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The Basic Idea ofUtilitarianism

The Greatest Happiness Principle:

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promotehappiness, wrong as

they tend to produce the reverse ofhappiness John Stuart Mill

Happiness = pleasure, and the absence of pain

Unhappiness = pain, and the absence of pleasure

Happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value

pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only thingsdesirable as ends...all

desirable things are desirable either forthe pleasure inherent in themselves, or

as means to the promotion of pleasure andthe prevention of pain.

Background onUtilitarianism

English philosophersJohn Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham

(1748-1832) were the leading proponentsof what is now called

classic utilitarianism.

The Utilitarians were social reformers

They supportedsuffrage for women and those without property,

and theabolition of slavery. Utilitarians argued thatcriminals ought to be

reformedand not merely punished (although Mill didsupport capital

punishment as adeterrent). Bentham spoke outagainst cruelty to animals.

Mill was a strong supporter ofmeritocracy.

Proponents emphasized that utilitarianism wasan egalitarian doctrine.

Everyones happiness counts equally.

Utilitarianismand the Enlightenment

The science of theEnlightenment featured theories with a very small number

of general laws and vast explanatorypower. Newtons laws, for example,

seemed able to account for all of themotion in the universe. Utilitarianism fit

right in: it was an ethical theory compatible with science andfeaturing a

single law of morality with greatexplanatory power. It was a sort ofscience

of morality.
Utilitarianismis a form ofconsequentialism

Consequentialism: Whetheran action is morally right or wrong depends

entirely on itsconsequences. An action is right ifit brings about the best

outcome of thechoices available. Otherwise it iswrong.

The Good: Things(goals, states of affairs) that are worth pursuing

and promoting.

The Right: themoral rightness (or wrongness) of actions and policies.

Consequentialists saythat actions areRightwhen they maximizetheGood.

Rhetoricalargument: How could it be wrong todo what produces the most

good? Wouldnt it be irrational to insist that we ought to choose thelesser
good in any situation?

Utilitarianismdefines theGoodas pleasure without pain.

So,according to Utilitarianism, our one moralduty

is toMaximize pleasure and minimize pain.


Utilitarianism= Hedonism?

Objection:Thereis more to lifethan pleasure; knowledge, virtue and other

things are important too. Utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy onlyof swine.

Reply: Utilitarianismrequires that we considereveryonespleasure, not just

ourown. Also, says Mill, there is more to life thanphysicalpleasure.

Pleasures of thehigher faculties (including intellectual pleasures

inaccessible to loweranimals) are of higher quality than physical pleasures

(and thus count formore).

Mill: "It isbetter to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better
to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And ifthe fool, or the pig, are
of adifferent opinion, it is only because they only knowtheir own side of the


Is Utilitarianismtoo Demanding?

Objection:Utilitarianismimplies that we shouldalwaysact in order to

maximizehappiness; this is too strict a requirement. It is asking too much of

people tobe always motivated to promote the general happiness.

MillsReply: ...no system ofethics requires that the sole motive of all we do
shall be afeeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our

actions aredone from other motives, and rightly so...the motive has nothing to
do withthe morality of the action...the great majority of good actions are

intendednot for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which

the good ofthe world is made up.

Many people have questionedwhether this reply is adequate. Regardless of

motivation,Utilitarianism does require that people always act to maximize

overall happiness.


Not enough time?

Objection:In the real world, wedont have the time to calculate the effects of

our actions on the generalhappiness. Therefore,utilitarianism is useless.

MillsReply: There has beenample time, namely, the whole past duration of

the humanspecies. during all that time,mankind have been learning by

experience...the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs

which havethus come down are the rules of morality...

In otherwords, we dont need to do direct utility calculations in most cases;

we canapply subordinate rules, which are rules of thumb for maximizing

Subordinate Rules


Keep yourpromises

Dont cheat

Dont steal
Obey thelaw

Subordinate rules arewhat we would normally call commonsense morality.

