Utilitarianism (pronounced yoo-TILL-ih-TARE-ee-en-ism) is one of the main schools of thought in modern ethics (also known as moral philosophy). Utilitarianism holds that what’s ethical (or moral) is whatever maximizes total happiness while minimizing total pain. The word total is important here: if you act ethically according to utilitarianism, you’re not maximizing your happiness, but the total happiness of the whole human race.
The main idea of utilitarian ethics is: secure the greatest good for the greatest number.
Example: the Trolley Problem
Imagine there is a trolley heading toward a group of 5 workers on the tracks. You are sitting in a control center several miles away, and you have a button that can switch the trolley onto another track where there’s only 1 worker. If you flip the switch, one person will die. If you do nothing, 5 people will die. Should you flip the switch?
In surveys, most people in America and Britain say yes. 1 death is better than 5 deaths, so if you have to choose, you should try to minimize the loss of life by flipping the switch. This is an example of utilitarian reasoning, and the survey results show that this school of thought is popular in British and American culture. (In other cultures, people think about the problem differently.)
II. Types of Utilitarianism
There are basically two branches of utilitarianism. They both agree that the goal of ethics is to maximize happiness. But they disagree on where that decision should be applied:
- Act Utilitarianism argues that we should always choose our actions based on what will cause the greatest amount of happiness.
- Rule Utilitarianism argues that we should figure out what sort of behavior usually causes happiness, and turn it into a set of rules.
Take the example of a judge sending a murderer to prison. Say the judge knows the convict will not commit any more violent crimes, and wants to be lenient based on this knowledge (maybe the convict is very old or terminally ill). The judge knows that this will make the convict very happy, not to mention their family and friends. Imagine that the victim’s family has forgiven the convict and will not feel pain as a result of this decision.
Should the judge let the convict go? Act utilitarinism says yes, because this maximizes happiness while causing no future pain in this case. But rule utilitarianism says no, because in general convicts must be punished for their crimes, even if there is no chance that they will commit future crimes. The judge should follow the rules, according to this argument, even if in this particular case the rule isn’t necessary.
III. Utilitarianism vs. Deontology vs. Virtue Ethics
Utilitarianism is the most common kind of consequentialism, which is one of the three major branches of ethics. (There are other kinds of consequentialism, but they’re uncommon, so for now we can say that utilitarianism and consequentialism are the same.)
Consequentialism/utilitarianism is contrasted with two other schools of thought:
Morality is about good outcomes
We should make decisions based on what will most likely result in the outcomes we want
“The ends justify the means”
Morality is about good rules
We should come up with a logical system of moral rules and always follow it no matter what
Morality is about good people
We should strive to become more courageous, honest, generous, and compassionate. Such a person will make good moral decisions on their own without the need for abstract moral rules.
There is considerable overlap between these schools of thought, and there’s no reason necessarily to choose one or another: they all have their own valuable points, and the truth surely lies somewhere in between all three. However, they are helpful perspectives to think through, and to do that we need to be aware of the differences between them.
IV. Famous Quotes About Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism — a philosophy suitable only for a nation of shopkeepers! (Friedrich Nietzsche)
The German philosopher Nietzsche was a strong defender of virtue ethics (though scholars still disagree on exactly what his moral philosophy was). But he certainly didn’t agree with utilitarianism. In this quip, the irritable German is poking fun at the fact that utilitarianism comes from England — a “nation of shopkeepers,” as many people in Europe called it during the 19th century.
I do not care about the greatest good for the greatest number…most people are poop-heads; I do not care about them at all. (James Alan Gardner, Ascending)
This is a humorous critique of utilitarianism based on the fact that not everyone deserves to be happy. But it points out an important question: how does utilitarianism account for the difference between justified happiness and unjustified happiness? Imagine two worlds: in one, evil people get enormous pleasure out of their work; in the other, evil people get only a little pleasure; the total amount of evil stays the same. A utilitarian would say the first world is better because there’s more happiness. Does that seem right to you?
V. The History and Importance of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is a relatively new idea in ethics. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers believed in virtue ethics — morality was all about being a good, honest, hardworking person and excelling in your line of work. The rise of Christianity in the West transformed our understanding of morality and made deontology more attractive — God’s Law was the basis for ethics, and this law was a set of rules.
