Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism

Overview
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism
Consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can only weigh the morality of an action after knowing all its consequences. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

 and John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

.

Utilitarianism was described by Bentham as "the greatest happiness principle".

Utilitarianism can be characterised as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics.
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Quotations

"Perfection|Perfect the Will, the Mind, Feeling, their corporeal organs and their material tools; be useful to yourselves, to your own ones, and to others; and Happiness, insofar as it exists on this earth, will come of itself."

Bolesław Prus, Wikisource:The Most General Life Ideals|The Most General Life Ideals, 2nd, revised edition, Warsaw, 1905. (Newspaper serialization, 1897–99; 1st book edition, 1901.)

It's the flock, the grove, that matters. Our responsibility is to species, not to specimens; to communities, not to individuals.

Sara Stein, Noah's Garden, 1998. Category:Philosophy
Encyclopedia
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism
Consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can only weigh the morality of an action after knowing all its consequences. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

 and John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

.

Utilitarianism was described by Bentham as "the greatest happiness principle".

Utilitarianism can be characterised as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. It is a type of naturalism
Naturalism (philosophy)
Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that the natural universe and its natural laws and forces operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know...

. It can be contrasted with deontological ethics
Deontological ethics
Deontological ethics or deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule" -based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty"...

 (which do not regard the consequences of an act as a determinant of its moral worth), pragmatic ethics
Pragmatic ethics
Pragmatic ethics is a theory of normative philosophical ethics. Ethical pragmatists, such as John Dewey, believe that societies have progressed morally in much the way they have attained progress in science...

, virtue ethics
Virtue ethics
Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, rather than rules , consequentialism , or social context .The difference between these four approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are...

 (which focuses on character
Moral character
Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual's durable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as integrity, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits...

) and deontological varieties of libertarianism
Deontological libertarianism
Deontological libertarianism refers to the view that all acts of initiation of force and fraud should be opposed because they are always immoral regardless of the effects of engaging in them...

, as well as with ethical egoism
Ethical egoism
Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds merely that it is...

 and other varieties of consequentialism.

Act vs rule


Act utilitarianism states that, when faced with a choice, we must first consider the likely consequences of potential actions and, from that, choose to do what we believe will generate the most pleasure. The rule utilitarian, on the other hand, begins by looking at potential rules of action. To determine whether a rule should be followed, he looks at what would happen if it were constantly followed. If adherence to the rule produces more happiness than otherwise, it is a rule that morally must be followed at all times. The distinction between act and rule utilitarianism is therefore based on a difference about the proper object of consequential calculation — specific to a case or generalized to rules.

Rule utilitarianism has been criticized for advocating general rules that, in some specific circumstances, clearly decrease happiness if followed. Never to kill another human being may seem to be a good rule, but it could make self-defense against malevolent aggressors very difficult. Rule utilitarians add, however, that there are general exception rules that allow the breaking of other rules if such rule-breaking increases happiness, one example being self-defense. Critics argue that this reduces rule utilitarianism to act utilitarianism and makes rules meaningless. Rule utilitarians retort that rules in the legal system (i.e., laws) that regulate such situations are not meaningless. Self-defense is legally justified, while murder is not.

However, within rule utilitarianism there is a distinction between the strictness and absolutism of this particular branch of utilitarianism. Strong Rule Utilitarianism is an absolutist theory, which frames strict rules that apply for all people and all time and may never be broken. John Stuart Mill proposed Weak Rule utilitarianism, which posits that, although rules should be framed on previous examples that benefit society, it is possible, under specific circumstances, to do what produces the greatest happiness and break that rule. An example would be the Gestapo asking where your Jewish neighbours were; a strong rule utilitarian might say the "Do not lie" rule must never be broken, whereas a weak rule utilitarian would argue that to lie would produce the most happiness.

Rule utilitarianism should not be confused with heuristics (rules of thumb), but many act utilitarians agree that it makes sense to formulate certain rules of thumb to follow if they find themselves in a situation whose consequences are difficult, costly or time-consuming to calculate exactly. If the consequences can be calculated relatively clearly and without much doubt, however, the rules of thumb can be ignored.

Collapse of rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism


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 sophisticated 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.

