"Utility" refers to how valuable something is. In Monopoly, the essential services of the Water Works and Electricity Company are called the "utilities" because water and power are just about the most valuable things you can provide for people.
The Principle of Utility states that an action is "right if it produces as much or more of an increase in happiness of all affected by it than any alternative action, and wrong if it does not" (Peter Singer). It is based on the idea that pleasure and happiness are INTRINSICALLY valuable and pain and suffering are INTRINSICALLY disvaluable. Anything else has value only in its causing happiness or preventing suffering - in other words, other things can only have INSTRUMENTAL value because they are just a means to an end So, peace, tolerance and obeying the law are valuable but only because they tend to increase happiness and decrease suffering.
A utilitarian is someone who accepts the principle of utility and is therefore concerned with maximising the value (utility) of the world. Utilitarianism is a CONSEQUENTIALIST (goal-based) theory of ethics, as opposed to a DEONTOLOGICAL (rule-based) theory.
Utilitarians believe that the intrinsic value of pleasure/happiness is unaffected by the identity of the being in which it is felt - so everybody's happiness counts equally. Each counts for one, and none for more than one and my own interests cannot count for more, simply because they are my own, than the interests of others. This is a very important ethical idea which is not often recognised by religious ethical systems. For example, Aquinas' Natural Law ethics certainly doesn't count happiness achieved "unnaturally" (eg through homosexual love or masturbation). When Utilitarianism was first proposed in the 18th century, hardly any country on earth recognised equality, but by the end of that century the American Declaration of Independence stated that:
Religious ethicists might argue that Utilitarianism certainly didn't invent the idea of treating everybody equally or of working towards the happiness of others - for example, Jesus seems to be recommending this behaviour in his Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule. Nevertheless, Utilitarianism was the first ethical theory to make the happiness of people the SOLE basis of ethics and to build a system on this based on reason rather than religious revelation.
In ancient times the Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that the goal of life was to seek settled pleasure and "Epicurean" became a nickname for anyone who lives entirely for pleasure (which isn't quite fair on Epicurus, whose philosophy was a bit more sophisticated than that). Modern Utilitarianism begins with the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that pain and pleasure are the only intrinsic values in the world: "nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." From this, he derived the Rule of Utility: "good" is whatever brings the greatest PLEASURE to the greatest number of people. Bentham argued that pleasure could be calculated in a mathematical way which he calls Hedonic Calculus. This involves adding up all the pleasure an action might produce (for yourself and for others), then deducting the pain; if the action produces more total pleasure than the other courses of action available, then it becomes the right thing to do.
It's important to notice a few things about Utilitarianism. Firstly, Utilitarianim doesn't claim there is always a right thing to do in any situation, but it suggests there is always a best course of action (or at any rate, a least worse course of action). Utilitarianism claims to do away with the sort of moral dilemmas that plague deontological ethics because Hedonic Calculus will calculate a way out of any situation. Because everyone's pleasure is being treated equally, the outcome proposed by a Utilitarian ought to be something that any rational person would agree to (even if their personal pleasure isn't being increased, they ought to be able to see that the majority is benefitting). Nevertheless, there are some real problems with Bentham's Utilitarianism:
Firstly, Bentham's Utilitarianism is sometimes called ACT UTILITARIANISM because you have to weigh up the pleasure/pain caused by each of your acts, without ever relying on deontological rules. A first objection is whether this is psychologically possible. One of the advantages with deontological ethics is that people know at the outset what behaviours are and what behaviours aren't immoral. The Act-Utilitarian has no such guarantee and has to work out the ethical significance of everything they intend to do, from scratch.
Even if you allow that this is psychologically possible, just how far-reaching does Hedonic Calculus have to be? Do you consider the effects of your actions on people living in other countries or who haven't been born yet? A very common example is the choice between saving the life of two pregnant women, one of whom will give birth to twins (that would seem to mean more pleasure) but the other will give birth to a Beethoven. This may sound far-fetched, but one of the big conflicts between deontological and consequentialist ethics is over abortion, where Utilitarianism suffers because it cannot predict with certainty the overall utility of an unborn foetus' life.
