The History of Utilitarianism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
In moral philosophy the appeal to intuitions plays a prominent But Mill in no way believes that the relation. Hence, the argument concludes, there is an essential tension between the kind of impersonal morality characteristic of utilitarianism and the maintenance of. John Stuart. Mill, for instance, espoused utilitarianism at the same time that he . holds that the moral Tightness of an act is much less directly related to utilities.
With this he can argue that the assassination would be forbidden theory of moral obligation. To enact a forbidden action is morally wrong.
First, the objective rightness of an act depends upon actual consequences; second, in order to know what we are morally obliged to do we have to draw on justified rules of the established moral code. Roughly said, actions are right insofar as they facilitate happiness, and wrong insofar as they result in suffering. Mill emphasizes in many places that virtuous actions can exhibit a negative balance of happiness in a singular case. But as we have seen, this is not his view.
Virtuous actions are morally right, even if they are objectively wrong under particular circumstances. Accordingly, the First Formula is not to be interpreted as drafting a moral duty. It is a general statement about what makes actions right reasonable, expedient or wrong. The First Formula gives a general characterization of practical reason.
Subsets of right ones are morally right actions; subsets of wrong actions are morally wrong. We generally believe that not all actions must be judged in regard to a moral point of view. This does not exclude us from valuing actions, which are not in the moral realm, in regard to prudence. Many artists would presumably not be comfortable with the thesis that good art arises from the goal of facilitating the happiness of humankind.
This however is not what Mill means. Apart from cases of conflict between secondary principles, the First Formula does not guide action.
Just as Mill speaks in a moral context about how noble characters will not strive to maximize general happiness CW 8,he could argue in an aesthetic context that artists should work from a purely aesthetic point of view.
The rules of artistic judgments, nonetheless, are justified through their contribution to the flourishing of human life. To summarize the essential points: Mill can be characterized as an act utilitarian in regard to the theory of objective rightness, but as a rule utilitarian in regard to the theory of moral obligation.
He defines morality as a system of rules that is protected by sanctions. Mill does not write, as one might expect, that only the action which leads to the best consequences is right.
The actual formula, in contrast, has to do with gradual differences right in proportion. Actions which add to the sum of happiness in the world but fail to maximize happiness thus can be right, even if to a lesser degree. This is confusing insofar as it would be unreasonable to prefer that which is worse to that which is better. For every good there is a better that one should reasonably choose until one succeeds to the best.
If the First Formula expresses the ideal of practical reason, then one should expect that it requires maximization. He probably does not want to suggest that an agent should not choose the best local option. But the local best option must not represent the objective global best. This may be the reason why Mill does not refer to maximization in the formula of utility.
According to the formula of utility, actions are more or less correct insofar as they facilitate happiness CW 10, It is doubtlessly not the same to say that an action is right if it actually facilitates happiness, or to say that it is right if it tends to facilitate happiness. The model seems to be roughly this: At the neutral point of the preference scale, actions have the tendency — in regard to the status quo — to neither increase nor decrease the mass of utility in the world.
All actions that tend to facilitate happiness are right, all actions that tend to be harmful are wrong, but all are not in the same measure. An action has a high positive value on the scale of preference, if its tendency to facilitate happiness is high. An action has highly negative value on the preference scale, if its tendency to evoke unhappiness is high. That an action tends to produce a particular consequence means that this consequence has a high probability. Mill could have wanted to say that an action is right in proportion to the probability with which it promotes happiness.
This makes sense when we compare options that produce the same amount of happiness. But what about cases in which two actions produce different amounts of pleasure? One plausible answer is that both dimensions must be regarded: Action A is better than action B, if the expected happinessfor Ais greater than the expected happiness for B.
The best action is one that maximizes the amount of expected happiness. Utility and Justice In the final chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill turns to the sentiment of justice. Actions that are perceived as unjust provoke outrage. The spontaneity of this feeling and its intensity makes it impossible for it to be ignored by the theory of morals.
