ACT-UTILITARIANISM

The Basic View: Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory
Analyzing the Utilitarian Principle
Jeremy Bentham’s Analysis of Pleasure
John Stuart Mill’s Analysis of Pleasure
The Main Strength of Utilitarian Theory: happiness, a fundamental human  value
Problems with Act-utilitarianism
          Is Act-utilitarianism Impractical: Can we calculate happiness?
          Does Act-utilitarianism Succumb to Obvious Counterexamples?
Rule-utilitarianism
Is the Pursuit of Happiness an Unhappy Fate?              Return to contents

The Basic View: Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory                 

    Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory because it maintains that morally right actions, the actions we are obligated to do, are selected by considering the consequences that those actions tend to produce. In short, utilitarianism requires that we look to nonmoral consequences of actions as the only proper way to make moral decisions. Although utilitarianism may focus on any sort of non-moral good as the proper goal, the most dominant form of utilitarian theory directs us to act so as to gain the greatest happiness possible, either indirectly by following rules which, when followed, produce the greatest happiness, such as a rule against lying, or directly by considering the happiness produced by each action we might perform. Happiness is defined, traditionally, as pleasure. In what follows, we will examine act-utilitarianism which directs us to determine our moral obligations by considering the consequences of each act. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are considered the two greatest utilitarians; these British philosophers, writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, developed utilitarian theory and are typically associated with act-utilitarianism.
    The utilitarian principle is traditionally expressed: Always act to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This principle is designed to determine moral obligations, to tell us what actions we are morally bound to perform. According to utilitarians, we are morally obligated to consider all our options, all actions we might perform, and choose the one that most conforms to the demands of utilitarian principle. We must, morally speaking, always do the best action available, where "being best" is decided according to the utilitarian principle: the action that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.    Top

Analyzing the Utilitarian Principle

    Because the utilitarian principle includes "greatest number of people," it makes explicitly clear that it goes beyond egoism. An egoist is only concerned, morally speaking, with himself or herself; the utilitarian rejects this as immoral, claiming that morality requires that the happiness of each person be given equal consideration. But by insisting on a general concern for the welfare of all, the utilitarian introduces problems of interpretation. When we say "the greatest number" of people, do we mean to examine how many people are made happy and how many are made sad, and select the action that makes more people happy? Or does the principle mean that we should look at the total amount of happiness by adding up everyone's pleasure and pain? Or does it instruct us to look for the greatest average amount of happiness that would be produced by each action? Does the principle include future people? Does it include all reasoning beings as people? If creatures from another galaxy appear on earth, are they covered by the principle? Could it be interpreted to include animals?
    We may get different results when we analyze any given action depending on how we answer those questions. Different answers, in effect, mean that we are faced with different principles, each having a different meaning. For example, let's assume that we should make more people happy than sad. Suppose we are deciding what movie, A or B, to see tonight. Three people will be made happy by seeing A and two people will be sad. The only other choice, B, will make two people happy and three sad. So as good utilitarians we decide to make the greatest number of people happy by choosing A. But does this really produce the greatest happiness? Suppose we find out that the three people made happy by movie A will only be slightly happier seeing movie A than B, but the two people made sad by A will be miserable. By seeing B, they become very happy, instead of miserable, and the other three, while less happy, are only slightly less happy. Thus, the total amount of happiness may be improved by seeing movie B.
    With the same number of people involved, when the total happiness increases, so does the average happiness. But suppose that movie A is closer, so that everyone can walk to it. Movie B is further away and can only be reached by the one available car. If A is chosen, then five younger brothers and sisters can be taken. This will make the little siblings happy. It may increase the total amount of happiness of those going to the movie, but now the average happiness might be decreased. This is an example of a way in which the average and the total happiness may differ. In making a decision according to the utilitarian principle, one would need to include those who can go to the movie and those who can’t. Remember, the happiness of each person is to be given equal consideration. But the difference between average and total happiness can be a serious problem for utilitarians; for example, it is problem when population issues are concerned. The next person born into a family may have a significant chance of having more happiness than sadness, but may diminish the happiness of all the other members of the family. Even so, the total happiness may increase while the average happiness decreases. If we include animals in utilitarian theory, even assuming that they have a lesser capacity than human beings to be happy or sad, we could get quite different answers than if we only count human beings.    Top

