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Important Ethical Theories Is Utilitarianism Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5585 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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One of the most important ethical theories is Utilitarianism. For utilitarianism, moral duty is to be determined through an assessment of the consequences of an action. In other words, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of ethics. More specifically, utilitarianism finds moral worth in those actions which maximize overall happiness – the happiness of the greatest number of people. The premise of the theory is a naturalistic view of ethics: ethics is said to be associated not only with consequences of actins but, more specifically, with pleasure-maximizing consequences. This is the case because utilitarianism sees human nature as pleasure-seeking. For pleasure you can substitute utility, preference, or happiness if you insist, but the main point remains the same. This is not an implausible human psychology, of course. Ethics cannot be about psychology [it is about what ought to be done and not about what is in fact the case], but ethical theories cannot ignore human psychology, either; if an ethical theory ignored human psychology, it would be running the risk of recommending what might be impossible for human nature – what is called supererogation, or sainthood to put it in a different way.

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Utilitarianism claims to be a theory that appeals to common sense. This is certainly strength and an asset for a theory. It is indeed a matter of common sense that if we want to perform moral deeds toward people, we should wish to make them happy. Pay attention to this: For utilitarianism, it does not matter at all whether we intend to make people happy. As said above, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory – it pays attention to consequences; all that matters is that the outcome of our action redounds to the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. A strange corollary of this is that we are supposed to have done something moral even if our motives for benefiting the greatest possible number of people are not at all moral – even if they are self-interested.

Notice also that utilitarianism does not recommend that you pay attention to your own happiness and pleasure. Utilitarianism is not a form of moral egoism – it is not a theory that tells you to put yourself above everyone else. Utilitarianism does not tell you to put those close to you above all else either. Clearly, if you did that, you would not be taking into account the benefit or happiness of the greatest possible number of people. You might be wondering now: why should one care about the greatest possible number of people? This is not an objection against utilitarianism in particular any more than it is an objection against any ethical theory: why should we care about doing the right thing? This is not always an easy question to answer theoretically but it becomes an easier question once we pay attention to common sense and to the ways in which human beings are constituted and known to comport themselves toward other people. If you want to do the right thing, utilitarianism gives you an objective and almost formulaic answer: act in such a way as to benefit the greatest possible number of people. In other words, you should act in such a way as to maximize the happiness of the greatest number or overall happiness. There are many particular variants of utilitarianism. For some, you maximize happiness of the greatest number; for other versions, you maximize a utility that can be minutely calculated; or the preferences of people, after you ask them directly instead of appealing to expert opinions. But, in any case, for a theory to be utilitarian, what is maximized must be the happiness, utility curves, average utility, preferences, happiness, or whatever of the greatest number.

A major disagreement that erupted within utilitarianism from early is this: Do all pleasures count as the same, or is there a hierarchy or ranking order of pleasures with certain refined and distinctly human pleasures counting as much higher than other, lower, pleasures? Bentham, a felicific utilitarian and originator of the utilitarian school of thought, held that all pleasures are the same. It is clear in this that utilitarianism is anti-elitist and egalitarian – there can hardly be a more dramatic manifestation than this equal counting of pleasures. It is still necessary to weigh pleasures – to multiply them by different numbers as you try to calculate the consequences of your action – but the criteria for a differential weighing of pleasures are subjectively felt intensity, duration, purity [no amalgamation with painful after-effects], and other considerations of this nature. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, who succeeded Bentham in the utilitarian movement, disagreed. Mill thought that ‘it is better to be Socrates unsatisfied rather than a pig satisfied,’ whereas Bentham had famously opined that ‘push pin is as good as poetry’ – push pin being a mindless and elementary game for children. It is controversial which version of utilitarianism is more consistent as an ethical theory.