Mill considers two possible interpretations of the source of the sentiment of justice: He names the integration of justice the only real difficulty for utilitarian theory CW 10, Mill splits this problem of integration into three tasks: The first consists in explaining the intensity and spontaneity of the sentiment of justice. The second task is to make plausible that the various types of judgments about justice can be traced back to a systematic core; and the third task consists in showing that the principle of utility constructs this core.
In a nutshell, Mill explains the sentiment of justice as the sublimation of the impulse to take revenge for perceived mortifications of all kinds. If it is known that one will not accept interventions in spheres of influence and interest, the probability of such interventions dwindles.
The preparedness to take revenge tends to deter aggression in the first place. Thus, a reputation for vindictiveness — at first glance an irrational trait — arguably has survival value.
This helps to explain why the sentiment is so widespread and vehement. Our sentiment of justice, for Mill, is based on a refinement and sublimation of this animal desire. This natural extension of the impulse of revenge with the help of the social feelings represents a step in the direction of cultivating and refining human motivation. People begin to feel outrage when the interests of the members of their tribe are being violated or when shared social rules are being disregarded.
Gradually, sympathy becomes more inclusive. Humans discover that co-operation with people outside the tribe is advantageous. As soon as humans begin to think about which parts of the moral code of a society are justified and which parts are not, they inevitably begin to consider consequences. This often occurs in non-systematic, prejudiced or distorted ways.
Across historical periods of times, the correct ideas of intrinsic good and moral rightness will gradually gain more influence. Judgments about justice approximate progressively the requirements of utilitarianism: The rules upon which the judgments about justice rest will be assessed in light of their tendency to promote happiness.
According to Mill, when we see a social practice or a type of action as unjust, we see that the moral rights of persons were harmed. The thought of moral rights is the systematic core of our judgments of justice. Rights breed perfect obligations, says Mill. Moral rights are concerned with the basic conditions of a good life.
To have a moral right means to have something that society is morally required to guard either through the compulsion of law, education or the pressure of public opinion CW 10, Insofar as moral rights secure the basis of our existence, they serve our natural interest in self-preservation — this is the reason why their harm calls forth such intense emotional reactions. The interplay of social feelings and moral education explains, in turn, why we are not only upset by injustices when we personally suffer, but also when the elemental rights of others are harmed.
This motivates us to sanction the suffering of others as unjust. But they do not exhaust the moral realm. There are imperfect obligations which have no correlative right CW 10, The thesis that moral rights form the systematic core of our judgments of justice is by no means unique to utilitarianism.
Many people take it to be evident that individuals have absolute, inalienable rights; but they doubt that these rights can be grounded in the principle of utility. Intuitionists may claim that we recognize moral rights spontaneously, that we have intuitive knowledge of them.
In order to reject such a view, Mill points out that our judgments of justice do not form a systematic order. If we had a sense of justice that would allow us to recognize what is just, similar to how touch reveals forms or sight reveals color, then we would expect that our corresponding judgments would exhibit a high degree of reliability, definitude and unanimity.
But experience teaches us that our judgments regarding just punishments, just tax laws or just remuneration for waged labor are anything but unanimous. The intuitionists must therefore mobilize a first principle that is independent of experience and that secures the unity and consistency of our theory of justice. So far they have not succeeded. Mill sees no suggestion that is plausible or which has been met with general acceptance. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord once remarked that Mill seems to answer by example the question of how many serious mistakes a brilliant philosopher can make within a brief paragraph Sayre-McCord For the assessment of the proof two introductory comments are helpful.
These reasons are empirical and touch upon the careful observation of oneself and others. More cannot be done and should not be expected in a proof re ultimate ends. A further introductory comment concerns the basis of observation through which Mill seeks to support utilitarianism. In moral philosophy the appeal to intuitions plays a prominent role. They are used to justify moral claims and to check the plausibility of moral theories.
