Paley, Bentham, Mill,
• Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral
worth of an action is determined solely by its
contribution to overall utility:
• that is, its contribution to happiness or
pleasure as summed among all people.
• It is thus a form of consequentialism,
meaning that the moral worth of an action is
determined by its outcome.
• Utilitarianism is often described by the
phrase "the greatest good for the greatest
number of people", and is also known as "the
greatest happiness principle".
• Utility, the good to be maximized, has been
defined by various thinkers as happiness or
pleasure (versus suffering or pain).
Basic Insights of Utilitarianism
• The purpose of morality is to make the
world a better place.
• Morality is about producing good
consequences, not having good intentions
• We should do whatever will bring the most
benefit (i.e., intrinsic value) to all of
The Purpose of Morality
• The utilitarian has a very simple answer to
the question of why morality exists at all:
–The purpose of morality is to guide
people’s actions in such a way as to
produce a better world.
• Consequently, the emphasis in
utilitarianism is on consequences, not
• William Paley (1743–1805)
• His position on the nature of
morality was similar to that
of Ockham and Luther—
namely, he held that right
and wrong are determined
by the will of God.
• Yet, because he believed that
God wills the happiness of
his creatures, his normative
ethics were utilitarian:
happiness is right; whatever
diminishes it is wrong.
• William Paley was a British
Christian apologist, philosopher,
• He is best known for his
exposition of the teleological
argument for the existence of
God in his work Natural
Theology, which made use of
the watchmaker analogy.
• Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is
properly considered the father
of modern utilitarianism.
• It was he who made the
utilitarian principle serve as the
basis for a unified and
comprehensive ethical system
that applies, in theory at least,
to every area of life.
• Never before had a complete,
detailed system of ethics been
so consistently constructed from
a single fundamental ethical
Bentham’s “Act” Utilitarianism
• “Nature has placed mankind under the governancy of two
sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone
to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine
what we shall do.”
• “The principle of utility . . . Is that principle which approves
or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the
tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish
the happiness of the party whose interest is in question”
• “By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it
tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or
happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain,
evil, or unhappiness. . .”
Early Criticisms of Bentham’s
• Hedonism – a moral
theory “fit for swine”
• Atheistic – leaves out
(and by extension, any
• Promotes selfishness –
calculus of pure self-
Bentham’s rebuttal: Vulgar or not, nature has placed us under two masters,
pleasure and pain - there is no other standard
• Jeremy Bentham figured
that laws should be socially
useful and not merely
reflect the status quo; and,
that while he believed that
men inevitably pursue
pleasure and avoid pain,
Bentham thought it to be a
"sacred truth" that "the
greatest happiness of the
greatest number is the
foundation of morals and
• Bentham supposed that
the whole of morality
could be derived from
interest," and that a
person who always acted
with a view to his own
maximum satisfaction in
the long run would
always act rightly.
• Bentham's position
included arguments in
• individual and
• the separation of
church and state
• freedom of expression,
equal rights for women
• the end of slavery
• the abolition of physical
punishment (including that of
• the right to divorce, free trade,
usury, and the
• He also made two distinct
attempts during his life to
critique the death penalty.
Modern Criticisms of Bentham
• Quantification and measurability of “the good”
• Incommensurate notions of “the good”
• Ignores other, morally relevant considerations
– Human Rights
– Distribution of “the good”
• Difficult and often inconsistent in practice to solve
for U(x) and maximize this variable
• No supererogation
– No value in performing more than required
John Stuart Mill [1806-73]
• John Stuart Mill,
Bentham’s successor as
the leader of the
utilitarians and the most
thinker of the 19th
century, had some
sympathy for the view
that Bentham’s position
was too narrow and
John Stuart Mill’s Revisions:
• Elevate the “Doctrine of the Swine” –
– Pleasures of the intellect, not the flesh
– Qualitatively better, not quantitatively
• “Happiness” is NOT simply equivalent to pleasure
– “lower quality pleasures”
• shared with other animals – e.g., food, sex
– “higher quality pleasures,”
• uniquely human, involving our so-called higher faculties
“It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool or a pig satisfied.”
• Although his position was based on
the maximization of happiness
(and this is said to consist of
pleasure and the absence of pain),
he distinguished between
pleasures that are higher and those
that are lower in quality.
• This enabled him to say that it is
“better to be Socrates dissatisfied
than a fool satisfied.”
• The fool, he argued, would be of a
different opinion only because he
has not experienced both kinds of
John Stuart Mill’s Revisions:
Utilitarianism is NOT equivalent to selfishness. Mill writes:
“. . .between his own happiness and that of another, utilitarianism
requires that one be strictly impartial as a disinterested and
“…not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.”
