

Another difficulty is related to Mill’s philosophical perspective. Mill was a firm believer in a posteriori knowledge (that which is acquired through experience and via our five senses) and rejected the existence of a priori knowledge (that which is known inherently, without reference to experience). To decide what will cause another human being happiness, we must refer to our knowledge of what could cause happiness or unhappiness for a given situation. Where does that knowledge come from? Do we use knowledge of our feelings when similar events have happened to us? If this is the case, then it is in accordance with Mill’s perspective of a posteriori knowledge. However, we cannot have experienced every possible situation, so how do we know what will cause hurt or happiness when presented with an unfamiliar scenario? How, in fact, do we know within ourselves that something will either hurt us or make us happier if we have never experienced it before? Does this mean that humans in fact do have a priori knowledge? Perhaps this is an area on which Mill could have been clearer.

A further concern is that there appears to be no real incentives for a person to dedicate his or her life to the task of maximising the happiness of others. Mill’s ideas seem to imply that one would need to persistently neglect oneself so to further the happiness of others. Also, how far should a Utilitarian go before their happiness is so diminished to cause their own well-being to suffer to extreme? Mill does not seem to mention a limit on Utilitarianism. Furthermore, if everyone in the world were truly Utilitarian, then eventually would not everyone attain the exact same level of happiness as good deeds are exchanged until the total level of happiness in the world is shared out equally? The question of whether that is an ideal situation could be raised, and also whether some people deserve to be happier than others.

Utilitarianism would be a feasible foundation for moral decision provided that Mill is correct in assuming that happiness is identified with goodness and unhappiness is identified with badness. Should this be untrue, then the underlying principle of Mill’s ideas would be removed and naturally, the theory would collapse. So too might Utilitarianism only be a feasible foundation for moral judgement if one could see all the future consequences of any action taken. For instance, a certain action may augment happiness in the immediate future, but how can one know if any other action will lead to even greater happiness in the unforeseeable future? If that were the case, then maybe it would be better to suffer a temporary deficit in happiness in order to enjoy a greater amount in the future. Still the fact remains that one cannot have the foresight to know for sure what their actions will cause to happen – we can have a pretty good idea in the short-term, but other than that, our predictions will almost certainly turn out to be less than totally accurate.

Utilitarianism can suggest courses of action that go against our natural moral feelings. For example, the well known circumstance where Utilitarianism would suggest that it is right that a single person ought to be killed so that their organs can be harvested to give to five ill people so they can live instead. Also Utilitarianism would seem to imply that we should continue to give money to charity until we have nothing left above the level of the people we are donating to, as doing so would generate more happiness than if we spent the money on ourselves. This too goes against our natural instincts (after all, we may have worked hard for the money and therefore wish to reward that hard work by using to our own ends). Another potential problem would be following a course of action that would maximise utility, but hurt a loved one (hypothetically, having to choose between the life of one’s child or the lives of a multitude of anonymous strangers). There are also the issues raised by the “tyranny of the majority”, where a majority enjoy happiness at the expense of a minority’s suffering. For instance the majority of a particular society may wish that a minority in their society were not present, but it goes against our natural feelings to condone a course of action through which the minority would be eradicated – I doubt Utilitarians would support genocide or similar persecution.

Maybe it is due to the fact that our natural moral feelings are based on a moral code other than Utilitarianism, that being a code based on traditional Christian values in the Western world, for instance. It could be that Utilitarianism can sometimes seem so radical as it simply has a different view than the moral code we are accustomed to, not that what it can prescribe is wrong.

The fact remains, however, that the theory falls short.

Node your homework

Utilitarianism is a moral theory created by Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) with his essay "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”. The principle of utility seeks to answer the question: “How do we define what is morally good/right?”. Bentham’s utilitarianism believes that the morally right outcome in any situation is the one which gives ‘the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people’. Thus the answer to what is morally right/wrong lies in the end result of a situation rather than the actions taken to achieve the outcome, and is therefore a teleological (or consequentialist) approach.

Bentham believed that all people wanted to be happy and so we are motivated by nature’s two sovereign masters; pleasure and pain. We, as humans, seek to gain immediate pleasure and avoid imminent pain. His belief was that any action which brings about the most amount of happiness and the least amount of pain is morally right. Bentham’s theory makes judgement regarding the majority in any situation rather than individuals.

Bentham stated that the possible consequences of different actions must be clearly measured, and as such he developed the ‘Hedonic Calculus’. This is a calculus designed to weigh up the potential pleasure or pain which may arise from moral actions; the action creating the most pleasure and least pain must therefore be the morally ‘right’ action to take. The Hedonic Calculus considers seven factors –

1 – The intensity of the pleasure or pain.

2 – The duration of the pleasure or pain.

3 – The certainty or uncertainty of the pleasure or pain.

4 – The chances of the same effects being repeated (whether it will bring about further happiness).

5 – The chances of the same effects not being repeated (purity).

