Saturday, February 28, 2015

Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative: Introduction and Overview

Key terms
  • Consequentialism (Teleological ethics): Actions are deemed right or wrong based on the result of doing them (E.g. Utilitarianism).
  • Deontological ethics: Actions are deemed right or wrong independent to the consequences. We do something because it is right to do it.

The categorical imperative is something we are fundamentally required to do irrespective of how we feel about doing it. In other words, we should ALWAYS do it. Categorical imperatives are also innately good and as such we have a duty to recognise (and accept) their moral authority and validity in our life. They are not judged 'good' (or determined to have moral worth) based any beneficial outcomes they might produce, or even because someone tells us to do it. A categorical imperative is good in itself, and that is all.

A rational (and reasonable) morality

The philosopher who is most widely known for his discussion of categorical imperatives is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued we had a 'duty' to always do certain things irrespective of the consequences of doing them. For example, he believed people should never tells lies no matter what the consequences for being truthful ended up being. He also believed it was important to understand our 'moral duty', and that this could be done using cold hard logic (reason). THEORETICAL REASON concerns things such as math and logic, whilst PRACTICAL REASON is the basis for discovering moral truth. 

Kant believed practical reason was superior to theoretical reason because it had the ability to show us how to live well. Kant also held that practical reason was grounded in a sense of ought. In others words, through a careful consideration and evaluation of choices, people can come to realise what their moral duty is, and do it. By working out what we ought to do we begin to understand how we should and must act. Logically this suggests it is impossible for practical reason to lead us into a sense of ought about something we cannot or should not do. While all this sounds simple (in theory), Kant believed acting morally should be hard to make it meaningful. If we simply did what we felt like doing all the time, then we would never have any reason to consider if we were doing the right thing.

For example, what would happen if we only did things that made us happy? All we would be interested in is personal gratification. What if we said that everyone can live in ways that made them happy all the time? It should be quickly evident that what makes us happy cannot be a reliable guide for what counts as good because what makes us person happy may not necessarily make other people happy too. Also, our happiness might be dependent on making someone else unhappy, which is clearly problematic if acting morally is about everyone being happy. So rather than pursuing self-gratification and acting on the basis of how we feel, we need to take a breath, pause, step back, and think about what we are doing and why.

All this means moral judgements need to be separated from emotion in order to avoid doing the wrong thing. Although an emphasis on logic and reason might suggest we need to become emotionally vapid to live a good life, this is not the case. Reason is simply the means by which we learn to do the right thing. We don’t do things we feel like doing, just those things it makes sense to do!

“Moral actions, for Kant, are actions where reason leads, rather than follows.” (McCormick M., Kant, Immanuel: Metaphysics, I.E.P.)

The importance of freewill

Kant's stress on the importance of freewill has significantly influenced moral enquiry, with any viable morality involving us making real choices (and being allowed to make them). When we speak of having freewill we mean a genuine and free ability to do something, rather than being forced to do it. Kant refers to this as the 'autonomy of the will'. Freewill is so important to Kant that he regarded it as one of the three fundamental truths of the universe (the others being God and Immortality). 

Freewill is necessary in order for us to be morally accountable beings, for without true freedom there is no real choice, and without real choice there is no actual struggle to do 'good'. One needs to be faced with a genuine opportunity to do good. To only do what one feels like doing, or to do something because we have been told to do it is not a sound basis for acting morally. To act in a truly moral way means we must have a free choice to do something, for having freely chosen to do something our actions become significant and we can be held accountable.

Hypothetical imperatives

An imperative is something that needs to be done. For instance, a teacher might say to a pupil that it is imperative they do their homework (meaning they must do it). However, the imperative to do homework is normally grounded in some reason for doing it, for example in order to get good grades or to avoid punishment. This means doing homework is conditional on a pupil being interested in getting good grades, or wanting to avoid being punished. If they are unmotivated by either of these, then they have no reason to do their homework.

Kant described any imperative (or command) as hypothetical when certain conditional factors are present: We do x because of y. This means hypothetical imperatives function as a means to an end, and derive their moral authority on the basis of this end. If someone is interested in the end result (y), then a hypothetical imperative will have the authority (and moral basis) to cause someone to act accordingly.

