Utilitarianism: The Basic Idea
To overcome the obvious defects of using Egoism as a moral guide, Utilitarianism approaches the question of the good from an opposing point of view. Instead of that being the good which serves one's own interest and provides for one's own pleasure, the Utilitarian’s take that which produces the greatest amount of pleasure (Hedonism--Physical and emotional) for the greatest number of people to be the good. This is the principle of utility. Expand beyond the idea of pleasure to that of satisfying the interests of people and you have the more complete development of the idea of what consequences of human action will determine the moral correctness of that act.
Utility is a principle of the good which locates moral goodness in the feelings of humans and that makes it the form of Hedonism. However, Utility's aim is increasing the total amount of satisfaction or happiness for the greatest number of people and not just oneself. The morally good thing to do is whatever promotes the greatest utility even if the individual acting will not prosper or be satisfied. It would be nice if the actor benefits as well but it is the interests of the many and the most over the one that is what Utility is about.
The Principle of Utility
The theory developed from an attempt to direct the lawmakers of England to consider the common good rather than the welfare of their social class when they made laws. The good is that which provides for the happiness of the greatest number of people even if it results in no happiness to the agent at all. In this approach each human being has exactly the same worth as all other human beings. In this view the benefit of the action must be maximized:
When confronted by some situation and facing a choice or dilemma and when considering what would be the correct thing to do, what would be right, what would be good, the Utilitarian would:
- Consider the options available, however many there are.
- Calculate how much happiness would be produced were each of the options to be acted upon or how many interests of how many people would be satisfied
- Determine which option produces the greatest resulting happiness or the greatest number of interests being satisfied for greatest number of people
- Choose that option which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, or the greatest number of interests being satisfied for greatest number of people, therefore, the greatest utility.
Note: it is not a matter of making the majority (>50%) happy but the greatest possible number of people. So if there are three options, (a),(b), and (c) and (a) makes 87% happy, (b) makes 76% happy and (c) makes 89% happy the Utilitarian must choose to do (c). Choice (c) is the good or the morally correct choice while the others (a) and (b) are not good or would be morally incorrect choices.
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
There is a difference between Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism. The Act Utilitarian considers only the results or consequences of the single act while the Rule Utilitarian considers the consequences that result of following a rule of conduct.
Crash Course Utilitarianism
Why are there two different approaches (Act and Rule) to Utilitarianism? Consider the following case:
Someone goes to the doctor. The person is ill, experiences pain and dysfunction. The doctor performs a series of test and examinations. The person returns to the doctor's office to learn of the results, the diagnosis and prognosis. The doctor is aware that the tests all show that the person has a disease that is incurable and life threatening. In fact even under the most aggressive treatment option there is a survival rate of less than 15% for two years. The doctor is considering what would be good to tell the person. Should the person know the truth or should the person be told something other than the truth? Which is better? Which is the right thing to do? What would be the good to do?
The Act Utilitarian might calculate that in telling the truth there will be a great deal of pain and no pleasure at all. The person will be upset, their family will be upset, the doctor will be upset. Informing the ill person that there is nothing that the doctor can do to alter their condition will upset everyone. The doctor's staff will be upset seeing the person come in for whatever treatment there may be. On the other hand if the doctor makes up a story concerning the diagnosis and prognosis that is not true but that gives the ill person more time to enjoy life before the illness makes it obvious that the end is near, well then the results are different. The doctor is not so upset in seeing the person, the doctor's staff is not upset. The family and friends of the person have some more time with that person to enjoy things instead of being morose and depressed. So the Act Utilitarian might calculate that the good in this case is to lie.
The Rule Utilitarian would need to consider what would the long term consequences be if doctors were to lie to those who come to them and have life threatening, incurable illnesses. The Rule Utilitarian might calculate that people would no longer be able to trust their doctors and this would break down the confidence they need for their therapies to be effective. The Rule Utilitarian might calculate that there is far more harm in lying and so the good is to tell the truth.
The same result might obtain were there to be a consideration of cheating on an examination. The single act might produce a great deal of happiness for the cheater, teacher, family and friends. The rule of cheating might produce quite the opposite result as society could no longer trust that the doctors, lawyers, engineers, repair people etc... really know what they are doing and deserve their position.
Rule Utilitarianism (RU) has no rule other than utility. Every act is evaluated according to the utility. Does it or doesn't it produce happiness. Utilitarian’s must maximize happiness. They must never accept unhappiness if they can minimize it.
Both Act and Rule Utilitarian’s must assume nothing. They must actually poll or measure what act will produce the greatest utility.
The difference is that the:
- Act Utilitarian measures the consequences of a single act.
- Rule Utilitarian measures the consequences of the act repeated over and over again through time as if it were to be followed as a rule whenever similar circumstances arise.
Nothing is right or wrong in itself for a utilitarian. Nothing! It all depends on the consequences of the act -- the results are what matters not the act.
The idea behind Rule Utilitarianism is that whenever you are in a situation and have alternatives you calculate the utility to be produced by adopting a course of action (rule) which would produce the greatest utility in the long run if it were followed every time that situation arose.
Let's consider the rule that states you must stop your vehicle at a red traffic light.
Situation: Pregnant woman in back seat. About to deliver. Water has broken. Contractions are 2 minutes apart. It is 4 am. The vehicle is 2 miles from the hospital. There are no other cars around. The RU would think if you were as a rule to break the law and go through that red light it would produce more utility than not doing so and therefore it would be the morally good thing to do. So the RU rule would be to go through red lights whenever it is 4 AM and there is a pregnant woman in the back seat who is about to deliver and you are heading to the hospital.
Problems with the Theory:
- It is difficult if not impossible to do the calculations required. How do you measure the happiness (pleasure) produced?
- Not everyone will be able to measure their happiness.
- One persons’ maximum happiness may not be the equal of another person’s maximum.
- Do the calculations range over 1 year, ten years, century, etc..? How long?
- Do the calculations measure the happiness for a small group, entire country, the whole world?
- Do they consider only humans or non-humans who are sentient beings (have awareness and feelings). Peter Singer is a Utilitarian who includes all sentient beings.
- The theory can support opposing actions on different occasions as the correct or the good thing to do.
- The theory can’t really resolve conflicts in views, e.g...Sometimes it supports lying, cheating, killing, stealing, etc... and sometimes not.
- The theory can support doing horrible, heinous acts, as long as they produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. There is no act that is wrong in and of itself. Murder, lies, rape, child molestation, whatever can be the good thing to do.
- The theory treats all people as being equal. It does not take into consideration special relationships that exist between people, for example the relationships of family members.
In the next section we examine approaches to determining right from wrong that does not consider the consequences of the acts but the acts themselves and the intentions of the actors.
- Nothing is right or wrong in itself for a utilitarian. Nothing! It all depends on the consequences of the act, the results are what matters not the act.