Utilitarianism

The purpose of this handout is to clarify our discussion of Utilitarianism. Utilitarian Ethical Theory (UET), it should be noted, is not a single theory. Rather, it is a collection of theories which share a common theme. The theme can be stated very roughly as follows:

What's morally right is whatever maximizes utility.

Particular Utilitarian theories diverge on how to measure utility (pleasure/pain, happiness, best interests, preferences, etc.) and diverge on what is being evaluated (actions versus rules or policies.)

One of the first Utilitarian theories proposed was based on the idea that pleasure is good and pain is bad; surely a safe starting point. Let us be more precise in our terminology. In particular, let us distinguish between INTRINSIC GOODS and EXTRINSIC GOODS. The distinction can be put intuitively as follows: intrinsic goods are those goods which are sought for their own sake, while extrinsic goods are sought for the sake of something else. For example, we all want to make a lot of money, but not because money itself is good. Rather, money is an extrinsic good in the sense that it enables us to get what is intrinsically good; pleasure, for instance.

Those who say that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good are called HEDONISTS. According to hedonists, a life as full of pleasure and as absent of pain as possible is a good life. A hedonist might adopt the following rather crude principle:

An action X is morally right (obligatory) iff X, over all other alternatives, maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

Since this theory takes pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, and since this theory is concerned to evaluate actions, we will call it Hedonic Act Utilitarianism, or HAU.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill, it should be noted, objected to HAU on the grounds that it does not distinguish the pleasure of the master composer from the pleasure of, say, the bestial necrophiliac. Thus Mill offered Qualified-Hedonic Act Utilitarianism, or QAU. According to QAU, pleasures are ranked from lower pleasures (the pleasures of the pig) to higher pleasures (the pleasures of the man). Higher pleasures count for more than lower pleasures in QAU. I invite the student to provide a precise formulation of QAU.

Some have claimed that pleasure is not an intrinsic good. Rather, it is an extrinsic good in the sense that we seek it so that we may be happy. Thus happiness is the sole intrinsic good. Accordingly we have Eudaimonic Act Utilitarianism (EAU), as follows:

An action X is morally right iff X promotes at least as great a balance of happiness over unhappiness for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative action.

We can state EAU more simply but just as precisely:

An action X is morally right (obligatory) iff X maximizes eudaimonic utility.

EAU is also called Classical Utilitarianism, or CU.

The properties of EAU are important. EAU is

  • Universal
  • Egalitarian
  • Maximal
  • Consequential
  • Eudaimonaic
  • Act-Evaluative.

To be sure, the idea that happiness is the sole intrinsic good seems questionable, if not downright false. Such things as fidelity, friendship, honor, and talent might also be considered intrinsic goods. To avoid these objections, the Utilitarian may adopt different standards by which we measure utility.

One attempt has been to try to list all the intrinsic goods we can think up, and evaluate actions according to that list. This gets hopelessly complicated, and it is never very clear that we have captured all the intrinsic goods.

Another option is to sidestep the issue of intrinsic goods and either do whatever is in a person's best interests, or, barring that, do whatever they value--i.e., do what they prefer.

Corresponding to each option we have a different Utilitarian theory. Thus, if we focus on best interests we have Ideal Act Utilitarianism or IAU. And if we focus on preferences we have Preferential Act Utilitarianism. These theories are stated and summarized at the end of the handout.

Another problem that EAU, HAU, and QAU face has to do with the idea that consequences don't always seem to be what is important in evaluating an action's moral value.

The Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons Arguments appear to support the notion that consequences aren't all that matters. The problem with happiness not being the sole intrinsic good could be answered simply by changing the standard of evaluation. But consequentialism is central to UET.

The Utilitarian is in somewhat of a bind, principally because she cannot abandon consequentialism. But she can change from act to rule utilitarianism.

Rule Utilitarianism is a two-tiered theory. We first evaluate a rule as better maximizing utility (however utility is measured) than any other rule. Then we determine which action of a set of alternative actions best accords with the rule.

Rule Utilitarianism responds to the Justice, Rights, and Backward Looking Reasons arguments by avoiding the problem of considering the total consequences of a single, particular action. Instead, the total consequences of all the actions done in accordance with a rule are considered, which presumably avoids the problematic first premise of the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons Arguments .

Thus Utilitarian theories may be either hedonic, eudaimonaic, ideal, or preferential. On another axis, they may be either act or rule evaluative. Thus we have at hand eight Utilitarian theories.

UET Hedonic Eudaimonic Ideal Preferential
Act HAU: An action X is morally right iff X promotes at least as great a balance of pleasure over pain for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative action. EAU: An action X is morally right iff X promotes at least as great a balance of happiness over unhappiness for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative action. IAU: An action X is morally right iff X promotes at least as much of the best interests of the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative action. PAU: An action X is morally right iff X promotes at least as many of the preferences of the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative action.
Rule HRU: An action X is morally right iff X is in accord with a rule R, where R is an essential member of a set of rules S such that S, when followed, promotes at least as great a balance of pleasure over pain for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative set of rules. ERU: An action X is morally right iff X is in accord with a rule R, where R is an essential member of a set of rules S such that S, when followed, promotes at least as great a balance of happiness over unhappiness for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative set of rules. IRU: An action X is morally right iff X is in accord with a rule R, where R is an essential member of a set of rules S such that S, when followed, promotes at least as much of the best interests of the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative set of rules. PRU:An action X is morally right iff X is in accord with a rule R, where R is an essential member of a set of rules S such that S, when followed, promotes at least as many preferences of the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative set of rules.

Note that we can change other things. For example, perhaps we don't want to be egalitarian. Perhaps we should be hierarchical. Then we would have not less than 16 different utilitarian theories. Utilitarianism is an extremely flexible idea.