Utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals. Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is to in some sense maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts. For instance, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…[or] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.”
Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Unlike other forms of consequentialism, such as egoism and altruism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans equally. Proponents of utilitarianism have disagreed on a number of points, such as whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism), or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism). There is also disagreement as to whether total (total utilitarianism), average (average utilitarianism) or minimum utility should be maximized.
Though the seeds of the theory can be found in the hedonists Aristippus and Epicurus, who viewed happiness as the only good, and in the work of the medieval Indian philosopher Śāntideva, the tradition of modern utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and continued with such philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, and Peter Singer. The concept has been applied towards social welfare economics, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity.
Bentham’s book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation was printed in 1780 but not published until 1789. It is possible that Bentham was spurred on to publish after he saw the success of Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Though Bentham’s book was not an immediate success, his ideas were spread further when Pierre Étienne Louis Dumont translated edited selections from a variety of Bentham’s manuscripts into French. Traité de législation civile et pénale was published in 1802 and then later retranslated back into English by Hildreth as The Theory of Legislation, although by this time significant portions of Dumont’s work had already been retranslated and incorporated into Sir John Bowring’s edition of Bentham’s works, which was issued in parts between 1838 and 1843.
Perhaps aware that Francis Hutcheson eventually removed his algorithms for calculating the greatest happiness because they “appear’d useless, and were disagreeable to some readers,” Bentham contends that there is nothing novel or unwarranted about his method, for “in all this there is nothing but what the practice of mankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly conformable to.”
Rosen (2003) warns that descriptions of utilitarianism can bear “little resemblance historically to utilitarians like Bentham and J. S. Mill” and can be more “a crude version of act utilitarianism conceived in the twentieth century as a straw man to be attacked and rejected.” It is a mistake to think that Bentham is not concerned with rules. His seminal work is concerned with the principles of legislation and the hedonic calculus is introduced with the words “Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends that the legislator has in view.” In Chapter VII, Bentham says: “The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding.… In proportion as an act tends to disturb that happiness, in proportion as the tendency of it is pernicious, will be the demand it creates for punishment.”
Principle of utility
Bentham’s work opens with a statement of the principle of utility:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do.… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
In Chapter IV, Bentham introduces a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which has come to be known as the hedonic calculus. Bentham says that the value of a pleasure or pain, considered by itself, can be measured according to its intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness. In addition, it is necessary to consider “the tendency of any act by which it is produced” and, therefore, to take account of the act’s fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind and its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind. Finally, it is necessary to consider the extent, or the number of people affected by the action.
Evils of the first and second order
The question then arises as to when, if at all, it might be legitimate to break the law. This is considered in The Theory of Legislation, where Bentham distinguishes between evils of the first and second order. Those of the first order are the more immediate consequences; those of the second are when the consequences spread through the community causing “alarm” and “danger.”
It is true there are cases in which, if we confine ourselves to the effects of the first order, the good will have an incontestable preponderance over the evil. Were the offence considered only under this point of view, it would not be easy to assign any good reasons to justify the rigour of the laws. Every thing depends upon the evil of the second order; it is this which gives to such actions the character of crime, and which makes punishment necessary. Let us take, for example, the physical desire of satisfying hunger. Let a beggar, pressed by hunger, steal from a rich man’s house a loaf, which perhaps saves him from starving, can it be possible to compare the good which the thief acquires for himself, with the evil which the rich man suffers?… It is not on account of the evil of the first order that it is necessary to erect these actions into offences, but on account of the evil of the second order.
John Stuart Mill
Mill was brought up as a Benthamite with the explicit intention that he would carry on the cause of utilitarianism. Mill’s book Utilitarianism first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861 and was reprinted as a single book in 1863.
Higher and lower pleasures
Mill rejects a purely quantitative measurement of utility and says:
It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
The word utility is used to mean general well-being or happiness, and Mill’s view is that utility is the consequence of a good action. Utility, within the context of utilitarianism, refers to people performing actions for social utility. With social utility, he means the well-being of many people. Mill’s explanation of the concept of utility in his work, Utilitarianism, is that people really do desire happiness, and since each individual desires their own happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone, contributing to a larger social utility. Thus, an action that results in the greatest pleasure for the utility of society is the best action, or as Jeremy Bentham, the founder of early Utilitarianism put it, as the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Mill not only viewed actions as a core part of utility, but as the directive rule of moral human conduct. The rule being that we should only be committing actions that provide pleasure to society. This view of pleasure was hedonistic, as it pursued the thought that pleasure is the highest good in life. This concept was adopted by Bentham and can be seen in his works. According to Mill, good actions result in pleasure, and that there is no higher end than pleasure. Mill says that good actions lead to pleasure and define good character. Better put, the justification of character, and whether an action is good or not, is based on how the person contributes to the concept of social utility. In the long run the best proof of a good character is good actions; and resolutely refuse to consider any mental disposition as good, of which the predominant tendency is to produce bad conduct. In the last chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill concludes that justice, as a classifying factor of our actions (being just or unjust) is one of the certain moral requirements, and when the requirements are all regarded collectively, they are viewed as greater according to this scale of “social utility” as Mill puts it.
He also notes that, contrary to what its critics might say, there is “no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect…a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation.” However, he accepts that this is usually because the intellectual pleasures are thought to have circumstantial advantages, i.e. “greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c.” Instead, Mill will argue that some pleasures are intrinsically better than others.
The accusation that hedonism is a “doctrine worthy only of swine” has a long history. In Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1 Chapter 5), Aristotle says that identifying the good with pleasure is to prefer a life suitable for beasts. The theological utilitarians had the option of grounding their pursuit of happiness in the will of God; the hedonistic utilitarians needed a different defence. Mill’s approach is to argue that the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically superior to physical pleasures.
Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question…
Mill argues that if people who are “competently acquainted” with two pleasures show a decided preference for one even if it be accompanied by more discontent and “would not resign it for any quantity of the other,” then it is legitimate to regard that pleasure as being superior in quality. Mill recognizes that these “competent judges” will not always agree, and states that, in cases of disagreement, the judgment of the majority is to be accepted as final. Mill also acknowledges that “many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher.” Mill says that this appeal to those who have experienced the relevant pleasures is no different from what must happen when assessing the quantity of pleasure, for there is no other way of measuring “the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations.” “It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly-endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constitute, is imperfect.”
Mill also thinks that “intellectual pursuits have value out of proportion to the amount of contentment or pleasure (the mental state) that they produce.” Mill also says that people should pursue these grand ideals, because if they choose to have gratification from petty pleasures, “some displeasure will eventually creep in. We will become bored and depressed.” Mill claims that gratification from petty pleasures only gives short-term happiness and, subsequently, worsens the individual who may feel that his life lacks happiness, since the happiness is transient. Whereas, intellectual pursuits give long-term happiness because they provide the individual with constant opportunities throughout the years to improve his life, by benefiting from accruing knowledge. Mill views intellectual pursuits as “capable of incorporating the ‘finer things’ in life” while petty pursuits do not achieve this goal. Mill is saying that intellectual pursuits give the individual the opportunity to escape the constant depression cycle since these pursuits allow them to achieve their ideals, while petty pleasures do not offer this. Although debate persists about the nature of Mill’s view of gratification, this suggests bifurcation in his position.
‘Proving’ the principle of utility
In Chapter Four of Utilitarianism, Mill considers what proof can be given for the principle of utility:
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it.… In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.… No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness…we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.
It is usual to say that Mill is committing a number of fallacies:
- naturalistic fallacy: Mill is trying to deduce what people ought to do from what they in fact do;
- equivocation fallacy: Mill moves from the fact that (1) something is desirable, i.e. is capable of being desired, to the claim that (2) it is desirable, i.e. that it ought to be desired; and
- the fallacy of composition: the fact that people desire their own happiness does not imply that the aggregate of all persons will desire the general happiness.
Such allegations began to emerge in Mill’s lifetime, shortly after the publication of Utilitarianism, and persisted for well over a century, though the tide has been turning in recent discussions. Nonetheless, a defence of Mill against all three charges, with a chapter devoted to each, can be found in Necip Fikri Alican’s Mill’s Principle of Utility: A Defense of John Stuart Mill’s Notorious Proof (1994). This is the first, and remains[when?] the only, book-length treatment of the subject matter. Yet the alleged fallacies in the proof continue to attract scholarly attention in journal articles and book chapters.
Hall (1949) and Popkin (1950) defend Mill against this accusation pointing out that he begins Chapter Four by asserting that “questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term” and that this is “common to all first principles.” Therefore, according to Hall and Popkin, Mill does not attempt to “establish that what people do desire is desirable but merely attempts to make the principles acceptable.” The type of “proof” Mill is offering “consists only of some considerations which, Mill thought, might induce an honest and reasonable man to accept utilitarianism.”
Having claimed that people do, in fact, desire happiness, Mill now has to show that it is the only thing they desire. Mill anticipates the objection that people desire other things such as virtue. He argues that whilst people might start desiring virtue as a means to happiness, eventually, it becomes part of someone’s happiness and is then desired as an end in itself.
The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.
We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which is mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all humans beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them.
Sidgwick’s book The Methods of Ethics has been referred to as the peak or culmination of classical utilitarianism. His main goal in this book is to ground utilitarianism in the principles of common-sense morality and thereby dispense with the doubts of his predecessors that these two are at odds with each other. For Sidgwick, ethics is about which actions are objectively right. Our knowledge of right and wrong arises from common-sense morality, which lacks a coherent principle at its core. The task of philosophy in general and ethics in particular is not so much to create new knowledge but to systematize existing knowledge. Sidgwick tries to achieve this by formulating methods of ethics, which he defines as rational procedures “for determining right conduct in any particular case”. He identifies three methods: intuitionism, which involves various independently valid moral principles to determine what ought to be done, and two forms of hedonism, in which rightness only depends on the pleasure and pain following from the action. Hedonism is subdivided into egoistic hedonism, which only takes the agent’s own well-being into account, and universal hedonism or utilitarianism, which is concerned with everyone’s well-being.
Intuitionism holds that we have intuitive, i.e. non-inferential, knowledge of moral principles, which are self-evident to the knower. The criteria for this type of knowledge include that they are expressed in clear terms, that the different principles are mutually consistent with each other and that there is expert consensus on them. According to Sidgwick, commonsense moral principles fail to pass this test, but there are some more abstract principles that pass it, like that “what is right for me must be right for all persons in precisely similar circumstances” or that “one should be equally concerned with all temporal parts of one’s life”. The most general principles arrived at this way are all compatible with utilitarianism, which is why Sidgwick sees a harmony between intuitionism and utilitarianism. There are also less general intuitive principles, like the duty to keep one’s promises or to be just, but these principles are not universal and there are cases where different duties stand in conflict with each other. Sidgwick suggests that we resolve such conflicts in a utilitarian fashion by considering the consequences of the conflicting actions.
The harmony between intuitionism and utilitarianism is a partial success in Sidgwick’s overall project, but he sees full success impossible since egoism, which he considers as equally rational, cannot be reconciled with utilitarianism unless religious assumptions are introduced. Such assumptions, for example, the existence of a personal God who rewards and punishes the agent in the afterlife, could reconcile egoism and utilitarianism. But without them, we have to admit a “dualism of practical reason” that constitutes a “fundamental contradiction” in our moral consciousness.