Word for Wednesday: Utilitarianism (definition)

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].

7 thoughts on “Word for Wednesday: Utilitarianism (definition)

  1. John,
    nice post.
    I agree about utilitarianism being a public philosophy—for governments and corporations. That is its strength.

    However, you should qualify ‘the dominant philosophy of our time.’Liberalism is that. But there are many forms of liberalism. The utilitarian form is hegemonic in Australi and Britain but not in the USA—-there it is a rights-based social contract liberalism.

    Despite both being members of the same family both u-liberalism and sc-liberalism are quite different with different traditions. Many are the family quarrels between them as you well know.

    I dont agree about ethics being a private not public ethic for aristocrats. It is not a good reading of Burke (and Hume); the former cconstructed a public ethic around aesthetics (broadly understood) that was then used by political conservatives and romantics to attack the ethos of utility.

  2. social utilitarianism as an ethical position – Peter Singer?

    and I think that utilitarianism has a serious challenger in the libertarian metaphysic. That is, the old means (freedom) v ends (utility) debate. Having said that I should admit to be a utilitarian myself, and I agree that utilitarianism has no viable competitor in the rhelm of onteological (consequentialist) philosophies.

  3. Bentham was a really miserable guy, so he probably didn’t know much about happiness. I’d say it’s very difficult for anyone to say what would make another person happy, or even to know clearly what would make themselves happy.

    The dominant philosophy of the current time, as of former times is the greatest good, economically, of the power group, not the greatest good of everyone.

  4. I agree that utilitarianism is the only political philsophy that can claim to have general public assent.
    It may be that Popper’s negativist “harm minimising” approach rather than Bentham’s positivist “happiness maximising” is better as pain is easier to identify and ameliorate than pleasure.
    I agree that Nozick’s approach is frivoulous and inhumane (enforcing heritable property rights whilst people starve for want of acquirable property would be immoral).
    Rawls’ maximise the minimal approach is a worthy form of egalitarianism, but it has the advantage of recognising the “seperateness of persons” in the critical private sphere – very important in the era of fundamentalism.
    I suggest that utlitarianism be modified to different scales.

    At the political macro-scale level we may follow interests-based “act ultilitarianism”. This allows Hobbes-Machiavellian collectivism if the ends justifies the means to ensure security of the state in the public sphere.

    At the professional meso-scale level we should concentrate on maximising instrumental economic objectives of productive efficiency and distributive equity.

    At the personal micro-scale level we should adhere to rights-based “rule utilitarianism”. This enjoins Locke-Kantian individualism that respects the primacy of liberty for individual agents in the private sphere.

    This three tracked approach recognises that access to information & technology makes a crucial difference for different scales of action.

  5. naive utilitarians
    John Quiggan has a post on utilitarianism. It is a naive one. He that 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.” He makes a good…

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