Utilitarianism is a universalistic consequentialist ethical theory that judges the moral worth of an action based on its results. An ethical theory is any system of thought that provides a process for developing moral rules and guidelines and that establishes criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.
Like every ethical theory, utilitarianism emerged in a particular context which influenced its foundation and development; specifically, 19th century Industrial England. In this era, economic, commercial, and technological innovations were allowing a growing number of people unprecedented access to goods, services, and wealth. At the same time, however, there was widespread inequality, labor exploitation, and social stratification. The potential for achieving individual and societal prosperity was higher than ever, but people remained disenfranchised and abused in order to perpetuate the early industrial and capitalist system. Society was being radically restructured.
It was in this environment that the concept of social reform first emerged, as individuals sought to improve the human condition, in part through the new-found means offered by industrialization (material goods, medicine, etc). To reform something is to change and improve it, and this naturally entails an emphasis on results, which in turn lead to the development of a utilitarian outlook. Two such reform-minded, results-oriented individuals were Jeremy Bentham and his spiritual successor, John Stuart Mill, who are each regarded as the main founders of utilitarianism.
In this ethical theory, the ultimate moral precept is the Principle of Utility, described by Bentham as seeking to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Another way to view this would be maximizing good for as many people as possible, and similarly, minimizing harm for as many people as possible (this is often known as the Pain-Pleasure Principle). As ethical universalists, utilitarians believed that this guideline applied to everyone, while as consequentionalists, they would judge whether their actions are good or bad based on whether the outcome meets this maxim. This was a radical concept at the time, since morality generally derived from either religion (namely the divine command of God) or from abstract moral rules, such as those devised by Kant.
So in contrast to deontological ethical theory, utilitarianism holds that the ends do justify the means, provided that the consequences lead to a level of good that far outweighs any harm that may have constituted the means. Indeed, utilitarians altogether reject the Kantian/deontological notion that actions have good or bad qualities in and of themselves; rather, they see actions as inherently neutral, with only their results determining whether or not they were moral. After all, the utilitarian would argue, everything we do is intended to reach a particular consequence – thus, shouldn’t those outcomes be the metric by which our actions are judged?
How exactly would this position work in practice? Consider euthanasia, a rather controversial issue in our predominately Judeo-Christian society. While utilitarians, like much of society, would regard murder as wrong, they would see euthanasia as distinct and acceptable, provided that it leads to a minimization of pain for the euthanized individual. Even if it were done with one’s consent, many people would consider euthanasia to nonetheless be equivalent to murder (in fact, in the legal systems of many countries, it’s at least regarded as manslaughter, if not outright murder). But for the utilitarian, what matters most is the consequence of the act: if killing someone with their consent is found to ease their suffering, then such a mercy killing is morally right.
As a side note, keep in mind that consent is an important element in utilitarian ethics. Many critics believe utilitarianism, with its emphasis on maximizing good for as many people as possible, may disregard the concerns of the individual. Opponents may argue that utilitarians would kill someone with or without the target’s consent, if doing so could be justified as easing suffering regardless.
While we’ll explore this concern about individual rights in greater detail later, it should be noted that Bentham, and particularly Mill, believed that promoting general welfare of society naturally entailed giving people as much freedom as possible. No activity should be outlawed unless it is harmful to others (i.e. the harm principle). Violating one’s freedom, even if you do so with good intentions, would nonetheless lead to more pain than pleasure, since it undermines that person’s ability to control their own lives.
Another main tenet of utilitarianism is that everyone counts as one. A radical concept during a time of vast social inequality and class stratification, everyone’s life is equally valuable, even if they’re not equally important: a street-sweeper has as much dignity and moral worth as a king. Similarly, the welfare of a stranger should matter as much to you as that of your close loved ones. This radically egalitarian principle is an important part of the principle of utility – since everyone is equally valuable, we should seek to maximize everybody’s good period. This has wide-reaching implications for public policy and lawmaking, which at the time were reaching an unprecedented level of sophistication with the advent of civil society.
But with all this discussion of maximizing good and doing no harm, a natural question arises: how exactly do we determine whether the results of our actions fit these criteria? For starters, utilitarians believe that good – whether we define it as pleasure or well-being – could be quantified. For example, utilitarians would approve of charitable donations from comparatively well-off people living in the developed going to feed millions of people in poorer countries. By the utilitarian’s calculation, the loss of a relatively small portion of disposable income is far outweighed by the net gain (i.e. the net good) in keeping others well-fed and alive.
Utilitarians, namely Mill, also believed that the quality of pleasure could be taken into account in addition to quantity. For Mill in particular, high-cultured pursuits – such as going to music concerts or playing chess – were more important than basic pleasures such as food. He observed that humans, by virtue of their intelligence, needed far more for a pleasurable life than, say, an animal would. We could enjoy certain pleasures that other living things wouldn’t be able to appreciate, much less desire. While Mill’s idea of what is pleasurable may seem rather biased given his intellect and refinement, there’s nonetheless a certain logic to what he is saying (after all, which of us could enjoy life with only the basic necessities for survival, versus having access to games, movies, music, and the like?).
With respect to determining the moral justification of your actions’ consequences, an important distinction must be made between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. The former deals with calculating the results of an action on a case-by-case basis, in which one applies utilitarian considerations into each individual act. The latter kind, by contrast, is based on enumerative induction, through which one develops general rules or guidelines by experience or research that allows us to have a good idea of what is more likely to produce the greater good and what will most likely produce negative results. For example, we could be reasonably sure, based on empirical evidence and personal observation, that maximizing someone’s freedom produces far greater good than to restrict it.