Two-level


Two-level utilitarianism states that one should normally use 'intuitive' moral thinking, in the form of rule utilitarianism, because it usually maximizes happiness. However there are some times when we must ascend to a higher 'critical' level of reflection in order to decide what to do, and must think as an act utilitarian would. Richard Hare
R. M. Hare
Richard Mervyn Hare was an English moral philosopher who held the post of White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983. He subsequently taught for a number of years at the University of Florida...

 supported this theory with his concept of the Archangel, which holds that if we were all 'archangels' we could be act utilitarians all the time as we would be able to perfectly predict consequences. However we are closer to 'proles' in that we are frequently biased and unable to foresee all possible consequence of our actions, and thus we require moral guidelines. When these principles clash we must attempt to think like an archangel to choose the right course of action.

Motive


Motive utilitarianism, first developed by Robert Adams (Journal of Philosophy, 1976), can be viewed either as a hybrid between act and rule or as a unique approach all on its own terms. The motive approach attempts to deal realistically with how human beings actually function psychologically. We are indeed passionate, emotional creatures, we do much better with positive goals than with negative prohibitions, we long to be taken seriously, and so on and so forth. Motive utilitarianism proposes that our initial moral task be to inculcate within ourselves and others the skills, inclinations, and mental focuses that are likely to be most useful (or in less perfectionist terms, merely highly useful) across the spectrum of real-world situations we are likely to face, rather than the hypothetical situations seemingly so common in philosophical publications. Indeed, motive utilitarianism can even be seen as a response to this unofficial rule against textured real-world examples. For example, similar to the 80-20 rule
Pareto principle
The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.Business-management consultant Joseph M...

 in business and entrepreneurship, we might be able to most improve the future prospects of all sentient creatures if we do a large number of activities in open partnerships with others, rather than a few perfect things done sneakily.Two examples of motive utilitarianism in practice might be a gay person coming out of the closet and a politician publicly breaking with a war. In both cases, there is likely to be an initial surge of power and confidence, as well as a transitional period in which one is likely to be losing old friends before making new friends, and unpredictably so on both counts. Another example might be a doctor who is a skilled diagnostician. Such a physician is likely to spend most of their serious study time or continuing education time on current research, direct skills for running a successful practice, etc., and only occasionally return to first principles—that is, only occasionally do something as an interesting study in biochemistry, and then as much as a hobby as anything else.

Negative


Most utilitarian theories deal with producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Negative utilitarianism (NU) requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering
Suffering
Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, is an individual's basic affective experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm. Suffering may be qualified as physical or mental. It may come in all degrees of intensity, from mild to intolerable. Factors of duration and...

 for the greatest number. Proponents like Karl Popper, Christoph Fehige and Clark Wolf argue that this is a more effective ethical formula, since, they contend, the greatest harms are more consequential than the greatest goods. Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

 also referred to an epistemological argument: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e., if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.”. In the practical implementation of this idea the following versions can be distinguished:

1. R.N.Smart, an advocate of the utilitarian principle, was quick to suggest that the ultimate aim of NU would be to engender the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity, as this ultimately would effectively minimize suffering. NU would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick.

2. Negative preference utilitarianism avoids the problem of moral killing, but still demands a justification for the creation of new lives. Optimistic negative utilitarians believe that, in time, the worst cases of suffering are defeated and a world of minor suffering can be realized. The principal agents of this direction can be found in the environment of abolitionism (bioethics)
Abolitionism (bioethics)
Abolitionism is a bioethical school and movement which proposes the use of biotechnology to maximize happiness and minimize suffering while working towards the abolition of involuntary suffering...

. Pessimistic negative utiliarians tend to remain childless.

3. Finally there are theoreticians who see NU as a branch within classical utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. However, a theory which increases the moral weight of suffering relative to happiness (without giving it an absolute priority) can better be characterized by the term prioritarianism
Prioritarianism
Prioritarianism or the Priority View is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism thus resembles utilitarianism...

.

Average vs total


Total utilitarianism advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the total utility of its members. According to Derek Parfit
Derek Parfit
Derek Parfit is a British philosopher who specializes in problems of personal identity, rationality and ethics, and the relations between them. His 1984 book Reasons and Persons has been very influential...

, this type of utilitarianism 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.

Average utilitarianism, on the other hand, advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population. It avoids Parfit's repugnant conclusion, respectively the mere addition paradox
Mere addition paradox
The mere addition paradox is a problem in ethics, identified by Derek Parfit, and appearing in his book, Reasons and Persons . The paradox identifies apparent inconsistency between three seemingly true beliefs about population ethics by arguing that utilitarianism leads to an apparent overpopulated...

