Philosophical Multicore

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Utilitarianism in Five Minutes

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 11, 2012

The classic statement of utilitarianism is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Let’s dig a little deeper (but not too much deeper).

Definition

The single goal of utilitarian morality is to increase happiness and decrease suffering to the greatest extent possible. Any action in this direction is good, and should be encouraged; any action away from this direction is bad, and should be discouraged. All creatures that are sentient—that is, capable of happiness and suffering—are morally relevant, and their interests should be considered.

Utilitarianism does not only concern itself with physical pleasure. Happiness can mean reading a great book, having a long conversation with a good friend, or making a new discovery. It includes the taste of a fatty meal, but it also allows for the pleasure of lasting health. Philosopher John Stuart Mill examines pleasure in depth in his book, Utilitarianism.

You now understand the gist of what I mean when I say “Utilitarianism.”

Nomenclature

happiness: Any sort of pleasure or positive experience that a sentient being may feel.

suffering: Any sort of pain or negative experience that a sentient being may feel.

utility: The balance of happiness over suffering.

well-being: Synonymous with “utility.”

preference: This means exactly what you think it means. It is sometimes used synonymously with “interest.” Some utilitarian philosophers prefer to maximize the satisfaction of preferences rather than happiness.

interest: Something aligns with an individual’s interests if it supports his/her preferences or promotes his/her well-being.

Why?

See Why Utilitarianism?

Common Objections

Below is a list of common objections to Utilitarianism, and essays that address them.

1. If we are obligated to maximize utility, that means we are almost always acting immorally since we are not maximizing utility as much as we should be. See: Why We Identify Good and Evil; The Mistake of Immorality.

2. If we follow Utilitarianism, that will make life worse (e.g. will cause people to lose their sense of right and wrong, will lead to an Orwellian society, etc). See: Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism.

3. In such-and-such hypothetical moral dilemma, Utilitarianism leads to a conclusion that I don’t like. See: Morality in the Real World.

4. Motives are important. According to Utilitarianism, there is no difference between behaving altruistically because you truly care and behaving altruistically to make yourself look good. See: Sustainable and Unsustainable Good; Why We Identify Good and Evil.

5. It is impossible to accurately measure happiness. Remind me to write an essay on this one. See: Measuring Happiness.

6. Utilitarianism can be used to justify the majority oppressing the minority. See: Tyranny of the Majority.

Further Reading

Consequentialism FAQ, Scott Alexander Siskind

All Animals Are Equal, Peter Singer

For more, see Utilitarianism Resources.

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9 Responses to “Utilitarianism in Five Minutes”

  1. lrflew said

    Good utilitarian morality is when the most people are happy. What do you call the theory in which good morality is when “I’m” happy (“I’m” of corse referring to yourself or the narrator)?

  2. phynnboi said

    I might add this one:

    7. Properly executed utilitarianism is too complex and takes too long for most day-to-day ethical decisions. Further, evidence exists that in ethical matters, people just go with their gut anyway and use their powers of reasoning to rationalize their gut decisions. (See, e.g., the work of Jonathan Haidt.) I am quite confident that even utilitarians will fall prey to this quirk of human nature*. As such, The Golden Rule is superior, since it’s quick and easy to use, and is already based on gut feelings. Yes, it will fail in some degenerate cases (e.g., the oft-sited “what about masochists?”), but every ethical system seems to have degenerate cases (such as utilitarianism’s oft-sited tyranny of the majority**, Kantian ethics’ oft-sited “can’t lie to protect someone’s life,” and Abrahamic religions’ oft-sited allowance of just about anything anyone with power can twist out of some cherry-picked holy-book passages).

    * It would be quite interesting, however, to conduct a survey of self-identified utilitarians. The survey would present N moral dilemmas. Give the survey to a roughly equal number of non-self-identified utilitarians as a control group. Compare the answers within groups. I’m going to toss out a wild guess that the answers in the utilitarians group will not be completely in alignment. Further, on hot-button issues like gun control and abortion, it would not surprise me if utilitarians had as much variance in their answers as non-utilitarians.

    ** Or even the thing brought up in /Crime and Punishment/ about the possibility of murder speeding progress. There are certainly folks–not necessarily self-identified utilitarians–who believed they were making the world a better place by committing such-and-such atrocities against such-and-such a victim or group.

    • The first point you raise (“utilitarianism is too complex”) is a subset of #2 (and, to some extent, #5).

      Further, evidence exists that in ethical matters, people just go with their gut anyway and use their powers of reasoning to rationalize their gut decisions.

      This isn’t so much an objection to utilitarianism as an objection to utilitarians. I agree that this can be a problem.

      Further, on hot-button issues like gun control and abortion, it would not surprise me if utilitarians had as much variance in their answers as non-utilitarians.

      I think most utilitarians would be in favor of abortion. You’re probably right, though, that we would be about evenly divided over gun control. The problem there is that there’s no consensus about whether allowing people to use guns helps or hurts—the evidence we have tends to point in both directions.

      • phynnboi said

        It’s not really an objection to utilitarians, since it applies to everyone. It’s an objection to utilitarianism insofar as utilitarianism does little to curb that gut-going tendency, and, thus, does little besides give people an extra layer of rationalization on top of what they’d do anyway. (Which is to say, it doesn’t do what an ethical system is supposed to do, which is guide action. It rationalizes action.)

        As for most utilitarians being pro-abortion, I don’t know about that. I would expect to see a lot of “potential of life” types of arguments against abortion from utilitarians. For instance, doesn’t the positive utility that even an average human can experience/produce in its lifetime outweigh the negative utility of the potential mother’s having the child and then putting it up for adoption? Seems like it’d be a tough argument to beat from a utilitarian perspective.

        • If we stop having abortions, we start having more children. Right now, population is stable (average 2 children per family). If we stop having abortions, population will destabilize and begin to increase, leading to serious environmental degradation and seriously decreasing utility for future generations.

        • If one accepts utilitarianism, one should also accept its sanctions. One’s motivation to action should be that action increases utility, and increasing utility is a good thing. The serious utilitarians I have talked to find this to be sufficient motivation.

          John Stuart Mill wrote about the problem of motivation in chapter 3 of Utilitarianism: http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill3.htm

  3. lrflew said

    ok, Utilitarianism is the belief that the most possible happiness can outweigh the suffering of the minority. What, then, is the name of the belief that no amount of happiness can outweigh suffering, and that no suffering but no happiness is better than a little suffering and a lot of happiness?

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