To be fair to Bentham, he gave some thought to this and suggested that Hedonic Calculus should be limited by four important parameters:
Daniel Dennett uses the example of the
These examples all raise the question of whether Bentham was right to focus purely on physical pleasure. Aren't some other qualities important in their own right, rather than just because they are instrumental in producing pleasure or reducing pain? What about dignity, privacy and freedom? A common example is the problem of the Peeping Tom who spies on you undressing: since you don't know he's watching, it doesn't cause you distress, but most of us would rather live in a world where that didn't happen! This is sometimes called the EXPERIENCE REQUIREMENT. Bentham's Utilitarianism requires you experience pain or pleasure before anything becomes good or bad - but the point about Peeping Toms is that we don't experience what they are doing to us.
Bentham's Utilitarianism was developed further by his godson, John Stuart Mill. Mill was another radical thinker in the early 19th century who stood for social justice and many important reforms (like women's rights) long before they became widely accepted. He was also a convinced atheist who believed that Utilitarianism provided an ethical solution to many problems without depending on God or the Bible. However, J.S. Mil's Utilitarianism differed from Bentham's in several key respects.
Firstly, Mill rejected the idea that utility was entirely about physical pleasure. He famously stated: "it is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied". What Mill meant was that "pleasure" is something enjoyed by animals (like pigs), but human beings (like the Greek philosopher Socrates) are capable of much more complex feelings and will sometimes choose pain rather than pleasure for the sake of wisdom, knowledge or the attainment of their goals. Mill argues that HAPPINESS, rather than pleasure, should be the basis of Utilitarianism. Happiness includes physical pleasure but also what Mill calls the HIGHER PLEASURES, like satisfying curiousity, appreciating art and music or the knowledge you have made a good contribution to society. This immediately makes Mill's Utilitarianism more sophisticated than the "pig's philosophy" put forward by Bentham but it does lose one of Bentham's great advantages - pleasure is relatively easy to calculate but happiness is not, particularly when people disagree about what counts as happiness. Perhaps in the 19th century everyone agreed on what the "higher pleasures" were (fine art, classical music, poetry...) but ever since rock'n'roll arrived in the 1950s, modern society's been much more divided on this issue. For example, some people say that video games will soon replace the film and the novel as the main form of intellectual entertainment. People like Mill would probably argue that you get a "higher pleasure" from reading War & Peace or watching an Ingmar Bergman movie than you get from playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but the video game sold nearly 5 million copies in the USA and UK in the first 24 hours of its release, so it looks like people have voted with their thumbs!
Another difference between Mill's Utilitarianism and Bentham's ethics is that Mill moves beyond simple Act-Utilitarianism. He suggests that a good action is one that would maximise everyone's happiness if it was followed generally as a rule. A simple example might be stopping at red traffic lights. An Act-Utilitarian might find circumstances where there is more utility in running the red light (eg when rushing a woman in labour to hospital) than in stopping; a Rule-Utilitarian asks "How would society be if everyone ran red lights?" and, because the answer is "It would be disastrous!", decides that the rule "Don't run a red light" is a good rule that should be followed and there shouldn't be exceptions. Rule-Utilitarianism has no problem banning Peeping Toms either, because the rule "Don't spy on your neighbours undressing" makes for a happier society if it is generally followed, even if a few perverts are inconvenienced.
This more complicated example should make the difference between Act- and Rule- Utilitarianism clearer:
The popular and influential leader of the country is rushed to hospital, wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He needs a transplant immediately to survive. There are no suitable donors, but there is a homeless person in the emergency room who is being kept alive on a respirator and who probably has only a few days to live: he would make a perfect donor. Without the transplant, the leader will die; the homeless person will die in a few days anyway. Security at the hospital is very well controlled. The transplant team could "pull the plug" on homeless person's respirator and carry out the transplant without the public ever knowing. What should they do?
For Rule-Utilitarians, this is an easy choice. No one approves of a general rule that lets hospitals kill patients for their organs when they are going to die anyway. A rule like that would lead to all sorts of tragedies and would undermine public trust in the medical establishment (imagine: you go into hospital for an operation and the doctors kill you and give your organs to somebody more important!).
For Act-Utilitarians, the situation is more complex. So long as the public never find out, there would be more utility in killing the homeless person than in letting the leader die. After all, the homeless person only has a few days of utility left and his life probably wouldn't have that much utility to it even if he lived to be 100; the leader, on the other hand, might improve lives with his wise decisions, sign peace treaties, pass just laws and generally add to the utility of a whole country. Of course, if the public did find out... This sort of Act-Utilitarianism is at the back of a lot of conspiracy theories - the idea that the Government does things in secret (torture prisoners, crash planes into skyscrapers, make deals with alien Greys) that are for the good of the public, so long as the public never finds out...