There are two other main ideas to utilitarianism that must be discussed before giving a fair assessment of its pros and cons. The first is concerned with the implication this ethical theory has for personal responsibility and how we accord blame. For utilitarians, there are two types of consequences (besides, of course, good and bad ones): mediated and unmediated. A mediated consequence is one that to some extent results from the action of a third part: for example, if I leave a loaded gun on the counter of my home, and someone takes it and shoots someone else with it, then the shooting is a mediated consequence of my own action. I obviously wasn’t responsible for the shooting itself, but my action of leaving my gun out allowed for its occurrence, and thus I bear some responsibility for the consequences (depending on how far you take it, maybe even buying the gun in the first place contributed to this act). An unmediated consequence, on the other hand, would be an action directly undertaken by me without the facilitation of another party. Thus, if I took my gun and shot someone, than the consequences of my shooting would be unmediated on my part.
The second concerns implications for the justice system. In contrast to deontological ethicists, utilitarians view punishment as ideally having deterrence-based motivation. Given that the illegal act has already been committed, the better thing to do would be to make the most of such a crime by making an example out of it: use the punishment to send a message to other criminals in order to deter them from doing wrong. Again, the consequences are what matter: insofar as the punishment leads to better results – such as lower crime, lower recidivism, etc – then it should be applied on that basis.
Pros and Cons of Utilitarianism
It’s clear from reading these main ideas that Bentham, Mill, and their successors have put a lot of thought into formulating this ethical theory. Indeed, many of its tenets seem like common sense to us today: of course we should seek to improve each other’s well-being, and of course all individuals should be regarded as morally equal. Few sane people would argue against these precepts. Among utilitarianism’s other strengths are the following:
Positive Implications for Public Policy
Utilitarian considerations can be vital for good public policy. Laws and programs that are based on measurable results are more likely to be acceptable and sensible than those based solely on, say, religious scripture. Not only does this ensure efficiency – in theory, policies that don’t meet certain requirements would be discarded – it would also lead to government policies that could comparatively less contentious: it’s harder to dispute empirical results than divine or absolute dictates. Plus, an ideal government is certainly one that seeks to maximize the most good for as many citizens as possible. Indeed, many countries that promote general welfare by looking after their citizens tend to rank among the highest in measures of quality of life and prosperity.
Promotes Thoughtfulness About Our Actions
Utilitarian considerations force us to think carefully about our actions. We must put more thought into what the consequences of our conduct may be, and be prepared to take responsibility for whatever we do. While difficult in practice, this could go a long way in making us more cautious and considerate in our behavior. A focus on results also helps us to be more introspective and analytical about our previous actions, and helps us learn from them (whether they’re good or bad).
Encourages Ethical Behavior
It goes without saying that caring about human beings as a whole, including strangers, is a very moral thing to do. Indeed, most cultures heap a lot of praise on altruistic and humanistic individuals, and we naturally view those who are concerned about human welfare as exceptionally moral. Utilitarianism – with its emphasis on egalitarianism and the greater good – helps us to become better people and encourages us to be concerned about the human condition. This has particular relevance in a globalized world that his beset by all sorts of large-scale humanitarian crises.
But for all these admirable strengths, utilitarianism, like every ethical theory, has some serious faults as well.
What is “Good?”
As mentioned before, utilitarianism is centrally guided by a concern for maximizing good for as many people as possible. What is good is defined by utilitarians as what is pleasurable, which in turn constitutes any mental state that feels good – a delicious taste or a sense of confidence for example. But what if the source of pleasure is something that is nonetheless bad – for example, consider someone who heaps pleasurable praise upon but who secretly dislikes you and says awful things behind your back. Even if you were never to find out, most of us would agree that this isn’t a good thing. Indeed, this friend could even justify their lies based on utilitarian ethics – they’re making you feel good after all.
For all the positive moral attitudes that a utilitarian framework could encourage, there are some unsavory potential problems as well, particularly with respect to justice and human rights. What if wrongfully executing someone was to lead to the greater good of deterring crime? Would violating their rights – and indeed their life – truly be outweighed by the good that would result? Similarly, what if enslaving a minority of people within a given society benefited the majority of the population by reducing their workload? Would slavery thus be acceptable given its beneficial consequences for the greater good?
Taken to its logical conclusion, utilitarianism would be demanding to the point of discomfort, in essence undermining itself. People would have to keep giving away their disposable income in order to better the lives of others, which although admirable, could not realistically be expected of everyone in society. Furthermore, subordinating our personal enjoyment and goals for the greater good of others would make us miserable: any time or money spent for our own enjoyment would be seen as unacceptable to a utilitarian. This could create a curious situation in which everyone would make themselves miserable in order to improve everyone else’s wellbeing.
Interferes With Our Priorities
One unfortunate consequence of this ethical theory’s egalitarianism is that it undermines personal relationships. If we treat complete strangers as equals to our closest loved ones, it not only strains our obligations (imagine support dozens, if not hundreds of people, as if they were your closest companions) but it dilutes the value of our friends and family. While valuing people as equals is a good thing, and altruism should always be encouraged, it’s still possible to go too far. The idea of having close loved ones would be essentially meaningless.
With all that said, it’s clear that utilitarianism offers some relevant and vital insights as far as how we think about our actions (namely their consequences) and how we should treat each other in a more cosmopolitan and globalized world. However, it has too many practical or ethical problems of its own to be applied fully.