Hypothetical imperatives can be identified by the presence of 'if... then' conditions in moral statements (E.g. If you want to get good grades, then you need to do your homework). Kant rejected hypothetical imperatives as a basis for morality because they are not universally applicable or valid. For instance, consider the following statement:
  • It is wrong to tell lies because God has commanded us not to.
At first glance this statement might appear to contain an absolute imperative, to always act in a certain way (i.e. we should never lie). However, it is actually a hypothetical imperative because lying is deemed wrong simply because God has commanded us not to do it. Although there are many people who would be happy to ground moral behaviour on the belief that God wills it, the statement “It is wrong to tell lies because God has commanded us not to” only has moral worth to people believing God exists. For someone who does not believe in God there is absolutely no reason why they should pay any attention to what others say God has commanded, or live according to such things.

Categorical imperatives

Unlike hypothetical imperatives, a categorical imperative is something everyone must always do. We might say they are universally valid. A categorical imperative also has no condition attached to doing it. It is a fundamental, universal and indisputable moral truth. One might venture to say that if there were there no humans left in the universe, a categorical imperative would still be true.

Kant set out and explored his understanding of the categorical imperative in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785). He did this in response to two questions:
  • What ought I to do?
  • What is the highest good (or summum bonum) of humans actions (i.e. their 'end')?
Kant believed the highest good for humanity is to live according to the categorical imperative:

“Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

To understand what Kant means here, let's consider if telling lies is ever the right thing to do. 

Although we might say there is nothing wrong in telling lies now and again, Kant would argue that the telling of any lie is logically problematic. For in order for a liar to be believed, they assume people tell the truth most of the time. However, if everyone lies when they see fit, then (logically) we end up with the situation where people don't know if someone is ever lying to them or not. In fact, this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in when people make excuses for things they have done, or not.

However Kant takes the logic of this situation further. If telling lies results in us not knowing when someone is lying to us, then in theory we cannot successfully tell lies. We simply do not know if anyone is ever telling the truth (or not). This means any act of lying (as far as Kant is concerned), is logically irrational. People have no reason to think we are telling the truth all the time, so why lie on the assumption that they are? Such behaviour is absurd! If we know we have the chance to not to be believed, why act as if we are? Also, as most of us do not want to be lied to, this is a further reason why we should not lie. In this sense we are to follow the Golden Rule: To treat others as we want them to treat us. All this means that the best (and logical) scenario for us is to treat not lying as a categorical imperative (it is something we should never do).

So Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature,“ means we only act in ways we would be happy for others to act like. You don’t want to be lied to, then don’t tell lies. Following on from this are two other rational principles:

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but at the same time as an end.”

“Act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”

Hypothetical imperatives treat people as a means to an end, whereas a categorical imperative never will. For instance, to say that when it suits me I will tell lies is putting my needs before others. It is also forgetting that we are all part of a wider community and that we cannot live as we please without due regard and respect for others. Although Kant is adamant that we each have the right to live in any way we see fit to, we also have to keep in mind that others also have that same right too, and that as a result no-one should ever become a pawn in someone else's 'game of life'.


In terms of Kant's categorical imperative, the most logical and rational thing we can do in terms of acting correctly is to think about how our actions will affect those around us, and to only do those things that will not impinge on another’s right to freely live their own life. It is like looking into a mirror and saying to ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did this?” If we conclude that what we are about to do is not going to impinge on the liberty of others to freely live their own life, and it is something everyone else could (logically) do, then we have a duty to do it. If we cannot see everyone acting the way are or want to, or we wish people not treat us as we wish to treat them, or we want to do something just for personal or emotional gratification/gain, then we should not do it. This is why Kant said the categorical imperative will never lead to do something we ought not to do. Ought implies can... and can, implies we should do it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Utilitarianism: Criticisms and Responses

The Is and Ought problem

The central notion in both Bentham and Mill’s principle of utility is that humans, by nature, are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. They both justify this conclusion on the basis of what they see people doing:

“Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” (Jeremy Bentham)
“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (John Stuart Mill)

In moral theory we might say that Bentham and Mill are attempting to derive an ‘Ought’ from an ‘Is’:

  • IS (the way things are): Humans are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain.
  • OUGHT (how we should act): Only do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Logically this ‘ought’ is also equated with ‘Good’.
However, writing 50 years earlier in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), philosopher David Hume argued that any attempt to derive an ‘Is’ from an ‘Ought’ is logically problematic:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning… when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained.” (David Hume)
If Hume had read either of Bentham and Mill’s argument for the principle of utility, he might have critiqued them along the lines of the following: To say we are naturally inclined towards the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain is one thing, but this does not explain why we should do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

