Utilitarianism – Lecture 1

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870In this course I am making a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is the application of reason to moral decisions. Ethics, on contrary, is not about procedures but how I respond, or fail to respond to the sufferings of others. This isn’t a matter of reason, but of sensibility, since it is perfectly possible to ‘reason’ oneself out of ethics simply by refusing the status of humanity to others.

In Western philosophy, at least, there are 3 standard form of moral rationality (though the third is really a critique of the other 2): utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of acts, whereas deontology emphasises the intentions of the agent. What is common to them both, however, is that they begin with the self and the self is primarily understood as a rational agent. It is this presupposition that will be questioned to some extent by the third theory, virtue theory, and fundamentally by ethics. In virtue theory, will still begin with the self, but the self is interpreted as existing in a concrete situation (a given community, society and history) whose values are embedded rather than deduced rationally, and what matter is not just the intentions or consequences of actions, but character and authenticity. Ethics, as we shall later in the course, goes even further than this, because it questions whether we should begin with the self at all, but rather with others, and that our commitment to others is first about sensibility, rather than rationality (in other words that the relation to other is different from the relation of the self to itself in moral reflection).

In this lecture, we are going to focus on utilitarianism, which is perhaps the most popular and well known, but also the one moral theory that pervades our everyday lives because it is the basis of public policy and government decisions that generally are taken on a utility basis. There are two version of utilitarianism. One by Bentham and the other by Mill, whose version can be seen as a correction of the formers. The basis of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the ‘happiness principle’. A policy or decision is moral if it contributes to the general happiness of everyone. Happiness, here, is a psychological category, and for Bentham is a quantifiable and calculable in terms of its intensity and duration. What is good is what gives us pleasure, what is bad, is what causes us pain. All moral arguments come down to the maximisation of happiness as opposed to personal preference or dogma.

An example of Bentham’s utilitarianism in action would be the planned creation of workhouses in England in the 19th Century, which luckily for the poor were never fully implemented.[1] Bentham’s argument was that encountering the poor on the street was a public nuisance that lead to a decrease in the happiness of the majority so it would be better for them to be incarcerated in workhouses against their will. Moreover, it was better for society as whole if the poor were forced to work rather than being unproductive parasites, as he saw it, on society. By putting the poor to work they would in fact pay for the cost of the workhouses, and therefore not be a burden on the taxpayer. Although these ideas where never fully put into action, we can still here them loud and clear today.

Why might some find Bentham’s ideas morally dubious however unpractical they turned out to be? The fundamental problem is it sacrifices the freedom of the individual for the sake of society as a whole.[2] The workhouse was repressive and cruel system that destroyed the lives of those who were incarcerated, as the novels of Dickens portray, and it seems hardly justifiable to argue that destroying a human life is justifiable for the sake of the happiness of the majority. If this were the case, as Sandel argues, why wouldn’t we justify the throwing of the Christians to the lions, since the majority obviously gained pleasure from this spectacle (2010, p. 37)? Can the pleasure of one, justify the pain of another? Doesn’t this go against our moral intuitions?

As Sandel goes onto write, some people have used this argument to justify torture. We might think that the suffering of an individual is not as important as the social good gained by torture.[3] We could think of good utilitarian arguments, he adds, about why torture is wrong: that in the end you don’t gain much information from torturing people; that society itself, in the long run, would be undermined if we let systematic torture happen (what would be the difference between us and our enemies?); that our own soldiers and agents would be tortured. Yet there is also an argument on principle that torture is wrong. The dignity of the individual outweighs any utility (this is the same critique of Bentham’s workhouses and prisons).

One way that people justify torture is the ‘ticking time bomb’. The argument goes that if a nuclear device were to go off and we had a terrorist in our hands, then all of us would tortures the terrorist to find out the information and stop the bomb. The problem with this scenario, as Sandel points out, is that we are not describing like with like. It implies that the person being tortured is innocent like us and therefore we are willing to sacrifice one life for another, but of course the terrorist is not the same as us. The real example to see whether you think there could be a utilitarian defence of torture would be whether you think it would be worth sacrificing the innocent daughter of the terrorist to find out why the bomb is. Would the happiness of the majority justify the suffering and death of a child?

