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Utilitarian Ethics. Paley, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick. Utilitarian Ethics. Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.

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Utilitarian Ethics


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utilitarian ethics

Utilitarian Ethics

Paley, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick

utilitarian ethics2
Utilitarian Ethics
  • Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility:
  • that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.
  • It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.
utilitarian ethics3
Utilitarian Ethics
  • Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number of people", and is also known as "the greatest happiness principle".
  • Utility, the good to be maximized, has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain).
basic insights of utilitarianism
Basic Insights of Utilitarianism
  • The purpose of morality is to make the world a better place.
  • Morality is about producing good consequences, not having good intentions
  • We should do whatever will bring the most benefit (i.e., intrinsic value) to all of humanity.
the purpose of morality
The Purpose of Morality
  • The utilitarian has a very simple answer to the question of why morality exists at all:
    • The purpose of morality is to guide people’s actions in such a way as to produce a better world.
  • Consequently, the emphasis in utilitarianism is on consequences, not intentions.
william paley
William Paley
  • William Paley (1743–1805)
  • His position on the nature of morality was similar to that of Ockham and Luther—namely, he held that right and wrong are determined by the will of God.
  • Yet, because he believed that God wills the happiness of his creatures, his normative ethics were utilitarian: whatever increases happiness is right; whatever diminishes it is wrong.
william paley7
William Paley
  • William Paley was a British Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian.
  • He is best known for his exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology, which made use of the watchmaker analogy.
jeremy bentham
Jeremy Bentham
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is properly considered the father of modern utilitarianism.
  • It was he who made the utilitarian principle serve as the basis for a unified and comprehensive ethical system that applies, in theory at least, to every area of life.
  • Never before had a complete, detailed system of ethics been so consistently constructed from a single fundamental ethical principle.
bentham s act utilitarianism
Bentham’s “Act” Utilitarianism
  • “Nature has placed mankind under the governancy of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
  • “The principle of utility . . . Is that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question”
  • “By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness. . .”
early criticisms of bentham s approach
Early Criticisms of Bentham’s Approach
  • Hedonism – a moral theory “fit for swine”
  • Atheistic – leaves out God

(and by extension, any higher-order moral considerations)

  • Promotes selfishness – calculus of pure self-interest

Bentham’s rebuttal: Vulgar or not, nature has placed us under two masters, pleasure and pain - there is no other standard

bentham s ethics
Bentham’s Ethics
  • Jeremy Bentham figured that laws should be socially useful and not merely reflect the status quo; and, that while he believed that men inevitably pursue pleasure and avoid pain, Bentham thought it to be a "sacred truth" that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."
bentham s ethics12
Bentham’s Ethics
  • Bentham supposed that the whole of morality could be derived from "enlightened self-interest," and that a person who always acted with a view to his own maximum satisfaction in the long run would always act rightly.
bentham s ethics13
Bentham’s Ethics
  • Bentham's position included arguments in favor of
  • individual and economic freedom
  • the separation of church and state
  • freedom of expression, equal rights for women
  • the end of slavery
bentham s ethics14
Bentham’s Ethics
  • the abolition of physical punishment (including that of children)
  • the right to divorce, free trade, usury, and the decriminalization of homosexual acts.
  • He also made two distinct attempts during his life to critique the death penalty.
modern criticisms of bentham
Modern Criticisms of Bentham
  • Quantification and measurability of “the good”
  • Incommensurate notions of “the good”
  • Ignores other, morally relevant considerations
    • Human Rights
    • Justice
    • Distribution of “the good”
  • Difficult and often inconsistent in practice to solve for U(x) and maximize this variable
  • No supererogation
    • No value in performing more than required by duty
john stuart mill 1806 73
John Stuart Mill [1806-73]
  • John Stuart Mill, Bentham’s successor as the leader of the utilitarians and the most influential British thinker of the 19th century, had some sympathy for the view that Bentham’s position was too narrow and crude.
john stuart mill s revisions utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill’s Revisions: Utilitarianism
  • Elevate the “Doctrine of the Swine” –
    • Pleasures of the intellect, not the flesh
    • Qualitatively better, not quantitatively
  • “Happiness” is NOT simply equivalent to pleasure
    • “lower quality pleasures”
      • shared with other animals – e.g., food, sex
    • “higher quality pleasures,”
      • uniquely human, involving our so-called higher faculties

“It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool or a pig satisfied.”

mill s ethics
Mill’s Ethics
  • Although his position was based on the maximization of happiness (and this is said to consist of pleasure and the absence of pain), he distinguished between pleasures that are higher and those that are lower in quality.
  • This enabled him to say that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
  • The fool, he argued, would be of a different opinion only because he has not experienced both kinds of pleasures.
john stuart mill s revisions utilitarianism cont
John Stuart Mill’s Revisions: Utilitarianism(Cont)

Utilitarianism is NOT equivalent to selfishness. Mill writes:

“. . .between his own happiness and that of another, utilitarianism requires that one be strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

“…not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.”

