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Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. Classic utilitarianism, as advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is hedonistic. It is now generally taken to be a form of consequentialism, although when Anscombe first introduced that term it was to distinguish between "old-fashioned Utilitarianism" and consequentialism. According to utilitarianism the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, although there is debate over how much consideration should be given to actual consequences, foreseen consequences and intended consequences. Two influential contributors to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In A Fragment on Government, Bentham says, "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong" and describes this as a fundamental axiom. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he talks of "the principle of utility" but later prefers "the greatest happiness principle."
Utilitarianism can be characterized as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. It is a type of naturalism. It can be contrasted with deontological ethics, which does not regard the consequences of an act as a determinant of its moral worth; virtue ethics, which primarily focuses on acts and habits leading to happiness; pragmatic ethics; as well as with ethical egoism and other varieties of consequentialism.
Utilitarianism has often been considered the natural ethic of a democracy operating by simple majority without protection of individual rights.
The importance of happiness as an end for humans has long been recognized. Forms of hedonism were put forward by Aristippus and Epicurus; Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the highest human good and Augustine wrote that "all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness." Happiness was also explored in depth by Aquinas However, utilitarianism as a distinct ethical position only emerged in the eighteenth century.
Although utilitarianism is usually thought to start with Jeremy Bentham, there were earlier writers who presented theories that were strikingly similar. In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume writes:
- In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.
Hume had studied under Francis Hutcheson, and it was he who first introduced a key utilitarian phrase. In An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Hutcheson writes:
- In comparing the moral qualitys of actions, in order to regulate our election among various actions proposed, or to find which of them has the greatest moral excellency, we are led by our moral sense of virtue to judge thus; that in equal degrees of happiness, expected to proceed from the action, the virtue is in proportion to the number of persons to whom the happiness shall extend (and here the dignity, or moral importance of persons, may compensate numbers); and in equal numbers, the virtue is as the quantity of the happiness, or natural good; or that the virtue is in a compound ratio of the quantity of good, and number of enjoyers. In the same manner, the moral evil, or vice, is as the degree of misery, and number of sufferers; so that, that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.
In the first three editions of the book, Hutcheson followed this passage with various mathematical algorithms "to compute the Morality of any Actions." In this, he pre-figured the hedonic calculus of Bentham.
It is claimed that the first systematic theory of utilitarian ethics was developed by John Gay. In Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality (1731), Gay argues that
- happiness, private happiness, is the proper or ultimate end of all our actions… each particular action may be said to have its proper and peculiar end…(but)…. they still tend or ought to tend to something farther; as is evident from hence, viz. that a man may ask and expect a reason why either of them are pursued: now to ask the reason of any action or pursuit, is only to enquire into the end of it: but to expect a reason, i.e. an end, to be assigned for an ultimate end, is absurd. To ask why I pursue happiness, will admit of no other answer than an explanation of the terms.
This pursuit of happiness is given a theological basis:
- Now it is evident from the nature of God, viz. his being infinitely happy in himself from all eternity, and from his goodness manifested in his works, that he could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness; and therefore he wills their happiness; therefore the means of their happiness: therefore that my behaviour, as far as it may be a means of the happiness of mankind, should be such…thus the will of God is the immediate criterion of Virtue, and the happiness of mankind the criterion of the wilt of God; and therefore the happiness of mankind may be said to be the criterion of virtue, but once removed…(and)… I am to do whatever lies in my power towards promoting the happiness of mankind.
Gay's theological utilitarianism was developed and popularized by William Paley. It has been claimed that Paley was not a very original thinker and that the philosophical part of his treatise on ethics is "an assemblage of ideas developed by others and is presented to be learned by students rather than debated by colleagues." Nevertheless, his book The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) was a required text at Cambridge and Smith says that Paley's writings were "once as well known in American colleges as were the readers and spellers of William McGuffey and Noah Webster in the elementary schools." Although now largely missing from the philosophical canon, Schneewind writes that "utilitarianism first became widely known in England through the work of William Paley." The now forgotten significance of Paley can be judged from the title of Birks's 1874 work Modern Utilitarianism or the Systems of Paley, Bentham and Mill Examined and Compared.
Apart from restating that happiness as an end is grounded in the nature of God, Paley also discusses the place of rules. He writes,
- …actions are to be estimated by their tendency. Whatever is expedient, is right. It is the utility of any moral rule alone, which constitutes the obligation of it.
- But to all this there seems a plain objection, viz. that many actions are useful, which no man in his senses will allow to be right. There are occasions, in which the hand of the assassin would be very useful… The true answer is this; that these actions, after all, are not useful, and for that reason, and that alone, are not right.