Jeremy Bentham’s Analysis of Pleasure

    The act-utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham takes into account the total amount of happiness for all people, not average pleasure. Happiness is interpreted as pleasure, and all pleasures, in themselves, are equally good. For Bentham, unlike for Mill, intellectual pleasures are no better than bodily pleasures. In itself, the pleasure of wallowing in mud is no better than the pleasure some people get from doing a difficult proof in logic. This sounds like an animalistic morality, but this inference leaves out the complexity of Bentham's position.
    Bentham recognizes that pleasures are complex; they differ in ways that end up making some pleasures better than others. Although one type of pleasure is no better than another in itself, a longer-lasting pleasure is better than a shorter pleasure because it produces more pleasure; so the duration of a pleasure must be considered. A pleasure we experience soon is better than a pleasure experienced later; this is called the propinquity of a pleasure. Bentham claims that a fruitful pleasure, one that leads to other pleasures, is better than a pleasure that goes nowhere. Bentham continues: An intense pleasure is better than a dull pleasure. A more certain pleasure, one that we can reliably expect, should have a greater impact on our calculations about what to do than an uncertain one. A pure pleasure, one that is not mixed with pain, is better than a pleasure that is tainted with pain. For example, the pleasure many get from jogging is sometimes mixed with significant pain. Added to all of this, the absence of pain counts as pleasure.
    Now we can argue that the pleasure of solving a logic proof is a better pleasure if it satisfies Bentham's standards. We are made more skillful by logic, and so we can enjoy a new set of experiences that those less skillful cannot enjoy. It is a reliable pleasure and one that usually is long-lived. It does come mixed with some pain, the hard work to learn how to do the proof and the struggle to solve it, though the pain is usually not intense. All in all, the negative features of doing logic may be compensated by its long-run, positive, happiness-producing qualities. And these may produce, for many people so inclined, more than enough happiness to outpace the happiness from a low-level physical pleasure.
    Bentham proposes a calculus of utility. To decide which actions to do, we add up all the pleasure and pain each possible action is expected to produce. We must be careful to evaluate all the aspects of pleasure: intensity, fruitfulness, duration, certainty, propinquity, and purity. After we consider all the totals, we should do the action that produces the most happiness.    Top

John Stuart Mill’s Analysis of Pleasure

    Mill objects to Bentham's procedure. Some pleasures, Mill thought, are more admirable than others. The pleasure from doing mathematical proofs is a more admirable pleasure, in itself, than the pleasure we may get from eating a good meal. Furthermore, some actions so fundamentally disrupt pleasure, like injustice and censorship, that they are virtually always forbidden. Under his view, injustice is a name we assign to those actions that upset people's lives in basic ways. These are forbidden in a strict way by most theories because they involve such a serious amount of pain and a consistent forfeit of pleasure; typically, no calculation is needed to condemn acts of injustice.
    Mill's reaction to injustice and censorship helps to show one of the advantages claimed for the utilitarian theory, that it can account for or explain the values supported in other theories. If a deontologist claims that it is always immoral to violate justice, the utilitarian claims that this is a good insight because justice does promote happiness, but the insight is carried to an extreme. The deontologist properly claims that violating justice or freedom is a serious offense. It virtually always causes a loss of utility, but by making this a strict moral requirement, one without exception, the deontologist loses sight of the base of the concern, that injustice typically robs us of happiness. Utilitarians thus believe that deontologists are mistaken because they end up making justice more crucial in human life than happiness. Keeping happiness in mind, the utilitarian believes that we can explain our typical objection to injustice without making the objection into an absolute requirement.   Top

The Main Strength of Utilitarian Theory: happiness is a fundamental human value

    Many philosophers consider utilitarianism to be superior to other theories because happiness is fundamentally desirable, something thought to be desired by all people. A moral theory focusing on the attainment of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people gives good guidance. If we all seek the greatest happiness, then we should live in a better world and a better society. The utilitarian objects to racial and sexual exploitation, to vengeful punishment, to war, and to pollution. These things deprive us of happiness. A careful analysis of the hostility caused, harm inflicted, in relation to gains, will show that the utilitarian is able to insist upon solid social reform. A utilitarian not only objects, typically, to many of the things we consider wrong, but gives us a reason why they are wrong. When that reason doesn't hold, then the utilitarian, theoretically, is willing to agree that it is not morally wrong. Far from being a vice, the utilitarian believes moral life requires that we carefully consider all actions to determine whether we are doing the right thing.   Top

Problems with Act-utilitarianism

    Although utilitarians underscore the crucial moral value of happiness and non-harm, their doctrine has been attacked as impractical, unidimensional, and unfair. Furthermore, some philosophers complain that act-utilitarianism is an overly demanding morality because we are always obligated to choose from among actions that one which exactly produces the most happiness. Under this moral view there is no room for extraordinary moral actions. Actions that go beyond the ordinary demands of morality are called supererogatory. For the utilitarian no actions are supererogatory.     Top

    Is Act-utilitarianism Impractical: Can we calculate happiness?