, 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. Most utilitarians consider this type of argument as flawed or merely hypothetical, however, since a real-world society allowing the non-consensual elimination of people would inevitably create severe amounts of suffering and unhappiness.

Other species




Peter Singer
Peter Singer
Peter Albert David Singer is an Australian philosopher who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne...

, along with many animal rights
Animal rights
Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the most basic interests of non-human animals should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings...

 activists, has argued that the well-being of all sentient
Sentience
Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think from the ability to feel . In modern western philosophy, sentience is the ability to have sensations or experiences...

 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
Speciesism
Speciesism is the assigning of different values or rights to beings on the basis of their species membership. The term was created by British psychologist Richard D...

 (disciminatory against non-humans) in ethical matters. Bentham made a similar argument, writing "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?".

In his 1990 edition of Animal Liberation
Animal Liberation (book)
Animal Liberation is a book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, published in 1975.The book is widely considered within the animal liberation movement to be the founding philosophical statement of its ideas...

, 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).

All the same, this view still might be contrasted with deep ecology
Deep ecology
Deep ecology is a contemporary ecological philosophy that recognizes an inherent worth of all living beings, regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs. The philosophy emphasizes the interdependence of organisms within ecosystems and that of ecosystems with each other within the...

, which holds that an intrinsic value is attached to all forms of life and nature, whether 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
Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in part a function of climate. In terrestrial habitats, tropical regions are typically rich whereas polar regions...

, although as far as indirect, contingent value, it most probably does.

Combinations with other ethical schools


To overcome perceived shortcomings of both systems, several attempts have been made to reconcile utilitarianism with Kant
KANT
KANT is a computer algebra system for mathematicians interested in algebraic number theory, performing sophisticated computations in algebraic number fields, in global function fields, and in local fields. KASH is the associated command line interface...

's categorical imperative
Categorical imperative
The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

. James Cornman proposes that, in any given situation, we should treat as "means" as few people as possible and as "ends" as many as are consistent with those "means". He refers to this as the "utilitarian Kantian principle". In How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong (2008), Iain King develops a quasi-utilitarian system compatible with consequence, virtue and act based accounts of ethics.

Other consequentialists may consider happiness an important consequence but argue in addition that consequences such as justice
Justice
Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics; justice is the act of being just and/or fair.-Concept of justice:...

 or equality
Social equality
Social equality is a social state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in a certain respect. At the very least, social equality includes equal rights under the law, such as security, voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and the...

 should also be valued, regardless of whether or not they increase happiness.

Biological explanation


It has been suggested that sociobiology
Sociobiology
Sociobiology is a field of scientific study which is based on the assumption that social behavior has resulted from evolution and attempts to explain and examine social behavior within that context. Often considered a branch of biology and sociology, it also draws from ethology, anthropology,...

, the study of the evolution of human society, provides support for the utilitarian point of view. For example, in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer
Peter Singer
Peter Albert David Singer is an Australian philosopher who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne...

 argues that fundamentally utilitarian ethical reasoning has existed from the time primitive foraging bands had to cooperate, compromise, and make group decisions to survive. He elaborates: "In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole." Thus, consideration of others' interests has long been a necessary part of the human experience. Singer believes that reason now compels the equal consideration of all people's interests:


This conclusion that everybody's interests should be considered equally when making decisions is a core tenet of utilitarianism.

Singer elaborates that viewing oneself as equal to others in one's society and at the same time viewing one's society as fundamentally superior to other societies may cause an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying,...

. This is the sense in which he means that reason may push people to accept a broader utilitarian stance. Critics (e.g., Binmore 2005) point out that this cognitive dissonance is apparently not very strong, since people often knowingly ignore the interests of faraway societies quite similar to their own. They also note that the "ought" of the quoted paragraph applies only to someone who has already accepted the premise that all societies are equally important. Singer has responded that his argument in Expanding the Circle wasn't intended to provide a complete philosophical justification for a utilitarian categorical imperative
Categorical imperative
The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

, but merely to provide a plausible explanation for how some people come to accept utilitarianism.

