Jeremy Bentham, and his disciple John Stuart Mill have become recognised as the two greatest sponsors of Utilitarianism. Bentham is known for his popularisation of the more traditional version of the theory, know as Act Utilitarianism. Although a student of Bentham, Mill could see problems in what he was being taught and so began to develop his own views on Utilitarianism, which are now known as Rule Utilitarianism.
Bentham was a great traditionalist believer in the expression, the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham called this principle the principle of utility. With utility here referring to the tendency of an action to produce happiness, not its usefulness. It is the aim of Act Utilitarianism to fulfil to the greatest extent the principle of utility.
Act Utilitarianism focuses solely on the consequences of the action. The motives and the reasons why actions are carried out are trivial in determining the moral rightness of the action; yet is the value of the consequences of the particular act that counts when determining whether the act is right. So if I killed somebody, and my intent was cold-blooded murder, if by coincidence the person I killed was carrying a devastating disease and by me killing him I prevented the spread of this disease to thousands, and hence prevented the pain of thousands, my act of cold blooded murder, according to Act Utilitarianism was a morally right action to carry out.
This is not to say however that Act Utilitarianism condones cold-blooded murder as morally right, as it categorises nothing as right or wrong. Instead it needs to be applied to each individual action to determine the moral rightness of that action. It creates no blanket or absolute rules. Just because murder was correct in the above case, does not mean it will be correct in all other cases.
It is not only however happiness of an action that must be considered but also the potential unhappiness. The principle of utility attempts to achieve the greatest balance between happiness and unhappiness. If one action produces greater happiness, but also greater unhappiness, and if a second action produces slightly less happiness but also less unhappiness than the later should be chosen as the morally more correct action. Although this may seem to contradict Act Utilitarianisms aims of the greatest good for the greatest number, it does not, as the greater happiness in the first action is cancelled out by the greater unhappiness, so by opting for the second action you are still creating a relatively greater amount of happiness, and a greater balance between unhappiness and happiness.
The most important aspect of Act Utilitarianism is its focus on consequences. The consequences of each individual action. It is only by looking at the favourable or unfavourable consequences of an action, that one can determine the morality of each individual action. Although maybe 99times out of 100 being honesty will create the greatest happiness, so in each 99 times be the morally correct action, Act Utilitarianism will still not say that being honest is a morally correct action, as there is still that one time when not be honest creates the greatest happiness, so that one time lying is the morally correct action. This forms the greatest differentiating aspect to Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Where an act utilitarian looks at the results of an individual action in order to assess whether it is right or wrong, the Rule utilitarian follows general rules and principles.
Rule Utilitarianism is based on the same hedonist basis as Act Utilitarianism, that is to say that they are both formed on the basis that pleasure or happiness is the sole intrinsic good, and the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain determine our moral decisions. So outwardly the two forms may appear to be very similar, however they do differ greatly.
Rule utilitarianism is a formulation utilitarianism, which is to say the rule utilitarian follows general rules and principles, on the grounds that those rules and principles have been framed on utilitarian grounds. These rules are established on the basis that if everybody were to follow them, it would have the greatest benefit to society as a whole. Instead of looking at the consequences of a particular act to determine its morality, Rule utilitarianism maintains that the correct moral action is the one that adheres to the rule, the following of which has the best overall consequences.
Allow to take a very basic example to illustrate. If a friend gets a new hair cut, which she is unsure of, and so she asks you opinion. If you, and others did not like the new hair cut you are faced with a moral decisions. Should you lie to the friend and save her feeling or tell her the truth. Act Utilitarianism would say you should take the first option. By lying, and telling your friend that her hair looks good, you are saving her pain, causing her happiness, and you are also saving the feelings of the person that cut her hair, so you are creating the greatest good for the greatest number, so morally you should lie to her. Rule Utilitarianism would take a different approach.
On the basis of Utilitarianism the rule, do no lie could be established. As if everybody was always, unexceptionally honest, it is likely to have a beneficial effect on society. So the Rule utilitarian would say you should not lie to the friend. Although it may hurt her at first, she is likely to get a new hair cut, which she may be even more happy with, hence according to Rule Utilitarianism being honest and hurting the friends feeling is the morally correct action.
Here are two further examples to highlight the differences between the two theories of Utilitarianism. According to Act Utilitarianism it seems as though we should give up watching television entirely for charity work. As it probable that the time we spent watching television, would create greater happiness for a greater number if they were spent helping charity. Rule Utilitarianism would disagree. A rule prohibiting leisure time is not socially beneficial, and hence we are not required to abandon leisure for charity.
Similarly, rule Utilitarianism could deem slavery as wrong, as it could be determined that a general rule prohibiting slavery was more social beneficially. Hence enslaving somebody would be wrong. However according to act Utilitarianism slavery could be morally right. As if enslaving somebody had a greater beneficial effect for the slave owner that it had detrimental effect on the slave, that it would be morally correct.
Lets take a further well-known example. Imagine a doctor had five patients, both in need of transplants for five different body organs, all needed in order to survive. A healthy man walks into his practice, with no further complaint than a cough. Yet this man has all the organs needed to save all five of the dying patients. Act Utilitarianism would imply that the doctor should kill the healthy man and save the five patients, as this is creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Rule Utilitarianism however would maintain, that no one should ever kill an innocent person, and hence the doctor should treat the mans cough, and find other ways to help his five dying patients.
As you can see Rule Utilitarianism, and Act Utilitarianism, can vary quite dramatically in the solutions to problems, even though both solutions will be formed on roughly the same basis.