Hume’s point is that we are missing an explanation here:
  • "Humans only do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain", because… ?
Now one could respond to this by saying we should maximise pleasure and minimise pain because this is a good thing to do, and this is basically what Bentham and Mill are saying. However, if we say this then we are left with having to explain how and why ‘maximising pleasure and minimising pain’ is equated with ‘Goodness’. Why is maximising pleasure and minimising pain a good thing to do? The assumption seems to be that it just is, but why? On the other hand, if we say we should do those things which maximise pleasure and minimise pain because they maximise pleasure and minimise pain, well this is nothing more than a tautology (saying the same thing twice).

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Bentham and Mill are equating what makes us happy with what is good. We might express this in the following way:

  • Being happy = Good
However, in his book Principia Ethica (1903) philosopher G. E. Moore argued that doing something like this leads us to problematic conclusions. For if we suggest that being happy is something good, then we are essentially saying that a definition of ‘Goodness’ is being happy:
  • Good = Being happy
It should be quickly evident to us the nature of the problem this creates. For example, Hitler was happy that millions of Jews died during World War II, so does that mean the Holocaust was a good thing? Most would disagree in the strongest terms.

So Moore’s basic concern is that you cannot define Goodness by equating it with something like ‘pleasure’ or ‘being happy’. Instead ‘Goodness’ needs to be understood on it’s own terms, in the same way that say yellow is:

“My point is that good is a simple notion, just as yellow is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.” (G. E. Moore)
Moore is saying that we only intuitively know what Goodness is, just as we  intuitively know what Yellow is and recognise it’s presence in various things such as lemons or bananas. Ask someone to explain what yellow apart from these things, and they cannot do this. In the same way we know what a good act is, but we cannot ultimately define what ‘Good’ is.

Of course, if Goodness is incapable of being defined then this means moral questions are simply open-ended and unanswerable. This also means we can have no moral basis for condemning such things as The Holocaust. If we can’t say why something is good or bad then we’re simply left saying we’d prefer such things not to happen, and that is all (Intuitionism).

In response to Moore

In an introduction to selected writings on Utilitarianism, philosopher Mary Warnock argued that Mill was not interested in constructing a moral theory but only concerned with describing the behaviour of most people; this being that they appear to be driven by a desire to maximise pleasurable outcomes, and thus decrease painful ones, because they believe this is a good thing to do. Warnock does not believe Mill intended to say that pleasure was (or equal to) good (which is the assumption of Moore's critique). In fact, Mill appears reluctant to offer any fixed definition of what counts as 'good', in much the same way Moore did:

”No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.” (John Stuart Mill)
Of course the problem here is that in saying people do x because they do x, we have no real reason put forward for why they are choosing to do x, and as such this leaves their behaviour meaningless and irrational.

Warnock also believed Mill intended only to say it is types of behaviour and not specific actions that produce 'measurable' outcomes. If we look for the specific pleasure/pain value in

each particular case, then our pursuit of a final 'value' will never be found due to infinite 'exceptions to the rule'. On the other hand, if we say that in general x behaviour leads to y outcome then we appear to have some basis for evaluating whether what we are doing is right or not.

One final point...

Utilitarians believe people should seek to maximise happiness (or pleasure) in their respective communities, but what exactly is this? Defining pleasure seems rather subjective, which is actually a common criticism of Utilitarianism. What makes one person happy is not always going to make another person happy. For instance, dropping a bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki supposedly contributed to the rapid ending of World War II, thus reducing the amount of potential suffering to come for non-Japanese soldiers and as such can be deemed a good act by them and their families. But what about the horrendous suffering the Japanese people endured as a result? Was their suffering taken into account when the act of dropping a bomb was evaluated, and if so why was the bomb still dropped?

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” (Mohsin Hamid)


Monday, February 23, 2015

Animal Liberation and Preference Utilitarianism

"The question [about animals] is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)


When it comes to Animal Rights and Preference Utilitarianism, the person who most readily springs to mind is Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. Peter Singer works in the field of practical ethics. In the 1970s he wrote Animal Liberation, a book which has been very influential in the animal rights movement. In it he argues that we should focus on minimising suffering in the world, but not just human suffering. As non-human species also have the capacity to suffer, we should seek to act in ways that minimise their pain and suffering too.

