Unit Overview

In the 1800s a new political and moral theory takes shape: utilitarianism. Together with Kantian ethics utilitarianism would come to dominate the discourse of moral philosophy over the next couple of hundred years or so. Utilitarianism begins primarily as a political theory, despite its later influence in moral philosophy. As a political theory the basic claim is simple: we should reform our legal and political system to produce the most good. This was far from a foreign idea. Everyone in the enlightenment was arguing that the government exists for the common good. Utilitarians were repeating this message for a new generation and in the face of new forms of oppression but in a slightly new way. In the 1800s as the industrial revolution is in full swing with factories and coal mines employing large numbers of people including children, many of whom die in the mines and factories they are working in, philosophers begin to think in new ways about morality and the role of government. The various enlightenment revolutions had been attempts to reduce poverty and change the social dynamic in which the ruling classes own all the wealth in society but even after the monarchical revolutions there is still rampant poverty and suffering for those at the bottom.

During this period of history the modern welfare state begins with the political changes set in motion in this time period. Child labor, something that we would find absolutely immoral, was commonplace but eventually there would be laws outlawing child labor, more laws protecting workers, limiting the hours they can work, creating the weekend, overtime, universal education, eventually, social security, medicare and Medicaid (in the US), free health care in the rest of the developed world. Roughly over 100 years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, society transforms into what we would recognize as the modern world. One hundred fifty years ago children, if they were poor, were either working in a coal mine, a factory, or on a farm. They were not going to school. If you were born poor you stayed poor. There was no government provide health care. No public services. No social security. Poor people died young and if they lived long enough they died in abject poverty. There was no free medical care for anyone, no libraries government assistance of any kind to help the poor. We’ve come a long way!



Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, are the founders of utilitarianism, which has been very influential over the past several centuries. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialist ethical theory. Consequentialist theories determine the rightness of an action exclusively by its consequences.

Utilitarianism is one type of consequentialist ethical theory that specifically looks at the happiness and suffering caused by an action, which are together referred to as utility, to determine the rightness and wrongness of an action. Utilitarianism is sometimes summarized in a slogan as the “greatest good for the greatest number.” However a more precise formulation is “the greatest net balance of happiness over unhappiness,” but importantly not as happiness for the most or the most happiness, without considering the suffering involved. Bentham talked about a utility calculus where we could literally add up the units of positive utility and subtract all the units of negative utility and get an exact number of units of utility produced by each action. Bentham was known to say “pushpin (a common game played in bars at the time) is as good as poetry” as a way of stating that all pleasure counted equally, which at the time was a somewhat radical notion. According to Bentham the types of things that can make one pleasure better than another are its duration, quantity, intensity, achievability, etc.

According to utilitarianism, utility is only thing that is fundamentally good, which makes utilitarianism a kind of hedonistic theory. Hedonism is a theory about what is valuable. According to hedonism pleasure is the only thing that is fundamentally valuable. Actions that maximize utility are referred to as “optimific.” What we are going to refer to as utilitarianism or consequentialism is a type of utilitarianism called act utilitarianism. According to act utilitarianism an action is morally required if and only if it maximizes utility. The utilitarian calculus includes all the consequences of our actions to the end of time, which includes their effects on every single sentient being that will be affected by our actions.

However, there are many many other types of utilitarian and consequentialist theories. Just to give you some idea these include:

Preference Utilitarianism: an action is morally required if and only if is maximizes preference satisfaction.
Negative Utilitarianism: an action is required iff it minimizes suffering.
Expected Consequences Utilitarianism: an action is required iff it maximizes expected utility.
Rule Utilitarianism: an action is required iff it is dictated by a rule that if followed by everyone would produce the most happiness

Some have argued that utilitarianism would morally obligate us to actively exterminate all sentient life, in the most painless way possible of course. Others have take the less extreme view and merely argued that we obligated to make sure no new life comes into existence but not to destroy existing life.