The strengths of utilitarianism are: It is an objective theory – it affords you a method for calculating how you should act regardless of personal confusion or momentary perplexity. The theory is also better than many other theories when it comes to dealing with challenging moral dilemmas – cases in which it seems that, no matter how you choose to act, you risk failing to perform a basic human duty you have. Utilitarianism is also consistent with many ethical intuitive insights human beings have about what it takes to be human and what is required in performing moral deeds toward one’s fellow human beings. Unlike most other ethical theories, utilitarianism has the apparent advantage that it includes in its compass not only rational – i.e. human – beings, but all sentient beings, which can experience pain and pleasure. So, animals are not left out by utilitarian ethicists and cruelty toward animals can be consistently condemned by utilitarian theory. Utilitarianism is quite straightforward to apply – excepting vagueness as to calculation methods and ways of counting intensity and permanence of pleasures, the method is not difficult to understand. The method of utilitarianism is surprisingly consistent with ethical insights from other moral traditions – including, for instance, Christianity, which also appeals to human beings to love and benefit and avoid to harm others, and promises recompense of happiness in the form of a good feeling in this life and heave’s rewards in the afterlife. Utilitarianism also satisfies another intuition we have about what is needed for an ethical theory: it treats people equally, provided they are equally situated. Conveniently, utilitarianism finds one common denominator – pleasure or happiness – to which consequences of actions are reduced. This allows for a calculation to be performed, and one’s moral duty to be determined, regardless of how complex and challenging the actual case is.

There are also problems with utilitarianism. Utilitarians begin with a logically fallacious equivocation on the meaning of the word ‘desirable.’ Notice that the foundation of utilitarianism – its attempt at procuring a proof of its validity – consists in its claim that pursuit of happiness is evidently ‘desirable’ in human life – and the claim of utilitarians is that this is so evident that the proof itself is solid and easy to grasp. But the word ‘desirable’ is equivocal: It can mean something that is desired in fact; or it can mean what should be desired. Utilitarians claim that we can easily see that the latter meaning is implied – this is actually question-beginning, because utilitarianism is actually trying to prove to us that pleasure-seeking is desirable in this sense, in the sense of ‘what ought to be desired’ for others, and for the greatest number of people, in moral action. But, actually, what is more obviously clear is that pleasure-seeking is ‘desirable’ in the first sense: it is what people actually desire, but we are still awaiting for a proof to the effect that this is what people ought to desire.

Other problems are even more serious: It is not clear why anything should be accorded a non-negotiable, infinite, or intrinsic value. Why shouldn’t everything be thrown into the utilitarian calculus? This means that even those things which we hold to be intrinsic goods and non-negotiable, are to be added and subtracted and might be dispensable if the outcome is that the greatest possible number benefits. This dispensability must then apply even to rights, to privacy, and to life itself. For instance, why shouldn’t we sacrifice one perfectly healthy person so that we can use his internal organs as transplants for ten otherwise viable patients? No matter how you calculate this – referring to this particular action of sacrificing this individual – the outcome is indeed maximization of overall happiness in the society. Some utilitarians might even suggest that, shocking though this may sound, it is not clear why this exchange of one life for ten is not the moral thing to do. You can construct other hypotheticals in which sacrifice of one’s right might sound morally appropriate if the stakes affect the happiness, or life, of a greater number of individuals. And yet, there is a problem when rights, and even human life, are thrown into the utilitarian calculus. Utilitarians realized that there is a problem here that can prove potentially fatal for the theory. There is an answer within utilitarian theory – and the answer consists in the important distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Everything we have said so far covers act utilitarianism – application of a utilitarian calculus with a view to determining what is the moral course of action to take: you should, in this view, do what maximizes overall happiness for the greatest number – and you can take into account the long run, and so on. But, for rule utilitarianism, you should actually apply the utilitarian calculus not to the projected consequences of an action but to the projected consequences of adopting a certain rule of behavior for the whole society to follow in the long run. This saves utilitarianism from the embarrassment of cases like the one mentioned above and others like it – for instance, cases of sacrificing one innocent person to appease a riotous mob that is threatening many more lives in its violent path, or torturing the innocent daughter of a terrorist to induce the terrorist to turn himself in and prevent several deaths. But, switch now to rule utilitarianism and see what happens: What would be the consequences of adopting as a societal rule the random sacrifice of a healthy person for the sake of organ harvesting? It seems that a society that lived according to this rule could not be a happy society – people would be anxious lest the lot fell on them next time organ harvesting became necessary. Still, there are rules which, as a utilitarian, you will have to adopt as maximizing the happiness or utility of the greatest possible number, and which, at the same time, violate individual rights or other values we hold intrinsic and unalienable under most circumstances. This seems to be the Achilles’ heel of utilitarianism. But do not lose sight of the strengths of utilitarianism – mentioned above. Utilitarianism is the alternative to Kant’s ethical theory – called deontology. The two are the two major ethical theories.

Defining Utilitarianism.

Differing definitions

It may be noticed by the scholar of utilitarianism that the definition of the core of the theory (the principle of utility) has changed over the years, such that the modern version has a number of significant differences from that given by Jeremy Bentham:

“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.”

