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).
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.”
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.
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.
Consequentialism FAQ, Scott Alexander Siskind
All Animals Are Equal, Peter Singer
For more, see Utilitarianism Resources.