Lack of convincing proof


One possible criticism of utilitarianism is that it is not "proven" to be the correct ethical system by either science or logic. Utilitarians claim that this is common to all ethical schools and even formal logic
Formal logic
Classical or traditional system of determining the validity or invalidity of a conclusion deduced from two or more statements...

 itself. As anyone attempts to justify a claim (e.g. "we ought to maximize the pleasure of conscious creatures") they must appeal to other facts
Facts
Facts usually refers to the usage as a plural noun of fact, an incontrovertible truth.Facts may also refer to:*Carroll, Lewis, who wrote a poem called "Facts"*FACTS , program produced by Asia Television in Hong Kong....

, which themselves must be justified. Eventually one is forced to justify their system of justification. This is called the regress argument and philosophers have attempted to address it in various ways.

In light of the regress argument, some philosophers make a sort of appeal to common sense or practicality. In that vein, during discussions on philosophy of law, H.L.A. Hart mentions that foundational philosophical definitions are not "true" but rather agreed upon; for example, discussions cannot reasonably begin unless all parties simply accept basic laws of thought. This may be the case for discussions of morality; a philosopher does not discover and share the true nature of morality, but rather invites other philosophers to define words like "good" (in the case of ethics) a certain way. Philosophy, and moral systems, thus involve a sort of scientific process of operationalization
Operationalization
In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations...

.

It might instead be argued that almost all political arguments about a future society use an unspoken utilitarian principle, all sides claiming that their proposed solution is the one that increases human happiness the most.

Mill's own argument for utilitarianism holds that pleasure is the only thing desired and that, therefore, pleasure is the only thing desirable. Critics counter argue that Mill is neglecting things that are "morally desirable" even though humans may not desire them. Indeed, there may be things that humans cannot desire that are "morally desirable". This criticism, however, reads the word "desirable" as "able to be desired" rather than "worth being desired". That is, the utilitarian may contend that only pleasure can be meaningfully said to be "desirable".

The is-ought problem
Is-ought problem
The is–ought problem in meta-ethics as articulated by Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume , is that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is...

 may remain yet another barrier to proving any ethical system, although ethical naturalists reject this problem.

Aggregating utility


John Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

 gives a critique of utilitarianism in A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice is a book of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social...

 that rejects the idea that the happiness of two distinct persons could be meaningfully counted together. He argues that this entails treating a group of many as if it were a single sentient entity, mistakenly ignoring the separation of consciousness. Animal rights
Animal rights
Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the most basic interests of non-human animals should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings...

 advocate Richard Ryder
Richard D. Ryder
Richard Hood Jack Dudley Ryder is a British psychologist. He is a former Mellon Professor at Tulane University, New Orleans. He served as chairman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Council from 1977 to 1979, and is a past president of Britain's Liberal Democrat Animal...

 calls this the ‘boundary of the individual’, through which neither pain nor pleasure may pass. 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. However, it should be noted that the apparent separation of individual consciousnesses, which is both a strong human intuition and an implicit premise in this critique, is itself a subject of debate in the philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness and their relationship to the physical body, particularly the brain. The mind-body problem, i.e...

.

One classical liberal defense against Rawl’s criticism can be made by asking the simple question: who must figure out the exact sum of all individuals' happiness? No subjectively calculated measure of aggregate happiness is necessary nor useful for society. To doubt the ability (for someone) to add up individuals’ feelings, is to suggest that there necessarily is someone (a person, a bunch of persons, or computers) whose job is to figure out that sum, before a related social decision can be made. If there were such "someone", the situation would be analogous to a centrally-planned economy, where a few socialist bureaucrats constantly struggle to figure out what, how much, by whom, and for whom goods are to be produced.

Predicting consequences


Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett
Daniel Clement Dennett is an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the Co-director of...

 uses the case of the Three Mile Island accident
Three Mile Island accident
The Three Mile Island accident was a core meltdown in Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, United States in 1979....

 as an example of the difficulty in calculating happiness. Was the near-meltdown that occurred at this nuclear power plant a good or a bad thing (according to utilitarianism)? He points out that its long-term effects on nuclear policy would be considered beneficial by many and might outweigh the negative consequences. His conclusion is that it is still too early, years after the event, for utilitarianism to weigh all the evidence and reach a definite conclusion. Utilitarians note that utilitarianism seems to be the unspoken principle used by both advocates and critics of nuclear power. That something cannot be determined at the moment is common in science and frequently resolved with later advancements.

Utilitarians, however, are not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. Utilitarians simply try their best to maximise happiness (or other forms of utility) and, to do this, make their best estimates of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it may make sense to follow an ethical rule that promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians also note that people trying to further their own interests frequently run into situations in which the consequences of their decisions are very unclear. This does not mean, however, that they are unable to make a decision; much the same applies to utilitarianism.

