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What is right action? The Utilitarian answer: “Do your best!”

Basic Idea: Actions are right or wrong by reference to the consequences produced for
everyone involved.

The end justifies the means.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

Act Utilitarianism

To judge the rightness of an act, look at the consequences of that act.

An action is morally right if and only if no other alternative action would produce
more net intrinsic good.

An action is morally wrong if some other alternative action would produce more net
intrinsic good.

All right actions are morally obligatory.

Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle/Principle of Utility: p66, RT . . .actions are right in

proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse
of happiness.

What is happiness?
Pleasure and the absence of pain.
Pain and the absence of pleasure.

Mill’s Theory of Value: Hedonism

Mill’s Focus of Evaluation: Actions

Hedonism + Actions = Hedonistic Act Utilitarianism.

Objection to Hedonism:
A promising young piano player losses the ability to play.
Taking pleasure in other’s misfortune
Someone you think is a friend ridicules you behind your back
1. These are both bad in and of themselves.
2. Neither is an experience of pain.
3. Therefore, things other than pain are intrinsically evil and hedonism is false.

What is the right thing? That action which maximizes happiness/pleasure, for as many
people as possible.

Notice there are two parts involved:

1. A maximization principle.
2. A theory of value.

Consequentialist theories in general use a maximization principle, though the theory

of value may differ.

The theory of value may be rejected without rejecting consequentialism of all types.

Alternative Pluralistic Theory of Value: Pleasure, Knowledge, Friendship, etc. are

intrinsic goods.

The Doctrine of the Swine Objection

To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and
nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling;
as a doctrine worthy only of swine . . . p66, RT

1. According to Hedonistic Act Utilitarianism, the only consideration relevant to

determining the moral status of an act is the quantity of pleasure and pain it
would produce.
2. Other considerations are relevant.
3. Therefore, Hedonistic Act Utilitarianism is false.

Mill’s Response:
Some types of pleasures are of a higher quality than others, e.g. intellectual
pleasures are of a higher quality than sensual pleasures.
1. Those who have experienced a wide selection of both types of pleasure
(intellectual and sensual) prefer the intellectual to the sensual.
2. The best explanation of this preference is that the intellectual pleasures are of a
higher quality than the sensual ones.
3. Therefore, the intellectual pleasures are a higher quality than the sensual ones.
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. p68, RT

Of What Sort of Proof is the Principle of Utility Susceptible?

Mill holds that the principle of utility is a statement of the ultimate ends of persons.

Questions of ultimate ends are a matter of fact.

1. The only way to judge whether or not something is desirable, is to

ascertain whether or not people desire it.
2. People desire happiness.
3. Therefore, happiness is an ultimate end.

Premise 2 is a matter of fact, subject to empirical verification.

Further Objections to Act Utilitarianism

Argument From Promise-Keeping and Rights

Question: Do you have a right that I not kill you? In Utilitarianism?

1. Act Utilitarianism implies that we are morally obligated to keep promises only if
doing so would maximize utility.
2. Act Utilitarianism implies that if is morally right to ignore someone’s rights if
doing so would maximize utility.
3. These implications are false.
4. Therefore, Act Utilitarianism is false.

Trivial/Supererogatory Acts Objection

1. Act Utilitarianism implies that some trivial acts are morally obligatory.
2. Act Utilitarianism implies that some supererogatory acts are morally obligatory.
3. No trivial act and no supererogatory act is morally obligatory.
4. Therefore, Act Utilitarianism is false.

Argument From Partiality

. . .I must repeat again, what critics seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the
happiness which forms the standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own
happiness but the happiness of all concerned. p70, RT

Question: Shouldn’t I get to give preference to the consequences to my family?

Mill says elsewhere …society between human beings…is manifestly impossible on any
other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted. Society between equals can
only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarding equally.

Some Issues Here


2 options:
1. Actual questioning? Prevents paternalism.
2. Consider their well-being? Allows paternalism.

Rule Utilitarianism

Actions are right/wrong only if done in accordance with a set of rules.

How do we determine the set of rules? Whichever rules maximize utility.

Problem: Commits us to rule worship. Also, how about this rule: Follow the other
rules except in cases where not doing so is a way to maximize utility.

Separate Components

Principle of maximization.
Theory of value.
Focus of evaluation.
Utility for who?