- Blue – Your argument
- Red – Argument against
- Orange – Critical analysis
- Purple – Scholars
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory (what is moral is based on consequences of actions) of normative ethics (how one ought to act) based upon the principle of utility which can be summarised by the statement, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” This basic principle was proposed by Jeremy Bentham (1789) who, as an empiricist, thought that determining what is moral or immoral must be based on observations of the world around him rather than on a priori knowledge. Bentham postulated that humans are driven by psychological hedonism and therefore because society can be described as a collection of individuals, we should aim to promote happiness and well-being for as many people in society as possible.
Ever since Bentham prescribed this method of making moral decisions, there has been debate over its usefulness. Alasdair MacIntyre, Peter Vardy, John Stuart Mill, Bernard Williams and Immanuel Kant can all be said to have made points that undermine or criticise his proposals. Nevertheless, utilitarianism’s usefulness can be defended on certain grounds which will be presented throughout this discussion.
In defence of its usefulness, we can observe the context in which Bentham was intending his theory to be implemented. He was interested in law reform and saw an England where the rich and the ruling classes had far more rights than those beneath them. Therefore, it can be argued that the principle of utility would prove very useful for guiding the law towards what many of us today would defend as uninfringeable human rights. In a modern context, we can observe the tyranny of the minority being imposed in North Korea and hypothesise that a utilitarian approach would lead to an obviously positive outcome. Providing, of course, the lack of freedom that many are subjected to is not what they desire.
Conversely, Alasdair MacIntyre posits a dichotomy between Bentham’s possible intentions and the results that could arise from an act utilitarian’s calculations. Consider the example of sex trafficking. It can be argued that (providing there is a large enough group of people) using one person or a small group of people as a means rather than ends in themselves would have to be considered morally permissible on the grounds of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
In response to this point, a utilitarian of John Stuart Mill’s persuasion could contest this with an emphasis on liberty or the pursuit of higher pleasures. On the first case, Mill would argue that a respect for everyone’s individual freedoms would lead to the greatest happiness and therefore sex trafficking would be unacceptable. Secondly, Mill’s views on the quality of pleasure mean that everyone should aim for a life comparable with Aristotle’s view of eudaimonia. As philosophers, they both recognised that human beings need to use their reasoning capacities to have a fulfilled life. Mill famously summarised his views by stating “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” If people follow this method, one could argue they would avoid pleasures which resulted in the abuse or harm of others. This could, in turn, avoid the issues posed by MacIntyre and therefore, the position in defence of utilitarianism is tenable.
Another argument opposed to the statement comes from Bernard Williams who offers some attractive qualities of utilitarianism as opposed to religious law. For anyone who is agnostic or atheist, utilitarianism gives guidance to making moral decisions which is both knowable and usable. By way of contrast, religious moral teachings are arguably too esoteric and could even contradict one another, leading to ambiguity or falsifiable claims. An example of this issue is present in the comparison of the Bible as propositional revelation and a liberal approach to Christian ethics from the theologians Paul Tillich and Joseph Fletcher. The legalistic approach offered by The Ten Commandments could be seen as too rigid for Fletcher who claimed that agape love is the only ruling norm. Therefore, it might not be clear for a Christian how to approach moral dilemmas such as abortion and euthanasia. The Bible could provide an answer which reason and conscience would contradict.
However, Peter Vardy (A Puzzle of Ethics) forms an argument which outlines why making decisions from a utilitarian perspective is not truly usable in an accurate way. Vardy suggests that if a doctor went out to make a house call for a pregnant woman and came across a car crash scene which involved the woman, her husband and an elderly man; that first impressions would dictate the woman be saved. This is a non-sequitur; just because the woman has a baby does not necessarily lead to the greatest amount of pleasure. It is possible that the baby could grow up to be a serial killer and the old man could have his most important years ahead of him. The argument causes problems for a consequentialist approach because our ability to accurately predict the future is highly questionable.
In response, there needs to be practical decision making done in politics and day-to-day life. As individuals, we have to try and make the most informed decisions possible to maximise utility. For example, there could be decision needed on going to war. This might in retrospect appear wrong but hard choices needed to be made with the interest of the public in mind.
To conclude, I would argue there is enough conceivable evidence to suggest that act utilitarianism appears useful in theory but suffers from the fact we cannot judge our consequences accurately. More importantly, it can lead to what many feel as horrendous acts that cannot be defended. However, practical decisions have to be made and the classical liberalism of Bentham and Mill have made positive impacts to the rights of millions of people. I would also make a case for a weak rule-utilitarian approach, one which Mill arguably held. This method is easy to use and seems to prevent the problems previously stated, albeit introducing issues of its own.
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