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Utilitarianism

An Introduction to the Moral
Theories of Jeremy Bentham
and John Stuart Mill
Ethical Judgments
 Ethical philosophy differs from the
sciences because it is normative or
prescriptive, rather than descriptive.
 In other words, ethics tell us how we
ought to act or what we should do,
while the sciences are more likely to
observe how things are in nature or
society.
Making Ethical Judgments
Areas of Emphasis in Making Moral
Judgments
Purpose or
Motive
Act, Rule,
or Maxim
Results or
Consequences


Making Ethical Judgments in
Utilitarianism
 Utilitarianism says that the Result or the
Consequence of an Act is the real
measure of whether it is good or bad.
 This theory emphasizes Ends over
Means.
 Theories, like this one, that emphasize
the results or consequences are called
teleological or consequentialist.
Jeremy
Bentham
Bentham‟s Formulation of
Utilitarianism
 Man is under two great masters, pain and
pleasure.
 The great good that we should seek is
happiness. (a hedonistic perspective)
 Those actions whose results increase
happiness or diminish pain are good. They
have “utility.”
Jeremy Bentham‟s Hedonistic
Calculus
 In determining the quantity of happiness
that might be produced by an action, we
evaluate the possible consequences by
applying several values:
 Intensity, duration, certainty or
uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness,
fecundity, purity, and extent.
Four Theses of Utilitarianism
 Consequentialism: The rightness of actions is
determined solely by their consequences.
 Hedonism: Utility is the degree to which an act
produces pleasure. Hedonism is the thesis that
pleasure or happiness is the good that we seek
and that we should seek.
 Maximalism: A right action produces the greatest
good consequences and the least bad.
 Universalism: The consequences to be
considered are those of everyone affected, and
everyone equally.
Two Formulations of Utilitarian
Theory
Principle of
Utility: The best
action is that
which produces
the greatest
happiness
and/or reduces
pain.
Greatest Happiness:
We ought to do
that which
produces the
greatest
happiness and
least pain for the
greatest number
of people.
Two Types of Utilitarianism
 Rule: An action is right
if and only if it conforms
to a set of rules the
general acceptance of
which would produce
the greatest balance of
pleasure over pain for
the greatest number.
(John Stuart Mill)
 Act: An Action is
right if and only if it
produces the
greatest balance of
pleasure over pain
for the greatest
number. (Jeremy
Bentham)
Application of Utilitarian Theory
 A) You attempt to
help an elderly
man across the
street. He gets
across safely.
 Conclusion: the
Act was a good
act.
 B) You attempt to
help an elderly man
across the street.
You stumble as you
go, he is knocked
into the path of a car,
and is hurt.
 Conclusion: The Act
was a bad act.
Application of Utilitarian Theory
 If you can use eighty soldiers as a decoy in
war, and thereby attack an enemy force
and kill several hundred enemy soldiers,
that is a morally good choice even though
the eighty might be lost.
 If lying or stealing will actually bring about
more happiness and/or reduce pain, Act
Utilitarianism says we should lie and steal
in those cases.
Application of Utilitarian Theory
Actual Cases
 The decision at Coventry during WWII.
 The decision was made not to inform the town
that they would be bombed.
 The Ford Pinto case: A defective vehicle
would sometimes explode when hit.
 The model was not recalled and repaired by Ford
because they felt it was cheaper to pay the
liability suits than to recall and repair all the
defective cars.
Criticisms of Bentham‟s theory
Bentham‟s theory could mean that if 10
people would be happy watching a man
being eaten by wild dogs, it would be a
morally good thing for the 10 men to kidnap
someone (especially someone whose death
would not cause grief to many others) and
throw the man into a cage of wild, hungry
dogs.
John Stuart Mill‟s Adjustments to
Utilitarianism
 Mill argues that we must consider the
quality of the happiness, not merely the
quantity.
 For example, some might find happiness
with a pitcher of beer and a pizza. Others
may find happiness watching a fine
Shakespearean play. The quality of
happiness is greater with the latter.
Mill‟s Quality Arguments
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied
than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the
fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is
because they only know their own side of the
question. The other party to the comparison
knows both sides.”
Mill‟s Quality Arguments
“As between his own happiness and that
of others, utilitarianism requires him to be
as strictly impartial as a disinterested and
benevolent spectator. In the golden rule
of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the
complete spirit of the ethics of utility. „To
do as you would be done by,‟ and „to love
your neighbor as yourself,‟ constitute the
ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
Criticisms of Utilitarianism
If I am to bring the greatest happiness to the
greatest number, not putting my own
happiness above others, that may lead to a
dilemma. I live in a neighborhood where
83% of my neighbors use drugs. I could
make them most happy by helping supply
them with cheap drugs, but I feel
uncomfortable doing that. What should a
utilitarian do?
Criticisms of Utilitarianism
 Bernard Williams criticizes the implied
“doctrine of negative responsibility” in
Utilitarianism. For example, a thug breaks
into my home and holds six people
hostage, telling us he will kill all of us.
“However,” the thug says, “if you will kill
two of your family, I will let you and the
other three live.”
 With Utilitarianism, the good thing to do is
to kill two members of my family.
Criticisms of Utilitarianism
 Utilitarianism plays fast and loose with
God‟s commandments. If lying, stealing,
or killing could lead to an increase of
happiness for the greatest number, we are
told we should lie, steal or kill. Isn‟t that a
rejection of God‟s commands?
Mill‟s Answer to the “Godless
Theory” Criticism
 What is the nature of God?
 Does God make arbitrary rules just to see
if we will obey?
 Does God make rules that He knows will
lead to our happiness?
 If the latter statement is true, doesn‟t it
make sense God would want us to use
our God-given reason to look at the
situation?
Mill‟s Answer to the “Godless Theory”
Criticism
“If it be a true belief that God desires, above
all things, the happiness of his creatures,
and that this was his purpose in their
creation, utility is not a godless doctrine, but
more profoundly religious than any other. . .
. .whatever God has though fit to reveal on
the subject of morals must fulfill the
requirements of utility in a supreme degree.”
A Second Criticism of Utilitarianism
If one must decide the probable outcome of
an act before knowing whether it is good or
bad, how can children learn to evaluate
acts, since they know so little of what
consequences might arise from their
actions?
Mill‟s “Rule” Utilitarianism
“ . . . Mankind must by this time have acquired
positive beliefs as to the effects of some
actions on their happiness; and the beliefs
which have thus come down are the rules of
morality for the multitude, and for the
philosopher until he has succeeded in finding
better.” Mill concludes, however, that we
should always seek improvements.
Rights and Utilitarianism
 Many philosophers hold that we have certain
rights, either from God, nature, or from a social
contract
 Can the idea of rights be made compatible with
Utilitarianism?
 If ignoring rights brings about more happiness to
the greatest number, should we ignore so-called
rights?
 Mill‟s rule-based view in On Liberty; having a
right to liberty will bring the greatest happiness
Consequences of Unethical Practices
 Baucus & Baucus (2000)
 Singled out 67 companies out of the Fortune 500
that had at least one illegal act – ex: antitrust,
product liabilities, discrimination
 Performance of the convicted firms were
compared to unconvicted firms (five year after the
fraud was committed)
 Convicted firms experienced significantly lower
return on sales (three year lag)
 Multiple convictions are more disastrous
 Unethical activities can affect long term
performance