Utilitarianism: Basic Observations

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Updated April 4, 2005

Defining Utilitarianism
Common Mistakes Concerning Utilitarianism
Family Moral Models and Utilitarianism
Attractive Features and Strengths of Utilitarianism
Hedonistic Utilitarianism
Preference Utilitarianism
Challenges to Utilitarianism

For related material, see Metaphorical Bases of Ethical Theories and click on "Consequentialist Theories."

Part of this summary page is largely based on chapter 2 of Manuel Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, and makes no claim to originality.

Another source is chapter 2 of Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2002.

There is no need to take my word for what Utilitarianism stands for. A variety of quality material can be found on the Internet. Some resources to get you started:
  • Utilitarianism Resources
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • J. S. Mill, "Utilitarianism"
  • Jeremy Bentham (bio)
  • or search the Internet on the words "utilitarianism," "Jeremy Bentham," "J. S. Mill."

    Defining Utilitarianism

    Broadly speaking , we might define utilitarianism as any view that holds that actions, rules, and institutions should be evaluated on the basis of the benefits and costs that they impose upon society (or sentient beings).

    The basic ethical principle of utilitarianism may be specified as follows:

    An action is right from an ethical point of view if and only if

    the sum total of utilities (=benefits minus costs) produced by that act is greater than the sum total of utilities produced by any other act the agent could have performed in its place.

    Professor M. Velasquez provides a different version of the principle in his Philosophy textbook. Instead of advocating the act (or rule . . . ) that produces the greatest net utility (total benefits minus total costs), this alternate version tells us

    to choose the act that produces that greatest ratio of total benefits to total costs.
    In other words, we should try to produce the largest "B divided by C" instead of "B minus C," where "B" refers to the sum of the benefits and "C" refers to the sum of the costs or negative consequences. Whether we understand utilitarianism in terms of subtraction or division, it clearly advocates making the total benefits as large as possible while keeping the total costs as low as possible.

    Utilitarianism is both like and unlike ethical egoism. Both approaches require us to consider the available options. Both approaches tell us to maximize good consequences and/or minimize bad ones, and that good and bad consequences are all that matter. That is, both are consequentialist. They differ because ethical egoism instructs the chooser to be concerned ultimately with the consequences only for himself or herself. Utilitarianism instructs the chooser to concern him or herself with the consequences for all (persons or animals) affected by the possible actions.

    Common Mistakes Concerning Utilitarianism

    That Utilitarianism Necessarily Favors the Decision that Most Benefits the Chooser or Her Group

    If an option (out of a set of options that might be chosen) most benefits the chooser all things considered, that is the correct option from an ethical egoist perspective. Sometimes the "correct" egoist choice will coincide with the correct utilitarian choice. But frequently the correct utilitarian choice will be a different one. The egoist choice may often be rightly criticized as failing to give any weight to the interests of others.

    If an option most benefits a group to which the chooser belongs but the group does not include everyone affected by the action or by the failure to take an alternative action, the approach may be the pseudo-utilitarian approach we could call collective egoism. Many decisions made by corporate or political leaders follow this pseudo-utilitarian approach. Indeed, such leaders may be under much pressure to use this approach. By itself, it is open to criticism both from the perspective of utilitarianism and from the perspective of social justice, which could accuse it of failing to give proper weight to the interests of persons not in the chooser's group.

    That Utilitarianism Always Most Benefits the Majority and not the Minority

    Utilitarianism sometimes recommends choices that benefit the majority at the expense of a minority, but it is wrong to generalize, as people sometimes do, and say that utilitarianism requires us to choose whatever benefits the majority.

    Consider this case. A and B are the only two options. Society here consists of three persons. The numbers represent the net benefit of each option for each person. Between A and B, which is the correct utilitarian choice?

      Option A    Option B  
    p1  5    2  
    p2  1    2  
    p3  1  2
    total net benefit      7  6

    This example shows that the correct utilitarian option, the one that maximizes total net benefit for society, need not be the one that provides the greatest benefit to the majority. (p2 and p3 make up the majority for this "society.")

    That Utilitarianism Approves Any Choice in which Benefit Outweighs Cost

    The net benefit, or the difference between benefits to society and costs to society, is an important element of utilitarian reasoning. But it is a mistake to say that utilitarianism recommends any option in which the benefits outweigh costs. Consider the following case. The options are A, B, C and D. Society consists of four persons. The numbers represent the net benefit of each option for each person. Which is the correct utilitarian choice?