The modern definition is effectively this:

An action is right if it produces as much or more of an increase in happiness of all affected by it than any alternative action, and wrong if it does not.

There are a number of differences between the two versions – my thoughts on these differences follow.

1. Subject matter

The modern version is explicitly to do with right and wrong, and, since utilitarianism is an ethical theory, this would seem to be quite appropriate. Bentham’s version is about approval and disapproval, and he seems quite unconcerned with right and wrong – indeed he goes on to say only that

Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not one that ought not to be done. One may say also, that it is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action. When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.

The apparent ambiguity from Bentham may be to cover the (hypothetical) case where two different actions have exactly equivalent results – Bentham may simply be avoiding the implication that someone ought do two mutually exclusive actions (if so, he uses a very blunt tool to achieve his task – see below). Or, and this is what I am inclined to believe, he just might not be particularly concerned with “right” and “wrong” as they are commonly understood. What I mean by this is that if we say, of two possible different exclusive actions, that one leads to a better state of affairs than the other, then we have said all that needs to be said about them… to go on to say that the first action is right and the second wrong either adds nothing, or it seems to suggest (some deontologists would say implies) that to do the second action is “blameworthy”, or “rightfully punishable”, or “morally disgusting” or some other phrase indicating a conditioned morality rather than an objective value-maximizing one – something that Bentham (and myself) would take care to avoid.

When “right” and “wrong” are stripped of their punishment connotations, I believe they are equivalent to “approval” or “disapproval” by a principle, provided that this principle is justified or warranted by the existence of objective (moral) value.

2. Obscurity

Part of Bentham’s definition is quite obscure: “according to the tendency it appears to have”. Appears? Appears to whom? Is the core evaluating principle of utilitarianism subjective? And why be concerned with appearances rather than the actual effects? I think this is a mistake by Bentham, where he has tried to deal with the problem of uncertainty in the wrong section of his theory.

I believe “tendency” is also open to misinterpretation if it is thought to imply that utility involves (only) a class of actions, but this should not happen since it has already been established that it is for any particular action.

3. Extent

Bentham’s definition is of utility for some particular party, whereas the modern version is for everyone affected by the action. Neither is really what we mean – we normally consider that Utility considers all (relevant) interests, which is not necessarily what is being said in the modern version (which is potentially subtly misleading). To illustrate: if I am trying to show that the (specific) action I have just performed was the right one, it is not only those who were affected by this action (compared to inaction) whom we must consider, but also all those who would’ve been affected had I chosen another action instead. I am sure this ambiguity is very common in discussions about Utility, especially those involving an effort to explain utilitarianism in simple (or layman’s) terms – though whether or not it actually deceives (that is, that people get the wrong impression) I am not so clear about.

There is really no need for this ambiguity: we can say simply that the right action is simply the one that “maximizes total utility” or “maximizes total happiness” or whatever, we need not say for whom. Any limit we suggest for the scope of our consideration only lengthens the explanation and – as we’ve seen – introduces the potential for misunderstanding. So let us agree with Bentham when he decided that “the greatest happiness principle” is a better mnemonic for the principle of utility than its predecessor “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (or the same with “good” substituted for “happiness”). And let us hope that any new definition we produce replaces the current one faster than Bentham’s later suggestion effectively replaced his former – for this replacement is, in common usage, yet to occur.

4. Compared to what?

According to Bentham, we are concerned with augmentation and diminuation of happiness, which is to say the changes from the present situation. Utility approves of an action if it makes things better, it disapproves of it if it makes things worse; it approves of one action more than another if that action makes things better than the other.

The modern version is quite different on this point. What is compared against is not the current situation, but the situations that would result from alternative actions. So of two exclusive actions, both of which would increase the level of happiness compared to the present level but by different (positive) amounts, the modern principle would call the better action “right” and the not-so-good “wrong”, whereas Bentham’s utility would approve of both (but approve of the better one somewhat more) and hold that both actions are right, and ought be done, or at least that they are not wrong, that it is not the case that they ought not be done.

It is surprising to note that neither Bentham’s nor the modern version admit of degrees of right and wrong, where it is quite in accordance with common usage to do so: we may usually speak of the right action in a given situation, the alternative actions beings wrong, but it is quite common to speak of one such alternative action being more wrong than another – yet this is quite unaccounted for under these definitions.