The task of thought-experiments in testing ethical theories is analogous to the observation of facts in testing empirical theories.
This suggests that intuitions are the right observational basis for the justification of first moral principles. Mill, however, was a fervent critic of intuitionism throughout his philosophical work. Mill considered the idea that truths can be known a priori, independently of observation and experience, to be a stronghold of conservatism.
His argument against intuitionistic approaches to moral philosophy has two parts. The first part points out that intuitionists have not been able to bring our intuitive moral judgments into a system. There is neither a complete list of intuitive moral precepts nor a basic principle of morality which would found such a list CW 10, The second part of the Millian argument consists in an explanation of this result: What some call moral intuition is actually the result of our education and present social discourse.
Society inculcates us with our moral views, and we come to believe strongly in their unquestionable truth.
There is no system, no basic principle in the moral views of the Victorian era though. In The Subjection of Women, Mill caustically criticizes the moral intuitions of his contemporaries regarding the role of women.
He finds them incompatible with the basic principles of the modern world, such as equality and liberty. What we need, Mill contends, is a basis of observation that verifies a first principle, a principle that is capable of bringing our practice of moral judgments into order. His argument for the utilitarian principle — if not a deductive argument, an argument all the same — involves three steps.
Let us turn to the first step of the argument. Upon an initial reading it seems in fact to have little success. Here he leans on a questionable analogy: Can a more evident logical fallacy be given than the claim that something is worthy of striving for because it is factually sought?
But Mill in no way believes that the relation between desirable and desired is a matter of definition. He is not saying that desirable objects are by definition objects which people desire; he writes instead that what people desire is the only evidence for what is desirable. If we want to know what is ultimately desirable for humans, we have to acquire observational knowledge about what humans ultimately strive for. We know by observation that people desire their own happiness.
On this basis, Mill concludes in the second step of his proof that the happiness of all is also a good: Does Mill claim here that each person tries to promote the happiness of all? This seems to be patently wrong. In a famous letter to a Henry Jones, he clarifies that he did not mean that every person, in fact, strives for the general good. It is unclear what it means that general happiness is the good of the aggregate of all persons. Neither each person, nor the aggregate of all persons seem to strive for the happiness of all.
As he says in the letter to Jones: The fact that each person is striving for his or her own happiness is evidence that happiness as such regardless to whom is valuable.
If happiness as such is valuable, it is not unreasonable to promote the well-being of all sentient beings. With this, the second step of the argument is complete. The result may seem meager at first. That it is not unreasonable to promote the happiness of all appears to be no particularly controversial claim. What Mill fails to show is that each person has most reason to promote the general good.
One should note, however, that the aim of the proof is not to answer the question why one should be moral. In the persons of Gradgrind and Bounderby [Dickens] stigmatized the prevalent philosophy of Utilitarianism which, whether in school or factory, allowed human beings to be caged in a dreary scenery of brick terraces and foul chimneys, to be enslaved to machines and reduced to number.
In stark contrast to Gradgrind and Bounderby, Sissy Jupe, the young daughter of a circus family who has been entrusted to the care of the Gradgrind family, represents a more personal, virtue-theoretical moral framework. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money.
But that had nothing to do with it. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?
And that was wrong, too. Choakumchild, we are lead to believe that persons who internalize a utilitarian morality are devoid of emotion and concern for the suffering of others, that they are interested only in numbers. Throughout the novel, we see the toll that her utilitarian upbringing takes on Louisa Gradgrind. Unable to forge meaningful emotional bonds, she ends up in a loveless marriage with the man she believed would most please her father.
John Stuart Mill, in his original statement and defense of utilitarianism, anticipated and offered a response to just this line of attack. Against, the Dickens-type objection, he responds: It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their moral feelings toward individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of action, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate.