Anthony Kenny
Anthony Kenny
Sir Anthony John Patrick Kenny FBA is an English philosopher whose interests lie in the philosophy of mind, ancient and scholastic philosophy, the philosophy of Wittgenstein and the philosophy of religion...

 argues against utilitarianism using the "standard argument" against free will
Standard argument against free will
The dilemma of determinism is the claim that if determinism is true, our actions are controlled by preceding events and thus we are not free; and that if indeterminism is true, our actions are random and we are likewise not free; and that as determinism and indeterminism exhaust the logical...

. The argument supposes that determinism
Determinism
Determinism is the general philosophical thesis that states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. There are many versions of this thesis. Each of them rests upon various alleged connections, and interdependencies of things and...

 is either true or false: if it is true, we have no choice over our actions; but if it is false, the consequences of our actions are unpredictable, not least because they depend upon the actions of others whom we cannot predict. This may render incoherent claims about moral responsibility
Moral responsibility
Moral responsibility usually refers to the idea that a person has moral obligations in certain situations. Disobeying moral obligations, then, becomes grounds for justified punishment. Deciding what justifies punishment, if anything, is a principle concern of ethics.People who have moral...

. On the other hand, a hard determinist utilitarian see no problem for moral responsibility. They suggest that certain notions of "retributive justice" for its own sake may now be incoherent, but there remain other, more reasonable purposes for punishment.

Importance of intentions


Utilitarianism has been accused of looking only at the results of actions, and disregarding the desires or intentions that motivate them. Intentions seem somehow important: it seems undesirable to call an action intended to cause harm but that inadvertently causes good "overall good".

Many utilitarians argue that utilitarianism, although it is consequentalist, is not so simply restricted. While the results of a hatefully motivated action may indeed be "good", this does not suggest that the motivation of "hate" should be normatively
Normative ethics
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking...

 advocated in society. Put simply, when using utilitarianism to decide which practices or even values to promote in a society, one might consider whether "hate" normally leads to "good" or "bad" outcomes. This may allow utilitarianism to become a much more complex and rich moral theory, and may align far more closely with our moral intuitions. In this sense, intentions are important to utilitarians, in as much as they tend to lead to certain actions, which themselves lead to certain outcomes. One classic philosopher to take this view is Henry Sidgwick
Henry Sidgwick
Henry Sidgwick was an English utilitarian philosopher and economist. He was one of the founders and first president of the Society for Psychical Research, a member of the Metaphysical Society, and promoted the higher education of women...

, in his main work The Methods of Ethics (1874
1874 in literature
The year 1874 in literature involved some significant new books.-Events:*Arthur William à Beckett joins the staff of Punch.*Johan Nicolai Madvig loses his sight, forcing him to give up most of his research and writing....

).

Human rights



Utilitarians argue that justification of slavery
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

, torture
Torture
Torture is the act of inflicting severe pain as a means of punishment, revenge, forcing information or a confession, or simply as an act of cruelty. Throughout history, torture has often been used as a method of political re-education, interrogation, punishment, and coercion...

 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
Human rights
Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being." Human rights are thus conceived as universal and egalitarian . These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national...

 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
Genocide
Genocide is defined as "the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group", though what constitutes enough of a "part" to qualify as genocide has been subject to much debate by legal scholars...

 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
Right
Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory...

 because utilitarians support laws that cause more good than harm.

Individual interests vs a greater sum of lesser interests


A reason for an egoist to become a utilitarian was proposed by Peter Singer
Peter Singer
Peter Albert David Singer is an Australian philosopher who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne...

 in Practical Ethics. He presents the paradox of hedonism
Paradox of hedonism
The paradox of hedonism, also called the pleasure paradox, is the idea in the study of ethics which points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles....

, which holds that, if your only goal in life is personal happiness, you will never be happy: you need something to be happy about. One goal that Singer feels is likely to bring about personal happiness is the desire to improve the lives of others; that is, to make others happy. This argument is similar to the one for virtue ethics
Virtue ethics
Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, rather than rules , consequentialism , or social context .The difference between these four approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are...

.

Karl Marx's criticisms


Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

, in Das Kapital
Das Kapital
Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie , by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.- Themes :In Capital: Critique of...

, writes:
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
Human nature
Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally....

 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
Essentialism
In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described...