6 - Whether it is close or remote.

7 – The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain resulting from the action.

According to Bentham, an action which leads to the best consequences is the morally correct one to pursue. His approach, however, is not without its critics. This theory is quantitative (takes into consideration the amount of happiness generated) rather than qualitative (taking into account the quality of the happiness instead of simply the amount) and therefore allowed for an evil majority.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) agreed with utilitarianism as a whole but disagreed with Bentham’s theory in parts. Mill rejected Bentham’s quantitative measure when evaluating pleasure and pain and replaced it with a qualitative one. He particularly stressed the different values of pleasure, distinguishing between mental and physical pleasures. Mill believed that pleasures of the mind were or greater value than pleasures of the body, poetry being more satisfying than food for example – “Poetry is better than a push pin” (J.S. Mill).

Mill also placed value on people’s actions when deciding if they are morally right or not; instead of merely looking at the end result Mill took into consideration the actions taken to achieve that outcome. For example, Mill’s utilitarianism theory could be seen as superior to Bentham’s when applied to a situation which involves a group of five sadists torturing one person. According to Bentham, the quantity of pleasure gained by the five sadists in comparison to the one tortured person would make the torturing morally right. However, Mill would argue that the actions of the sadists are so low in value that they are not justified. This helps to reduce the possibility of an evil majority.

Two further ways in which the theory of utilitarianism may be divided are between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarianism focuses on general rules that everyone should follow to bring about the greatest happiness for the community. In this view the individual is seen as less important than the group as a while. When acting according to rule utilitarianism this theory takes priority over the immediate situation, and could therefore be seen to have traces of absolutism.

Bentham, however, favoured a more flexible form of utilitarianism, namely act utilitarianism. He maintained that, whenever possible, the principle of utility must be directly applied for each individual situation, with decisions taken according to the unique variables of each situation and not simply applying rule utilitarianism in every case. When following act utilitarianism the value of the consequences of a particular act count when determining whether the act is right, and the consequences of the situation are important. Act utilitarianism is flexible and applies to each individual situation, but some would say that rule utilitarianism is both more morally right and practical as it overcomes the difficulty of inconsistencies between individuals when deciding if a particular act is right and relies on one fair rule.

Utilitarianism has many strengths –

1 – It places more emphasis on the consequences of a person’s act than on the motive for that act. This could be seen as practical commonsense; only the result of an act is important and affects others, the motives are inconsequential.

2 – Each situation (in act utilitarianism) can be considered according to its own merits. This is a relativist approach and allows for individual morality to affect decisions.

3 – It encourages the principle of democracy; the majority rules and a larger number of people are made happy.

4 – Utilitarianism supports the view that human wellbeing is intrinsically good and actions should be judged according to effect on this wellbeing.

5 – The preaching of Jesus requires people to work for the wellbeing of others; utilitarianism fits well with this.

6 – This approach does not rely on controversial, unverifiable theological or metaphysical principles.

Although utilitarianism is seen by many as the most commonsense way of dealing with moral situations (for example our democracy works by the political party with the most number of votes being elected and therefore making the largest number of people happy) it is not without its critics. Many criticisms have been aimed at the utilitarian theory –

1 – It is not always possible to calculate the consequences of an action.

2 – Even if the consequences of an action result in good the motive with which the action is carried out should still be considered.

3 – The problem of special responsibility – certain people mean more to us than others and could affect our choice when making life or death decisions involving them.

4 – The problem of justice – just means treating people fairly, according to their individual needs and merits. The majority is not always ‘right’ and consideration should also be given to minority views.

5 – The question of whether pleasure really is the height of human contentment. Fletcher thinks love is and Kant thinks duty is. Religious believers may not always be motivated by pleasure, as is such in the case of people willing to endure suffering for a cause they strongly believe in.

6 – The theory of utilitarianism is too simplistic; it cannot solve every dilemma because every dilemma is unique.

7 – Act utilitarianism is impractical because it requires us to judge every situation individually and this can mean justifying virtually any act.

8 – Rule utilitarianism does not allow for exceptions and there is no guarantee that the minority views will be protected.

Utilitarianism has, however, proved popular and useful in the centuries since Bentham’s original formation and updated versions have been suggested by both Henry Sidgwick (who asks how we can properly distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures) and Peter Singer (who argues that our ethical decisions should benefit the best interests of those affected, rather than simply pleasure).

The principle of utilitarianism, succinctly summarised, is that one should always aim to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, with the minimum amount of pain or general unpleasantness. This is the theory argued by Socrates in the dialogue 'Protagoras', and defended by John Stuart Mill in his essay 'Utilitarianism', as the ultimate moral principle.

I shall be examining the problems with utilitarianism, and questioning whether Mill, in spite of his spirited defense of the principle, genuinely did 'regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions’.

So. Utilitarianism: great moral theory or bunch of arse?

I shall be arguing for the latter.