Utilitarians typically argue that we should be acting in ways (and establishing rules) which maximise pleasant outcomes for people. Whilst maintaining the essential utilitarian methodology, Singer has obviously reversed this to argue that we should work to minimise pain and suffering the world instead (although logically this will increase happiness/pleasure). In moral theory this is known as NEGATIVE UTILITARIANISM.*

Animals Rights and Equality

Singer believes animals have the same rights as humans based on their capacity to suffer and experience pain as we do. Discriminating against a species simply because they cannot talk, have hooves, fur or feathers, is nothing more than Speciesism (‘Prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species’). He also argues that given the choice, non-human species would choose (or prefer) not to suffer. They would choose not to be slaughtered and treated as meat products, nor choose to be killed for their fur. They would choose not to be kept in food production facilities, choose not to be tested on, or kept in a zoo. And the fact that they would choose to not be treated in these ways that cause them suffering, means that as far as Singer is concerned it is wrong to kill and abuse animals for our own purposes.

"Most human beings are speciesists... Ordinary human beings - not a few exceptionally cruel or heartless humans, but the overwhelming majority of humans - take an active part in, acquiesce in, and allow their taxes to pay for practices that require the sacrifice of the most important interests of members of other species in order to promote the most trivial interests of our own species." (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation)

"Membership of the human species is not morally relevant." (Peter Singer, Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement)

One of the issues Preference Utilitarianism draws attention to is the question of whether one needs to directly experience something in order for it to be morally significant. For instance, Bentham's hedonic calculus is basically a measure of 'pleasure/pain' units from the point-of-view of one making the decision how to act. Only the seventh criteria seems to consider how things might be viewed from another perspective:
  • 7. The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain arising as a result of the act in question.
This might imply that according to Bentham, whatever you do not experience yourself does not count. So what Singer (and other Preference Utilitarians) are trying to do, is to expand the horizon of who (or what) should feature in moral debates.

Recent developments

Recently Singer has expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with the Preference Utilitarianism on certain issues. Although still very much pro-animal rights (and vegetarianism), Singer does admit that when it comes to environmental ethics Preference Utilitarianism is found wanting in two main ways:

  • The existence of more and more people realising their preferences is a good thing (which is a problem when it comes to a globally rising population).
  • The preferences of those yet to come may not be concerned with environmental issues in the same way we are today.

He also admits that Christian ethics has the upper hand when it comes to ‘moral certainties’. For atheists such as Singer, there are no moral certainties one can easily appeal to. ‘Suffering is intrinsically bad’ and ‘people’s preference should be satisfied’ are good examples, but in reality he admits that his thinking is in a state of flux about this matter (for more on this see Without belief in moral truths, how can we care about climate change?).



*In his 1952 book The Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1), British philosopher Sir Karl Popper utilised the principle of negative utilitarianism when he argued that instead of seeking to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we should instead be looking to avoid harming the greatest number of people.

John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism)

John Stuart Mill's father (James Mill) had worked for Jeremy Bentham, and was greatly impressed with Utilitarianism. So naturally he encouraged his son to learn about the principle of utility. Whilst John was largely impressed with Bentham’s theory, he criticised him for not really distinguishing between the quality and quantity of pleasures, and for also not recognising that there are some things which are more desirable than others.

First published as a series of three essays in 1861, Utilitarianism (1863) contains a description of Mill’s utilitarian theory as well as responses to potential criticisms. His most notable development of Bentham’s approach, is to separate ‘pleasures’ into PHYSICAL (E.g. eating, drinking, and having intimate relationships with others) and INTELLECTUAL (E.g. philosophical debate, reading, listening to an opera). Being a highly educated man (and maybe a little sexually repressed), Mill was inclined to favour the 'higher' pleasures over the lower ones.

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill was also critical of those who believed the principle of utility was nothing more than a justification for gratifying one's physical appetites. On the contrary, he believed that in the end people would naturally seek the 'higher' pleasures over the 'lower' ones:

"A beast's pleasures do not satisfy a human being's conception of happiness." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill also believed education played a significant role in helping people live betters lives. It was his belief that the more educated people were, the less inclined they would be to seek their own gratifications, and the more inclined they would be to treat others with dignity and respect. Utilitarianism was not simply a foundation for the Law, but something that would in the end contribute to the well-being of society as a whole.