. As he sees it, this implication is conservatively used to reinforce institutions he regarded as reactionary
Reactionary
The term reactionary refers to viewpoints that seek to return to a previous state in a society. The term is meant to describe one end of a political spectrum whose opposite pole is "radical". While it has not been generally considered a term of praise it has been adopted as a self-description by...

. 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.

Marx's criticism is more a criticism of Bentham's views (or similar views) of utility, than utilitarianism itself. Utilitarians do not deny that different things make different people happy, and that what promotes happiness changes over time. Neither would utilitarians deny the importance of investigations into what promotes utility.

The Wittgensteinian Critique


Contemporary philosophers such as Matthew Ostrow have critiqued utilitarianism from a distinctly Wittgensteinian perspective. According to these philosophers, utilitarians have expanded the very meaning of pleasure to the point of linguistic incoherence. The utilitarian groundlessly places pleasure as his or her first principle, and in doing so subordinates the value of asceticism
Asceticism
Asceticism describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals...

, self-sacrifice or any other "secondary" desire. The utilitarian denies that this is a problem, either by claiming that "secondary" desires amount to different paths to achieving the first desire of pleasure or that any practice of asceticism that does not create pleasure either for the ascetic or for others is valueless.

Such an argument may seem tautological ("What is it that people want? Pleasure. But what is pleasure? What people want.") The utilitarian therefore has no ultimate justification for why we ought to primarily value pleasure. If this is the case, utilitarianism would be reduced to a form of dishonest ethical intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:# Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality,...

, unable to recognize or acknowledge its own groundlessness. This is unlikely. For the ethically naturalistic
Ethical naturalism
Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true....

 utilitarian, operationalization
Operationalization
In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations...

 easily terminates processes of circular defining ("What is it that people want? Pleasure. And what is that? Pleasure is X neural correlates).

John Paul II's personalist criticism


John Paul II, following his personalist philosophy, considers 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"

See also

  • Prioritarianism
    Prioritarianism
    Prioritarianism or the Priority View is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism thus resembles utilitarianism...

  • Appeal to consequences
    Appeal to consequences
    Appeal to consequences, also known as argumentum ad consequentiam , is an argument that concludes a premise to be either true or false based on whether the premise leads to desirable or undesirable consequences...

  • Altruism (ethical doctrine)
  • Classical liberalism
    Classical liberalism
    Classical liberalism is the philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets....

  • Eudaimonism
  • Greedy reductionism
    Greedy reductionism
    Greedy reductionism is a term coined by Daniel Dennett, in his 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, to refer to a kind of erroneous reductionism...

  • Gross national happiness
    Gross national happiness
    The assessment of gross national happiness was designed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product .-Origins and meaning:The term...

  • List of utilitarians
  • Social Choice and Individual Values
    Social Choice and Individual Values
    Kenneth Arrow's monograph Social Choice and Individual Values and a theorem within it created modern social choice theory, a rigorous melding of social ethics and voting theory with an economic flavor...

  • Rule according to higher law
    Rule according to higher law
    The rule according to a higher law means that no written law may be enforced by the government unless it conforms with certain unwritten, universal principles of fairness, morality, and justice...

  • Utilitarian bioethics
    Utilitarian Bioethics
    Utilitarian bioethics is a branch of utilitarian ethics and bioethics that recommends directing medical resources where they will have most long-term effect for good....

  • Utility monster
    Utility monster
    The utility monster is a thought experiment in the study of ethics. It was created by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 as a criticism of utilitarianism....

  • Charity International
    Charity International
    Charity International, who recently switched name to Global Happiness Organization , is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of utilitarian ethics. It was founded in 2007 by a team of Swedish academics, philosophers and animal welfare activists led by Ludvig Lindström...

  • Utility theory
  • Decision theory
    Decision theory
    Decision theory in economics, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and statistics is concerned with identifying the values, uncertainties and other issues relevant in a given decision, its rationality, and the resulting optimal decision...

  • Decision analysis
    Decision analysis
    Decision analysis is the discipline comprising the philosophy, theory, methodology, and professional practice necessary to address important decisions in a formal manner...

  • Probabilistic reasoning
  • Uncertainty
    Uncertainty
    Uncertainty is a term used in subtly different ways in a number of fields, including physics, philosophy, statistics, economics, finance, insurance, psychology, sociology, engineering, and information science...

  • Bounded rationality
    Bounded rationality
    Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision...

  • Relative utilitarianism

External links