According to Mill,these are rules that tend to promote happiness, so we

should internalizethem as good rules to follow.

They have beenlearned through the experience of many generations.

But subordinate rulesare just that: subordinate. If itis clear that breaking a

subordinate rulewould result in much more happiness than following it, then

you should break it.

Breaking Subordinate Rules

In some cases it may benecessary to do a direct utility calculation:

Whenyou are in an unusual situation that the rules dont cover.

When the subordinate rulesconflict.

When you are deciding whichrules to adopt or teach.

Euthanasiaor mercy killing (the killing of an innocent in order to end

pointlesssuffering) is a good example of something that violates a

subordinaterule (Dontkill innocents)but can be justified on utilitarian

groundsin unusual circumstances.


Predicting theFuture

Objection: Utilitarianism requires that we know what theconsequences of our

actions will be, but this isimpossible. We cant predict thefuture.

Reply: Its true that we cant predict the futurewith certainty. So, we should

perform the action that we havemost reason tobelievewill bring about the

best consequences of the alternatives available.

Example: Youneed $2000 to pay some medical bills. To get the extra $, you

can either (a) borrowsome money now, and pay it back later by working extra

hours, or (b) spendall of your money on lottery tickets and hope that you win

big. Its possible that you will win thelottery, but this isnt likely. Given the

probabilities, it ismore reasonable to believe that borrowing money will bring

more happiness.

Individual Rights

Objection: Just because something makes people happy doesnt make it

right. Specifically, it is wrong to harmcertain individuals in order to make

otherpeople happy.

A Thought experiment: The Caseof the Inhospitable Hospital

Suppose that Jack isin the hospital for routine tests, and there are people

there who need vital organsright away. A doctor has theopportunity to kill

Jack and make hisdeath look natural. It wouldmaximize happiness to cut

Jack up and give hisheart to one patient, his liver to another, his kidneys to

still others, and soon. (We are supposing that theorgans are good matches,

and the otherpatients will die if they dont get them). Utilitarianism seems to

imply that the doctor should kill Jack for hisorgans. But that would be

morally wrong.

Thought Experiments
ScientificExperimentation. Scientists create situations inlaboratories in order

testtheir theories. They want to findout what would happen when certain

conditionsholdif what actually happens under those conditions agrees with

whattheir theory predicts will happen, then the theory is confirmed. Otherwise,
thetheory is falsified.

Athought experimentis a hypothetical situation that wecreate in our minds in

order totest a philosophical theory. Thehypothetical situation should be

somethingthat could actually happen (and in many cases, it is something that

hasactually happened, or will happen inthe future). So that we can testthe

theory,the theory must have an implication about what would be true if the

hypotheticalsituation were real. We can thencompare this implication to our

ownbeliefs about the thought experiment. If the implication of the theory


with ourown beliefs, then the theory is confirmed (to some extent). If it does

not, thenwe must ask ourselves, Which is wrong: the theory or my beliefs?

It isreasonable to stick with our beliefs until the evidence is against them.

ImportantNote: It doesnt matter whether thehypothetical situation islikelyto

happen. If a theory has afalseimplication about something thatcouldhappen,

then thetheory iswrong(on that point, at least).


More examplesinvolving Individual Rights

Exploitation: The ancientRomans used slaves as gladiators, forcing them to

fight to the deathfor entertainment. Is it right toforce a small number of

people to begladiators if it gives millions of people pleasure? Would it be

morally acceptable topaypeople to fight to the death?

Ruthlessness: President Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on

Hiroshima andNagasaki, knowing that many thousands of non-combatants

would be killed, inorder to save more lives by ending the war.

Assume that thedecision did result in fewer lives lost. Was it morally right?

Paternalism: Supposethat banning certain kinds of fast food and snack

foods would result inmillions of people living longer, healthier lives.

Would such a ban bemorally justified?