There is also a potential stumbling-block for the modern version’s comparison: it may be thought that, in choosing between alternative actions, that it implies that there are actually some possible alternative actions in existence. This is a problem if the universe (and particularly psychology) is deterministic, for then it will be the case that there are no possible alternative actions. An agent can only do what he does – to do something else would take a different agent or a different situation, so given the agent and the situation, only one outcome is possible. If determinism is true, the modern version of utility would (thus interpreted) tell us that everything that happens is right.

This problem can be solved only with the acknowledgement that the alternatives under consideration may not actually be possible. In this case, in order to prevent the required analysis of wild fantastical actions, the range must be limited to those actions that can be done, if the agent chooses to do them. That the agent can choose anything other than what he goes on to choose, is (under this interpretation) neither implied nor denied.

In contrast, Bentham’s version is clearly unaffected by the presence or absence of non-deterministic free will: it can go on approving or disapproving of actions whether these actions are necessary or not, and whether there are alternatives or not. If what happens is determined solely by the fundamental laws of physics, as they existed at the big bang, then to that extent Bentham’s Utility can imply approval or disapproval of the universe as is, has been, and will be.

More Bentham

Bentham clarifies the position and extent of Utility in various later parts of the text:

“An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.”

Notice that, in this expression, utility is concerned with actual – not apparent – tendencies, and that utility is also shown to apply to the effects on the “community at large” (which we can take to mean everyone) rather than some specific party. Also:

“A man may be said to be a partizan of the principle of utility, when the approbation or disapprobation he annexes to any action, or to any measure, is determined by and proportioned to the tendency which he conceives it to have to augment or to diminish the happiness of the community”

Here I think it is reasonable for this approbation to be determined by the “conceived” utility of the action, for this is the judgement of a man – and a man must make his judgements without full knowledge of the relevant facts. If it were defined by actual rather than conceived utility, a utilitarian would not be a utilitarian when he was factually mistaken!

The point about Utility being with regard to the community is also remade here.

The History of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. Though not fully articulated until the 19th century, proto-utilitarian positions can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory.

Though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good – that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good.

The Classical Utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.

Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone’s happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else’s good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.

All of these features of this approach to moral evaluation and/or moral decision-making have proven to be somewhat controversial and subsequent controversies have led to changes in the Classical version of the theory.

1. Precursors to the Classical Approach

2. The Classical Approach

2.1 Jeremy Bentham

2.2 John Stuart Mill

3. Henry Sidgwick

4. Ideal Utilitarianism

Precursors to the Classical Approach

Though the first systematic account of utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the core insight motivating the theory occurred much earlier. That insight is that morally appropriate behavior will not harm others, but instead increase happiness or ‘utility.’ What is distinctive about utilitarianism is its approach in taking that insight and developing an account of moral evaluation and moral direction that expands on it. Early precursors to the Classical Utilitarians include the British Moralists, Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Gay, and Hume. Of these, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) is explicitly utilitarian when it comes to action choice.

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Some of the earliest utilitarian thinkers were the ‘theological’ utilitarians such as Richard Cumberland (1631-1718) and John Gay (1699-1745). They believed that promoting human happiness was incumbent on us since it was approved by God. After enumerating the ways in which humans come under obligations (by perceiving the “natural consequences of things”, the obligation to be virtuous, our civil obligations that arise from laws, and obligations arising from “the authority of God”) John Gay writes: “…from the consideration of these four sorts of obligation…it is evident that a full and complete obligation which will extend to all cases, can only be that arising from the authority of God; because God only can in all cases make a man happy or miserable: and therefore, since we are always obliged to that conformity called virtue, it is evident that the immediate rule or criterion of it is the will of God.” (R, 412) Gay held that since God wants the happiness of mankind, and since God’s will gives us the criterion of virtue, “…the happiness of mankind may be said to be the criterion of virtue, but once removed.” (R, 413) This view was combined with a view of human motivation with egoistic elements. A person’s individual salvation, her eternal happiness, depended on conformity to God’s will, as did virtue itself. Promoting human happiness and one’s own coincided, but, given God’s design, it was not an accidental coincidence.

This approach to utilitarianism, however, is not theoretically clean in the sense that it isn’t clear what essential work God does, at least in terms of normative ethics. God as the source of normativity is compatible with utilitarianism, but utilitarianism doesn’t require this.