Having outlined the basics of the theory let us now consider some of the attractions of utilitarianism. The primary attraction and strongest consideration in favor of utilitarianism is that it seems to justify conventional moral wisdom. According to the theory slavery, rape, and killing are wrong, because they make people (very) unhappy. In other words utilitarianism provides an explanation of why the things we think are wrong are indeed wrong.
Another attraction of utilitarianism is its impartiality in that everyone’s interests count equally. No one’s pleasure or pain is counted less than anyone else’s pleasure or pain. Another attraction of utilitarianism is that it gives us a method for making difficult moral decisions. All we need to know to solve moral dilemmas are the consequences involved in all the possible choices. Utilitarianism explains why moral prohibitions (against lying, stealing, etc.) may sometimes be broken, and exactly in what cases we can break them. In summary utilitarianism seems to explain many of our most basic intuitions regarding what actions are right and wrong in a clear and concise theory. What the utilitarian wants to say is “At bottom all the talks about morals, ethics, duties, obligations, virtues, the golden rule, rights, and all the other things people say when talking about ethics really just comes down to whether an action has good consequences. And if it does have the best consequences of all the available actions then it is the right action.” But is it really that simple? Before we get to that let’s just elaborate on a few more features of utilitarianism.

The Moral Community
The moral community consists of those whose interests we are morally obligated to consider for their own sake. According to utilitarianism, the moral community consists of all beings capable of suffering. Bentham famously remarked “the question is not “Can they reason?, Nor can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” Many ethical theories, including Hobbes’ and Kant’s social contract theories, have restricted the moral community to human beings or those that are rational. In this sense utilitarians like Bentham and Mill were way ahead of their time on issues like women’s rights and animal rights, loosely speaking.

Utilitarianism and Rights
I say loosely speaking because Bentham characterized rights, which are the foundational concept of most ethical theories, as “non-sense on stilts.” Strictly speaking there is no place for rights within a utilitarian framework. So, when we say that “utilitarianism provides a justification for animal rights” this is more of an expression rather than a precisely true account. As we shall see within a utilitarian frame even humans don’t have rights. This will of course be problematic. There is however a sense in which a utilitarian can endorse talk of rights, when such talk has good consequences, but they cannot actually endorse a literal conception of rights.

Agent Neutrality
Consequentialism is agent neutral in that it does not give any preference to the agent’s desires, preferences, happiness, or life. An agent may be obligated to sacrifice any or all of the above. An agent is required to consider his own happiness and the happiness of his family and friends as being no more important than the happiness anyone else one the planet. This can be seen as both an advantage or a disadvantage. There is a certain logic to such a principle yet it contrasts starkly with some of our most basic intuitions. We probably believe that we have special obligations to care for ourselves and those we love, but utilitarianism dismisses any such notion, at least initially. The utilitarian can however make an argument that overall people should care for their family because utility, overall, would suffer if people did not do that.

Utilitarianism and Long-Term Consequences
Discussions about utilitarianism often turn to the long-term consequences of an action. Someone might argue, as I have suggested above, that utilitarianism is problematic because it doesn’t prescribe any specific duty or obligation to one’s family. There seems to be something strongly counterintuitive about such a view. The utilitarian will most probably agree, and say that although we don’t have any special duty to our family members in most cases the optimific action will be one that prioritizes caring for one’s family members more than strangers. An appeal to long-term consequences is one way that a utilitarian can answer various objections to the theory. However, such responses can also be somewhat contentious because in most cases it is not particularly clear what the long-term consequences of an action are.

Assessing Actions and Intentions with a Utilitarian Framework
One very counterintuitive feature of utilitarianism is that morally praiseworthy actions are not necessarily the right actions according to utilitarianism. Generally, we praise someone for doing the right action and condemn them for doing the wrong action. This does not mean that there is not a way to talk about right or wrong intentions but there is no intrinsic connection between the rightness and wrongness of an action and the intentions of the agent. For example, an agent could do something horrible, like kill someone, yet the action could turn out to be the right action because the person murdered was himself a serial killer. This is because actions are evaluated exclusively on the actual consequences of the action. Again, this is very counterintuitive.

One way to think about evaluating motivations, within a utilitarian framework, is that the right motivations are the ones that have the best consequences. So, just like actions intentions are evaluated on their consequences. However, it makes sense to say that the right intentions are the ones that have the best overall consequences, which opens of space for arguing that a person had the right intentions even though the action they did was actually wrong. The right action is the action that maximizes actual utility in a given situation and the right intention is the intention maximizes overall utility. But again these will not always match up. This is a little strange in that you could have an action that would be the wrong action but still be morally praiseworthy and an action that would be the wrong action but morally blameworthy. Let’s consider the following examples, the first two of which are the counterintuitive ones:

A: You see a drowning man and decide to save his life. This is a morally praiseworthy action that turns out to be the wrong action because the drowning man is actually Hitler.

