Utilitarianism is important because it is the dominant philosophical viewpoint of modern times, although this is obscured by the way it is discussed.
Utilitarianism is usually presented as an ethical postulate, that good actions are those which promote ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ or some such.
Considered as a guide to individual conduct, utilitarianism is impossibly demanding, since it requires complete selflessness (anybody else’s happiness is just as important as yours) without even the reward of a blessed afterlife.
In fact, utilitarianism only makes sense as a public philosophy, that is as a way of assessing public policy, and it’s pretty clear that this is how Bentham intended it. The only philosopher I know who’s made this point is Bob Goodin of ANU. Going further, utilitarianism only makes sense for a basically democratic society, in which everyone is equal in some formal sense. Obviously in an absolute monarchy, public philosophy is just individual ethics for the monarch, and something analogous is true for aristocracies, theocracies and so on.
In its role as a democratic public philosophy, utilitarianism lacks serious competitors. Ideas proposed as alternatives are usually jerry-built modifications of ideas about individual ethics that don’t scale up to the public sphere
With this background, utilitarianism can be seen as the combination of three principles
- Consequentialism – actions should be judged according to their (likely) consequences
- Equality – each individual counts equally
- Happiness as preference-satisfaction – what matters is each individual’s happiness as they choose to pursue it
Within consequentialism, there’s an important dispute over whether it is best to seek, in every decision, the specific action that would (be likely to) produce the best outcome (act-consequentialism) or whether it’s best to find rules of action that produce the best outcomes on average and adhere to those rules on all occasions (rule-consequentialism). This distinction is critical when we come to consider issues of government policy. I plan to elaborate on it in a later post, and also continue previous discussions on equality and happiness.
Update My claim that utilitarianism lacks serious competitors leaves Lawrence Solum “gasping for breath”. He asks “what about Nozick and Rawls?”. My answer
(i) I don’t think Nozick provides a serious alternative to anything
(ii) Rawls attempts to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, but in the end only produces a variant that is more egalitarian than usual because the underlying preferences are more risk averse than most utilitarians assume [Harsanyi derives standard utilitarianism from an almost identical setup].