      Option A    Option B    Option C    Option D  
    p1  5    2    -2    -2  
    p2  1    2    2    -2  
    p3  1  2    2    1  
    p4  2  2    -2    1  
    total net benefit      9  8  0    -2  

    Benefits outweigh costs in options A and B, but B is not the correct choice. If the only two options were C and D, there would be no option in which benefits outweigh costs, yet C would be the correct choice.

    Family Moral Models and Metaphors

    Utilitarianism may be considered a variation of Nurturant Parent Morality for the following reason. At least as it was initially conceived, it took into account everyone affected (in the "national" family). It also aimed to minimize suffering over the long run. (We'll see that it may have difficulty living up to the ideal of fairness that seems to be associated with the Nurturant Parent Family moral model.)

    Another set of metaphors that seems to be operating in Utilitarianism is the metaphor of society as a business and the moral agent as a manager tasked with making decisions that optimize benefit to the business. Just as we can imagine a person making the kind of choices that would maximize his or her self-interest over the long run, so utilitarians ask us to imagine a person's making the kind of choices that will maximize his society's collective self-interest over the long run.

    Attractiveness of Utilitarianism

    Utilitarianism is attractive as a general approach to ethical decision-making for several reasons:

    Original (or Hedonistic) Utilitarianism

    Jeremy Bentham's original version of utilitarianism proposed that we use pleasure and pain as the common denominator for benefits and costs, good and bad results. For Bentham, the only the inherently good is pleasure, the only inherently evil thing is pain. That makes Bentham a philosophical hedonist, i.e., one who believes that the good is pleasure.

    Bentham believed that pleasure and pain could be quantified on the same scale. Pains could be considered negative pleasures. The utility of an action could be exactly zero if the pain produced equalled exactly the pleasure produced.

    Bentham recognized that pleasures are not all the same, that some are more intense than others; some are longer lasting than others; some are purer than others, i.e., less likely to be accompanied by their opposites. Still, that didn't stop him from believing that such qualitative differences could be translated into merely quantitative differences.

    For example, consider intensity: if the pleasure of three minutes of sex is three times as intense as the pleasure of a three-minute massage, and neither involved pain, the sex would be three times as valuable as the massage. But if the sex only lasted one third as long as the pleasant massage, the smaller duration might counterbalance the greater intensity and the two activities could turn out to have the same utility. Other things equal, of course, a more intense pleasure has a higher utility than a less intense one; a longer-lasting pleasure has a higher utility than a briefer one; a purer pleasure a higher utility than a less pure pleasure.

    Hedonistic utilitarians like Bentham cannot consistently ignore the benefits or costs of human choices for nonhuman animals. There would be no justification for so doing. It would be implausible to deny that nonhuman animals feel pleasure and pain, at least in the case of familiar mammals. Bentham's utilitarianism thus provides a basis for criticizing some practices, such as intensive animal agriculture, that involve putting nonhuman animals in uncomfortable, confining conditions.

    Bentham's utilitarianism, however, has the drawback of asking us to quantify private and therefore subjective phenomena, our own pleasures and pains. I know, subjectively and immediately, how intense my current pleasure or pain is, and you have the same immediate awareness of how intense yours is. But you do not have the same direct awareness of my pain that you have of your own, nor do I have the same direct awareness of your pain that I have of my own. Yet if we are to enter pleasures and pains of everyone affected onto the same scale and compare them objectively, it would seem that we would need to be equally sure about the magnitude of these actual feelings. [But see Response to Criticism #1 below under "Criticisms or Weaknesses of Utilitarianism".)

    Preference Utilitarianism

    This difficulty of knowing the pleasures and pains of others has provoked a new version of utilitarianism, one that measures preferences and dispreferences, which can be publicly expressed. On a scale of -10 to 10, person A who favors a new airport in Warren County might rank it a 4, whereas on a similar scale person B who opposes a new airport might rank it a negative 4, although someone who opposes it more vigorously might rank it a negative 6. Once expressed, say, through opinion polls, these preferences and dispreferences have all the publicness and objectivity of marks on a piece of paper.

    In the unmixed preference form of utilitarianism, it is preferences and not money that count, but there is another version involving monetary values. With this financial version of utilitarianism, everything is given monetary values based, perhaps, on what people would be willing to pay for it or to prevent it.

    Both the preference form of utilitarianism and the financial form of utilitarianism have the disadvantage, according to some, of being anthropocentric. That is, the likes or dislikes of nonhuman animals cannot be determined regarding future possibilities, so that the values things might have for them do not enter the consideration. Of course, it makes no sense to ask what a dog would be willing to pay not to be used in tests of Dow Corning's breast implants, so effects on nonhuman animals are not considered in the financial version either.