Notions like “rights” and “justice” are merely “rules of thumb” that represent underlying calculations of overall utility (rule utilitarianism)

Is this what Mill really meant?

mill s ethics20
Mill’s Ethics
  • Mill sought to show that utilitarianism is compatible with moral rules and principles relating to justice, honesty, and truthfulness by arguing that utilitarians should not attempt to calculate before each action whether that particular action will maximize utility.
mill s ethics21
Mill’s Ethics
  • Instead, they should be guided by the fact that an action falls under a general principle (such as the principle that people should keep their promises), and adherence to that general principle tends to increase happiness.
henry sidgwick 1838 1900
Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900).
  • Sidgwick’sMethods of Ethics (1874) is the most detailed and subtle work of utilitarian ethics yet produced.
  • Especially noteworthy is his discussion of the various principles of what he calls common sense morality—i.e., the morality accepted, without systematic thought, by most people.
  • Sidgwickwas himself an intuitionist as far as the basis of ethics was concerned: he believed that the principle of utilitarianism must ultimately be based on a self-evident axiom of rational benevolence.
sidgwick s ethics
Sidgwick’s Ethics
  • He strongly rejected the view that all principles of common sense morality are self-evident.
  • He went on to demonstrate that the allegedly self-evident principles conflict with one another and are vague in their application.
  • They could be part of a coherent system of morality, he argued, only if they were regarded as subordinate to the utilitarian principle, which defined their application and resolved the conflicts between them.
sidgwick s ethics24
Sidgwick’s Ethics
  • He adopted a position which may be described as ethical hedonism, according to which the criterion of goodness in any given action is that it produces the greatest possible amount of pleasure.
  • This hedonism, however, is not confined to the self (egoistic), but involves a due regard to the pleasure of others, and is, therefore, distinguished further as universalistic.
  • Lastly, Sidgwick returns to the principle that no man should act so as to destroy his own happiness.
act and rule utilitarianism26
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
  • Act utilitarianism
    • Looks at the consequences of each individual act and calculate utility each time the act is performed.
  • Rule utilitarianism
    • Looks at the consequences of having everyone follow a particular rule and calculates the overall utility of accepting or rejecting the rule.
an example
An Example
  • Imagine the following scenario. A prominent and much-loved leader has been rushed to the hospital, grievously wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He needs a heart and lung transplant immediately to survive. No suitable donors are available, but there is a homeless person in the emergency room who is being kept alive on a respirator, who probably has only a few days to live, and who is a perfect donor. Without the transplant, the leader will die; the homeless person will die in a few days anyway. Security at the hospital is very well controlled. The transplant team could hasten the death of the homeless person and carry out the transplant without the public ever knowing that they killed the homeless person for his organs. What should they do?
    • For rule utilitarians, this is an easy choice. No one could approve a general rule that lets hospitals kill patients for their organs when they are going to die anyway. The consequences of adopting such a general rule would be highly negative and would certainly undermine public trust in the medical establishment.
    • For act utilitarians, the situation is more complex. If secrecy were guaranteed, the overall consequences might be such that in this particular instance greater utility is produced by hastening the death of the homeless person and using his organs for the transplant.
the continuing dispute
The Continuing Dispute
  • Rule utilitarians claim:
    • In particular cases, act utilitarianism can justify disobeying important moral rules and violating individual rights.
    • Act utilitarianism also takes too much time to calculate in each and every case.
  • Act utilitarians respond:
    • Following a rule in a particular case when the overall utility demands that we violate the rule is just rule-worship. If the consequences demand it, we should violate the rule.
    • Furthermore, act utilitarians can follow rules-of-thumb (accumulated wisdom based on consequences in the past) most of the time and engage in individual calculation only when there is some pressing reason for doing so.
evaluating actions by their consequences examples from the trivial to the life determining
Evaluating Actions by Their Consequences (Examples from the trivial to the life determining)

Example: (Not a deep moral issue)

Do I eat the donut this morning?Considerations:

  • Long term – at least 500 calories
  • Short term pleasure – burst of sugar in my mouth
  • Will make me sleepy after about 45 min.
  • I love donuts, they make me happy
  • Am I a pig?
  • Other consequences to consider?
medical triage example
Medical Triage Example

1) Will die without extraordinary measures

2) Will live-

--don’t treat now

3) Might save if they get medical attention

  • Is this a “fair” concept?
  • How do we morally justify letting people die without medical attention?
    • Shouldn’t we be trying to save every human life?
  • How would you feel if you woke up on tent #1?
  • How do we morally explain to the patient in tent #1 they will not see a doctor?
teleological ethics consequential principles
Teleological Ethics……Consequential Principles

Utilitarian Morality:

  • An act is good/bad, right/wrong, depending on the consequences or ends produced by that act
    • If the consequences are good, the act is good.
    • If the consequences are bad, the act is bad.
  • Utilitarianism:
    • Judges the act, not the person
    • Does not consider intentions or motive
    • So, good intentions could produce a “bad” act
    • And “bad” people (with bad intentions) can produce a good act

So much for good intent!

more thoughts
More Thoughts…
  • Isn’t the military the ultimate Utilitarian?
    • We are willing to sacrifice soldiers to achieve our desired end state?
  • Don’t Utilitarians use some Kantian ethics? …They have good intent!
  • Patriot Act?
  • Value of the individual
    • Equal claim to triage treatment?