- To see this point perfectly, it must be observed that the bad consequences of actions are twofold, particular and general. The particular bad consequence of an action, is the mischief which that single action directly and immediately occasions. The general bad consequence is, the violation of some necessary or useful general rule…
- You cannot permit one action and forbid another, without showing a difference between them. Consequently, the same sort of actions must be generally permitted or generally forbidden. Where, therefore, the general permission of them would be pernicious, it becomes necessary to lay down and support the rule which generally forbids them.
Bentham's book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation was printed in 1780 but not published until 1789. It is possible that Bentham was spurred on to publish after he saw the success of Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Bentham's book was not an immediate success but his ideas were spread further when Pierre Étienne Louis Dumont translated edited selections from a variety of Bentham's manuscripts into French. Traité de legislation civile et pénale was published in 1802 and then later retranslated back into English by Hildreth as The Theory of Legislation, although by this time significant portions of Dumont’s work had already been retranslated and incorporated into Sir John Bowring's edition of Bentham's works, which was issued in parts between 1838 and 1843.
Bentham's work opens with a statement of the principle of utility,
- “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.”
In Chapter IV, Bentham introduces a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which has come to be known as the hedonic calculus. Bentham says that the value of a pleasure or pain, considered by itself, can be measured according to its intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness. In addition, it is necessary to consider “the tendency of any act by which it is produced” and, therefore, to take account of the act’s fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind and its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind. Finally, it is necessary to consider the extent, or the number of people affected by the action.
Perhaps aware that Hutcheson eventually removed his algorithms for calculating the greatest happiness because they “appear’d useless, and were disagreeable to some readers” Bentham contends that there is nothing novel or unwarranted about his method for “in all this there is nothing but what the practice of mankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly conformable to.”
Rosen warns that descriptions of utilitarianism can bear “little resemblance historically to utilitarians like Bentham and J.S.Mill” and can be more “a crude version of act utilitarianism conceived in the twentieth century as a straw man to be attacked and rejected.” It is a mistake to think that Bentham is not concerned with rules. His seminal work is concerned with the principles of legislation and the hedonic calculus is introduced with the words “Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends that the legislator has in view.” In Chapter VII Bentham says, “The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding… In proportion as an act tends to disturb that happiness, in proportion as the tendency of it is pernicious, will be the demand it creates for punishment.”
The question then arises as to when, if at all, it might legitimate to break the law. This is considered in The Theory of Legislation where Bentham distinguishes between evils of the first and second orders. Those of the first order are the more immediate consequences; those of the second are when the consequences spread through the community causing ‘alarm’ and ‘danger’.
- “It is true there are cases in which, if we confine ourselves to the effects of the first order, the good will have an incontestable preponderance over the evil. Were the offence considered only under this point of view, it would not be easy to assign any good reasons to justify the rigour of the laws. Every thing depends upon the evil of the second order; it is this which gives to such actions the character of crime, and which makes punishment necessary. Let us take, for example, the physical desire of satisfying hunger. Let a beggar, pressed by hunger, steal from a rich man's house a loaf, which perhaps saves him from starving, can it be possible to compare the good which the thief acquires for himself, with the evil which the rich man suffers? … It is not on account of the evil of the first order that it is necessary to erect these actions into offences, but on account of the evil of the second order.”
John Stuart Mill
Mill was brought up as a Benthamite with the explicit intention that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism. Mill's book Utilitarianism first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861 and was reprinted as a single book in 1863.
Higher and lower pleasures
Mill rejects a purely quantitative measurement of utility and says,
- “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”
Mill notes that, contrary to what its critics might say, there is “no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect… a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation.” However, he accepts that this is usually because the intellectual pleasures are thought to have circumstantial advantages, i.e. “greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c.” Instead, Mill will argue that some pleasures are intrinsically better than others.
The accusation that hedonism is “doctrine worthy only of swine” has a long history. In Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1 Chapter 5) Aristotle says that identifying the good with pleasure is to prefer a life suitable for beasts. The theological utilitarians had the option of grounding their pursuit of happiness in the will of God; the hedonistic utilitarians needed a different defense. Mill’s approach is to argue that the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically superior to physical pleasures.
- "Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question… "
Mill argues that if people who are “competently acquainted” with two pleasures show a decided preference for one even if it be accompanied by more discontent and “would not resign it for any quantity of the other” then it is legitimate to regard that pleasure as being superior in quality. Mill recognises that these ‘competent judges’ will not always agree, in which case the judgment of the majority is to be accepted as final. Mill also acknowledges that “many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher.” Mill says that this appeal to those who have experienced the relevant pleasures is no different to what must happen when assessing the quantity of pleasure for there is no other way of measuring “the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations.”
Mill's 'proof' of the principle of utility
In Chapter Four of Utilitarianism Mill considers what proof can be given for the Principle of Utility. He says’
- “ The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it… 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… we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.”