The basic problems with utilitarianism: Is happiness really the only good?  How can we weigh one person's happiness against another?  And how does killing fit into all this?

So how can we weigh one person's happiness against another? What if there's someone who is capable of feeling really, really, really intense happiness, just by kicking small children, not even very hard? It would seem that utilitarianism would support his right to kick such children, since the amount of displeasure he causes is easily outweighed by his own happiness. Is that right?

Let us imagine a machine which stimulates the 'pleasure centre' of your brain, producing a feeling of constant mind-blowing pleasure, and removing the need for exertion of any sort by feeding a person through drips. If such a machine is in fact possible then, in pursuit of the greatest-happiness principle, oughtn't we attach everyone to it, forcibly if necessary? It might be contended that even if there was a machine which stimulated the pleasure centre of our brains, it could never bring about 'true happiness'. Here we are making a distinction between pleasure and 'true happiness'. What are the grouds for such a distinction? Boringness seems a prime contender: after a while an experience approximate to a permanent non-climaxing orgasm encompassing one's whole body could get boring. Perhaps pleasure just stops being so enjoyable after a while. But eliminating boredom might not be such a difficult task. It seems quite probable that with sufficient dulling of one's consciousness, using the right drugs and/or surgical interventions it would be possible to eliminate boredom entirely in much the same way achieved by a goldfish, and keep one in a state of tranquil bliss. Is it possible for a mind in such a dulled state to be 'truly happy'? And if not, then why not, and what gives us the right to place the happiness of the goldfish beneath that of our own?

It seems already that fomulating the principle solely in terms of pleasure and pain is unsatisfactory, unless we allow that a goldfish, or a rabbit, or a human or a whale has each as much entitlement to their own pleasure as the next. If we talk of "higher pleasures", then what are those pleasures and who says what constitutes a "higher pleasure"? Is it not rather presumptuous, even arrogant, to talk of one pleasure as "higher" than any other?

Rather than straying into the murky territory of "higher pleasures", it is perhaps preferable to admit the existence of values other than happiness... but what the fuck??? Freedom? Intelligence? Should we use some kind of cross-multiplication system -

value = happiness × intelligence? Or what?

If we could control people's desires, dictate what makes them happy in order that we can be sure to make them so, this would plainly serve the purpose of utilitarianism; perhaps, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, it would be possible to eliminate unhappiness from society almost entirely, at what might be seen as the cost of sacrificing our freedom, but then are we really any more free just because our desires are determined undirectedly by our surroundings and genetics than we would be if they were consciously designed by other people for the furtherment our own happiness? What does it mean to be "free" anyway?

Mill argues that "to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility." However this is not the same thing as saying that it is impossible to desire anything except in proportion to how pleasant one believes it will be. The question has been asked many times, "would you rather be a happy pig or a miserable Socrates," that is, would you trade your intelligence for happiness? Some people would, and some people would not. Repugnance is relevant here; not everyone finds the idea of a tremendously pleasant life as a human vegetable a pleasant idea. But do they necessarily know best?

In his essay 'On Liberty' Mill says that he believes a benevolent dictatorship to be the worst possible form of government, in that it inherently reduces the need for people to think for themselves, but it is easy to imagine a benevolent dictatorship, as in Brave New World, which serves utilitarianism better than a representative government ever seems likely to. It would appear that Mill is allowing for values unconnected with happiness, despite his defence elsewhere of utilitarianism. He also argues in 'On Liberty' that society is only ever justified in interfering in an individual's life to prevent harm to others. This suggests that society should never interfere to prevent an individual from causing harm to his or her self, however much pain could be prevented if it did; this appears to run headlong against the principle of utility, unless one believes that it is impossible to make someone happier by interfering with their freedom; I do not believe that it is.

And what about this: times when the interests of two (or more) parties cancel out, so that either way someone's going to be pissed off? Who wins? I reckon I win, but someone else might disagree. Hopefully, I'm bigger than them anyway so it doesn't much matter who's actually right.

If the remainder of someone's life looks like it's is going to be miserable, should a utilitarian kill that person? And what about if thousands of people would be ecstatic at the discovery of a certain person's death, and hardly anyone would be pissed off? Does that make it right to kill that person? Maybe it does.

This said, is utilitarianism preferable to selfishness? I would have to say yes, except for in my case, where selfishness is plainly the better option.

In conclusion: utilitarianism, while better than a poke in the eye with a live tuna, is nonetheless essentially arse.

In case anyone is wondering, this was sort of a first draft of a philosophy essay I wrote about eleven years ago, in my first year at university. I don't know what happened to the final draft, but I like this one better anyway.

U*til`i*ta"ri*an*ism (?), n.


The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the end and aim of all social and political institutions.



The doctrine that virtue is founded in utility, or that virtue is defined and enforced by its tendency to promote the highest happiness of the universe.

J. S. Mill.


The doctrine that utility is the sole standard of morality, so that the rectitude of an action is determined by its usefulness.


© Webster 1913.

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