Utilitarianism Ethics Essays


Utilitarianism began as a movement in ethics of the late eighteenth-century primarily associated with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of Utilitarianism involves a calculus of happiness, in which actions are deemed to be good if they tend to produce happiness in the form of pleasure and evil if they tend to promote pain. As such, the philosophy is said to derive from the classical concept of hedonism, which values the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The sophisticated system proposed by Bentham and later expanded by John Stuart Mill and others regards not only the end product of happiness, or utility, in actions, but also considers the motives of actions and the extent to which happiness can be created not only for the individual, but also for the members of society as a whole.

Both Bentham and Mill forwarded a belief in the intrinsic nature of value; thus good or the lack thereof could be regarded as inherent in an act or thing—a concept that allowed for the mathematical calculation of utility. Beginning from this view, the Utilitarians created systems of moral behavior as standards for how an individual ought to act in society. Bentham's principle of utility is frequently regarded as the “greatest happiness principle,” the simple idea behind which is that individuals should endeavor to maximize happiness for the greatest number of people. While Bentham modified this concept over time, critics acknowledge that its essence remains intact throughout his work. Bentham developed this principle throughout a number of writings, including his most significant work of moral philosophy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Ostensibly a plan for a penal code, An Introduction contains Bentham's view that individuals in society should act for the benefit of the community as a whole, and analyzes the means by which legislation should enumerate the penalties for those who refuse to contribute to the overall benefit of society. In this work, Bentham also sought to specifically record the sources of pleasure and pain, as well as to create a scale upon which the relative effects of individual acts in producing happiness or misery could be examined.

Notable among the Utilitarians to follow Bentham, the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill made considerable contributions to Utilitarian philosophy, beginning with his succinct apologia for the doctrine in Utilitarianism (1861). The essay displays Mill's emphasis on rational calculation as the means by which human beings strive toward personal happiness. Mill's remaining philosophical writings elucidate his Utilitarianism, especially in regard to a number of related practical issues, including women's suffrage, and legislative and educational reform. Following his death, Mill's system was later expanded by his disciple Henry Sidgwick, who in his Methods of Ethics (1874) discussed the means by which individuals may endeavor to achieve moral action through reasoned behavior.

Numerous other individuals contributed to the Utilitarian movement in the nineteenth century, including the British philosophers John Austin and James Mill (J. S. Mill's father). In theory and in practice, Utilitarianism has continued to be influential, with the work of Bentham and Mill proving to be of the greatest importance and interest. Commentators on the writings of both men have continued the process of analyzing and codifying their work in order to more clearly define the doctrine. Among the principal interpretations have been a bifurcation of the philosophy into so-called “rule” and “act” Utilitarianism, the former emphasizing the importance of unbending codes of moral behavior that may not be violated, and the latter allowing for a freer interpretation that permits the breaking of certain Utilitarian rules under individual circumstances. Further criticism of Bentham's and Mill's Utilitarianism has focused on the important concept of justice as it applies to the principles of liberty and utility advocated by both. Additionally, critics have suggested the significant limitations of an ethical system that attempts to reduce human behavior and action to simple rational calculations of pleasure versus pain, but at the same time they acknowledge its considerable impact on nineteenth- and twentieth-century normative ethics.

  • 1

    Discuss the most significant theoretical break between Mill's utilitarianism and Bentham's utilitarianism.

    Mill's utilitarianism distinguishes two classes of pleasures: those baser pleasures which we share with animals, and those higher, virtuous pleasures which are unique to humans. Bentham makes no such distinction. One result of this distinction is that Mill's theory allows for more qualitative stratification of utility than Bentham's does.

  • 2

    Describe the brief critique Mill makes of Kant. How does this perspective factor into Mill's overall moral philosophy?

    In Chapter I, Mill contends that Kant's categorical imperative, interpreted solely as a logical construct, permits a range of actions that span what we understand both as moral and immoral. His broader point, which paves the way for his treatise, is that deontological modes of ethics are ultimately dependent upon consequentialist considerations of utility.