If the assertion means that they do not allow their judgment respecting the rightness or wrongness of an action to be influenced by their opinion of the qualities of the person who does it, this is a complaint not against utilitarianism, but against any standard or morality at all; for certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or bad man, still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary.
These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons; and there is nothing in the utilitarian theory inconsistent with the fact that there are other things which interest us in persons besides the rightness and wrongness of their actions.
As with any objection to utilitarianism, there are two distinct modes of response. In the above passage, we see Mill employ both strategies, maintaining that we distinguish between two importantly different claims: One reason for adopting foreseeable consequence utilitarianism is that it seems unfair to say that the rescuer acted wrongly because the rescuer could not foresee the future bad effects of saving the drowning person.
In response, actual consequence utilitarians reply that there is a difference between evaluating an action and evaluating the person who did the action. They stress the difference between evaluating actions and evaluating the people who perform them.
Foreseeable consequence utilitarians accept the distinction between evaluating actions and evaluating the people who carry them out, but they see no reason to make the moral rightness or wrongness of actions depend on facts that might be unknowable. For them, what is right or wrong for a person to do depends on what is knowable by a person at a time. For this reason, they claim that the person who rescued Hitler did the right thing, even though the actual consequences were unfortunate.
Another way to describe the actual vs. One the actual consequence view says that to act rightly is to do whatever produces the best consequences. In the case of the rescuer, the expected positive utility is high because the probability that saving a drowning person will lead to the deaths of millions of other people is extremely low, and thus can be ignored in deliberations about whether to save the drowning person.
What this shows is that actual consequence and foreseeable consequence utilitarians have different views about the nature of utilitarian theory. Foreseeable consequence utilitarians understand the theory as a decision-making procedure while actual consequence utilitarians understand it as a criterion of right and wrong.
Foreseeable consequence utilitarians claim that the action with the highest expected utility is both the best thing to do based on current evidence and the right action. Actual consequence utilitarians might agree that the option with the highest expected utility is the best thing to do but they claim that it could still turn out to be the wrong action. This would occur if unforeseen bad consequences reveal that the option chosen did not have the best results and thus was the wrong thing to do.
How Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism Differ Both act utilitarians and rule utilitarians agree that our overall aim in evaluating actions should be to create the best results possible, but they differ about how to do that.
Act utilitarians believe that whenever we are deciding what to do, we should perform the action that will create the greatest net utility. In their view, the principle of utility—do whatever will produce the best overall results—should be applied on a case by case basis. The right action in any situation is the one that yields more utility i. Rule utilitarians adopt a two part view that stresses the importance of moral rules. According to rule utilitarians, a a specific action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule; and b a moral rule is justified if its inclusion into our moral code would create more utility than other possible rules or no rule at all.
According to this perspective, we should judge the morality of individual actions by reference to general moral rules, and we should judge particular moral rules by seeing whether their acceptance into our moral code would produce more well-being than other possible rules. The key difference between act and rule utilitarianism is that act utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of individual actions while rule utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of rules and then evaluate individual actions by seeing if they obey or disobey those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility.
The contrast between act and rule utilitarianism, though previously noted by some philosophers, was not sharply drawn until the late s when Richard Brandt introduced this terminology.
Because the contrast had not been sharply drawn, earlier utilitarians like Bentham and Mill sometimes apply the principle of utility to actions and sometimes apply it to the choice of rules for evaluating actions. This has led to scholarly debates about whether the classical utilitarians supported act utilitarians or rule utilitarians or some combination of these views.
Pros and Cons Act utilitarianism is often seen as the most natural interpretation of the utilitarian ideal. If our aim is always to produce the best results, it seems plausible to think that in each case of deciding what is the right thing to do, we should consider the available options i. Arguments for Act Utilitarianism i. Why Act utilitarianism Maximizes Utility If every action that we carry out yields more utility than any other action available to us, then the total utility of all our actions will be the highest possible level of utility that we could bring about.
In other words, we can maximize the overall utility that is within our power to bring about by maximizing the utility of each individual action that we perform.
If we sometimes choose actions that produce less utility than is possible, the total utility of our actions will be less than the amount of goodness that we could have produced. For that reason, act utilitarians argue, we should apply the utilitarian principle to individual acts and not to classes of similar actions.
Why Act Utilitarianism is Better than Traditional, Rule-based Moralities Traditional moral codes often consist of sets of rules regarding types of actions.
The Ten Commandments, for example, focus on types of actions, telling us not to kill, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or covet the things that belong to others. Although the Biblical sources permit exceptions to these rules such as killing in self-defense and punishing people for their sinsthe form of the commandments is absolute.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant is famous for the view that lying is always wrong, even in cases where one might save a life by lying. Act utilitarians reject rigid rule-based moralities that identify whole classes of actions as right or wrong. They argue that it is a mistake to treat whole classes of actions as right or wrong because the effects of actions differ when they are done in different contexts and morality must focus on the likely effects of individual actions.
Utilitarianism - Wikipedia
It is these effects that determine whether they are right or wrong in specific cases. They see no reason to obey a rule when more well-being can be achieved by violating it. Why Act Utilitarianism Makes Moral Judgments Objectively True One advantage of act utilitarianism is that it shows how moral questions can have objectively true answers. Act utilitarianism, however, provides a method for showing which moral beliefs are true and which are false.
Once we embrace the act utilitarian perspective, then every decision about how we should act will depend on the actual or foreseeable consequences of the available options. Although some people doubt that we can measure amounts of well-being, we in fact do this all the time.
If two people are suffering and we have enough medication for only one, we can often tell that one person is experiencing mild discomfort while the other is in severe pain. Based on this judgment, we will be confident that we can do more good by giving the medication to the person suffering extreme pain. Although this case is very simple, it shows that we can have objectively true answers to questions about what actions are morally right or wrong.
Using this information, Bentham thought, would allow for making correct judgments both in individual cases and in choices about government actions and policies. Arguments against Act Utilitarianism i. Critics say that it permits various actions that everyone knows are morally wrong. The following cases are among the commonly cited examples: If a judge can prevent riots that will cause many deaths only by convicting an innocent person of a crime and imposing a severe punishment on that person, act utilitarianism implies that the judge should convict and punish the innocent person.
If a person makes a promise but breaking the promise will allow that person to perform an action that creates just slightly more well-being than keeping the promise will, then act utilitarianism implies that the promise should be broken.
See Ross The general form of each of these arguments is the same.
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
In each case, act utilitarianism implies that a certain act is morally permissible or required. Yet, each of the judgments that flow from act utilitarianism conflicts with widespread, deeply held moral beliefs. Because act utilitarianism approves of actions that most people see as obviously morally wrong, we can know that it is a false moral theory. If, in cases like the ones described above, judges, doctors, and promise-makers are committed to doing whatever maximizes well-being, then no one will be able to trust that judges will act according to the law, that doctors will not use the organs of one patient to benefit others, and that promise-makers will keep their promises.
More generally, if everyone believed that morality permitted lying, promise-breaking, cheating, and violating the law whenever doing so led to good results, then no one could trust other people to obey these rules. As a result, in an act utilitarian society, we could not believe what others say, could not rely on them to keep promises, and in general could not count on people to act in accord with important moral rules.
An implication of this commitment is that whenever people want to buy something for themselves or for a friend or family member, they must first determine whether they could create more well-being by donating their money to help unknown strangers who are seriously ill or impoverished.
If more good can be done by helping strangers than by purchasing things for oneself or people one personally cares about, then act utilitarianism requires us to use the money to help strangers in need. Almost everyone, however, believes that we have special moral duties to people who are near and dear to us.
As a result, most people would reject the notion that morality requires us to treat people we love and care about no differently from people who are perfect strangers as absurd. This issue is not merely a hypothetical case. In a famous article, Peter Singer defends the view that people living in affluent countries should not purchase luxury items for themselves when the world is full of impoverished people.
According to Singer, a person should keep donating money to people in dire need until the donor reaches the point where giving to others generates more harm to the donor than the good that is generated for the recipients.
Critics claim that the argument for using our money to help impoverished strangers rather than benefiting ourselves and people we care about only proves one thing—that act utilitarianism is false.
There are two reasons that show why it is false. First, it fails to recognize the moral legitimacy of giving special preferences to ourselves and people that we know and care about. Second, since pretty much everyone is strongly motivated to act on behalf of themselves and people they care about, a morality that forbids this and requires equal consideration of strangers is much too demanding.
It asks more than can reasonably be expected of people. Possible Responses to Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism There are two ways in which act utilitarians can defend their view against these criticisms. First, they can argue that critics misinterpret act utilitarianism and mistakenly claim that it is committed to supporting the wrong answer to various moral questions.
Because they do not maximize utility, these wrong answers would not be supported by act utilitarians and therefore, do nothing to weaken their theory. Unless critics can prove that common sense moral beliefs are correct the criticisms have no force. Act utilitarians claim that their theory provides good reasons to reject many ordinary moral claims and to replace them with moral views that are based on the effects of actions.
People who are convinced by the criticisms of act utilitarianism may decide to reject utilitarianism entirely and adopt a different type of moral theory.
- The History of Utilitarianism
- John Stuart Mill: Ethics
This judgment, however, would be sound only if act utilitarianism were the only type of utilitarian theory. This is what defenders of rule utilitarianism claim. They argue that rule utilitarianism retains the virtues of a utilitarian moral theory but without the flaws of the act utilitarian version. Pros and Cons Unlike act utilitarians, who try to maximize overall utility by applying the utilitarian principle to individual acts, rule utilitarians believe that we can maximize utility only by setting up a moral code that contains rules.
The correct moral rules are those whose inclusion in our moral code will produce better results more well-being than other possible rules. Once we determine what these rules are, we can then judge individual actions by seeing if they conform to these rules. The principle of utility, then, is used to evaluate rules and is not applied directly to individual actions.
Once the rules are determined, compliance with these rules provides the standard for evaluating individual actions. Arguments for Rule Utilitarianism i. It says that we can produce more beneficial results by following rules than by always performing individual actions whose results are as beneficial as possible. This suggests that we should not always perform individual actions that maximize utility. How could this be something that a utilitarian would support?
In spite of this paradox, rule utilitarianism possesses its own appeal, and its focus on moral rules can sound quite plausible. The rule utilitarian approach to morality can be illustrated by considering the rules of the road. More specific rules that require stopping at lights, forbid going faster than 30 miles per hour, or prohibit driving while drunk do not give drivers the discretion to judge what is best to do.
They simply tell drivers what to do or not do while driving. The reason why a more rigid rule-based system leads to greater overall utility is that people are notoriously bad at judging what is the best thing to do when they are driving a car. A rule utilitarian can illustrate this by considering the difference between stop signs and yield signs. Stop signs forbid drivers to go through an intersection without stopping, even if the driver sees that there are no cars approaching and thus no danger in not stopping.
A yield sign permits drivers to go through without stopping unless they judge that approaching cars make it dangerous to drive through the intersection. The key difference between these signs is the amount of discretion that they give to the driver. The stop sign is like the rule utilitarian approach. It tells drivers to stop and does not allow them to calculate whether it would be better to stop or not.
The yield sign is like act utilitarianism. It permits drivers to decide whether there is a need to stop. Act utilitarians see the stop sign as too rigid because it requires drivers to stop even when nothing bad will be prevented. The result, they say, is a loss of utility each time a driver stops at a stop sign when there is no danger from oncoming cars. Rule utilitarians will reply that they would reject the stop sign method a if people could be counted on to drive carefully and b if traffic accidents only caused limited amounts of harm.