It is usual to say that Mill is committing a number of fallacies. He is accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, because he is trying to deduce what people ought to do from what they do in fact do; the fallacy of equivocation, because he moves from the fact that something is desirable(1), i.e. is capable of being desired, to the claim that it is desirable(2), i.e. that it ought to be desired; and the fallacy of composition, because the fact that people desire their own happiness does not imply that the aggregate of all persons will desire the general happiness.
Hall and Popkin defend Mill against this accusation pointing out that he begins Chapter Four by asserting that “questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term” and that this is “common to all first principles.” According to Hall and Popkin, therefore, Mill does not attempt to “establish that what people do desire is desirable but merely attempts to make the principles acceptable.” The type of “proof” Mill is offering "consists only of some considerations which, Mill thought, might induce an honest and reasonable man to accept utilitarianism."
Having claimed that people do, in fact, desire happiness Mill now has to show that it is the only thing they desire. Mill anticipates the objection that people desire other things such as virtue. He argues that whilst people might start desiring virtue as a means to happiness, eventually, it becomes part of someone’s happiness and is then desired as an end in itself.
- "The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness."
Twentieth century developments
The description Ideal Utilitarianism was first used by Hastings Rashdall in The Theory of Good and Evil (1907) but is more often associated with G. E. Moore. In Ethics (1912) Moore rejected a purely hedonistic utilitarianism and argued that there is a range of values that might be maximized. Moore’s strategy was to show that it is intuitively implausible that pleasure is the sole measure of what is good. He says that such an assumption,
- “ involves our saying, for instance, that a world in which absolutely nothing except pleasure existed—no knowledge, no love, no enjoyment of beauty, no moral qualities—must yet be intrinsically better—better worth creating—provided only the total quantity of pleasure in it were the least bit greater, than one in which all these things existed as well as pleasure.”
- “It involves our saying that, even if the total quantity of pleasure in each was exactly equal, yet the fact that all the beings in the one possessed in addition knowledge of many different kinds and a full appreciation of all that was beautiful or worthy of love in their world, whereas none of the beings in the other possessed any of these things, would give us no reason whatever for preferring the former to the latter.”
Moore admits that it is impossible to prove the case either way but believed that it was intuitively obvious that even if the amount of pleasure stayed the same a world that contained such things as beauty and love would be a better world. He adds that if anybody took the contrary view then “I think it is self-evident that he would be wrong.”
Act and rule utilitarianism
In the mid-twentieth century a number of philosophers focused on the place of rules in utilitarian thinking. It was already accepted that it is necessary to use rules to help you choose the right action because the problems of calculating the consequences on each and every occasion would almost certainly result in you frequently choosing something less than the best course of action. Paley had justified the use of rules and Mill says,
- “It is truly a whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion… to consider the rules of morality as improvable, is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly by the first principle, is another… The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal… Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong.”
However, rule utilitarianism proposes a more central role for rules that was thought to rescue the theory from some of its more devastating criticisms, particularly problems to do with justice and promise keeping. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s articles were published both for and against the new form of utilitarianism and through this debate the theory we now call rule utilitarianism was created. In an introduction to an anthology of these articles the editor was able to say, “The development of this theory was a dialectical process of formulation, criticism, reply and reformulation; the record of this process well illustrates the co-operative development of a philosophical theory.”
Smart and McCloskey initially used the terms 'extreme' and 'restricted' utilitarianism but eventually everyone settled on the terms 'act' and 'rule' utilitarianism.
The essential difference is in what determines whether or not an action is the right action. Act utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it maximises utility; rule utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that maximises utility.
In 1953 Urmson published an influential article arguing that Mill justified rules on utilitarian principles. From then on articles have debated this interpretation of Mill. In all probability it was not a distinction that Mill was particularly trying to make and so the evidence in his writing is inevitably mixed. A collection of Mill’s writing published in 1977 includes a letter in which he says:
- “I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences, is to test them by the natural consequences of the particular action, and not by those which would follow if everyone did the same. But, for the most part, the consideration of what would happen if everyone did the same, is the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the particular case.”
This seems to tip the balance in favour of saying that Mill is best classified as an act utilitarian.
Some school level textbooks and at least one UK examination board make a further distinction between strong and weak rule utilitarianism. However, it is not clear that this distinction is made in the academic literature.
It has been argued that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be refined by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the ‘rules’ have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.
In Principles (1973) R.M.Hare accepts that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism but claims that this is a result of allowing the rules to be 'as specific and un-general as we please.' He argues that one of the main reasons for introducing rule utilitarianism was to do justice to the general rules that people need for moral education and character development and he proposes that “a difference between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism can be introduced by limiting the specificity of the rules, i.e., by increasing their generality.” This distinction between a ‘specific rule utilitarianism’ (which collapses into act utilitarianism) and ‘general rule utilitarianism’ forms the basis of Hare’s two-level utilitarianism.