Mill responds to his objectors

"The end may justify the means, as long as there is something that justifies the end." (Leon Trotsky)

Mill spends a significant amount of time in Utilitarianism answering various objections he felt could be raised against his version of the principle of utility. One of the biggest objections
he felt needed to be countered, was that the principle of utility is based on an ideal which is unattainable; that people cannot be happy all the time. Mill's response to this is to suggest that if when we speak of ‘happy all the time’, if we have in mind a life of complete and total unending happiness then of course this is unobtainable. No one can be that happy all the time, and nor should they be. However we can aspire to live a life which is generally happier than not, and as such this should be our goal:

"It is only those in whom the need for excitement is a disease, that feels the tranquility that follows the excitement dull and insipid, instead of pleasurable in direct proportion to the excitement that preceded it." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill also felt that some people might wonder why they should be concerned about other people's happiness, especially if this involves some loss of pleasure on their own part. 

"I do not care about the greatest good for the greatest number… Most people are poop-heads; I do not care about them at all." (James Alan Gardner)

Mill's response is to show that in order for someone to 'happy', there must be some trade-off with others. We cannot think it feasible to live a purely selfish existence and expect to have to give nothing back to others, for we will soon become very unhappy at how other people begin to treat us if we do this. He also felt we could also find happiness in helping people.

Probably the biggest objections Mill counters is the charge that there is often no time to calculate and weigh-up the different effects our actions might have. Sometimes we are called to make decisions 'in the heat of the moment', and as such we do not have the luxury of deliberating the various outcomes of our actions before doing something. Mill's first response is that this objection is absurd, for we do not have to know every possible outcome of doing something before doing anything. Also it is not the case that we have no clue as to what might generally occur as a result of doing something. To say we do not know how our actions will affect everyone is one thing, but to say we do not know how our actions will affect anyone is simply not true:

"Mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness." (John Stuart Mill)


Mill believes the principle of utility is as close as we will get to an objective moral truth. Although he accepts that being governed by the feelings of pleasure/pain is rather subjective, he challenges us to show how it is not a principle which governs all human behaviour. People do all kinds of things because they believe it will make them happy, even if they do them out of a sense of duty. Our basic instinct is to avoid pain, and in doing so we naturally seek pleasure.


Preference Utilitarianism and Animal Rights

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jeremy Bentham and the Felicific Calculus

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

In Fragment of Government (1776) and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham set about attacking the basis of English law as that which had no logical or scientific foundation. In his opinion the Law rested on not one but a multiplicity of foundations (E.g. the Bible, tradition, conscience). This meant that the law/morality was nothing more than a set of subjective truth-claims with no objective basis or validity to them.

So Bentham sought to introduce a means (or criteria) for validating and securing ethical behaviour; one which could also serve as the basis for a system of Law and Government. He also wanted a more democratic form of government as he felt that anything would lead to an attitude of servitude and dependency amongst the common people, something open to abuse by those in power.

The Pleasure/Pain Principle

"Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." (Jeremy Bentham)

Bentham begins An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by defining human nature as something fundamentally driven by a pleasure/pain principle. He argued that by observing nature it could be reasonably demonstrated that humans naturally seek pleasure, and naturally seek to avoid pain. On the basis of this he believed morality (and the laws derived from this) could be grounded in what he believed to be a fundamental and 'objective' truth of our existence: The maximising of pleasure; the minimising of pain!

So according to Bentham a good politician or judge would be one who introduced laws based on what would be to the greater advantage of most people. In other words, they would work to ensure life is happy and pleasant for the greatest number of people.

