Humans have many intuitions of morality. Some of these refer to specific acts (e.g., theft is usually wrong); others are broad principles (e.g., treat people like they want to be treated). One such idea is that maximizing happiness is a good thing to do. A refined version of this idea is Utilitarianism’s premise.
As part of the school of consequentialism, Utilitarianism judges acts — and the people who do them — only by what results. More specifically, on the total net happiness that results. The hypothetical Utilitarian looks at her options, determines what results in the greatest quantity of pleasure for all involved, and does that, apart from any other concern.
This ethical theory is consequently agnostic to the people involved, the places involved and the times involved. The pleasure of your grandmother sitting across from you in the next moment is as relevant as the pleasure of a total stranger living thousands of years and miles away.
On the other hand, this theory is very concerned with the magnitude of pleasure, how long it lasts, etc. The same goes with pain, which utilitarians suppose cancels out pleasure.
Besides the people, places and times involved, it also is indifferent to the attitudes involved. If I act to increase net happiness, I am a good person, even if I do it for reasons irrelevant to morality. There is no concept of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons: only doing the right (or wrong) thing. Even that, arguably, is a stretch, if by ‘things’ we mean actions. Truly, there are no right things under utilitarianism, only right outcomes.
John Stuart Mill both defended and extended Bentham’s ideas. He introduced the idea that some pleasures are higher than others: “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” is how he famously put it.
Humans, Mill argued, are able to enjoy certain things other forms of life cannot. For instance, we would agree chimpanzees are unlikely to appreciate the subtleties of Pablo Picasso’s paintings or Tchaikovsky’s ballets. To Mill, these sorts of pleasures are ‘higher’ because they require more of our facilities. Things like eating can be enjoyed by animals of all kinds and require no facility or ability unique to humans.
What distinguishes higher pleasures from lower pleasures is that people who’ve experienced both prefer the former. With experience, anyone will come to enjoy the value and profoundess of the higher pleasure over the lower pleasure. The endorsement of a pleasure by people who’ve experienced it is not what makes it a higher pleasure, only how we can find out.1 If everyone had misidentified reality television as a higher pleasure, it would not become one.
The utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill was later named Act Utilitarianism to distinguish it from the newly invented Rule Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitiarianism amends utilitiarnian ideas to account for some (perceived) failings of Act Utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism uses the principle of utility not on an act basis, but to come up with the rules a perfectly utilitarian society would adopt. Under that theory, morality still rests on pleasure.
Despite Bentham’s and Mill’s forms of utilitarianism being contrasted against Rule Utilitarianism, they still allowed the for rules of thumb. The difference is that for Bentham and Mill these would be approximations, whereas rule utilitarianism they would be the actual thing to keep in mind.
Problems with Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism by design only is interested in the consequences, and more specifically, the consequent pleasure and pain. This however is contrary to many moral issues. These conflicting intuitions can be divided into two groups:
Intuitions about intent. Ultimately, we care deeply about intent.
In Daniel Handler’s book “The Austere Academy”2 the antagonist Count Olaf forces the three protagonists to run endless laps as part of a convoluted plan to steal the fortune they inherited when their parents died. The plan fails and almost backfires when the main characters nearly capture him, sprinting with legs unwittingly conditioned by Olaf.
If I unintentionally cause someone suffering, perhaps by giving a dish with peanuts to someone deathly allergic to them, I am just as culpable as someone who planned it deliberately. Either way, there is a decrease in happiness.
Later on, the idea of judging people subjectively (as opposed to objectively) was introduced. Subjectively, in the sense of judging a person by what they knew at the time. In that case, we might laud someone who tries their best to maximize the total happiness even if it turns out badly.
But this seems to be having our cake and eating it; switching from caring only about consequences to caring about intent as it seems convenient. Even aside from that, this objective/subjective distinction wasn’t made by Mill and Bentham.
Intuitions about motivation. The reason we do things is ignored by utilitarianism, but not by our intuitions. The only reason the common phrase “doing the right thing for the wrong reason” makes sense is because we care about the reasons people have.
I distinguish here between intent and motivation. Intent is what the person means for to happen, motivation is why the person wants to do it.
To illustrate our concern for motivation, let’s consider a job we can agree would require someone doing it for the right reasons. Let’s take a prison guard. We can imagine a sociopath taking the job in order to enjoy inflicting punishment. That seems wrong, even if we are reassured that (somehow) this person will never doing different.
Alternatively, we can borrow Nozick’s experience machine and imagine someonewho has programmed the machine so that it gives the experience of murdering countless innocent people, in graphic detail and complete realism. This would trouble most people, yet utilitarianism demands we shrug our shoulders.(It would also demand that we jump in the machine ourselves to make us forget the person and the pain it causes us.) If this is the happiest that person would be at no cost to anyone else, not only would we be required to tolerate it, we’d have to endorse it.3
Likewise, observing yellow, red and orange leaves on trees doesn’t make it autumn, it’s how we know it’s autumn. The season is independent of anyone noticing it — there were autumns before people existed to call them that. What makes it autumn is the time of year.↩
Written under the pen name Lemony Snicket.↩
We can feel personally repulsed by it. We just can’t be morally repulsed.↩