When we are ‘playing God or the ideal observer’ we use the specific form and we will need to do this when we are deciding what general principles to teach and follow. When we are ‘inculcating’ or in situations where the biases of our human nature are likely to prevent us doing the calculations properly, then we should use the more general rule utilitarianism.
Hare argues that in practice, most of the time, we should be following the general principles:
- “One ought to abide by the general principles whose general inculcation is for the best; harm is more likely to come, in actual moral situations, from questioning these rules than from sticking to them, unless the situations are very extra-ordinary; the results of sophisticated felicific calculations are not likely, human nature and human ignorance being what they are, to lead to the greatest utility.”
In Moral Thinking (1981) Hare illustrated the two extremes. The 'archangel' is the hypothetical person who has perfect knowledge of the situation and no personal biases or weaknesses and always uses critical moral thinking to decide the right thing to do; the ‘prole’ is the hypothetical person who is completely incapable of critical thinking and uses nothing but intuitive moral thinking and, of necessity, has to follow the general moral rules they have been taught or learned through imitation. It is not that some people are archangels and others proles but rather “we all share the characteristics of both to limited and varying degrees and at different times.”
Hare does not specify when we should think more like an 'archangel' and more like a 'prole' as this will, in any case, vary from person to person. However, the critical moral thinking underpins and informs the more intuitive moral thinking. It is responsible for formulating and, if necessary, reformulating the general moral rules. We also switch to critical thinking when trying to deal with unusual situations or in cases where the intuitive moral rules give conflicting advice.
More varieties of utilitarianism
In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper argued that the principle 'maximize pleasure' should be replaced by 'minimize pain'. He thought "it is not only impossible but very dangerous to attempt to maximize the pleasure or the happiness of the people, since such an attempt must lead to totalitarianism." He claimed that,
- there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure… In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway. A further criticism of the Utilitarian formula ‘Maximize pleasure’ is that it assumes a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all...
The actual term negative utilitarianism was introduced by R.N.Smart as the title to his 1958 reply to Popper in which he argued that the principle would entail seeking the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity.
- Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler's duty on NU grounds.
Negative utilitarianism would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick.
It has been claimed that negative preference utilitarianism avoids the problem of moral killing, but still demands a justification for the creation of new lives. Others see negative utilitarianism as a branch within classical utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate" utilitarian metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism.
Motive utilitarianism was first proposed by Robert Adams in 1976. Whereas act utilitarianism requires us to choose our actions by calculating which action will maximize utility and rule utilitarianism requires us to implement rules which will, on the whole, maximize utility, motive utilitarianism “has the utility calculus being used to select motives and dispositions according to their general felicific effects, and those motives and dispositions then dictate our choices of actions.”
The arguments for moving to some form of motive utilitarianism at the personal level can be seen as mirroring the arguments for moving to some form of rule utilitarianism at the social level. Adams refers to Sidgwick's observation that “Happiness (general as well as individual) is likely to be better attained if the extent to which we set ourselves consciously to aim at it be carefully restricted.” Trying to apply the utility calculation on each and every occasion is likely to lead to a sub-optimal outcome. Applying carefully selected rules at the social level and encouraging appropriate motives at the personal level is, so it is argued, likely to lead to a better overall outcome even if on some individual occasions it leads to the wrong action when assessed according to act utilitarian standards.
Adams illustrates his theory by telling a fictitious story about Jack, a lover of art, visiting Chartres cathedral. Jack is motivated to see, as nearly as possible, everything in the cathedral. However, there were some things in the cathedral that, on their own, didn’t interest him much. On act utilitarian grounds he should have ignored them. Spending more time in the cathedral than he had originally planned resulted in him missing his dinner, doing several hours of night driving, which he hates, and having trouble finding a place to sleep. Adams argues that Jack will only have skipped the less interesting bits of the cathedral if “he had been less interested in seeing everything in the cathedral than in maximizing utility. And it is plausible to suppose that if his motivation had been different in that respect, he would have enjoyed the cathedral much less.”
Adams concludes that “right action, by act-utilitarian standards, and right motivation, by motive-utilitarian standards, are incompatible in some cases.” The necessity of this conclusion is rejected by Fred Feldman who argues that “the conflict in question results from an inadequate formulation of the utilitarian doctrines; motives play no essential role in it…(and that)… Precisely the same sort of conflict arises even when MU is left out of consideration and AU is applied by itself.” Instead, Feldman proposes a variant of act utilitarianism that results in there being no conflict between it and motive utilitarianism.