It was only in the later stages of the Enlightenment, when traditional Christianity was being revolutionized both from inside and outside, that utilitarianism became a mainstream philosophy. A small group of British philosophers offered powerful arguments for utilitarianism, dealing with many of the more common objections and helping to place utilitarianism on a more respectable footing.
In the last half-century or so, utilitarianism has started to fall out of favor again among many philosophers, though it still has considerable popularity. It’s probably no coincidence that utilitarianism was on top of the philosophical world for almost exactly the same period of time that the British Empire was the dominant superpower!
This decline has come from two sources. On the one hand, we have seen brilliant philosophers take up the ideas of deontology and virtue ethics, making new arguments for some very old ideas. On the other hand, people are increasingly interested in the philosophies of India and China, which don’t fall neatly into the categories we saw in §2.
It’s hard to predict what the future holds for utilitarianism — maybe deontology and virtue ethics will come back and bury it once again, and its brief time in the spotlight will come to an end. Or maybe we will come up with entirely new ideas — perhaps influenced by the non-Western traditions — that will allow us to move beyond the old conflict, synthesizing a new moral philosophy out of the best that utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics have to offer.
VI. Utilitarianism in Popular Culture
Ursula Le Guin has a short story called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In the story, the city of Omelas seems to be a perfect society — everyone is happy, everyone lives in harmony, and the city is at peace. But in a hidden basement somewhere in town, an innocent child is being horribly tortured day and night. This torture is what gives the city all its prosperity and happiness. If the torture stopped, the society would go into decline and the general happiness would go with it.
To a utilitarian, this is an acceptable state of affairs: millions of people are happy while only one person is in misery. If the situation were changed, millions of people would have their happiness taken away while only one person would benefit. Therefore, the torture should continue.
But deontologists argue that this is a major flaw in utilitarianism! How could a moral person allow such injustice to continue merely because it causes happiness?
Movie villains often have some sort of diabolical utilitarian reasoning for what they do. For example, in I. Robot the supercomputer V.I.K.I uses her massive database to calculate that human beings prefer safety over freedom, and therefore concludes that the most moral course of action is for her to imprison all the humans so they can no longer harm themselves or each other. If a few human rebellions have to be crushed along the way, she calculates, this is still justified
Both utilitarianism and deontology face an interesting question: should ethics be impartial? Impartiality is the ability to remove yourself from the equation and look at the ethical dilemma from a neutral perspective. If you’re impartial, you won’t give favor to your own country, city, or family in making moral decisions. In general, we tend to admire impartiality: we like people who can be even-handed and not pick favorites when it comes to ethical decisions.
However, this is also a very complicated position to take. Go back to the trolley problem: we had one track with 5 workers and one track with 1 worker. Most people say you should flip the switch and kill the 1. But what if that 1 person is your mother? Very few people would choose to flip the switch, and that’s understandable. Even if it’s understandable, though, is it right? Is it better to let your own mother die to save 5 strangers, or the other way around? Utilitarianism has no definite answer to this problem.
When faced with a moral decision, how can you know which course of action will maximize happiness? For one thing, we can’t see into other people’s minds, so we can’t know whether they’re truly happy or whether they’re just saying they are. And even if we could perceive happiness, though, how would we predict what would cause it? Human beings often make terrible predictions in this area.
For example, lots of people think that earning lots of money will make them happy, so the best utilitarian choice is to ensure that everyone has a good job and prosperity. However, scientific studies show that money only brings happiness in the short term, and that it works better for some people than others. As human beings, then, we actually don’t know how to make ourselves happy? So how can we trust ourselves to make moral decisions on this basis?
To make utilitarianism work, we need a more fleshed-out theory of what happiness is. Fortunately, there is an emerging field of “positive psychology” that focuses on exactly this problem. And it’s interesting to note what they’ve discovered so far: Buddhist and Hindu theories of happiness (based on meditation, family, and clearing the mind of desire) seem to have more scientific support than American and European ideas (based on prosperity and “success”).