Denial: Examples like The Inhospitable Hospitaloften involve some error of

calculation, or some failure to take all the consequences intoaccount.
For example, what would happen to the ability of that hospital todeliver
adequate health care should word get out that a healthy person has
been cut up for his or her organs?

But: The examplesdont always involve mistakes.

Biting the Bullet: If there is no error incalculation and all of the

consequences have been takeninto account, but there is still a discrepancy
between what utilitarianismimplies and what commonsense morality tells us,
then so much the worse forcommonsense morality.
Commonsense morality givesus good rules of thumb, but they are
subordinate to the GreatestHappiness Principle.

The Doctrine of Negative Responsibility

1. We are responsible for theforeseeable consequences of the choices we


2. Sometimes we choose to act, and sometimeswe choose not to. Either

way, we are making a choice that hasconsequences.


3. Therefore,weare just as responsible for the foreseeable consequences

that we fail toprevent as for those that we bring about directly.

This means that I didnt do it isnot necessarily a good defense.

The best defense is I couldnthave prevented it.

Negative Responsibility?

Hostage Dilemma Thought Experiment:

Terrorists areholding you and fifty other people as hostages inside a building.

The only exit hasbeen blocked and three of the hostages have been strapped

the door, attached toexplosives. The terrorist leaderoffers you a choice.


(i) you can activate a detonator that will blow up the exit, killingthe three

hostages strapped to it butallowing the others to escape, or

(ii) you can decline and the terrorists will kill everyone.

You believe (and havegood reason to believe) that the terrorist leader is

sincere. What should you do?

Some people wouldargue that:

It isterrible that everyone will be killed, but I have no right to kill anyone

myself. I am responsible for my own actions, the terrorist is responsiblefor

his. If he kills everyone, then that is his evil, not mine. But if I activate the

detonator, then I will have committed anact of evil. Therefore, I ammorally

obligated to take option (ii).

What does utilitarianism imply? What do you think?

Rule Utilitarianism

RuleUtilitarianismis an optionfor those who believe that there areabsolute

prohibitionson certain types of actions but do not want togive up on

utilitarianismcompletely. According to RU, theprinciple of utility is a guide for

choosing rules,not individual acts.

RuleUtilitarianism: An action or policy is morally right ifand only if it is

consistent with theset of rules (moral code) that would maximize happiness, if

generally followed.

At first, RU seems to be a goodresponse to make in the face of the

involuntary organ donor case and othersimilar cases. It seems lessplausible,

though, when we consider cases wherethere is an action that would result in

dramatically greater utility than wouldresult from following the rule. For

example, imagine a case involving amillion hostages instead of fifty. In cases

like this, RU strikes many as irrationalrule worship. It requires us tofollow the

rules even when doing so defeats thepurpose of having them.

Group Exercise

Getinto groups ofthreemembers. Each group will be responsible for coming up

with asituation (either real or imagined) in which utilitarianism has
thatgoes against commonsense morality. You may not use any of the
alreadydiscussed, although you may come up with a situation that is similar.
Thesituation must involve a person who has to make a choice between two
main alternatives,each of which has very different consequences.

Aftercoming up with your example and discussing it as a group, assign each

memberto one of the following tasks:

A. Describe the situation in writing andstate the two alternatives that must be
chosenbetween. Statewhichalternative utilitarianism seems to favor andwhy.

B. State the commonsense moral principle thatutilitarianism appears to

with. Write a response on behalf ofutilitarianism, using the Denial strategy.
(Here you are trying to convince someonethat utilitarianism actually agrees
commonsensemorality, despite appearances to the contrary).

C. Write another response on behalf ofutilitarianism using the biting the

strategy. (Here you are trying to convince someone that utilitarianismreally
does give us the right answer, and thatcommonsense morality is wrong on
Eachmember will present their portion of the assignment to the class, and then
turn what they wrote for credit.