utilitarianism (2007)


Utilitarianism is an ethical theory of usefulness. It examines the amount of pleasure and pain attached to a consequence. Utilitarianism has been defined as:

“The ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.”

                                                “Dictionary.com, [1]”

From this we can see the basis of Utilitarianism is giving the greatest good for the greatest number. When we look in greater depth, we see different versions, presented by different philosophers.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a key founder of utilitarianism. His theory centres on some of the main issues found in modern day utilitarianism. Firstly, the examination on what drives human beings and looking at goodness and badness is. Secondly, his moral rule, the principal of utility. And finally, the hedonic calculus which is his system for measuring how good or bad a consequence is.

Bentham came to the conclusion that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness. If something is useful, it contains more pleasure than pain. So good is the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Therefore it seems being useful is good. He measured the extent of good by the hedonic calculus.

His thoughts of pleasure and pain were objective things, if I touch a hot iron, it will cause me pain, so I will not do it. Any kind of preference over people who think they deserve more pleasure than another would be dismissed, as Bentham tries to clarify an objective ethical theory.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was another key philosopher regarding utilitarianism. Although he accepted the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, he disagreed with utilitarianism’s quantitive method of decisions made based solely upon numbers. Instead, he gave an alternative which examines pleasure and pain qualitively; a system which takes into account the quantity of pleasure and pain received, (as some types of pleasures are less pleasurable to others). In his renowned quote, he said:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

                                                “[4], Mill”

According to Mill, pleasures of the mind are higher than pleasures of the body. He acknowledges that two work together but puts intellectual pursuit higher than activities such as food, drugs and sex. This view is left open for debate: why should pleasures of the mind be higher than the body? Wouldn’t they be equal?

This leads me onto the advantages of utilitarianism. Firstly   it seems a reasonable, well balanced theory. This is because of its common sense strategy, it is understandable that people seek pleasure and avoid pain, and we should maximise the greatest pleasure. Secondly, when we look at real life conflicts and situations, we naturally look at the outcome of our actions as a factor for making a decision, utilitarianism emphasises this. “Bowie, [5], p.45”.

The benefits to adopting a utilitarianism approach seem significant if we examine a company or organisation. A company with restricted budgets can make decisions such as sacrificing workforce numbers or wage in accordance with the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. The ethical decisions like this where uncertainty can be involved, utilitarianism gives an answer.

There are however, disadvantages to utilitarianism. Firstly as we know, it is a teleological argument, this is something that focuses primarily of the consequence. The problem with this is we cannot predict with precise accuracy that what we think will happen will actually happen.

Secondly, pleasure and pain seem quite abstract words. It seems unlikely that we can universalise them and give their meanings set parameters. How is one to measure pleasure? Would one person’s measurement be the same as someone else’s? A popular argument is that pain is needed, not only to appreciate pleasure, but as a learning tool for people to grow. If pain is not there, it can be argued that people would stay the same, constantly doing the same thing and getting the same result, because there is no motivational force (pain) behind them to change.

Thirdly, we come across another problem of justice. Utilitarianism does not specifically say who is entitled to the pleasure. It only says there should be the greatest amount of it for the greatest number of people. This becomes a problem for minorities, does their view not count, based on the principal that they are the smaller number?

Another key disadvantage of utilitarianism comes from G.E Moore. According to Moore, examining what people desire is not sufficient to conclude what they ought to desire:

“One cannot deduce an ought from an is”

                                                “[6], Moore”

Meaning, we have these things called pleasure and pain. We want to universalise a method to help everyone get the maximum amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain. But to do this, we have to take these words: pleasure and pain, and devise a theory to show what people ought to do. However, as Moore points out, just because we ought to do something does not mean we should do it.

To extend Moore’s view, my choice to decide if I ought to do something is a free one (without getting lost into the free will debate). If I consistently abide by this utilitarian theory, am I taking something away from my life; my free will? And if I am doing that, will that actually give me pain? We could argue that the ability for each human to have a free choice is an important thing to maintain. By telling us we ought to do what is right, we limit our choices: our free will decision. Following this therefore, it seems now a question of which is more important; the freedom to make a free decision, or doing something which you ought to do based on giving pleasure to the greatest number of people.

No matter how many times a maxim may seem beneficial and worthwhile, it seems highly likely to believe that not everyone will follow the rule. For example, a murderer murders two people. Looking at utilitarianism, the murderer should not murder. He is not giving the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number; he should sacrifice his pleasure (if indeed it is pleasure) of killing to giving the two victims happiness by not dying (if indeed it is pleasure). But is a murderer really going to analyse what he does, and prevent himself from future murderers, for his acquired knowledge that he is giving more people pain? Even if the murderer knows he is giving more people pain than himself getting pleasure, even if he is already aware of the teachings of utilitarianism, I don’t think the theory is enough alone to persuade him into following the principles.  

Another point is this: if the murderer kills two people, but the victims did not know they would be killed beforehand, then murdering them makes no difference of itself. Again, if we take two people (discounting family for this example). And they are both murdered by a murderer, the two dead people are not conscious, therefore are not eligible to feel pain. They will have no experience of pain in this matter, because they have died. And so, the murderer is happy, he has pleasure from killing these persons (assuming this is so). If this is so, he has gained happiness for the greatest number (himself) because the two victims are not conscious to feel pain. Without too much expansion, one may argue that indeed the victims did feel pain during the process of their death, for example slowly dying from a knife wound. However let us use the utilitarian theory back on itself. We have the few seconds of pain from a knife wound, compared to the more prolonged pleasure of the murderers actions (maybe a few weeks?).   

As we can see from this example of the murder, things do often get complicated, especially when trying to define a maxim for something that may seem rather “in the air”. When did people start giving definitions for “pain” and “pleasure”? When we give a definition for something like a chair, or curtains, this causes us little problems. We have a more solid base to work from. But I think creating a method starting from such an unstable baseline (pleasure and pain) is proving difficult. Even though it is a well explained answer to ethical issues, it lacks a certain depth that fails to cover issues of individualism: not only pleasure and pain itself, but the amount of cultural and sociological differences we vary as humans. Although a brave attempt, I suffice to say it is too heavy a task to handle: A solid but ultimately limited theory.



[1] www.dictionary.com                     Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, 2006.

[2] Anthony Harrison- Barbet             Mastering Philosophy Second edition, Palgrave, 2001

[3] John Hospers                                 An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, Routledge, 1997

[4] John Stuart Mill                             Utilitarianism

 [5] Robert A Bowie                            Ethical Studies, Nelson Thornes, 2001.

[6] G.E Moore                                     (unspecified book title)