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.
Utilitarianism claims to be a theory that appeals to common sense. This is certainly a 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.