Sunday, February 22, 2015

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.


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