    Some philosophers believe we can measure happiness in units, called utils. A negative number represents pain. Suppose we are utilitarians with this belief, and we are to decide between four possible actions, A, B, C, D, each affecting three people, Alicia, Shaq, and Leslie. The following table indicates the utils that Alicia, Shaq, and Leslie get from these actions.

Utils gained from choices A, B, C, and D
 

Alicia

Shaq

Leslie

A

15

-2

-2

B

5

4

1

C

-2

11

0

D

6

6

-2

    This table shows that action A produces 15 utils for Alicia, -2 utils for Shaq, and -2 for Leslie, and action B produces 5 utils for Alicia, 4 for Shaq, and 1 for Leslie, and so on. The table of values offers a neat set of numbers, each assigning an outcome in utils to an action. This may sound plausible. We might know that going out to dinner for ribs will terribly upset Shaq, a vegetarian, and please Alicia due to her upbringing in Texas. Numbers like -2 and 15 may be a good relative guess at the outcome, but it is a guess and might be quite wrong. Shaq may over-state his objection to eating meat. Subconsciously or consciously he may desire meat and get great happiness from it. Our estimates may be wrong, even when we know each person well, which, of course, is not always the case.
    Let's examine a case where we would have difficulty figuring how happy a decision would make the people involved. Suppose we are dealing with an issue about which we have a little previous knowledge. We have noticed that Alicia gets excited over a small gift, but that Shaq only gives a clear response to a valuable gift. Since we have only $100 to spend, we decide to divide it up as $5 for Alicia and $95 for Shaq. This seems to produce a great deal of happiness. Alicia responds well, and so does Shaq.
    Did we do the right thing? Alicia might not be so happy with the gift and may respond out of courtesy. Shaq may have been delighted with a $50 present, even without much expression. The added delight he shows with a $95 present might not indicate much additional pleasure. If we had spent $50 on each, perhaps the amount of pleasure would have been significantly increased.
    Some people are more expressive than others about equally strong feelings. Regardless, no one really knows how to compare the pleasure one person receives with the pleasure of another. This is called the problem of interpersonal utility calculations. We can observe the behavior of two people, but this behavior may not give us an accurate reading of the pleasure either one receives. Though pleasure is an internal state, even a single person, after two experiences, may not be able to specify the degree to which one pleasure surpasses the other. The problem of interpersonal utility calculations is, to many philosophers, an insurmountable problem because pleasure cannot really be measured accurately.
    But there may be solid ways to determine or to estimate happiness through observable situations. Since pleasure is unobservable, some utilitarians have decided that what matters is the satisfaction of preferences. We can assume that if people get what they want, what they prefer, they will be happier than if they don’t. Those who measure pleasure by utils believe that an exact number represents happiness attained, which appears to be unrealistic. Using utils is a mistake; all we can really know with assurance is that some one state of affairs, say A, is preferred to another, say B. When people rate outcomes ordinally -- that is, as long as they rate outcomes as first, second, third, etc., without saying how much better one outcome is than another -- then the utilitarian can more realistically claim that decisions should be made that, insofar as we can, give people their most preferred outcomes. This scheme, theoretically at least, is favored by economists and some philosophers. They believe that preferences can be revealed through actions; if we purchase A rather than B, and A costs more than B, we reveal that we prefer A to B. This, those economists claim, is all it means to say that A makes you happier than B: you have a revealed preference for A.
    Using revealed preferences sounds more realistic than the assignment of precise cardinal numbers to utility. Cardinal numbers in utilitarian theory indicate the exact amount of happiness gained by an experience, as in the table of utils involving Alicia, Shaq, and Leslie. These numbers can be compared in the utilitarian scheme. If experience A produces 3 utils and B produces 6 for Alicia, then B makes Alicia twice as happy as A. This does sound unrealistic. But revealed preferences are also difficult if not impossible to determine, may be contradictory, and may not remain constant for long.
    We can show that preferences are inconsistent when a person prefers A to B, and B to C, but C to A. For example, I might prefer a five percent return on a certificate of deposit (CD) to a three percent return on a tax-free bond, and a three percent return on a tax-free bond to a mutual fund, but, surprisingly, I might prefer a mutual fund to a five percent return on a CD. In this way either I am inconsistent or have, over possibly a short period of time, changed my preferences. Either way, the utilitarian faces problems because the intent is to produce more happiness or more preference fulfillment. If preferences change easily, then the opposite outcome may be unintentionally produced; that is, by the time we make and carry out moral calculation according to the utilitarian principle, preferences may have changed enough so that we end up hindering preference attainment by securing things that people do not want. Furthermore, we might reveal preference for something out of ignorance about it. We all know about wanting something we think will make us happy, only to find, when we get it, that its real appeal was less than its imagined appeal. Preferences are tricky because we might be ignorant about our preferences or we may find situations incomparable. How do we decide what we prefer when comparing a short-term pleasure, like going to a movie, with the long-term rewards that we get from studying moral theory? (If you don't like this example, you might want to make up your own.)
    The difficulty of determining what makes people happy suggests that applying the utility principle is impractical. But let us assume that we can make interpersonal utility calculations, or that we can determine, after careful observation, what people prefer. These are heroic assumptions. But even under this hypothesis, the principle is impractical. We don't know how many people will be affected by our actions. We don't know how an action performed today affects a person's behavior tomorrow. Doing good today, say helping a sick person, might create psychological dependencies. We do not have adequate knowledge about habit formation in general, let alone habit formation in particular cases. But we do know that what is done today may create habits, good or bad, tomorrow. Because our actions may affect many people, problems about determining long-run happiness are compounded. When we think about the items Bentham would have us consider, we begin to see how impractical anything but a rough and ready utility calculation would be.
    We might be able to overcome these problems by resorting to common sense. In this way, especially when we deal with events that involve a large number of people, we might be able to make good utility estimates. Up to a point, better health care clearly makes people happy. Some want no care, and others are hypochondriacs. These idiosyncratic traits are balanced out in large numbers of people. Typically, or on the average, people want better health care. A utilitarian could reasonably argue that a better system of care is a good thing. However, utilitarians are not good at specifying the details of what constitutes better care. So even in terms of large-scale action, the best a utilitarian can hope to do, practically speaking, is make suggestions about basic policy.
    If practicality were the only problem, the utilitarian might feel more at ease. After all, abstract principles do not give specifics; instead they tell us what to give careful consideration. Although we might not be able to make precise calculations, we are to do the best we can. The impracticality of making a new calculation for every action might also need to give way to making our best estimates for significant actions. We may hope for more direction from a theory, but if this is the best that can be done, the utilitarian may claim that in practice we are forced to do second best: make approximations and risky predictions, and take calculation shortcuts.
    The critic may persist: the whole idea of determining who is made happy is an illusion. If this is the only criterion, if we have no theory about human needs, morally proper rules, moral commitment, or moral conventions, we will always be chasing a mythical point of maximal happiness. We know that, in our personal lives, the more we try to pursue our happiness, without commitments and tough choices, the more we are likely to fail. Instead, if we become loyal to a cause (as Josiah Royce's philosophy of loyalty suggests; see the link below) and act in ways we know to be responsible independent of utility, we will end up satisfied, fulfilled, and probably happy. Top