To what extent is Utilitarianism a useful method of making decisions about moral issues?
It would appear that the theory of Utilitarianism is the key to living in a perfect world. It would be hard to dispute the fact that if something makes you happy then it is a good thing to do. So to aim to make the maximum number of people as happy as they can be, seems an ideal thing to do. Surely if we all decided to carry out actions only if they create the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then we would all be happy for the maximum amount of time. However as many are painfully aware the world we live in is far from perfect, and I doubt that everybody is achieving the maximum amount of happiness; hence Utilitarianism is clearly not being applied exclusively to peoples lives.
Perhaps although Utilitarianism seems a flawless theory, when applied to the world it simply does not work. It seems to moralize things that appear to us innately wrong. For example, imagine if I were to get an enormous amount out of pleasure from torturing my grandmother. If the pleasure I gained from torturing her was more than the pain she felt from my torture, not only would it not be wrong to torture my grandmother, it would be the morally correct thing to do. This seems absurd.
Although it could be argued that whether or not to torture ones grandmother is not a moral decisions for most, even when applied to more direct moral issues, such as how to punish crimes, flaws can still be found in the theory. Take the earlier example of the murderer whose victim just happened to be carrying a devastating disease. If the victims death meant the prevention of the spread of this disease to thousands, then her murder was a morally correct action. Even if the murderer was completely unaware of the disease the victim had, and was purely killing out of cold-blood, he has still carried out a morally right action, and hence would be exempt from punishment according to Utilitarianism, as he has done no wrong.
Take again the example of murder. If one murderer, murderer (A), killed a popular young kill with many friends and family, and her death caused hurt and pain to many. Then if a second murderer, murderer (B) killed a little old lady with no friends and no family, and had no one to miss her and hence her death caused no pain to anyone. According to Utilitarianism murderer (B) may not have been morally correct, but was more morally correct that murderer (A) and hence deserves a lesser punishment. However again this seems illogical. Surely murder is always murder; you cannot kill somebody to a greater extent than to anyone else. Murder should always be treated as murder, and treated with the same severity.
This leads on to what I feel is the greatest problem with Utilitarianism, its lack of need for justice, and its ability moralize punishing the innocent. Take for example a class of school children who continually turn up late. The teacher finally decides to do something about it and decides to make an example of the next person who turns up late. If however the next child to be late for class was the one person who had never been late before, she would still punish him. By making an example of one person she has taught the whole class a lesson and hence improved their discipline, and has created the greatest good for the greatest number, so has done the morally correct thing according to Utilitarianism. However it was the innocent who was punished, and those who turned up late continually endured no punishment at all. Where is the justice is that? For the murderer who killed the person with the disease, there is no justice for him. No punishments need to be handed out as he as done nothing wrong.
However I feel that justice is a very important part of moral issues. Perhaps Utilitarianism is simply too simple to be effective in moral decision-making. Perhaps more needs to be taken into account than simply the consequences of an action, especially intent. As intent can be the key differentiating factor for many things, takes for example murder and manslaughter. According to utilitarianism the murderer who murders a young girl, is more morally correct than the person who drives his car over ice and accidentally kills and entire family in a second car, even though his intent was purely harmless. Intent seems to be, too big of a factor to simply ignore it when it comes to moral decision-making.
This is not to say however that Utilitarianism is not useful when it comes to decision-making. I feel it has many very important aspects for moral decision making. For instance its discouragement of self-interest. The focus on the wider community, and the total consequence is very important. When making moral decisions, it is usually vital that one does not concentrate on how to benefit oneself, but how to benefit a greater number.
The general concept of trying to benefit the greatest number with the greatest happiness is again a very useful theory when it comes to making moral decisions. Especially in the medical field. Where resources are limited, and only a limited number can be saved, it definitely seems right to help the people, who will gain the greatest happiness, and to try and serve the greatest number of people.
Even if however we decide that Utilitarianism is useful in making our moral decisions, there still seem to be some great practical obstacles. For example how do we compare happiness? How are to say that ones person pleasure at eating a sweet outweighs the pain from the rotten tooth. How are we to compare the happiness gained from a walk in the park, a delicious meal or watching ones favourite television show? I feel we simply cannot, there is no scale that happiness can be measured on. There are further problems when applying the theory.
For example how can accurately predict the consequence of each action. How can we make clear informed decisions on which actions will have the greater effects on the greater number? And finally can people ever really be free of self-interest? This is what is needed for Utilitarianism to accurately be applied. A clear objective view on a situation, and no consideration of ones own potential gain or loss due an action. However can such a clear objective view ever really achievable.
In conclusion I am dubious of the extent of Utilitarianism real importance when it comes to moral decision-making. Although it may appear to be faultless in theory, as has been shown when it comes to applying it in practice there are some quite considerable flaws. I feel one should always aim to create good and happiness and not pain, but I feel following the theory of Utilitarianism is not a sufficient way to achieve this. Some people say we have a God given reason to know what is good or bad, others people it is a natural instinct to make this distinction. Whether divine or natural, I feel that it is this reason that we should follow to try to achieve good over bad, as by following the theory of Utilitarianism is seems that is would be necessary to contradict things that appear to us as intrinsically bad. I feel there will be situations where the theory of Utilitarianism should be applied, but only if it does not contradict our instinctive believes on what is right and wrong. I believe the list of contradicting situations, to the rule that the theory of Utilitarianism should always be applied, would too long to say that Utilitarianism in practice has a great use in moral decision-making; yet it is our innate desire to do good that inspires us in moral dilemmas.