Notions like “rights” and “justice” are merely “rules of thumb”
that represent underlying calculations of overall utility (rule
Is this what Mill really meant?
• Mill sought to show that
utilitarianism is compatible
with moral rules and principles
relating to justice, honesty,
and truthfulness by arguing
that utilitarians should not
attempt to calculate before
each action whether that
particular action will maximize
• Instead, they should be
guided by the fact that an
action falls under a general
principle (such as the
principle that people
should keep their
promises), and adherence
to that general principle
tends to increase
Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900).
• Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics (1874)
is the most detailed and subtle work
of utilitarian ethics yet produced.
• Especially noteworthy is his
discussion of the various principles of
what he calls common sense
morality—i.e., the morality accepted,
without systematic thought, by most
• Sidgwick was himself an intuitionist
as far as the basis of ethics was
concerned: he believed that the
principle of utilitarianism must
ultimately be based on a self-evident
axiom of rational benevolence.
• He strongly rejected the view that
all principles of common sense
morality are self-evident.
• He went on to demonstrate that
the allegedly self-evident
principles conflict with one
another and are vague in their
• They could be part of a coherent
system of morality, he argued,
only if they were regarded as
subordinate to the utilitarian
principle, which defined their
application and resolved the
conflicts between them.
• He adopted a position which may be
described as ethical hedonism,
according to which the criterion of
goodness in any given action is that it
produces the greatest possible amount
• This hedonism, however, is not confined
to the self (egoistic), but involves a due
regard to the pleasure of others, and is,
therefore, distinguished further as
• Lastly, Sidgwick returns to the principle
that no man should act so as to destroy
his own happiness.
Act and Rule
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
• Act utilitarianism
– Looks at the consequences of each individual
act and calculate utility each time the act is
• Rule utilitarianism
– Looks at the consequences of having everyone
follow a particular rule and calculates the
overall utility of accepting or rejecting the
• Imagine the following scenario. A prominent and much-loved leader has been
rushed to the hospital, grievously wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He needs
a heart and lung transplant immediately to survive. No suitable donors are
available, but there is a homeless person in the emergency room who is being
kept alive on a respirator, who probably has only a few days to live, and who is
a perfect donor. Without the transplant, the leader will die; the homeless
person will die in a few days anyway. Security at the hospital is very well
controlled. The transplant team could hasten the death of the homeless
person and carry out the transplant without the public ever knowing that they
killed the homeless person for his organs. What should they do?
– For rule utilitarians, this is an easy choice. No one could approve a general rule
that lets hospitals kill patients for their organs when they are going to die anyway.
The consequences of adopting such a general rule would be highly negative and
would certainly undermine public trust in the medical establishment.
– For act utilitarians, the situation is more complex. If secrecy were guaranteed, the
overall consequences might be such that in this particular instance greater utility is
produced by hastening the death of the homeless person and using his organs for
The Continuing Dispute
• Rule utilitarians claim:
– In particular cases, act utilitarianism can justify disobeying
important moral rules and violating individual rights.
– Act utilitarianism also takes too much time to calculate in
each and every case.
• Act utilitarians respond:
– Following a rule in a particular case when the overall utility
demands that we violate the rule is just rule-worship. If the
consequences demand it, we should violate the rule.
– Furthermore, act utilitarians can follow rules-of-thumb
(accumulated wisdom based on consequences in the past)
most of the time and engage in individual calculation only
when there is some pressing reason for doing so.
Evaluating Actions by Their Consequences
(Examples from the trivial to the life determining)
Example: (Not a deep moral issue)
Do I eat the donut this morning?
– Long term – at least 500 calories
– Short term pleasure – burst of sugar in my mouth
– Will make me sleepy after about 45 min.
– I love donuts, they make me happy
– Am I a pig?
– Other consequences to consider?
Medical Triage Example
1) Will die without 2) Will live- 3) Might save if
extraordinary --don’t treat now they get medical
Is this a “fair” concept?
• How do we morally justify letting people die without medical
Shouldn’t we be trying to save every human life?
• How would you feel if you woke up on tent #1?
• How do we morally explain to the patient in tent #1 they will not
see a doctor?
• An act is good/bad, right/wrong, depending on the
consequences or ends produced by that act
– If the consequences are good, the act is good.
– If the consequences are bad, the act is bad.
– Judges the act, not the person
– Does not consider intentions or motive
– So, good intentions could produce a “bad” act
– And “bad” people (with bad intentions) can produce a good act
So much for good intent!
• Isn’t the military the
– We are willing to sacrifice
soldiers to achieve our
desired end state?
• Don’t Utilitarians use some
Kantian ethics? …They have
• Patriot Act?
• Value of the individual
– Equal claim to triage