    Does Act-utilitarianism Succumb to Obvious Counterexamples?

    The practicality debate goes round and round. Whether or not utilitarianism is impractical, it suffers from a greater problem, morally speaking. It often seems to be an immoral doctrine, suffering from serious moral counterexamples. A moral counterexample has this structure: We accept a moral principle as a hypothesis. Then we examine actions, under various circumstances, demanded by the principle. If a theory demands actions that are generally considered to be basically immoral -- serious moral infractions -- then that theory is considered to be disproved or weakened by those counterexamples. For a counterexample to be strong, the theory must clearly claim the action is required, and the action must be widely, and obviously, considered quite wrong.
    Utilitarianism is subject to many easily produced counterexamples. The most famous counterexamples to utilitarianism deal with slavery and punishment of the innocent. They are usually presented as hypothetical cases: (1) Imagine a society where ten percent of the people are slaves. They are miserable, but because of the supposed benefits from slavery, the other ninety percent are much happier. Those who are not slaves may feel superior, avoid difficult work, and have a larger share of the economic pie. In this example, if the slaves are freed, they become happier, but the rest of the population suffers. The sum total of happiness goes down with freedom. If all of this turns out to be true, the utilitarian is forced to accept slavery, a blatantly immoral institution.
    (2) Imagine a town faced with a crime wave. Unless the police get a suspect soon, nervous, gun-carrying townspeople will start to shoot at each other in fear, and the police investigation will be hampered. All of this can be stopped if some habitual criminal, an undesirable person anyway, is framed. Indeed, the town will be made more peaceful, an undesirable person will be put out of commission, and the police can get on with business -- but only if an innocent person is framed. Given these circumstances, the utilitarian principle supports framing the innocent person, but this appears immoral.
    Both counterexamples involve sacrificing the well-being of some people for the good of the rest. This seems unjust. But utilitarians rightly claim that they support social reforms, especially against social institutions such as slavery precisely because they produce so much misery. By and large, utilitarians support a well-regulated police force, a fair judicial system, and just punishment. But the point remains: if it provides more happiness, then slavery and punishment of the innocent must be done, according to the utilitarian theory.. Utilitarians are theoretically committed to the claim that, in such unlikely circumstances, the apparently immoral action is the proper action.
    Utilitarians may reply that these counterexamples are improbable. We do not generally judge theories by far-fetched examples. The critic may persist saying that cases like these often happen in social life. A disadvantaged youth is ridiculed to the greater happiness of the elementary school students. A convict is given a heavier sentence due to political pressure. Rights, like the right to free speech, are infringed because it is the acceptable thing to do. The tyranny of the majority, or of an influential minority, may sway utility calculations in an immoral direction. The act-utilitarian rejects counterexample scenarios with the claim that such circumstances only appear to cause more happiness. In reality, more pain is produced, and that is why such things are wrong. Others claim that this is merely a utilitarian assumption, and that more happiness can sometimes be produced by immoral actions.    Top