    Criticisms or Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

    1) The problem of the subjectivity of pleasure and pain. (This is a difficulty primarily for hedonistic utilitarianism; it has already been discussed above.) If utility is the pleasure or pain a person receives from an action, we have a problem of accurate measurement and comparison. We have direct access to our own pleasures and pains, but not to those of others. It does not seem possible to bring your pleasure and mine alongside one another so we can compare them and decide that they are equal or that mine is twice or half of yours.

    Utilitarian response to this criticism. This problem is not as decisive as critics claim. While it may be easier to know one's own pleasures and pains than those of others', it is possible to gain fairly reliable information about the pleasures and pains of others. We can read behavioral signs and infer internal states from them; we have the power of empathy ("putting ourselves in the position of others"); we can reason by analogy, especially when the other persons affected are anatomically similar to ourselves. Utilitarianism implies that we have the duty to make use of such capacities and methods so as not to wrongly ignore the impact of choices on others.

    2) The problem of irreducible values. Positive values like health and life seem to be qualitatively different from financial values like the cost of additional safety features that reduce risks to health and life. A related problem is the problem of untradable benefits or costs. Some critics reject the utilitarian assumption that all goods can be measured in some common denominator and are therefore tradable for some quantity of other goods.

    Utilitarian response to this criticism. We are constantly making trade-offs like this in our personal lives. We risk one type of thing, even our health and life, for the sake of some other type of thing. Utilitarianism is not the only approach to moral choice that requires us to make rational sense of this process. Saying that the values of various types of things cannot be compared would tie the hands of any approach with a chance of human acceptance. This is not only a challenge for utilitarianism but for its rivals as well.

    3) The problem of prediction. Many benefits and costs cannot be reliably predicted. The benefits of basic research in the sciences are hard to predict. So they tend to be ignored or or undercounted. A recent article in Atlantic Monthly points out that funds for basic research have actually declined in recent years because of the dominance of the utilitarian mentality. Ironically, society may be better off we do some things for the sheer value of doing them, not for their consequences. (This seems to be a utilitarian argument for not being utilitarians, at least not about everything.)

    4) The problem of adaptive preferences. Also known as the "Sour Grapes" problem. Sometimes members of a group that has been oppressed for a long time gives up the preference for freedom and equality, because it is just too psychologically distressing to wish for something that one has come to believe one can never achieve. From the perspective of preference utilitarianism, an oppressive society in which the preferences of the oppressed are adaptive preference is a better society in which the oppressed prefer not to be oppressed and are fighting to achieve equality and liberation. But this runs contrary to the hunch of many people that it is better not to be satisfied with oppression than to be satisfied with it.

    5) The problem of external preferences. This is a problem for preference utilitarianism. A distinction may be made between personal preferences, what we prefer to have for ourselves and external preferences, what we prefer that others have regardless of its impact upon ourselves. Thus, people who do not like gays and lesbians might wish gays and lesbians to suffer reduced opportunities even though this would not produce increased opportunities for people like themselves. If enough people have this sort of external preference towards a minority in society, then preference utilitarians might be required to endorse discriminatory laws against that minority. To many people this seems to be a perverse result, violating basic principles of equal justice under the law.

    6) The problem of violation of fundamental rights. We can conceive of situations in which utilitarianism would seem to require that we violate an individual's basic rights. In his Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, M. Velasquez gives the example of the wealthy but nasty old uncle, who owns a chemical plant. The uncle is suffering from an incurable and painful disease, and his negligence managing his plant is likely to cause one or more workers in the plant to die. If his nephew and heir cleverly murders him and then improves conditions at the plant, he not only makes himself happy but improves the lot of the workers at the plant. Utilitarianism would seem to endorse a violation of the uncle's right to life.

    7) The problem of violation of social justice. If we can find a group of "guest workers" who will work at low wages in miserable conditions (because any real alternatives they have in their home countries are even worse) and produce goods that are inexpensive for the rest of us but highly profitable for their employers, utilitarianism might endorse such an arrangement. Social justice (say, along the lines John Rawls might advocate) would demand more adequate wages and working conditions, even at the cost of somewhat higher prices to consumers and somewhat lower profits to employers, because the advantages of the (already relatively privileged) rest of us cannot be fairly joined with the worse-than-necessary conditions of the workers.