Gay’s influence on later writers, such as Hume, deserves note. It is in Gay’s essay that some of the questions that concerned Hume on the nature of virtue are addressed. For example, Gay was curious about how to explain our practice of approbation and disapprobation of action and character. When we see an act that is vicious we disapprove of it. Further, we associate certain things with their effects, so that we form positive associations and negative associations that also underwrite our moral judgments. Of course, that we view happiness, including the happiness of others as a good, is due to God’s design. This is a feature crucial to the theological approach, which would clearly be rejected by Hume in favor of a naturalistic view of human nature and a reliance on our sympathetic engagement with others, an approach anticipated by Shaftesbury (below). The theological approach to utilitarianism would be developed later by William Paley, for example, but the lack of any theoretical necessity in appealing to God would result in its diminishing appeal.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) is generally thought to have been the one of the earliest ‘moral sense’ theorists, holding that we possess a kind of “inner eye” that allows us to make moral discriminations. This seems to have been an innate sense of right and wrong, or moral beauty and deformity. Again, aspects of this doctrine would be picked up by Francis Hutcheson and David Hume (1711-1776). Hume, of course, would clearly reject any robust realist implications. If the moral sense is like the other perceptual senses and enables us to pick up on properties out there in the universe around us, properties that exist independent from our perception of them, that are objective, then Hume clearly was not a moral sense theorist in this regard. But perception picks up on features of our environment that one could regard as having a contingent quality. There is one famous passage where Hume likens moral discrimination to the perception of secondary qualities, such as color. In modern terminology, these are response-dependent properties, and lack objectivity in the sense that they do not exist independent of our responses. This is radical. If an act is vicious, its viciousness is a matter of the human response (given a corrected perspective) to the act (or its perceived effects) and thus has a kind of contingency that seems unsettling, certainly unsettling to those who opted for the theological option.

So, the view that it is part of our very nature to make moral discriminations is very much in Hume. Further – and what is relevant to the development of utilitarianism – the view of Shaftesbury that the virtuous person contributes to the good of the whole – would figure into Hume’s writings, though modified. It is the virtue that contributes to the good of the whole system, in the case of Hume’s artificial virtues.

Shaftesbury held that in judging someone virtuous or good in a moral sense we need to perceive that person’s impact on the systems of which he or she is a part. Here it sometimes becomes difficult to disentangle egoistic versus utilitarian lines of thought in Shaftesbury. He clearly states that whatever guiding force there is has made nature such that it is “…the private interest and good of every one, to work towards the general good, which if a creature ceases to promote, he is actually so far wanting to himself, and ceases to promote his own happiness and welfare…” (R, 188) It is hard, sometimes, to discern the direction of the ‘because’ – if one should act to help others because it supports a system in which one’s own happiness is more likely, then it looks really like a form of egoism. If one should help others because that’s the right thing to do – and, fortunately, it also ends up promoting one’s own interests, then that’s more like utilitarianism, since the promotion of self-interest is a welcome effect but not what, all by itself, justifies one’s character or actions.

Further, to be virtuous a person must have certain psychological capacities – they must be able to reflect on character, for example, and represent to themselves the qualities in others that are either approved or disapproved of.

…in this case alone it is we call any creature worthy or virtuous when it can have the notion of a public interest, and can attain the speculation or science of what is morally good or ill, admirable or blameable, right or wrong….we never say of….any mere beast, idiot, or changeling, though ever so good-natured, that he is worthy or virtuous. (Shaftesbury IVM; BKI, PII, sec. iii)

Thus, animals are not objects of moral appraisal on the view, since they lack the necessary reflective capacities. Animals also lack the capacity for moral discrimination and would therefore seem to lack the moral sense. This raises some interesting questions. It would seem that the moral sense is a perception that something is the case. So it isn’t merely a discriminatory sense that allows us to sort perceptions. It also has a propositional aspect, so that animals, which are not lacking in other senses are lacking in this one.

The virtuous person is one whose affections, motives, dispositions are of the right sort, not one whose behavior is simply of the right sort and who is able to reflect on goodness, and her own goodness [see Gill]. Similarly, the vicious person is one who exemplifies the wrong sorts of mental states, affections, and so forth. A person who harms others through no fault of his own “…because he has convulsive fits which make him strike and wound such as approach him” is not vicious since he has no desire to harm anyone and his bodily movements in this case are beyond his control.

Shaftesbury approached moral evaluation via the virtues and vices. His utilitarian leanings are distinct from his moral sense approach, and his overall sentimentalism. However, this approach highlights the move away from egoistic views of human nature – a trend picked up by Hutcheson and Hume, and later adopted by Mill in criticism of Bentham’s version of utilitarianism. For writers like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson the main contrast was with egoism rather than rationalism.

Like Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson was very much interested


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