  • 3

    Suppose a trolley problem is posited as follows: a trolley will hit and kill a president unless it is diverted to a track where five construction workers will be in its path. Use the problem as a model to describe different interpretations of utilitarian ethics.

    An act utilitarian would seek the greatest net happiness in this particular event. However, considerations of scope could change the actual choice. If the pleasure and pain of the people on the tracks comprises the entire ethical universe, then the trolley ought not to be diverted, because the lives of five are greater than the lives of one - with no account taken for societal status. However, if the scope of the ethical universe consists of the country or world, then the capacity of the president to effect pleasure as well as the potential pain of his death most probably would lead to the decision to divert the train, killing the five workers. A rule utilitarian, in contrast, might be inclined to not divert the trolley by reasoning that the president, by actively arbitrating over people's right to live, would set a precedent leading to by far the greatest eventual pain and privation of pleasure.

  • 4

    Describe the difference, according to Mill, between the concepts of utility and expedience. Why does he stress this distinction in his treatise?

    Mill sees the conflation of the concept of utility with the concept of expedience as a major misconception that uninformed people make in dismissing utilitarianism. Expedience is the principle of doing that which most promotes your own pleasure and prevents pain from befalling you, and as such is akin to egoism; utility, on the other hand, refers to a holistic calculation of what action yields the most net happiness and prevents the most pain, thereby taking all participants' pleasure and pain into consideration.

  • 5

    Describe Mill's critique of Epicureanism and how it informs his theory of utilitarianism.

    Mill utilizes a subtle, brief discussion of Epicureanism to pave the way for his own model of utilitarianism. He breaks the analysis into two parts: the common misconception of Epicureanism, and the actual shortcoming of Epicureanism. The misconception that leads people to wrongly take offense to Epicureanism is the notion that the Epicurean emphasis on pleasure as a central value does not distinguish the pleasure of animals from the pleasure of humans; people therefore take offense to being equated to senseless animals. Mill denies that any Epicurean model actually fails to distinguish animal pleasures from the higher human pleasures of the intellect and sentiments, but he does critique it and other utilitarian views (e.g. Bentham's) for distinguishing these higher and lower pleasures only by intensity and duration. This paves the way for Mill's own view that higher and lower pleasures ought to be distinguished by intrinsic value and kind.

  • 6

    How does Mill resolve the concern of utilitarianism not accounting for the principle of virtue?

    Mill argues that virtue, initially a means for effected general happiness, can become an end unto itself by people deriving happiness from the very concept. In this way, striving towards virtue is compatible with Mill's utilitarian framework.

  • 7

    How does Mill propose competing forms of happiness be evaluated?

    Mill believes that any two sources of happiness should be qualitatively evaluated by ascertaining the general consensus from people who have experienced both pleasures (intellectual and base) as to which is preferable. This is one of the parts of the underlying framework of Mill's theory that most leads to its overall democratic tone.

  • 8

    How would Mill answer the charge that utilitarianism just leads people to act selfishly in the name of pleasure?

    Mill would argue that the person making this charge is conflating expediency and utility. People acting egoistically are not acting as utilitarianism demands, because the Greatest Happiness Principle does not privilege the agent in regards to the directionality of happiness generated by acts.

  • 9

    Briefly sketch the proof of utilitarianism that Mill describes.

    Mill believes that moral theory must not only resonate with our moral intuitions, but should also be compatible with analysis within the framework of our other fundamental sentiments. Mill argues that utilitarianism is supported by our social sentiments and desire for unity and harmony with humanity and sentient beings in general.

  • 10

    Briefly describe how Mill ultimately sees utility relating to justice.

    Mill sees the moral mandates from which the principles of justice largely emanate as stemming from considerations of utility. By this view, moral rights are the result of the practical theory bent towards affecting the greatest happiness and least pain.

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