In many ways, Rule-Utilitarianism produces more "civilised" behaviour than Act-Utilitarianism. Mill himself gives the example of telling the truth or keeping promises; an Act-Utilitarian might often find it better to lie or break a promise but everyone following a rule of honesty and trustworthiness makes for a happier society than one where people decide what to do on a case-by-case basis. Another example would be the 5th amendment of the US Constitution which states "No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself". This is a law that protects many offenders from being convicted because they can't be forced to answer questions. However, if it wasn't for the 5th amendment anyone could be tortured into confessing crimes they didn't commit. So getting rid of the 5th amendment would not cause the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
There is an important criticism, however. Rule-Utilitarianism can involve pointlessly following a rule that anyone can see won't lead to the best consequences. Put it this way, if your wife is in labour and you're stuck at a red light with empty roads stretching for miles in either direction, are you going to carry on obeying the rule "Don't run red lights" out of a sense of civic duty? This sort of Rule-Utilitarianism ends up looking just like Deontological ethics, with fixed rules that you follow come-what-may, regardless of how destructive the consequences may be.
J.S. Mill recognised this problem and made a distinction between "hard" and "soft" Rule-Utilitarianism. "Hard" Rule-Utilitarianism involves always obeying a rule that produces the most utility when it is generally followed. "Soft" Rule Utilitarianism allows for exceptions. In effect, you create a "sub-rule" when following the general rule might lead to disastrous consequences. A sub-rule might be something like "You can run a red light if you are rushing someone to hospital and there's clearly no oncoming traffic". Unfortunately, "soft" rules lead to the most devastating criticism of Rule-Utilitarianism, which is that it collapses back into being Act-Utilitarianism. David Lyons argues that this happens because every general rule has to admit of countless exceptions and so the ‘rules’ will have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases. In the end, rational agents will abandon the rules altogether and just choose whatever action produces the maximum utility
The debate between Act- and Rule- Utilitarians rumbled on for many years, but recently Utilitarianism has taken a new form. Peter Singer has led the way forwards with an ethical theory that keeps the idea of deciding the best action based on the overall utility of the consequences. However, Singer suggests that utility shouldn't be decided by pleasure or happiness, but rather by SATISFYING PREFERENCES. Preference-Utilitarianism holds that "good" means preference satisfaction (getting what we want) and that "bad" is preference frustration (not getting what we want).
Singer points out that people can be mistaken about what will make them happy but they are never mistaken about what they prefer. I might think that going to the pub and downing six pints of beer will make me happy, but I would actually be happier staying at home and reading War & Peace. Someone like J.S. Mill would say that it is better if I stay at home and read a good novel; it is a "higher pleasure" and it will broaden my mind, give me time to reflect on important things and I'll save money and reduce the damage to my kidneys. However, the Preference-Utilitarian would say that it is better if I go to the pub - that is what I want to do and what matters is that I get what I want.
Now an immediate result of Preference-Utilitarianism is that it gets round the EXPERIENCE REQUIREMENT without having to depend on any rules. Going back to our example of a Peeping Tom: someone watching you undress might not be causing you pain or unhappiness (assuming you don't know they're there), but they are certainly frustrating your preference for getting undressed in privacy.
Peter Singer famously (or notoriously) applied Preference-Utilitarianism to the abortion debate. He suggested that parents might have a clear preference NOT to have a handicapped child, but a foetus up to about 18 weeks old can't be said to have any preferences at all. This means there is nothing to weigh against the mother's preference for an abortion, so abortion becomes permissible.
This leads on to the main criticism of Preference-Utilitarianism, which is that many people have ANTISOCIAL or IRRATIONAL preferences. Antisocial preferences include things like taking dangerous drugs, getting sexual gratification in abusive ways or finishing a night out with a fight at the taxi rank. Some of these preferences can be dismissed because they involve frustrating other people's preferences NOT to have to live next door to junkies, get raped or be beaten up when trying to hail a cab. However, there are less clear-cut cases where Preference-Utilitarianism seems to endorse destructive or futile lifestyles. Normally we would try to stop a depressed person taking their own life: a Preference-Utilitarian might have to let them do it. We usually encourage people to cut down on drinking and quit smoking: a Preference-Utilitarian would probably encourage these things. We often tell friends to get out more: Preference-Utilitarianism can have no motive for criticising anyone for being a couch potato or even staying in bed for weeks on end, assuming it wasn't clashing with anyone else's preferences.
