Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Julia Driver (2014, reference below) says that utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.
“There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good – that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good.
“The Classical Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.
“Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone’s happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else’s good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.
“All of these features of this approach to moral evaluation and/or moral decision-making have proven to be somewhat controversial and subsequent controversies have led to changes in the Classical version of the theory.”
Writing in Encyclopedia Britannica, Brian Duignan and Henry West summarize the criticisms of utilitarianism:
“Most opponents of utilitarianism have held that it has implications contrary to their moral intuitions – that considerations of utility, for example, might sometimes sanction the breaking of a promise. Much of the defense of utilitarian ethics has consisted in answering these objections, either by showing that utilitarianism does not have the implications that its opponents claim it has or by arguing against the opponents’ moral intuitions. Some utilitarians, however, have sought to modify the utilitarian theory to account for the objections.
“One such criticism is that, although the widespread practice of lying and stealing would have bad consequences, resulting in a loss of trustworthiness and security, it is not certain that an occasional lie to avoid embarrassment or an occasional theft from a rich person would not have good consequences and thus be permissible or even required by utilitarianism. But the utilitarian readily answers that the widespread practice of such acts would result in a loss of trustworthiness and security. To meet the objection to not permitting an occasional lie or theft, some philosophers have defended a modification labelled “rule” utilitarianism. It permits a particular act on a particular occasion to be adjudged right or wrong according to whether it is in accordance with or in violation of a useful rule, and a rule is judged useful or not by the consequences of its general practice. Mill has sometimes been interpreted as a “rule” utilitarian, whereas Bentham and Sidgwick were “act” utilitarians.
“Another objection, often posed against the hedonistic value theory held by Bentham, holds that the value of life is more than a balance of pleasure over pain. Mill, in contrast to Bentham, discerned differences in the quality of pleasures that make some intrinsically preferable to others independently of intensity and duration (the quantitative dimensions recognized by Bentham). Some philosophers in the utilitarian tradition have recognized certain wholly nonhedonistic values without losing their utilitarian credentials. Thus, the English philosopher G.E. Moore, one of the founders of contemporary analytic philosophy, regarded many kinds of consciousness – including friendship, knowledge, and the experience of beauty – as intrinsically valuable independently of pleasure, a position labelled “ideal” utilitarianism. Even in limiting the recognition of intrinsic value and disvalue to happiness and unhappiness, some philosophers have argued that those feelings cannot adequately be further broken down into terms of pleasure and pain and have thus preferred to defend the theory in terms of maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness. It is important to note, however, that, even for the hedonistic utilitarians, pleasure and pain are not thought of in purely sensual terms; pleasure and pain for them can be components of experiences of all sorts. Their claim is that, if an experience is neither pleasurable nor painful, then it is a matter of indifference and has no intrinsic value.
“Another objection to utilitarianism is that the prevention or elimination of suffering should take precedence over any alternative act that would only increase the happiness of someone already happy. Some modern utilitarians have modified their theory to require this focus or even to limit moral obligation to the prevention or elimination of suffering – a view labelled “negative” utilitarianism.”
Writing in 9Changes.com, Arushi Dixit provides her analysis of the pros and cons of utilitarianism:
- It ensures the greatest good that can be possibly done in a situation for the maximum people in the larger picture, implying that the right course of action is the one that leads to the most happiness and least harm, which is in keeping with how a just society should work.
- By not relying on any specific beliefs about God, Utilitarianism eliminates the need for considering any religious beliefs (that can be individualistic) and rather focusing on moral beliefs (that can be universally implied) without any partial perspective.
- It only accepts an impartial consideration of effects, thereby eliminating the occurrence of a decision being taken solely on the basis of self-interest maximization. A balance between differing interests is also provided to make policy decisions better.
- It is highly universal as it doesn’t cater specifically to a particular population, culture or context.
- It is comprehensive as in includes all interests, individuals, solutions, problems and possible consequences in weighing the decision in question, thereby making it not only a very democratic approach to a situation but a rational one too as by impartially measuring the right and wrong for all.
- Utilitarianism is based on anticipated consequences, making a decision‘s utility very unpredictable. Future can be predicted but the predictions made can never be absolutely accurate or definitive. Thus, the decision should rather be based on something more concrete.
- It is difficult to evaluate the value of an act in terms of pleasure for one can’t measure such a subjective and differing phenomenon. Pleasure is objectively immeasurable, making the process of evaluation itself subjective, depending upon the weight one places on a particular option leading to a particular pleasure.
- Expecting people to not weigh in their own interests more that others’ can be an unrealistic expectation. Making sure that the perspective taken by an authority is firstly impartial and secondly can be maintained further is almost impossible, given the natural impulse of individuals towards self- preservation.
- Its universal characteristic can often be harmful by not accepting any exceptions. For example, the epitome of a judge preventing riots (fatal to many) by convicting an innocent individual of a crime with a severe punishment (in a case where he’s only able to prevent them by convicting the individual) is justified on the basis of utilitarianism even though it is morally incorrect.
- It can facilitate domination of the majority by justifying an act solely on the basis of it serving interests of most individuals. Thus, a strong opposition justifies the persistence of caste-based reservations just because the move is backed a s strong opposition- the majority is served by the virtue of them being a majority. This is problematic for it can lead to many sidelining the needs and interests of the minorities, not on the basis of what is right and what is wrong.
- The authoritarian figure determining what provide pleasure to whom is absent in the case of utilitarianism, thereby leading to a void that can be exploited by the powerful. This defeats the very idea of the theory to have equal consideration of interests. Given the subjective interest of people in a situation, utilitarianism does say that all opinion must be given equal weight but doesn’t state how this can be implemented and by whom.
Atlas topic, subject, and course
Julia Driver (2014), The History of Utilitarianism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/utilitarianism-history/, accessed 3 December 2018.
Brian Duignan and Henry R West, Utilitarianism, Encyclopaedia Britannica, at https://www.britannica.com/topic/utilitarianism-philosophy, accessed 3 December 2018.
Arushi Dixit, Utilitarianism Explained in 5 Simple Steps, 9Changes.com, https://www.9changes.com/utilitarianism-explained-in-5-simple-steps/, accessed 3 December 2018.
Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified 3 December 2018.
Image: Arushi Dixit, Utilitarianism Explained in 5 Simple Steps, 9Changes.com, https://www.9changes.com/utilitarianism-explained-in-5-simple-steps/, accessed 3 December 2018.