Because utilitarianism is not a single theory but a cluster of related theories that have developed over two hundred years, criticisms can be made for different reasons and have different targets. A criticism of its hedonistic assumptions might be part of a rejection of utilitarianism as a whole or a reason for moving to a different form of utilitarianism. A criticism made by one person for one reason may be used later by someone else for a different reason.
As Rosen has pointed out, claiming that act utilitarians are not concerned about having rules is to set up a "straw man". Similarly, Hare refers to "the crude caricature of act utilitarianism which is the only version of it that many philosophers seem to be acquainted with." Given what Bentham says about second order evils it would be a serious misrepresentation to say that he and similar act utilitarians would be prepared to punish an innocent person for the greater good. Nevertheless, whether they would agree or not, this is what critics of utilitarianism claim is entailed by the theory. A classic version of this criticism was given by H. J. McCloskey:
- “Suppose that a sheriff were faced with the choice either of framing a Negro for a rape that had aroused hostility to the Negroes (a particular Negro generally being believed to be guilty but whom the sheriff knows not to be guilty)—and thus preventing serious anti-Negro riots which would probably lead to some loss of life and increased hatred of each other by whites and Negroes—or of hunting for the guilty person and thereby allowing the anti-Negro riots to occur, while doing the best he can to combat them. In such a case the sheriff, if he were an extreme utilitarian, would appear to be committed to framing the Negro.”
By "extreme" utilitarian, McCloskey is referring to what later came to be called "act" utilitarianism. Whilst this story might be quoted as part of a justification for moving from act to rule utilitarianism McCloskey anticipates this and points out that each rule has to be judged on its utility and it is not at all obvious that a rule with exceptions has less utility. The above story invites the reply that the sheriff would not frame the innocent because of the rule "do not punish an innocent person". However, McCloskey asks, what about the rule “punish an innocent person when and only when to do so is not to weaken the existing institution of punishment and when the consequences of doing so are valuable”?
In a later article, McCloskey says:
- "Surely the utilitarian must admit that whatever the facts of the matter may be, it is logically possible that an 'unjust' system of punishment—e.g. a system involving collective punishments, retroactive laws and punishments, or punishments of parents and relations of the offender—may be more useful than a 'just' system of punishment?"
Calculating utility is self-defeating
An early criticism, which was addressed by Mill, is that if time is taken to calculate the best course of action it is likely that the opportunity to take the best course of action will already have passed. Mill responds, that there has been ample time to calculate the likely effects,
- “...namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent…It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment.”
More recently, Hardin has made the same point. “It should embarrass philosophers that they have ever taken this objection seriously. Parallel considerations in other realms are dismissed with eminently good sense. Lord Devlin notes, ‘if the reasonable man ‘worked to rule’ by perusing to the point of comprehension every form he was handed, the commercial and administrative life of the country would creep to a standstill.’”
It is such considerations that lead even act utilitarians to rely on ‘rules of thumb’ as Smart has called them. The objection arises when utilitarianism is mistakenly taken to be a decision-making procedure rather than a criterion of what is right.
It has been argued that it is impossible to do the calculation that utilitarianism requires because consequences are inherently unknowable. Daniel Dennett describes this as the Three Mile Island effect. Dennett points out that not only is it impossible to assign a precise utility value to the incident, it is impossible to know whether, ultimately, the near-meltdown that occurred was a good or bad thing. He suggests that it would have been a good thing if lessons had been learned which would have prevented even more serious incidents from happening later.
Russel Hardin rejects such arguments. He argues that it is possible to distinguish the moral impulse of utilitarianism, which is “to define the right as good consequences and to motivate people to achieve these” from our ability to correctly apply rational principles which will among other things “depend on the perceived facts of the case and on the particular moral actor’s mental equipment.” The fact that the latter is limited and can change doesn't mean that the former has to be rejected. "If we develop a better system for determining relevant causal relations so that we are able to choose actions that better produce our intended ends, it does not follow that we then must change our ethics. The moral impulse of utilitarianism is constant, but our decisions under it are contingent on our knowledge and scientific understanding."
From the beginning, utilitarianism has recognized that certainty in such matters is unobtainable and both Bentham and Mill said that it was necessary to rely on the tendencies of actions to bring about consequences. G. E. Moore writing in 1903 said,
- “We certainly cannot hope directly to compare their effects except within a limited future; and all the arguments, which have ever been used in Ethics, and upon which we commonly act in common life, directed to shewing that one course is superior to another, are (apart from theological dogmas) confined to pointing out such probable immediate advantages…
- An ethical law has the nature not of a scientific law but of a scientific prediction: and the latter is always merely probable, although the probability may be very great.”
