Utilitarianism is the philosophical theory that the morally right act or policy is the one that promotes the greatest happiness, or well-being, counting equally the happiness and unhappiness of each person. In the context of utilitarianism, happiness and well-being may also be synonymous with utility.
In its early stages in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, utilitarianism was a radical and progressive approach to social and political thinking. The idea of maximizing wellbeing was applied to social problems such as ignorance, sickness, and poverty to produce criticisms of the status quo. Consequently, the great British utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), argued for reforms in the law, government, education, public health provision, and social welfare. Where the majority is living in poor conditions, utilitarianism can both describe what is wrong and defend proposals for change.
At its core, utilitarianism contains three elements: (1) an account of well-being, happiness, utility, or welfare; (2) a demand that well-being should be maximized; and (3) a requirement of equality, specifically that in the maximizing process, each individual’s happiness or well-being should count for one and no more than one. Utilitarianism is therefore a forward-looking philosophy, since it focuses firmly on the consequences of individual acts or of actions undertaken within a particular system of rules or institutions. Act utilitarians claim that morally right actions are those that produce more utility than any other available option. Rule utilitarians, by contrast, think that utility will be maximized in the long run not by evaluating individual acts, but by establishing and upholding a secure set of rules, rights, or institutions and requiring individuals to recognize them.
Utilitarians initially defended a view of well-being as pleasure and the absence of pain. In Bentham’s version, the aim is to produce the highest net amount of pleasure, where no distinction is made between types or sources of pleasure. “Prejudice apart,” says Bentham in Book 3 of Rationale of Reward, “the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry” (chap. 1). John Stuart Mill suggests a different idea: some pleasures are qualitatively superior to others and it is best to maximize these higher pleasures over their inferior counterparts. Mill believes that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied, and that which pleasures are higher can be determined by asking a qualified judge (i.e., someone who has experienced both sorts of pleasure).
Given technical problems with measuring mental states and normative problems with the claim that pleasure is identical to the human good, a different account of well-being focuses not on the “state of our minds” but the “state of the world. «These are not subjective notions of well-being such as pleasurable or worthwhile mental states, but objective views of well-being, most importantly, the satisfaction of preferences.This view has its own problems, including that (1) people can get what they want without becoming happy, and (2) some preferences—for example, racist preferences—are themselves morally objectionable and so should not be satisfied at all.
Given some account of well-being, the distinctiveness of utilitarianism lies in its demand to maximize well-being, taking each individual into account equally. It is, therefore, a maximizing form of consequentialism (i.e., the view that consequences alone deter mine moral rightness). Utilitarianism can apply to a range of practical issues facing individuals and governments. On the question of political obligation, for instance, in A Fragment on Government, Bentham holds that subjects should obey “so long as the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable mischiefs of resistance” (56).
Utilitarianism continues to be an influential approach to questions of economic justice, even though utilitarians disagree among themselves. Regarding how income and wealth should be distributed, utilitarians consider the evidence linking various arrangements with different levels of happiness. First, some claim that unrestricted markets are the most efficient way to generate the most happiness for everyone by increasing wealth. Free market efficiency, they argue, leads to productivity, and thus to happiness. On this view, redistribution to the poor is an unjustifiable limit on promoting utility; therefore, the just distribution of income and wealth results from unfettered market exchanges.
Second, defenders of an opposing view argue that money has a “diminishing marginal utility”; that is, a person gets less utility from each additional dollar. They argue that an extra dollar does the most good for the person who has the least. A homeless person benefits hugely from that dollar, but giving or taking a dollar from a billionaire would probably produce little or no effect on the billionaire. Consequently, the way to maximize utility is to redistribute income so that the overall pattern of distribution is roughly equal. Others support a third option: a market economy with a redistributive welfare state. Perhaps this option is likely to produce the most overall happiness, since it recognizes the efficiency and productivity gains of market-generated outcomes while allowing for redistribution that increases overall happiness by providing public goods that markets on their own would fail to generate.
Objections To Utilitarianism
Of the many objections to utilitarianism, three stand out. First, it measures the wrong sort of thing; as Amartya Sen has argued, focusing on utility or happiness fails to capture the arguably more basic information about a people’s capabilities to function, including receiving adequate nourishment, living in secure surroundings, and developing their skills and talents.
The next two objections identify the flaw in the core utilitarian requirement to maximize utility. To begin with, utilitarianism is too demanding because it asks more than can fairly be required. Utilitarians recommend that happiness should be maximized, but this suggests that people should be spending all their time promoting the greatest happiness, since whatever good they do, it is likely that they can always do more. Next, utilitarianism is too permissive, since it allows individuals to be treated unjustly, used as mere means to the production of the greatest happiness. It permits treatment of individuals that seems obviously unfair, unjust, or deeply wrong. For example, it is possible that overall happiness, counting everyone for one and no one for more than one, could be maintained by enslaving some identifiable minority of the population. The suffering of these slaves would be more than compensated by the utility gains for the majority of free citizens. According to this scenario, utilitarianism requires slavery. But, so the objection says and as John Rawls points out in Justice as Fairness, most people would agree with Abraham Lincoln’s claim that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” (29).
- Bailey, James. Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Bentham, Jeremy. A Fragment on Government. Edited by Ross Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by J. H. Burns and H. L. A Hart. London: Athlone Press, 1970.
- Rationale of Reward. London: J. and H. L. Hunt, 1825. Crisp, Roger. Mill on Utilitarianism. London : Routledge, 1997.
- Goodin, Robert. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, in Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society. Edited by John Robson.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.
- Rawls, John. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999.
- Scarre, Geoffrey. Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2009.
- Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1981.
- Smart, J. J. C., and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against.
- Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
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