This is the website/blog of Philosopher Stephen Law. Stephen is Provost of Centre for Inquiry UK, Reader in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He has published several books (see sidebar). For school talks and media email: think-AT-royalinstitutephilosophy.org
Monday, December 9, 2013
Handout on utilitarianism (for A Level Religious Studies etc.)
(THIS WILL A HEYTHROP PHILOSOPHY POSTER FREE TO SCHOOLS)
Jeremy Bentham[1748-1832], the father of utilitarianism, famously declared that
" . . . actions are right in
proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the
reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of
pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."
Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism – it says that only the consequences of an act are
Bentham says that the right thing to do in any given
situation is to act to produce the
happiest outcome – the happiest outcomeaccording to Bentham, is that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain.
Bentham himself developed a “felicific calculus” factors
such as intensity and duration of pains and pleasures could be fed to calculate
the right course of action.
A simple example of such a utilitarian calculation – should
I steal that child’s sweets? Doing so might give me the pleasure of eating
them. But it would deprive the child of the same pleasure and cause her
considerable unhappiness to boot. On balance, stealing the sweets will cause
less happiness than not stealing them. So the right thing to do, on this simple
utilitarian calculation,is not to steal
The happy-drug counter-example
One glaring problem with the simpler forms of utilitarianism
is that they seem prone to an obvious sort of counterexample. What if we could
make everyone feel wonderfully happy by constantly injecting them with a
happy-drug? Would that be the right thing to do, morally speaking?
No. Turning everyone into
blissed-out drug zombies would be wrong. Making people “feel good” may be of
some moral importance. But it’s not of overriding importance.
Higher and lower pleasures
One way in which a utilitarian might respond to this sort of
counterexample is to distinguish between higher
and lower pleasures. J.S. Mill does precisely this. An intense,
drug-induced reverie may be agreeable. But it produces a pleasure of a very
shallow sort compared to, say, the pleasures of the intellect - which,
according to Mill, include the appreciation of poetry and philosophical debate.
Doping people up to the eyeballs may induce an intense sort of pleasure, but it
deprives them of the opportunity to enjoy higher, more important pleasures.
Which is why it would be the wrong thing to do.
So unlike Bentham – pleasures differ not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well.
distinction between higher and lower pleasures may get the utilitarian off the
hook so far as the “happy-drug” objection goes, but it strikes many as
objectionably elitist and paternalistic. Is the pleasure of engaging in
philosophical debate or listening to Mozart really
superior to that of filling ones belly with chocolate ice-cream? Aren’t such
distinctions mere snobbery?
Mill thought not. He argues that
only those who have experienced both the higher and lower pleasures are in any
position to judge which are best, and those who have had the luxury of
experiencing both tend to prefer the higher.
But is this true? Actually, many
of those in a position to enjoy both kinds of pleasure like to be seen to enjoy the higher while secretly
over-indulging their taste for the lower.
Another classic counterexample to utilitarianism is the transplant case. Suppose you’re the
doctor in charge of six patients. The first has a minor medical condition
easily cured. The others have failing organs and will soon die without
transplants. No replacement organs are available. But then you discover that
the first patient can provide perfect donor organs. So you can murder the first
patient to save the rest. Or you can cure the first and watch five die. What is
the right thing to do?
utilitarian calculation suggests you should kill one patient to save the rest.
After all, that will result in five happy patients and only one set of grieving
relatives rather than one happy patient and five sets of grieving relatives.
Yet the killing of one patient to save the rest strikes most of us very wrong
Act and Rule
Some utilitarians attempt to deal with this kind of case by
distinguishing between act and rule utilitarianism.
Act utilitarianism – each action
should be judged solely on its ability to produce the greatest happiness.
Rule utilitarianism - we should
follow those rules that will produce the greatest happiness.
A rule utilitarian might say that “Do not kill the innocent”
and “Do not punish the innocent” are rules that increases happiness overall. So
we should always follow these rules, even on those rare occasions (such as the
transplant case) when following them does reduce happiness.
Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism
J.S. Mill suggests that we should be rule utilitarians
except where we face a dilemma generated by two rules. Then we should appeal
directly to the principle of utility itself.
For example: “do not steal” and “do not allow people to
starve” are rules that will generally produce greater happiness. But where I
can feed a starving person only by stealing food for them, I must break one or
other of these two rules. Under these circumstances, I must then revert to act
utilitarianism and judge which action will produce the happiest outcome.
So Mill and Bentham differ in that:
1. Bentham is an act utilitarian
whereas Mill favours a form of rule utilitarianism
2. Bentham does not distinguish
between higher and lower pleasures, Mill does.
A criticism of rule utilitarianism
Why I should follow the rule even in a situation where the
result is less happiness? It seems ridiculous to insist that I should tell the
truth to the serial killer who demands to know where my children are hiding,
even if telling the truth does in general
lead to increased happiness. Indeed, it would surely be wrong for me to tell
the truth under such circumstances. But it seems that is not something the
rule-utilitarian can allow (or can Mill deal with it?)
DO FOLLOWING A SEPARATE TEXT BOX?
Here’s one last apparent counter-example to utilitarianism
from the contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick. Suppose a machine is built
that can replicate any experience. Plug yourself in and it will stimulate your
brain in just the way it would be stimulated if you were, say, climbing mount
Everest or walking on the Moon. The experiences this machine generates are
indistinguishable from those you would get if you were experiencing the real
For those of us that want to
experience exotic and intense pleasures. this machine offers a fantastic opportunity.
Notice it can even induce higher
pleasures - the pleasure gained from engaging in a philosophical debate or
listening to a Beethoven symphony need be no less intense for being experienced
within a virtual world.
Many of us
would be keen to try out this machine. But what of the offer permanently to immerse yourself in such
Most of us would refuse. Someone
who has climbed Everest in virtual reality has not really climbed Everest. And
someone who has enjoyed a month-long affair with the computer-generated Lara
Croft has not really made any sort of meaningful connection with another human
The truth is we don’t just want
to “feel happy”. Most of us also want to lead lives that are authentic. Someone who (like Truman in The Truman Show) had unwittingly lived
out their whole life within a carefully controlled environment might
subjectively feel content and fulfilled. But were they to be told on their
deathbed that it had all been a carefully staged illusion - that there had been
no real relationships, that their
“achievements” had all been carefully managed - then they might well feel that
theirs was, after all, a life sadly wasted.
Again, it seems that “feeling
good” is not, ultimately, what’s most important to most of us. Nor, it seems,
is arranging things to maximize the feeling of happiness always morally the
right thing to do. Secretly plugging everyone into a deceptive, Matrix-like
pleasure-inducing virtual world would surely be very wrong indeed.