Rule-utilitarianism

    Some utilitarians accepted the force of the counterexample argument. They responded by developing rule-utilitarianism, so that instead of evaluating particular cases of slavery or punishing the innocent, rules about these things need to be evaluated. The individual case is not judged: that is too impractical and too susceptible to counterexamples. By judging general issues, the rule-utilitarian believes that both problems, impracticality and counterexamples, can be solved. The act-utilitarian rejects this approach. If happiness counts as the main value, it is immoral rule worship to accept a less happy outcome in an individual case merely because the general application of a rule results in greater happiness. Also, utility calculations made about a rule may be even more difficult than those made about a particular action. After all, we are closer to the current circumstances than we are to actions done in the future, or in far-away places, under a rule.
    The debate between act-utilitarians and rule-utilitarians may be mediated. Perhaps we should have rules, but allow exceptions. Rules may serve especially well in institutions, like the government, bureaucracies, or the law, but perhaps in family life actions should not come under binding rules, so that in many cases happiness may be the main consideration. In more local environments we know more about those involved, and so we can calculate happiness or preference satisfaction more directly, even if only approximately. If this observation is correct, then utilitarianism must more carefully specify the domain over which calculations are made. Over broader domains, say those involving governmental action, a rule orientation may be more appropriate, while in a narrower domain such as family activities, covering actions affecting fewer people, a more direct, act-approach may be in order.   Top

Is the Pursuit of Happiness an Unhappy Fate?

    Utilitarianism, somewhat paradoxically, is a somber or demanding theory. This is paradoxical because it begins by supporting the production of happiness. We are always obligated to do the action that, of all our choices, produces the most happiness for everyone. Even though this is the case, the utilitarian places extreme burdens on us all. Whether you should be reading these lines now, or helping a friend or a family member, or working, or studying biology, should be determined by the amount of happiness such actions produce. The American philosopher Shelly Kagan challenges us to consider whether what we are doing now actually does produce the most happiness. If I go to a movie, couldn't the eight dollars I spend do more good if I gave them to UNICEF? In fact, wouldn't it be better yet to dedicate my life to some social cause designed to save lives? The reply -- that demands about my life, how I spend my money, or what I do, are unfair, and may make my life miserable -- doesn't hold status in the utilitarian calculation; if giving money to charity creates more good than going to a movie, this is what I must do. The initial enthusiasm of the appeal to happiness soon results, at least according to Kagan, in a somber commitment to universal, or near universal, sacrifice. You should do the action that produces the most happiness for the greatest number of people, no matter what that action is and no matter how much it hurts to do it.
    In calculating utility your own happiness doesn't count more than the happiness of anyone else. Everyone's happiness counts equally. The main question is about how much happiness is produced. So if I give my money to a good cause, the unhappiness that the loss of money causes me doesn't count for any more or less than the unhappiness avoided by the charitable gift. Your actions probably affect you, and those close to you, more than others. Those you cannot affect don't count in your calculations, but those close may gain or lose happiness depending on your actions. So in this sense we may believe that by getting a good grade in a course, or learning ethical theory, we are doing the best thing possible. But this is doubtful. Given the misery around the world, Kagan might be right that utilitarianism demands that we all totally devote ourselves to the demands of a very rigorous moral theory.   Top

See also:
     Rule-Utilitarianism
     Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty