The Concept of Utility in Ethics
Ethics is the area of philosophy concerned with determining good from bad, and right from wrong. Utility, in discussions of ethics, refers to the capacity of decisions and actions to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. In utilitarian theory, this is known as "the greatest happiness principle." An action is understood to be good when it promotes happiness rather than unhappiness.
Example: A society might provide free healthcare for its citizens, it might provide no publicly supported health care at all, or it might choose from any number of options in-between these two extremes. Utilitarianism offers a way to begin evaluating the options on ethical grounds by asking, which has the most utility? That is, which will lead to the greatest happiness for the most people?
In utilitarian theory, happiness results when people experience pleasure. However, not all pleasures are the same. There are "lower" pleasures that people and other creatures derive by virtue of being embodied. Sleeping and eating, for example, are pleasures, since embodied creatures need rest and nourishment in order to be happy.
Human beings are exceptional among creatures in that they also experience "higher" pleasures. These might include art and culture, an appreciation for the beauty of nature, rewarding work -- pleasures that (presumably) only humans experience, above and beyond their animalistic needs. Higher pleasures in utilitarian thought are broadly conceived: they include feelings such as contentment, delight, gratitude, and love.
In utilitarian theory, higher pleasures are preferable to lower pleasures; they have more "utility." Therefore, policies, actions, decisions that promote higher pleasures are preferable to those that generate only lower pleasures.
Example: A policy that protects a spectacularly beautiful natural area, such as the Grand Canyon, for the aesthetic benefit of the whole population is superior to a policy that would allow that area to be mined for the economic benefit of a few private interests.
The Origin and History of Utilitarianism
Utilitarian ideas trace back at least to the ancient Greeks. The "hedonist" philosophy of Epicurus, for example, held that pleasure is the source of happiness and pain the source of unhappiness. A number of British thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries likewise recognized the value of happiness. Richard Cumberland (1631-1718), John Gay (1699-1745), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), and others argued on religious grounds for the moral rightness of policies and actions that relieve suffering and contribute to well-being.
Building on the work of these earlier writers, the eminent Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) developed the idea that human happiness depends not only on the satisfaction of our individual self-interests but also on the happiness of others. Thus, we value the application of justice, generosity, kindness, and other virtues across the whole of society. Hume's understanding formed the seeds of arguments for social reform developed in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the founders of Classical Utilitarianism.
Jeremy Bentham, the first philosopher to formalize utilitarian ideas.
The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) formalized utilitarian ideas into a system of thought aimed at reforming society through legal, political, and social improvement. He developed utilitarianism into a rational, systematic process for determining what is right and good in social policy and law.
Bentham first articulated the greatest happiness principle in Fragment on Government, published in 1776. He defined "utility" as a property that produces happiness a few years later in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. These two concepts together formed the core of what has come to be known as Classical Utilitarianism.
In his many subsequent works, Bentham extended utilitarian theory into areas of prison reform, economics, government, and elsewhere, always with the intention of demonstrating how society might be organized on a more rational and ethical basis.
John Stuart Mill
Bentham's protege, John Stuart Mill (1806-73), became one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century. He expanded Bentham's ideas into a philosophy of practical reason, with "utility" serving as the sole standard by which the outcomes of human actions might be judged good or bad. People, by nature, desire happiness, according to Mill, and no one's happiness is more or less valuable than anyone else's. The logical implication, then, is that human conduct is moral when it promotes greater happiness for more people.
On the basis of this claim, Mill justified his arguments for reforming nineteenth-century British law and social practice, urging greater justice, freedom, and democracy for everyone. Where ideas of "natural order" were used to justify social inequality and economic disparity in British society, Mill argued instead that "utility" should be the measure of what is right. His book Utilitarianism (1861) provided a robust philosophical justification for reform. Later works, such as The Subjection of Women (1869), put his principles into practical use, in this case arguing for women's suffrage.
British philosopher John Stuart Mill, a founder of Classical Utilitarianism.
20th Century Utilitarian Principles
Classical Utilitarianism was refined by thinkers following Bentham and Mill. Writing in the early 20th century, G.E. Moore (1873-1958) expanded the utilitarian notion of what is good, arguing that some things have intrinsic value quite apart from whether they make humans happy. Beauty, for example, Moore claimed, exists whether or not anyone is there to derive pleasure from it. His observations challenged happiness as the sole standard of right and wrong. Rather, he suggested, the utility of a thing under consideration should be considered in terms of the "organic unity" of intrinsic values to which it belongs and contributes.
Other philosophers in the 20th century developed Classical Utilitarianism with emphasis on outcomes into a train of thought called consequentialism. In general, consequentialism says that human conduct can be judged right or wrong based on its consequences only. That is, the intention and circumstances that precede the action are irrelevant to whether the action was ethical or not; only its consequences matter.
Example: A man promises to marry a woman, but when their wedding date rolls around he is nowhere to be found. The consequences of his failure to appear cause pain for his finance; thus, his action was ethically wrong. The earlier promise he made to her, which had made her happy, is now irrelevant to the moral accounting of his behavior.
Arguments for and Against Utilitarianism
The precepts of utilitarianism have been challenged on both conceptual and practical grounds. Some people have pointed out, for example, that not all pleasures are good and not all that is good is pleasurable.
- A drug addict, for example, gets pleasure from using drugs, but over time suffers pain as a consequence.
- Working oneself to exhaustion may produce good consequences, such as success, but the experience is likely to be unpleasant.
In such cases, the consequentialist suggests that only the outcome is relevant. Thus, the painful outcome of drug abuse renders the pleasure of using inconsequential. Likewise, the pain of exhausting effort doesn't offset the pleasure-inducing results of success.
In practical terms, some people have pointed out that the greatest happiness principle can sometimes be illogical or self-contradictory.
- Suppose an entirely healthy person walks into a hospital room where one patient needs a heart transplant, another a liver, and a third a new kidney. To create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, the heart, liver, and kidney of the healthy person should be removed and given to the three ailing patients. But, of course, this is not a reasonable course of action at all, even though it would technically satisfy the greatest happiness principle.
Utilitarian thinking has been especially useful in considering public policy. It offers a clear, practical, ethically defensible standard for evaluating laws and regulations.
- In a representative democracy, public policy is by definition supposed to promote overall welfare. The standard of utility provides a guideline for developing laws and regulations that do the most good for the most people;
- Public policy decisions made on the basis of utility are ethically defensible since the measure of what is good and right is human happiness.
Utilitarianism is a system of thought aimed at establishing a basis for judging the ethical merit of human conduct. If an action, a law, or a policy contributes to human happiness or reduces human suffering, then it is ethically good. The principle of utility states that happiness is a function of pleasure, so whatever generates pleasure for people creates happiness.
There are two types of pleasure in utilitarian thought: "lower" pleasures derive from the satisfaction of our animalistic needs, such as eating, sleeping, and sex; "higher" pleasures, available only to humans, derive from art, culture, and higher feelings, such as gratitude and love. Actions that promote "higher" pleasures are superior to those that promote "lower" pleasures.
At the core of Classical Utilitarianism is the "greatest happiness principle," which states that the highest ethical aim for our actions should be to promote the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people possible.