The Basic Idea of Utilitarianism




The Greatest Happiness Principle:


Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as

 they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” –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 things desirable as ends...all

 desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or

 as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.”






















Background on Utilitarianism


English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham

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

 “classic utilitarianism”.


The Utilitarians were social reformers


They supported suffrage for women and those without property,

and the abolition of slavery.  Utilitarians argued that criminals ought to be

 reformed and not merely punished (although Mill did support capital

punishment as a deterrent).  Bentham spoke out against cruelty to animals.

  Mill was a strong supporter of meritocracy.

Proponents emphasized that utilitarianism was an egalitarian doctrine.
  Everyone’s happiness counts equally.
























Utilitarianism and the Enlightenment



The science of the Enlightenment featured theories with a very small number

 of general laws and vast explanatory power.  Newton’s laws, for example,

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

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

 single law of morality with great explanatory power.  It was a sort of science

 of morality.




















Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism


Consequentialism:  Whether an action is morally right or wrong depends

entirely on its consequences.  An action is right if it brings about the best

outcome of the choices available.  Otherwise it is wrong.


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

and promoting.


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


Consequentialists say that actions are Right when they maximize the Good.


Rhetorical argument:  How could it be wrong to do what produces the most good?  Wouldn’t it be irrational to insist that we ought to choose the lesser good in any situation?


Utilitarianism defines the Good as pleasure without pain.


So, according to Utilitarianism, our one moral duty

 is to Maximize pleasure and minimize pain.































Utilitarianism =  Hedonism?



Objection: There is more to life than pleasure; knowledge, virtue and other

things are important too.  Utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine.


Reply:  Utilitarianism requires that we consider everyone’s pleasure, not just

our own.   Also, says Mill, there is more to life than physical pleasure.

Pleasures of the “higher faculties” (including intellectual pleasures

inaccessible to lower animals) are of higher quality than physical pleasures

(and thus count for more). 


Mill:  "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 adifferent opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the























Is Utilitarianism too Demanding?


Objection: Utilitarianism implies that we should always act in order to

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

people to be always motivated to promote the general happiness.


Mill’s Reply:  ...no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do

shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our

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

intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which

the good of the world is made up.”


Many people have questioned whether 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, we don’t have the time to calculate the effects of

our actions on the general happiness.  Therefore, utilitarianism is useless.


Mill’s Reply:  “There has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of

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

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

which have thus come down are the rules of morality...”


In other words, we don’t need to do direct utility calculations in most cases;

we can apply subordinate rules, which are rules of thumb for maximizing
























Subordinate Rules



                        Keep your promises

                        Don’t cheat

                        Don’t steal

                        Obey the law


Subordinate rules are what we would normally call “commonsense morality”.

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

should internalize them as good rules to follow.

They have been learned through the experience of many generations.


But subordinate rules are just that: subordinate.  If it is clear that breaking a

subordinate rule would result in much more happiness than following it, then

you should break it.

























Breaking Subordinate Rules


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


            When you are in an unusual situation that the rules don’t cover.

            When the subordinate rules conflict.

            When you are deciding which rules to adopt or teach.


Euthanasia or “mercy killing” (the killing of an innocent in order to end

pointless suffering) is a good example of something that violates a

subordinate rule (Don’t kill innocents) but can be justified on utilitarian

grounds in unusual circumstances.




















Predicting the Future



Objection:  Utilitarianism requires that we know what the consequences of our

actions will be, but this is impossible.  We can’t predict the future.


Reply:  It’s true that we can’t predict the future with certainty.  So, we should

perform the action that we have most reason to believe will bring about the

best consequences of the alternatives available.


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

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

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

big.  It’s possible that you will win the lottery, but this isn’t likely.  Given the

probabilities, it is more reasonable to believe that borrowing money will bring

more happiness. 



























Individual Rights



Objection:  Just because something makes people happy doesn’t make it

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

other people happy.


A Thought experiment:  The Case of the Inhospitable Hospital


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

there who need vital organs right away.  A doctor has the opportunity to kill

Jack and make his death look natural.  It would maximize happiness to cut

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

still others, and so on.  (We are supposing that the organs are good matches,

and the other patients will die if they don’t get them).  Utilitarianism seems to

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

morally wrong.


























