Utilitarianism is the ethical
position that evaluates an action according to whether it produces the greatest
number of positive, non-moral values, e. g. happiness, wealth, health, beauty,
insight, etc., in comparison with other action alternatives.
The theory of utilitarianism has its seeds in the ancient Greek times. The
philosophers and hedonists Aristippus and Epicurus were the first introducing the
theory, however, it first received wider attention and recognition in the late
century through Jeremy Bentham’s book, “An Introduction to the
Principles of Morals and Legislation”. Bentham’s aim was to change useless,
corrupt laws and social practices. Already in his early years, Bentham was
strongly influenced by Hobbes’ account of human nature, as well as Hume’s
account of social utility (Driver, 2009). Despite of some factors varying from
the original thought, the core value, which is judging the consequences of an
action instead of the intention, has remained the main factor for the Principle
According to Bentham, a
person always strives for an object that he expects to bring pleasure. On this
basis, Bentham formulated the principle of utility, stating that the main focus
of this hedonistic (pleasure based) approach is “promoting the greatest good
for the greatest number”.
Even though, this might seem
simple at first, the definition and interpretation of the word “good” is
essential for the resulting conclusion. According to Bentham, the meaning of
the word good was “happiness”, which is then again set equal to pleasure.
Despite what people do, may it be earning money, to reach an academic degree, or maybe just to stay alive; all of these are
acts with the consisting aim of gaining
pleasure and avoiding pain. Even though for example gaining an academic degree
may have different reasons for different people, such as acceptance of the
parents or the affirmation of the own intelligence, the bottom line in all
cases can be traced back to one thing, the belief of creating happiness or
pleasure. For Bentham, pleasure and pain don’t only govern how humans act but how
human being ought to act as well.
In order to define what
action is ethically required, we must consider seven quantitative aspects of
pleasure and pain. Despite the fact that
every individual has a selfish characteristic inside them, utilitarians argue
that no person is more special than the other. For example, the death of a
country’s president would result in the same amount of basic points of pain, as
the death of a plumber. This measurement criterion for Bentham’s theory, is
known as the Hedonic Calculus, is the comparison
of pleasure and pain with regards to the greatest number of people.
Bentham argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering:
(1) intensity; (2) duration; (3)
certainty; (4) remoteness, that is, the immediacy of the pleasure or pain; (5)
fecundity, that is, whether similar pleasures or pains will follow; (6) purity,
that is, whether the pleasure is mixed with pain; and (7) extent, that is, the
number of people affected. In a footnote to a
later edition of the Principles, Bentham summarizes these criteria in a rhyme,
which he says might assist us in “lodging more effectually, in the memory,
Right and Wrong
Utilitarianism and general moral
From the standpoint of
utilitarianism, happiness is the highest and only good. Other ethical goods
such as equality, justice, freedom or virtuousness and intuitive moral concepts
have no value in themselves from a utilitarian point of view.
One of the most
common arguments against act utilitarianism is giving the wrong answers to
moral questions. Critics argue that act utilitarianism permits several actions,
even though everyone knows they are morally wrong.
situation in a hospital, where five people are about to die in the near future,
if they don’t receive their needed organ transplant. And one healthy person,
who has the same blood type would be needed to safe all five lives. If a doctor can save these five people
from death by killing the one healthy person and using that person’s organs for
life-saving transplants, then act utilitarianism implies that the doctor should
kill the one person to save five. Although the pain suffered by one person is
certainly included in the calculation, the fact remains that five people
survive, which is far more important in the overall calculation. The one must
therefore be sacrificed. A utilitarian ethic thus justifies the violation of
the human rights of individual individuals in favour of collective happiness.
Similarly, the principle of certainty
and consistency is also a problematic element in the calculation of benefits.
If we try to determine beforehand whether or not we should choose a course of
action, we are faced with the problem that we cannot look to the future.
Ultimately, we cannot make any reliable predictions. It can happen that we
overlook something or are mistaken about the actual consequences of our
In the example of the doctor
trying to save life’s by killing one person, it isn’t sure that all organ
transplants go well. There is a possibility that all operations could fail. Sometimes
there are consequences which can’t be estimated in advance. We can only estimate
what consequences are likely to occur. Therefore, a moral evaluation of the
action can only be carried out retrospectively when it has become apparent
which consequences have occurred and which ones have not.
utilitarians criticize traditional moral rules for being too rigid, critics
charge that utilitarians ignore the fact that this alleged rigidity is the
basis for trust between people. If, in cases like the ones described above,
judges, doctors, and promise-makers are committed to doing whatever maximizes
well-being, then no one will be able to trust anyone. As for example not trust doctors
to use the organs of one patient to benefit others. More generally, if everyone
believed that morality permitted lying, promise-breaking, cheating, and
violating the law whenever doing so led to good results, then no one could
trust other people to obey these rules. As a result, in an act utilitarian
society, we could not believe what others say, could not rely on them to keep
promises, and in general could not count on people to act in accord with
important moral rules. As a result, people’s behaviour would lack the kind of
predictability and consistency that are required to sustain trust and social
On the other hand, Bentham’s utilitarianism also has major strengths and
traits, which are reasonable and right.
Applying the utilitarian principle results in a maximization of the
overall utility and therefore to a higher performance of our action. We act
more efficiently and take actions with the highest possible level of utility.
Therefore, act utilitarians often argue, the utilitarian principle should be
applied to individual acts, rather than classes of similar actions.