The Hedonic Calculus (aka Felicific calculus)

In order to avoid the accusation of subjectivity, Bentham devised a means by which to calculate pain and pleasure 'units'. Operating like a mathematical equation, pain and pleasure units would be measured and assessed according to seven criteria:

1. The intensity of any pleasure or pain.

2. The duration of any pleasure or pain.

3. The certainty or uncertainty of experiencing any pleasure or pain.

4. How long will it take experience the effect.

5. The chances of the same good thing being repeated.

6. The chances of the opposite effect occurring.

7. The number of people who will be affected.

"Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may either say that it is one that ought to be done... One may also say, that it is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action." (Jeremy Bentham)

Some criticisms

Although there is naturally some ‘weighing up’ of things before we act, it should be noted that a degree of subjectivity is involved in making these calculations. Although humans naturally incline towards pleasure and away from pain (objectivity), any calculus is concerned with actions that are yet to occur. This means we are ‘measuring’ probabilities rather than objective certainties. To try and measure the intensity of any pleasure or pain also means we need to quantify these experiences, which again involves a degree of subjectivity. Finally the calculus fails to take into account the nature of pleasure and pain involved, which is something John Stuart Mill would criticise Bentham for in his derivative works.


Utilitarianism Part 3: John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism: Introduction and Overview

The principle of utility (aka Utilitarianism) is a moral test for the rightness of actions based on the good or beneficial outcomes they produce. Typically 'good acts’ are those which increase the amount of pleasure/happiness in the world. The most well-known (and developed) versions of  this moral theory are found in the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). However, the 'principle of utility' is also found in the work of David Hume (1711-1776), and can trace its origins back to Epicurus (341-270 BCE).

Utilitarianism is a CONSEQUENTIALIST THEORY of ethics. Consequentialist theories judge the rightness (or wrongness) of an action based on what occurs as a result of doing something (the outcome).

Bentham and Mill both wanted to find a secure, irrefutable and objective basis for morality, and were deeply suspicious of any moral theory which did not do this, especially when they were deemed arbitrary and subjective. For both of them, faith-based moralities such as The Ten Commandments were deemed arbitrary and subjective moral, and as such an unsound basis for morality to be grounded in:
"No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavor to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion." (Jeremy Bentham, The Book of Fallacies, 1824)
"The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be booted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle." (John Stuart Mill, The Spirit Of The Age, 1831)
Bentham and Mill were also anti-establishment, anti-monarchist, and anti-imperialist, meaning they advocated a more democratic approach to ethics and law-making. Therefore, judging actions to be right or wrong on the basis of their effects allowed them (and other Utilitarians) to claim an objectified morality. In other words, in observing that doing x would lead to y outcome, they could establish what ‘good actions’ were, rather than simply being told that this or that would (or might) happen if they do x (as religious moralities are inclined towards).

Utilitarianism is often contrasted with DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS. These consider an act to be good when someone is doing what they ought to do (one's duty), and bad when not doing this. As such, Deontologists are only interested in the act (x), but not necessarily whether this leads to good or bad consequences (y). So in the case of lying, a Deontologist would say it is always wrong to lie (it is our duty not to lie), but in the case of Utilitarianism, although lying often leads to unpleasurable consequences (and would be deemed wrong), exceptions would be agreeable under certain conditions (E.g. A German family lying to Nazis that they were hiding a Jewish family during World War II because this leads to more positive outcomes).

Key terms

  • Hedonistic Utilitarianism: An action is good when it maximises the amount of pleasure, leading to the minimum amount of pain.

Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism is largely hedonistic, concerned with maximising the simple fact of pleasure; something Mill would later criticise him for.

  • Rule Utilitarianism: Implementing rules (or laws), which will lead to the well-being of the majority of people.
  • Act Utilitarianism: Thinking about how our specific actions might contribute to the welfare of others, or be detrimental to it.

Act and Rule Utilitarians disagree about the implementation of Utilitarian principles. Do we prioritise the Rule (the creation of laws to maximise good outcomes), or the Act (laws can be broken if good outcomes result)? This is a relatively modern debate, for in their writings Bentham and Mill sometimes applied the principle of utility to rules, and sometimes to actions. One might say the debate naturally collapses into Act Utilitarianism, because at the end of the day Utilitarians are mostly concerned with the consequences of actions.

  • Preference Utilitarianism: Thinking about how others would prefer us to act (i.e. they would not want to suffer because of something we do), even if they knew nothing about our actions, or experienced no ill-effects as a result of them.

Preference Utilitarianism has been influential in animal rights debates, through the work of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

  • Negative Utilitarianism: Working to decrease the amount of pain or displeasure in the world.

In his 1952 book Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1), British philosopher Sir Karl Popper suggested that instead of seeking to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we should instead be looking to avoid harming the greatest number of people.