Thought Experiments



Scientific Experimentation.  Scientists create situations in laboratories in order to

test their theories.  They want to find out what would happen when certain

conditions hold—if what actually happens under those conditions agrees with

what their theory predicts will happen, then the theory is confirmed.  Otherwise,

the theory is falsified.


A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation that we create in our minds in

order to test a philosophical theory.  The hypothetical situation should be

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

has actually happened, or will happen in the future).  So that we can test the

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

hypothetical situation were real.  We can then compare this implication to our

own beliefs about the thought experiment.  If the implication of the theory agrees

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

not, then we must ask ourselves, “Which is wrong:  the theory or my beliefs?”

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


Important Note:  It doesn’t matter whether the hypothetical situation is likely to

happen.  If a theory has a false implication about something that could happen,

then the theory is wrong (on that point, at least).

































More examples involving Individual Rights


Exploitation:  The ancient Romans used slaves as gladiators, forcing them to

fight to the death for entertainment.  Is it right to force a small number of

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

morally acceptable to pay people to fight to the death?


Ruthlessness:  President Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowing that many thousands of non-combatants

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

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


Paternalism:  Suppose that banning certain kinds of fast food and snack

foods would result in millions of people living longer, healthier lives. 

Would such a ban be morally justified?

























Utilitarian Responses


Denial:  Examples like The Inhospitable Hospital often involve some error of

calculation, or some failure to take all the consequences into account.

For example, what would happen to the ability of that hospital to deliver

adequate health care should word get out that a healthy person has

been cut up for his or her organs?


            But:  The examples don’t always involve mistakes.


“Biting the Bullet”:  If there is no error in calculation and all of the

 consequences have been taken into account, but there is still a discrepancy

 between what utilitarianism implies and what commonsense morality tells us,

 then so much the worse for commonsense morality. 

 Commonsense morality gives us good rules of thumb, but they are

 subordinate to the Greatest Happiness Principle.



























The Doctrine of Negative Responsibility



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



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

way, we are making a choice that has consequences.


3.         Therefore, we are just as responsible for the foreseeable consequences that we fail to prevent as for those that we bring about directly.



This means that “I didn’t do it” is not necessarily a good defense.

The best defense is “I couldn’t have prevented it.”
























Negative Responsibility?


Hostage Dilemma Thought Experiment:


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

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

the door, attached to explosives.  The terrorist leader offers you a choice.



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

 hostages strapped to it but allowing the others to escape, or


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


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

sincere.  What should you do?


Some people would argue that:


“It is terrible that everyone will be killed, but I have no right to kill anyone

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

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

 detonator, then I will have committed an act of evil.  Therefore, I am morally

 obligated to take option (ii).”


What does utilitarianism imply?  What do you think?


Rule Utilitarianism




Rule Utilitarianism is an option for those who believe that there are absolute

prohibitions on certain types of actions but do not want to give up on

utilitarianism completely.  According to RU, the principle of utility is a guide for

choosing rules, not individual acts.


Rule Utilitarianism:  An action or policy is morally right if and only if it is

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

generally followed.


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

 involuntary organ donor case and other similar cases.  It seems less plausible,

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

 dramatically greater utility than would result from following the rule.  For

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

 like this, RU strikes many as irrational rule worship.  It requires us to follow the

 rules even when doing so defeats the purpose of having them.































































Group Exercise


Get into groups of three members.  Each group will be responsible for coming up

with a situation (either real or imagined) in which utilitarianism has an implication

that goes against commonsense morality.  You may not use any of the situations

already discussed, although you may come up with a situation that is similar.

The situation must involve a person who has to make a choice between two main alternatives, each of which has very different consequences.


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

member to one of the following tasks:


A.  Describe the situation in writing and state the two alternatives that must be

chosen between.  State which alternative utilitarianism seems to favor and why.


B.  State the commonsense moral principle that utilitarianism appears to conflict

with.  Write a response on behalf of utilitarianism, using the Denial strategy.

 (Here you are trying to convince someone that utilitarianism actually agrees with

commonsense morality, despite appearances to the contrary).


C.  Write another response on behalf of utilitarianism using the “biting the bullet”

 strategy.  (Here you are trying to convince someone that utilitarianism really

 does give us the right answer, and that commonsense morality is wrong on this



Each member will present their portion of the assignment to the class, and then

 turn what they wrote for credit.