It is too demanding
Act utilitarianism not only requires everyone to do what they can to maximize utility but to do so without any favouritism. Mill says, "As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." Critics say that this combination of requirements leads to utilitarianism making unreasonable demands. The well-being of strangers counts just as much as that of friends, family or self. “What makes this requirement so demanding is the gargantuan number of strangers in great need of help and the indefinitely many opportunities to make sacrifices to help them." As Shelly Kagan says, “Given the parameters of the actual world, there is no question that …(maximally)… promoting the good would require a life of hardship, self-denial, and austerity…a life spent promoting the good would be a severe one indeed.”
Hooker describes two aspects to the problem: act utilitarianism requires huge sacrifices from those who are relatively better off and also requires sacrifice of your own good even when the aggregate good will be only slightly increased. Another way of highlighting the complaint is to say that in utilitarianism, "there is no such thing as morally permissible self-sacrifice that goes above and beyond the call of duty." Mill was quite clear about this, “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted.”
One response to the problem is to accept its demands. This is the view taken by Peter Singer who says, “No doubt we do instinctively prefer to help those who are close to us. Few could stand by and watch a child drown; many can ignore the avoidable deaths of children in Africa or India. The question, however, is not what we usually do, but what we ought to do, and it is difficult to see any sound moral justification for the view that distance, or community membership, makes a crucial difference to our obligations."
Others argue that a moral theory that is so contrary to our deeply held moral convictions must either be rejected or modified. There have been various attempts to modify utilitarianism to escape its seemingly over-demanding requirements. One approach is to drop the demand that utility be maximized. In Satisficing Consequentialism Michael Slote argues for a form of utilitarianism where “an act might qualify as morally right through having good enough consequences, even though better consequences could have been produced.” One advantage of such a system is that it would be able to accommodate the notion of supererogatory actions.
Samuel Scheffler takes a different approach and amends the requirement that everyone be treated the same. In particular, Scheffler suggests that there is an ‘agent-centered prerogative’ such that when the overall utility is being calculated it is permitted to count our own interests more heavily than the interests of others. Kagan suggests that such a procedure might be justified on the grounds that, “a general requirement to promote the good would lack the motivational underpinning necessary for genuine moral requirements” and, secondly, that personal independence is necessary for the existence of commitments and close personal relations and that “the value of such commitments yields a positive reason for preserving within moral theory at least some moral independence for the personal point of view.”
Robert Goodin takes yet another approach and argues that the demandingness objection can be ‘blunted’ by treating utilitarianism as a guide to public policy rather than one of individual morality. He suggests that many of the problems arise under the traditional formulation because the conscientious utilitarian ends up having to make up for the failings of others and so contributing more than their fair share.
Harsanyi argues that the objection overlooks the fact that “people attach considerable utility to freedom from unduly burdensome moral obligations… most people will prefer a society with a more relaxed moral code, and will feel that such a society will achieve a higher level of average utility—even if adoption of such a moral code should lead to some losses in economic and cultural accomplishments (so long as these losses remain within tolerable limits). This means that utilitarianism, if correctly interpreted, will yield a moral code with a standard of acceptable conduct very much below the level of highest moral perfection, leaving plenty of scope for supererogatory actions exceeding this minimum standard.”
The objection that ‘utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons’ came to prominence in 1971 with the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. The concept is also important in Animal rights advocate Richard Ryder’s rejection of utilitarianism in which he talks of the ‘boundary of the individual’, through which neither pain nor pleasure may pass. However, a similar objection was noted by Thomas Nagel in 1970 who claimed that consequentialism ‘treats the desires, needs, satisfactions, and dissatisfactions of distinct persons as if they were the desires, etc., of a mass person.’ and even earlier by David Gauthier who wrote that utilitarianism supposes ‘that mankind is a super-person, whose greatest satisfaction is the objective of moral action. . . . But this is absurd. Individuals have wants, not mankind; individuals seek satisfaction, not mankind. A person’s satisfaction is not part of any greater satisfaction.’ Thus the aggregation of utility becomes futile as both pain and happiness are intrinsic to and inseparable from the consciousness in which they are felt, rendering impossible the task of adding up the various pleasures of multiple individuals.
A response to this criticism is to point out that whilst seeming to resolve some problems it introduces others. Intuitively, there are many cases where people do want to take the numbers involved into account. As Alastair Norcross has said, “suppose that Homer is faced with the painful choice between saving Barney from a burning building or saving both Moe and Apu from the building…it is clearly better for Homer to save the larger number, precisely because it is a larger number… Can anyone who really considers the matter seriously honestly claim to believe that it is worse that one person die than that the entire sentient population of the universe be severely mutilated? Clearly not.”