Our worries about utilitarianism, at least in the crude form that it put forward by Bentham and public policy, is that it isn’t a moral philosophy at all but just a moral calculation, which reduced every human life to a common denominator. Sandel alludes to the famous example of the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pinto (which was the basis of the scene in the film The Fight Club) (2010, p. 43). When Ford did a cost benefit analysis if found that the cost of fixing the fault was higher than the costs of people burning or dying. Is there not something morally repugnant about putting a value on someone’s life in this way, in the same way that Bentham only saw the lives of the poor in terms of an economic value?

It is for these reasons that Mill sought to improve Bentham’s utilitarianism. First of all he makes a distinction, though it is not always clear in his text, between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, a utility calculus is performed for every situation. Thus it is perfectly possible, that in a particular situation, the best cause of action would be to tell a lie since this promote the happiness of the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism does not focus on the consequence of an action, but a rule. The argument then would be about whether telling lies would benefit society as whole, as opposed to keeping promises. Rule utilitarianism would not justify, therefore the telling of lies in any situation, because constantly making exceptions to the rule would undermine social relations confidence and trust.

Mill’s fundamental reform of Bentham, however, is at the level of the psychology of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, this was a matter merely of quantity, intensity and duration. Every rational creature would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Mill’s argument is that it is psychological incorrect to reduce pain and pleasure to sensation and everyone knows this through introspection. We do not merely speak of quantity of a feeling but also the quality of one. Even when we speak of pain, we can think of a dull or a sharp pain. We can think of dull pain being more or less painful and the same with a share one, but the difference between them is qualitative not quantitative. As rational beings we are capable of ordering our desires qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

Everyone knows Mill’s famous statement ‘It is better to be human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. When it comes to individual acts, this might be difficult to defend. It is really true that reading book is more pleasurable than sex? Even those who like reading books would hardly defend that. Moreover, is it true to say that in having sex I don’t use my mind at all? Mill’s dictum makes no sense if we think about it in this way, and is hardly convincing psychologically. When Mill is thinking about the quality of pleasure he is thinking about life lived as whole (this again is the important difference between act and rule utilitarianism). Would a life that was dedicated wholly to sex be better than a life that was not? Mill’s argument would be that it wouldn’t be if we thought about society as whole, for the one reason that person who dedicated their lives solely to sensual pleasures would essentially be selfish and egotistical. It is only through education that I would realise that society exists only because of the selfless acts of others who are willing to sacrifice their own advantage.

In some sense Mill could be seen as a utopian socialist, as opposed to the reactionary views of Bentham, and the revolutionary socialism of Marx.[4] His utilitarianism is about social progress, which the major theme of his work On Liberty, and which should be seen as the context of his moral theory. What would benefit the majority rather than the minority? A morality that has its source in intuition or tradition tends to be authoritarian, reactionary and conservative. We ought to change the world so as make it better for the vast majority of people, and the two great wants in our word are poverty and disease, so we should change the world to rid ourselves from them. The problem is that we can certainly imagine a despotic society that could achieve these ends rationality without individual rights. Do we think this sacrifice is worth it, or does it undermine human dignity and respects for others beyond calculation for a future good? It seems the only way to save utilitarianism is through the idea of dignity, but the latter cannot be determined by a calculus. It is a principle.

Works Cited

Bahmueller, C.F., 1981. The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s silent revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kurer, O., 1992. J.S. Mill and Utopian Socialism. Economic Record 68, 222–32.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ? Penguin books, London.

Schiemann, J.W., 2016. Does torture work? Oxford University Press, New York.


[1] For a full historical account of Bentham’s ideas and implementation of Poor Law reform in England, see (Bahmueller, 1981).

[2] A separate and equally important issue is whether poverty is the fault of the individual. The real cause of poverty in England that the time was not the idleness of the working classes, but the Corn Laws, and industrialisation. Bentham’s incarceration of the poor stems from a fear of revolution not a concern with their welfare.

[3] This moral argument is different from the argument whether torture works or not, which it does not. The moral argument would be that even if torture did work, it would still be wrong. For an account of whether torture actually works, using game theory, see (Schiemann, 2016).

[4] For a detailed account of why Mill should be considered a utopian socialist, see (Kurer, 1992)

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