B: You see a drowning man and decide not to save his life. This is a morally blameworthy action that turns out to be the right action because the drowning man is actually Hitler.

C: You have a significant amount of extra money and you give a large amount of money to disaster relief.

D: You have a significant amount of extra money and you don’t give any of it to disaster relief.

And here is an illustration of how praiseworthy and blameworthy actions can be either right or wrong depending on their consequences:

Right Action                                                                 Wrong Action
Praiseworthy C (give money to disaster relief)    A (Save Hitler)
Blameworthy B (Let Hitler drown)                         D (Don’t give money to disaster relief)

Objections to Utilitarianism
To deepen our understanding of the theory let’s consider some common possible objections to the theory. I will ultimately suggest that there is one objection, the “injustice objection”, that is conclusive against the theory.
How do we know what action has the best consequences?

In considering which actions are right and which are wrong we must consider all the possible consequences of our action, which leads to an epistemological problem. Epistemology is the study of what is knowable and an epistemological problem is a problem regarding the possibility of gaining knowledge. There is an epistemological problem regarding the fact that utilitarianism tells us we can never really know what the right action is. Knowing which action is the right action seems to be impossible because we can never know the consequences of our action to the end of time.

There are two possible responses to such a criticism. The first just to say that one of the implications of utilitarianism is that we never know which actions are the right actions. In ethics there are just certain facts that we will never know, just like in science there are certain facts we will never know, like how many atoms are contained in the universe. Although the problem is a little more severe in ethics because if this line of reasoning is correct we can never be sure whether any action is truly the right action or not. A second and somewhat complimentary line of response to this type of criticism is argue that although we don’t know which actions are the right actions we can nevertheless evaluate a person’s intentions based on their likely consequences. In this case we would, in a sense not care so much which action is the right action. So the theory would tell us the right action is the one that has the best consequences but that a virtuous agent would not attempt to perform the right action but be more concerned to have the right intentions.

Utilitarianism is too demanding
There are three areas in which one might be inclined to think that utilitarianism is too demanding: deliberation, motivation, and action. Utilitarianism seems to be too demanding in requiring an excessive or impossible amount of deliberation in order to determine the right action. There seems to be no way to know which action is the one with the best consequences, overall and until the end of time considered as to how it affects every sentient organism on the planet. On a utilitarian account the right motivations are the ones that produce the most happiness. So, utilitarianism seems to suggest that one needs to have the motivations of a saint, to always be motivated to maximize utility. And utilitarianism implies that we are always doing the wrong thing because its standard of right action is so high. This is true even when we do good things. Say you give twenty dollars to a homeless person. From a utilitarian perspective this might still not be the right action. The right action might be to let him move in with you and to help him get on his feet. Utilitarianism seems to imply that the right life is a life of extreme self-sacrifice to constantly perform actions that maximize utility. In our ordinary way of thinking about actions we tend to think of some actions as superogatory, admirable and praiseworthy but not necessarily required, but according to utilitarianism all right actions are required

One possible response to this line of objections is that, as Peter Singer says in his essay “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” it is just a fact that humans don’t often, if ever, perform the right action and that is just the way it is. Such a fact doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to perform better actions rather than worse ones. And maybe we shouldn’t be focused on performing the right action and avoiding the wrong action but just increasing utility as much as we can, given the limits of our psychological condition.

The Impartiality objection
Utilitarianism seems to require one to be completely impartial, however many people feel they have special duties to certain people (children, parents, spouses, countrymen, humans, etc). As suggested earlier, one way around this is to argue that caring for one’s family is generally optifimic if we consider all the consequences and therefore according to utilitarianism caring for one’s family is generally the right thing to do. Although the utilitarian has to admit that in some cases it is right to prioritize the happiness of other persons over the happiness of ones family.

The Integrity Objection
Here is a simple argument that might capture one’s intuitions regarding the role integrity in ethics:

1. If utilitarianism is correct, then acting with integrity is not morally relevant to the morality of an action.
2. Acting with integrity is morally relevant to the morality of an action.
3. So, Utilitarianism is not correct.