Karl Marx's criticisms
|“||Not even excepting our philosopher, Christian Wolff, in no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way. The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and other Frenchmen had said with esprit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he who would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, e.g., is "useful," "because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law." Artistic criticism is "harmful," because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow, with his motto, "nulla dies sine line!," piled up mountains of books.||”|
Marx's accusation is twofold. In the first place, he says that the theory of utility is true by definition and thus does not really add anything meaningful. For Marx, a productive inquiry had to investigate what sorts of things are good for people—that is, what our nature, alienated under capitalism, really is. Second, he says that Bentham fails to take account of the changing character of people, and hence the changing character of what is good for them. This criticism is especially important for Marx, because he believed that all important statements were contingent upon particular historical conditions.
Marx argues that human nature is dynamic, so the concept of a single utility for all humans is one-dimensional and not useful. When he decries Bentham's application of the 'yard measure' of now to 'the past, present and future', he decries the implication that society, and people, have always been, and will always be, as they are now; that is, he criticizes essentialism. As he sees it, this implication is conservatively used to reinforce institutions he regarded as reactionary. Just because in this moment religion has some positive consequences, says Marx, doesn't mean that viewed historically it isn't a regressive institution that should be abolished.
John Taurek's criticism
John Taurek has argued that the idea of adding happiness or pleasures across persons is quite unintelligible and that the numbers of persons involved in a situation are morally irrelevant. Taurek asks whether "we should, in [certain] trade-off situations, consider the relative numbers of people involved as something in itself of significance in determining our course of action[?]" Taurek tells us that "The conclusion I reach is that we should not." Taurek's argument looks at a trade off situation: "The situation is that I have a supply of some life-saving drug. Six people will all certainly die if they are not treated with the drug. But one of the six requires all of the drug if he is to survive. Each of the other five requires only one-fifth of the drug. What ought I to do?" Taurek's basic concern comes down to there being no way to explain what the meaning is of saying that things would be five times worse if the five died than if the one died. "I cannot give a satisfactory account of the meaning of judgments of this kind," he writes (p. 304). He argues that the six persons in this situation, if considered equal in all other respects, should all be given an equal chance of surviving: "I am inclined to treat each person equally by giving each an equal chance to survive." (P. 306.) Each person in the situation can only lose one person's happiness or pleasures. There isn't five times more loss of happiness or pleasure when five die: who would be feeling this happiness or pleasure? "Each person's potential loss has the same significance to me, only as a loss to that person alone. because, by hypothesis, I have an equal concern for each person involved, I am moved to give each of them an equal chance to be spared his loss." (P. 307.) The basic concern here is cogent: while one can understand why more pain or sadness is worse for an individual subject since someone experiences that greater pain or sorrow. But in virtue of what should we take five people's pain or sorrow (all else being equal) as worse if no single person experiences that pain or sorrow? Parfit and others have criticized Taurek's line, but it remains worth considering and continues to be discussed.
John Paul II's personalist criticism
Pope John Paul II, following his personalist philosophy, considered that a danger of utilitarianism is that it tends to make persons, just as much as things, the object of use. "Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used."
Average v. total happiness
In The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick asked, "Is it total or average happiness that we seek to make a maximum?" He noted that aspects of the question had been overlooked and answered the question himself by saying that what had to be maximized was the average multiplied by the number of people living. He also argued that if the “average happiness enjoyed remains undiminished, Utilitarianism directs us to make the number enjoying it as great as possible.” This was also the view taken earlier by William Paley. He notes that although he speaks of the happiness of communities, “the happiness of a people is made up of the happiness of single persons; and the quantity of happiness can only be augmented by increasing the number of the percipients, or the pleasure of their perceptions” and that if extreme cases, such a people held as slaves, are excluded the amount of happiness will usually be in proportion to the number of people. Consequently, “the decay of population is the greatest evil that a state can suffer; and the improvement of it the object which ought, in all countries, to be aimed at in preference to every other political purpose whatsoever.” More recently a similar view has been expressed by Smart who argued that all other things being equal a universe with two million happy people is better than a universe with only one million happy people.
Since Sidgwick raised the question it has been studied in detail and philosophers have argued that using either total or average happiness can lead to objectionable results.
According to Derek Parfit, using total happiness falls victim to the Repugnant Conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort. In other words, according to the theory, it is a moral good to breed more people on the world for as long as total happiness rises.
On the other hand, measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population avoids Parfit's repugnant conclusion but causes other problems. For example, bringing a moderately happy person into a very happy world would be seen as an immoral act; aside from this, the theory implies that it would be a moral good to eliminate all people whose happiness is below average, as this would raise the average happiness.
Shaw suggests that the problem can be avoided if a distinction is made between potential people, who need not concern us, and actual future people, who should concern us. He says, “utilitarianism values the happiness of people, not the production of units of happiness. Accordingly, one has no positive obligation to have children. However, if you have decided to have a child, then you have an obligation to give birth to the happiest child you can.”
