Utilitarian Ethics

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					Utilitarian Ethics
 Paley, Bentham, Mill,
            Utilitarian Ethics
• 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.
            Utilitarian Ethics
• 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
• 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:
  whatever increases
  happiness is right; whatever
  diminishes it is wrong.
 William Paley
• William Paley was a British
  Christian apologist, philosopher,
  and utilitarian.
• 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
• 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
    higher-order moral
• 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
Bentham’s Ethics
        • 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’s Ethics
        • Bentham supposed that
          the whole of morality
          could be derived from
          "enlightened self-
          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 Ethics
• Bentham's position
  included arguments in
  favor of
• individual and
  economic freedom
• the separation of
  church and state
• freedom of expression,
  equal rights for women
• the end of slavery
              Bentham’s Ethics
• the abolition of physical
  punishment (including that of
• the right to divorce, free trade,
  usury, and the
  decriminalization of
  homosexual acts.
• 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
   – Justice
   – 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
     by duty
John Stuart Mill [1806-73]
          • John Stuart Mill,
            Bentham’s successor as
            the leader of the
            utilitarians and the most
            influential British
            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.”
                  Mill’s Ethics
• 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                            (Cont)

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
       benevolent spectator.”

   “…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’s Ethics
• 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
Mill’s Ethics
  • 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.
Sidgwick’s Ethics
      • 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.
                   Sidgwick’s Ethics
• 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
  of pleasure.
• 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
                                   An Example
• 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 transplant.
           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
                              measures                                 attention
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?
                    Teleological Ethics…
                  …Consequential Principles
Utilitarian Morality:
• 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.

• Utilitarianism:
   –   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!
                   More Thoughts…
• Isn’t the military the
  ultimate Utilitarian?
   – We are willing to sacrifice
     soldiers to achieve our
     desired end state?

• Don’t Utilitarians use some
  Kantian ethics? …They have
  good intent!
• Patriot Act?
• Value of the individual
   – Equal claim to triage

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