The above argument is the type of argument made by Bernard Williams in his essay “A Critique of Utilitarianism” and here are the two examples he uses:

Example 1: A man is told by an evil dictator that if executes one innocent person then the lives of nine others will be spared and if he refuses all ten will be executed.
Example 2: A poor scientist who is having trouble supporting himself and his family is offered a lucrative job to make chemical weapons, and the weapons will be made with or without his participation.

In both cases utilitarianism tells us it is wrong to act with integrity and refuse to kill an innocent person or make chemical weapons. Another example that is often used is that of the Gestapo and the crying baby. Imagine you are a Jewish family that is hiding and the Gestapo is searching the house looking for Jews. You are hiding in an underground bunker with the rest of your family, including a small infant. The baby begins to cry. If you don’t cover its mouth you will all be found and killed, and if you do the baby will die. Is it right to kill a baby to save your life and the life of your family members? Utilitarianism seems to say it would be positively wrong to not kill the baby. However, what Williams argues is that although it may not be wrong to kill the baby it is not wrong to not kill the baby. The utilitarian can respond to this objection by stressing the value of intentions, independent of consequences. A utilitarian theory could determine the right action in terms of consequences but still prioritize right intentions over right actions. Although one might begin to wonder what role consequences really play in the theory if the utilitarian is constantly forced to retreat to a view that prioritizes right intentions over right actions to meet various objections.

The Injustice Objection
The injustice objection is the most serious and ultimately fatal objection to utilitarianism. The other objections pose problems but there are reasonable and legitimate utilitarian responses to them, however I don’t find either of possible responses to this objection satisfying. Consider the following examples.

Example 1: There is a hate crime committed. Riots and ethic violence are beginning to break out. To prevent further ethic violence the president of the country decides frame an innocent person and execute him. Let’s further imagine this innocent person is a homeless man with no family or friends.
Example 2: Imagine a doctor goes around harvesting the organs of homeless people to save the lives of well-loved important people in society.

In both of the examples it seems like a wrong action has been committed however from the utilitarian perspective these are the right actions. This objection hinges on the view that individuals have rights and that it is wrong to violate those rights. Utilitarianism has no real way to account for rights, remember that Bentham said that rights were non-sense on stilts. Here is an argument based upon the above examples against Utilitarianism:

1) If a moral theory is correct then it will never require us to commit serious injustices.
2) If utilitarianism is correct then it will never require us to commit serious injustices.
3) Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.
4) So, utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.

How might a utilitarian respond to this argument? Since the argument is valid there are really only two options, the utilitarian must either deny that the first premise is true or deny that the second premise is true. A utilitarian can try to argue that injustice is never optimific. This will usually involve some long-term consequences. I personally do not find this response very plausible. For this to response to work it must be true not only that there never has been a case where injustice was optimific but that it is not even logically conceivable that injustice could ever be optimific, which I believe is implausible.

The second option is what we call “biting the bullet” in philosophy jargon. The diehard utilitarian will have to bite the bullet on this one and admit that sometimes it is not only permissible but morally required to infringe on someone’s or a group of individual’s rights and perform and injustice upon them. Moreover they can go on the offensive and claim that the argument merely begs the question. The first premise is obviously false if utilitarianism is true. So, this argument is not a conclusive argument against utilitarianism but it does show that utilitarianism is strongly in conflict with certain deeply held beliefs that almost all of us share.

However, because utilitarianism does not countenance individual rights no society has ever been founded on utilitarian principles. This includes but John Rawls and Robert Nozick, the two most famous political philosophers of the 20th century, despite their widely diverging approaches to political philosophy. Both Rawls and Nozick drew inspiration from Kant and the social contract tradition. The injustice objection is the most challenging for the utilitarian to address. This does not mean that there are no utilitarian answers to meet this objection but what it shows is that utilitarianism, despite its many attractions, fails to adequately capture the spirit of our moral thinking. Oftentimes in philosophy there are no conclusive objections to a position but the objections serve to highlight what a person who takes that position is really committed to and help us to see if we want to be committed to that position. As a final note, it is worth stating that Kant thinks we have a moral duty to increase utility, but he just doesn’t see that as our only duty and doesn’t think that is the right way to determine which actions are right and wrong, so utilitarianism is not the only theory that says we ought to make the world a better place.

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