Utilitarianism is based on the idea that happiness is good. Utilitarian thinkers have traditionally understood happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. Utilitarianism’s best known advocate, John Stuart Mill, characterizes Utilitarianism as the view that “an action is right insofar as it tends to produce pleasure and the absence of pain.” If happiness, conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain, is the one thing that has value, then this criterion of right action should seem to follow straightforwardly.
In any given scenario, every possible course of action will have a utility. The utility of an action is the net total of pleasure caused by the action minus any pain caused by that action. In calculating the utility of an action we are to consider all of the effects of the action, both long run and short run. Given the utilities of all available courses of action, Utilitarianism says that the correct course of action is the one that has the greatest utility. So an action is right if it produces the greatest net total of pleasure over pain of any available alternative action. Note that sometimes no possible course of action will produce more pleasure than pain. This is not a problem for Utilitarianism as we’ve formulated it. Utilitarianism will simply require us to pursue the lesser evil. The action with the highest utility can still have negative utility.
Utilitarianism places no privileged status on the happiness of the actor. It’s happiness that matters, not just your happiness. So Utilitarianism can call for great personal sacrifice. The happiness of my child over the course of his lifetime might require great personal sacrifice on my part over the course of his first few decades. Utilitarianism says the sacrifice should be made given that the utility at stake for my child is greater than the utility at stake in my child-rearing sacrifices.Likewise, Utilitarianism places no privileged status on the immediate, as opposed to the long term, effects of the action. An action’s utility is the net amount of pleasure or pain that is experienced as a result of the action over the long run. So, while it might maximize a small child’s pleasure in the short run to be given ice cream whenever he wants it, the long run utility of this might not be so good given the habits formed and the health consequences of an over-indulged sweet tooth.
There is an obvious concern to address at this point. We often don’t know what the long-run consequences of our actions will be, and even in the short run we are often uncertain about just how much pleasure and pain will be caused for the various parties affected. So we might not be able to calculate the utilities of alternative actions to figure out which action will have the highest utility. These are practical problems for applying utilitarian theory. But while it might be difficult to tell on a case by case basis just which course of action will maximize utility, this is not a problem for Utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory. As a normative ethical theory, Utilitarianism is aimed at identifying the standard for right action, not telling when a particular action meets that standard. Setting the standard for right action and figuring out how to meet that standard are two different projects.
When we speak of utility as pleasure and the absence of pain, we need to take “pleasure” and “pain” in the broadest sense possible. There are social, intellectual, and aesthetic pleasures to consider, as well as sensual pleasures. Recognizing this is important to answering what Mill calls the “doctrine of swine” objection to Utilitarianism. This objection takes Utilitarianism to be unfit for humans because it recognizes no higher purpose to life than the mere pursuit of pleasure. The objector takes people to have more noble ends to pursue than mere pleasure. According to this objection, Utilitarianism is a view of the good that is fit only for swine. Mill responds that it is the person who raises this objection who portrays human nature in a degrading light, not the utilitarian theory of right action. People are capable of pleasures beyond mere sensual indulgences and the utilitarian theory concerns these as well. Mill then argues that social and intellectual pleasures are of an intrinsically higher quality than sensual pleasure.
We find a more significant objection to Utilitarian moral theory in the following sort of case: Consider Bob, who goes to the doctor for a checkup. His doctor finds that Bob is in perfect health. And his doctor also finds that Bob is biologically compatible with six other patients she has who are all dying of various sorts of organ failure. Let’s assume that if Bob lives out his days he will live a typically good life, one that is pleasant to Bob and also brings happiness to his friends and family. But we will assume that Bob will not discover a cure for AIDS or bring about world peace. And let us make similar assumptions about the six people suffering from organ failure. According to simple Act Utilitarianism, it looks like the right thing for Bob’s doctor to do is to kill Bob and harvest his organs for the benefit of the six patients who will otherwise die. But intuitively, this would be quite wrong. Act Utilitarianism gets the wrong result in this sort of case. This case seems to provide a clear counterexample to simple Act Utilitarianism. This looks like a bit of evidence that calls for a change in theory. But perhaps that change can be a modification of utilitarian thinking rather than a complete rejection of it.
One move open to the utilitarian is to evaluate rules for acting rather than individual actions. A version of Rule Utilitarianism might say that the right action is the action that follows the rule which, in general, will produce the highest utility. A rule that tells doctors to kill their patients when others require their organs would not have very high utility in general. People would avoid their doctors and illness would go untreated were such a rule in effect. Rather, the rule that doctors should do no harm to their patients would have much higher utility in general. So the move to Rule Utilitarianism seems to avoid the difficulty we found with Act Utilitarianism. Or at least it seems to when we consider just these two rules.
But here is a rule that would have even higher utility than the rule that doctors should never harm their patients: doctors should never harm their patients except when doing so would maximize utility. Now suppose that doctors ordinarily refrain from harming their patients and as a result people trust their doctors. But in Bob’s case, his doctor realizes that she can maximize utility by killing Bob and distributing his organs. She can do this in a way that no one will ever discover, so her harming Bob in this special case will not undermine people’s faith in the medical system. The possibility of rules with “except when utility is maximized” clauses renders Rule Utilitarianism vulnerable to the same kinds of counterexamples we found for Act Utilitarianism. In effect, Rule Utilitarianism collapses back into Act Utilitarianism.
In order to deal with the original problem of Bob and his vital organs, the advocate of Rule Utilitarianism must find a principled way to exclude certain sorts of utility maximizing rules. I won’t pursue this matter on behalf of the utilitarian. Rather, I want to consider further just how simple Act Utilitarianism goes wrong in Bob’s case. Utilitarianism evaluates the goodness of actions in terms of their consequences. For this reason, Utilitarianism is often referred to as a consequentialist theory. Utilitarian considerations of good consequences seem to leave out
something that is ethically important. Specifically, in this case, it leaves out a proper regard for Bob as person with a will of his own. What makes Bob’s case a problem case is something other than consequences, namely, his status as a person and the sort of regard this merits. This problem case for utilitarian moral theory seems to point towards the need for a theory based on the value of things other than an action’s consequences, thus Kant’s deontology. (Note that Mill’s brand of Utilitarianism was a response to Kant’s duty ethic, particularly in his inclusion of “quality”–that which speaks to the pleasures of the intellect and human dignity–as the highest pleasure, and therefore the highest good.)