Welcome to your Ethical Framework of the Month, where in every issue we give you a new moral apparatus to order your life around. This month it’s utilitarianism, the 19th-century philosophy that is still popular today for its simplicity and mathematical assuredness.
Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism. This school of thought maintains that the results of an action are what determine its moral rightness. Utilitarianism, first developed by Jeremy Bentham and former child-genius John Stuart Mill, refines consequentialism by arguing that good results are those that increase happiness and decrease suffering. This idea is called the Principle of Utility. This simple philosophy is usually summed up by the line “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, highlighting ideology’s desired end.
The simplicity of this ethical framework is a major part of its appeal. It is easy to grasp and even has a mathematical simplicity and logic to it. Both Bentham and Mill observed that the Principle of Utility was intuitive. Bentham writes that even “stupid or perverse” people use it. Mill, meanwhile, pedantically explains that it was self-evident that increased happiness is a desirable end because people clearly value greater happiness. Brilliant insight, former prodigy.
Bentham, who had himself mummified and sits on display in University College London today, nearly breaks his theory down into simple arithmetic. This mathematical approach to ethics is one of the clearest elements of utilitarianism’s theoretical and practical applications. Take the ever-present Trolley Problem. A trolley is hurtling down a track that has five people tied to it. You have the ability to pull a lever and divert it onto a track with one person on it, killing that one person and saving the other five. There is no conflict for a utilitarian. While some people might be somewhat conflicted over actively killing one person, a utilitarian would only see a mathematical equation that ends in an increase of happiness by a net four lives saved.
Modern practitioners of utilitarianism also employ this mathematical approach in their praxis. For example, Effective Altruism is a movement that attempts to educate and assist its practitioners in increasing net global happiness by quantifying how to effectively give to charity. On a micro-level this can mean giving steadily to one cause where you know your donation will have a large effect rather than giving sporadically on an emotional basis. On a macro-level, it can mean becoming an unscrupulous Wall Street trader rather than taking ethical, low-paying work so that you can have more money to give away. To learn more about this movement, you can check out Effective Altruism Ireland or use GiveWell, an organization that analyzes charities and their effectiveness.
Some criticisms of utilitarianism attack this cold, quantitative quality that leaves out other, more emotional concerns. Numerous mutations of the Trolley Problem have shown us that there are some goods that numbers cannot describe. (What if the one person on Track A is a heart surgeon? What if the five people on Track B are murderers? What if the person on Track A is a heart surgeon who is going to perform life-saving surgery on all those murderers? There are countless combinations). As Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic, “imagine the impossibility of designing a randomized, controlled trial to determine the value of a free press in the United States.”
Connected to this is the criticism that atrocities could be justified with utilitarianism’s language as long as there is an arguable net increase in happiness. Discourse around the bombing of Hiroshima can reveal this critique in a sobering way. People who view it in a positive light usually argue from the utilitarian logic that the bombing prevented an invasion of Japan and potentially millions of lives. Using this argument, it is easy to see this criticism of utilitarianism. The goal of potentially saving lives could be used to justify almost any action. Any action could be made to look like it is potentially preventing net pain and increasing net happiness.
A third common criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too strict. Contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism is particularly prone to this as he is particularly demanding. He questions how people with resources fail to save people around the globe without them. In one of his more famous thought experiments, he asks the reader if they would save a child in front of them from drowning. Having presumably answered yes, Singer then points out that his readers in the more affluent, developed countries allow people without resources to suffer and die by not redistributing their wealth to these people. For Singer, there is little to no difference between the two failures. In this view, utilitarianism can demand that anyone who is not maximizing global net happiness is increasing global net suffering.
While this extreme interpretation can be severe, utilitarianism’s simplicity can still be made flexible in ways that other philosophies are not. It does not carry a massive moral apparatus with it and its value system can be contained in a line. Next time, however, our Ethical Framework of the Month will have with a massive moral apparatus to bring into your life, Kantian ethics.