IV. Utilitarianism

A. Point of View

-Utilitarianism takes a different point of view from Deontology

-like deontology, it seeks to find a fundamental principle on which all rules and courses of action can be based, but its emphasis is on the consequences of one's conduct-- the end result.

-it is a form of (ethical) teleology (teleo = end; logy = theory of)

-again, the roots of the theory are in ancient Greece (mainly, Epicurus); but it is not fully developed until the modern period with David Hume (1711-76) Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and J.S. Mill (1806-73)

-the point of view of the utilitarian is that the purpose of morality and rules in general is the betterment of society

-consider the consequences of what you do, they argue, both positive and negative, on all those affected, and in balancing good effects and bad you will find what you must do

-if you want to know whether a particular act or policy is right, consider what will happen if you do it or implement it, respectively.

B. The Concept of Sentience

-unlike the Kantians, utilitarians do not believe that rationality alone is what gives us moral standing

-Hume had shown how humans and animals reason in much the same way, and that the rationality of a human being is not as pure as tradition had indicated

-Bentham had argued that it is not the capacity to reason that gave things a right to be left alone, but the capacity to suffer

-isn't it still wrong to mistreat the mentally retarded, even though their reason is flawed?

-their conclusion was that sentience is the most basic criterion of right and wrong

-that is, it's wrong to do certain things because it hurts people (or other life forms) and it's right to do others because it helps them

-keeping this in mind, if the consequence of our policies create on the whole more pain than happiness, then we need to change them

C. The Utility Principle

-the principle that brings all these concepts together is called the Utility Principle

-though there are a number of versions, this is the most general way to state it:

Our practices, private or public, are right insofar as they promote the greatest amount of good for the greatest number;

and they are wrong to the extent that they do otherwise.

-In his work Utilitarianism, Mill focused on the word 'good' argued that it is happiness which we all seek above all else, so he formulated the principle as follows (he called it the greatest happiness principle):

Actions are right insofar as they promote the most happiness for the most people; wrong insofar as do otherwise

-this is not to say, as some as of the more shallow critics contend, that we should all be groveling after our own happiness, ignoring that of others

-this is not an egoistic doctrine

-the point is to consider your happiness with no greater (or less) weight or bias than any other-- actually a tall order!

D. Act and Rule Utilitarianism

-contemporary utilitarians are divided concerning the role of rules in society

-do we need strict adherence to duties, as Kant had contended, or should we ask people to make their decisions based directly on the Utility Principle?

-how you answer this determines whether you are an act or rule utilitarian

-an act utilitarian believes that rules should only be used as rules of thumb, and that if following duty promotes bad consequences, there must be a breach of duty

-a rule utilitarian, on the other hand, is worried that if we allow people to take morality into their own hands, moral decay and/or anarchy will soon follow

-this is a form of slippery slope argument

-such differences are parallel to libertarian vs. authoritarian views on public policy, and the question of human nature reemerges:

-can we trust people to do what's right on their own, or not?

E. Problems with Utilitarianism

-again, we must keep in mind that even a good criticism of a theory does not indicate that it is useless, only that some more things need to be worked out

-there are a variety of criticisms that utilitarians face

-rule utilitarianism seems to suffer from the same sort of problems that deontology did: do we really need such an emphasis on obedience?

-act utilitarianism mainly suffers from the problem of its instructing us to breach traditional duties so as to promote desirable consequences

-at the very least, there is a possibility for great abuse

-all utilitarians have a couple of general problems to face:

-first, given that there are a number of goods that we desire, how are we to calculate what to do when they come into conflict?

-how do we quantify goodness?

-second, if it's the good of all that we must secure, what if it benefits a majority to infringe on the interests of a minority?

-does it lead to injustice?