Preference-Utilitarianism is the most popular form of consequentialist ethics at the moment, even though critics are uncomfortable with its tendency to approve of some fairly selfish choices, like wasting money on Lottery scratchcards or watching online pornography. This is ironic, given that Utilitarianism was first proposed by social reformers who wanted to promote equality and challenge social injustice.
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory and so it depends heavily on people's ability to judge the consequences of their actions (or of certain rules being followed generally). If consequences are completely unpredictable, then Utilitarianism collapses. It's worth remembering that people (even people who know nothing about philosophy) generally do judge actions or rules to be right or wrong based on the consequences they produce. Most debates about nuclear power, climate change, abortion or the death penalty are framed in terms of the likely consequences of doing one thing or the other.
On the other hand, consequentialist theories tend to ignore MOTIVES. One of the attractive features of Thomnas Aquinas' Natural Law ethics was that he distinguished between exterior acts (going through the motions, even if you're not sincere) and interior acts (having the right intentions) and he argued that interior acts are more morally significant. This fits in with most people's moral views, since we don't tend to admire people who behave well purely for reward, whereas we admire people who do good deeds but take no credit for it (like Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice). Utilitarianism cannot accommodate this because for a Utilitarian (of any type) the goodness or badness of an action (or a rule) depends entirely on the consequences of doing it (or following it) and not at all on your motives.
For example, suppose that I am due to inherit a lot of money from my great-aunt when she passes away. Impatient, I tamper with the brakes on her car in the hope that they will fail while she’s driving and cause a fatal accident. As it happens, the brakes fail when she first backs out into the street and she rolls harmlessly into a field across the road. When she goes back inside to call the AA, she notices a gas leak so she quickly calls the gas company to come and repair it. In fact, had she not been stuck at home because of her brakes, she would not have noticed the gas leak, and her house, as well as her neighbours' houses, would have been blown up! So my attempt at murdering my aunt had unintended good consequences.
From a Utilitarian position, what I did turned out to be morally right - even though my motives were reprehensible. This ishows that if a theory focuses purely on consequences, it does not leave any room for motives… and ends up violating moral common-sense.
A final general criticism is that Utilitarianism always assumes that utility can be calculated in an unbiased way. In fact, who gets to do the calculating is a VERY important question. An example of this might be the British Empire in India. The British claimed to "hold India in trust" until it was developed enough to govern itself independently. Many British governors were worried that, if the British left India, the country would be hard hit with ethnic and religious violence so it was in the Indians' "best interests" for the British to stay in power. Many Indians felt differently, including Mohandas Gandhi, whose "Quit India!" campaign led to Indian independence in 1947. In fact, Indian independence did result in ethnic violence and wars with newly-formed Pakistan, producing a nuclear arms stand-off that carries on today. The point is that judging what was in the "Indians' best interest" depended very much on whether you were Indian or not.
Similar problems exist today with the British and American presence in Afghanistan. The Western governments think it is for the best if the Afghan people live in a democracy, educate their daughters and stop farming opium. The Taliban think it is best if the Afghan people live in a fundamentalist Islamic state, oppressing the women and profiting from drugs. Who is to say what is really best for the Afghan people? I have my opinion, but the point is that Utilitarianism can't be used to decide between two opposed views of what "best" means. Preference-Utilitarianism has an advantage in these situations, because rather than asking what would be "best" for Afghans or Indians, it can simply ask what they in fact WANT - and then argue that giving them what they want is the moral thing to do. Even with this, there might be a big difference between the society Afghan men prefer and Afghan women prefer, so whose preferences do we listen to?And do preferences count if they are based on brainwashing and indoctrination?
These problems become even more extreme when making ethical decisions about animals. It isn't clear how much pain, pleasure, happiness or sadness animals can feel, but their lives are usually treated as having less utility than humans', which is why we eat them and wear them and experiment on them. Again, it is Preference-Utilitarianism that takes a stand for the animals here, because there is no logical reason to treat animals' preferences any differently from humans'. Peter Singer uses the word SPECIESIST to describe the devaluing of the utility of animals' lives.