Motives, intentions and actions
Utilitarianism is typically taken to assess the rightness or wrongness of an action by considering just the consequences of that action. Bentham very carefully distinguishes motive from intention and says that motives are not in themselves good or bad but can be referred to as such on account of their tendency to produce pleasure or pain. He adds that “from every kind of motive, may proceed actions that are good, others that are bad, and others that are indifferent.” Mill makes a similar point and explicitly says that “motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble.”
However, with intention the situation is more complex. In a footnote printed in the second edition of Utilitarianism, Mill says, “the morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention—that is, upon what the agent wills to do.” Elsewhere, he says, “Intention, and motive, are two very different things. But it is the intention, that is, the foresight of consequences, which constitutes the moral rightness or wrongness of the act.”
The correct interpretation of Mill’s footnote is a matter of some debate. The difficulty in interpretation centres around trying to explain why, since it is consequences that matter, intentions should play a role in the assessment of the morality of an action but motives should not. One possibility “involves supposing that the 'morality' of the act is one thing, probably to do with the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the agent, and its rightness or wrongness another.” Jonathan Dancy rejects this interpretation on the grounds that Mill is explicitly making intention relevant to an assessment of the act not to an assessment of the agent.
An interpretation given by Roger Crisp draws on a definition given by Mill in A System of Logic where he says an “intention to produce the effect, is one thing; the effect produced in consequence of the intention, is another thing; the two together constitute the action.” Accordingly, whilst two actions may outwardly appear to be the same they will be different actions if there is a different intention. Dancy notes that this does not explain why intentions count but motives do not.
A third interpretation is that an action might be considered a complex action consisting of several stages and it is the intention that determines which of these stages are to be considered part of the action. Although this is the interpretation favoured by Dancy, he recognizes that this might not have been Mill’s own view for Mill “would not even allow that 'p & q' expresses a complex proposition. He wrote in his System of Logic I iv. 3, of 'Caesar is dead and Brutus is alive', that 'we might as well call a street a complex house, as these two propositions a complex proposition'.”
Finally, whilst motives may not play a role in determining the morality of an action this does not preclude utilitarians from fostering particular motives if doing so will increase overall happiness.
Application to specific issues
In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham wrote "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures might suggest that he gave more status to humans but in The Methods of Ethics Sidgwick says "We have next to consider who the "all" are, whose happiness is to be taken into account. Are we to extend our concern to all the beings capable of pleasure and pain whose feelings are affected by our conduct? or are we to confine our view to human happiness? The former view is the one adopted by Bentham and Mill, and (I believe) by the Utilitarian school generally: and is obviously most in accordance with the universality that is characteristic of their principle...it seems arbitrary and unreasonable to exclude from the end, as so conceived, any pleasure of any sentient being."
Peter Singer, along with many animal rights activists, have continued to argue that the well-being of all sentient beings ought to be seriously considered. Singer suggests that rights are conferred according to the level of a creature's self-awareness, regardless of their species. He adds that humans tend to be speciesist (discriminatory against non-humans) in ethical matters.
In his 1990 edition of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer said that he no longer ate oysters and mussels, because although the creatures might not suffer, they might, it’s not really known, and it’s easy enough to avoid eating them in any case (and this aspect of seeking better alternatives is a prominent part of utilitarianism).
This view still might be contrasted with deep ecology, which holds that an intrinsic value is attached to all forms of life and nature, whether currently assumed to be sentient or not. According to utilitarianism, most forms of life (i.e. non-animals) are unable to experience anything akin to either enjoyment or discomfort, and are therefore denied moral status. Thus, the moral value of one-celled organisms, as well as some multi-cellular organisms, and natural entities like a river, is only in the benefit they provide to sentient beings. Similarly, utilitarianism places no direct intrinsic value on biodiversity, although as far as indirect, contingent value, it most probably does.
Utilitarians argue that justification of slavery, torture or mass murder would require unrealistically large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering to victims. Utilitarianism would also require the indirect impact of social acceptance of inhumane policies to be taken into consideration, and general anxiety and fear could increase for all if human rights are commonly ignored.
Act and rule utilitarians differ in how they treat human rights themselves. Under rule utilitarianism, a human right can easily be considered a moral rule. Act utilitarians, on the other hand, do not accept human rights as moral principles in and of themselves, but that does not mean that they reject them altogether: first, most act utilitarians, as explained above, would agree that acts such as enslavement and genocide always cause great unhappiness and very little happiness; second, human rights could be considered rules of thumb so that, although torture might be acceptable under some circumstances, as a rule it is immoral; and, finally, act utilitarians often support human rights in a legal sense because utilitarians support laws that cause more good than harm.