Utilitarian Ethics–a Tall Order

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Let’s face it folks. We live in a broken world. Let’s not get into who broke it, but we can all pretty much agree things are far from ideal, or perfect, or even as good as they could be. So how do we make it better? We ask ourselves the question made famous by Jeremy Bentham and his protege (and admirably early feminist) John Stuart Mill, the forefathers of Utilitarian Ethics. The question is this: What action will bring about the greatest good for the most people?  This approach is also known as consequentialist or teleological ethics–the focus is on the outcome of an action. It is a good, or moral, action if it beings about the most good possible for the most people.

Englishman, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), believed that pleasure or happiness was the “substance” that should be measured in this equation. To evaluate the moral merits of one action over another action, you assess how many people would be made happy, or be given pleasure by each action. Bentham wrote, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do…”

Bentham’s thinking was heavily influenced by the enormous social upheaval that gripped 18th century England.  He witnessed tremendous affliction all around him and sought a basis for morality that was both practical and social in nature. Bentham’s claim was that all acts and institutions must justify themselves by their utility—hence, the label “utilitarian.”

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was Jeremy Bentham’s godson and Bentham was a close friend of the Mill family. Though in basic agreement, as Mill developed his thinking, he came to believe that Bentham was wrong on one important point. Bentham believed that any kind of happiness was of the same value as any other kind of happiness. Mill argued that some forms of human pleasure was of higher quality than others, and therefore worth more in the utilitarian equation. He argued for the betterment of all humankind.

People are social beings. We tend to want to be in harmony with our fellow human beings.  Mill believed that at our core, people want the best for each other and are inclined to promote the common good. Wouldn’t it be nice if he was right about this??

Modern day utilitarians no longer try to quantify or qualify pleasure in a specific equation. They simply assert that morality is based on finding outcomes that will increase the common good, and decrease human suffering.

In contrast to deontological approaches (see the DUTY blog), utilitarians abandon any claim to moral certainty, because as I noted at the beginning, we live in an imperfect and fluid world. How could anyone assume moral certitude in an uncertain world? The best we can hope for is finding the greatest balance of good over evil in a world that has no perfection, no absolute goodness.

Many social reform movements can be seen as expressions of broadly-defined utilitarian thinking.  The welfare of the weak and disenfranchised members of society is counted as having equal weight and import in the overall fabric of society.  For instance, John Stuart Mill along with his wife, Harriet Taylor, was an early and articulate advocate for equal rights for women.

He wrote “…the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

Democracy, as a form of government, could also be seen as an expression of utilitarian orientation. Robert Bellah and his co-authors have pointed out that the right to vote in a democracy is one in which we ask the individual to assess and support the common good.  If a politician makes decisions based only on personal gain, we consider that politician corrupt (or at least, we used to…). This is equally true of the voter who votes not for the common good, but for their own personal gain. As moral citizens in a democracy, we are charged to evaluate and support what is best for the whole community.

In summary, utilitarian morality requires that we consider the outcome of our actions, and act to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is immoral not to do so. This requires us to go beyond our own desires and preferences, and act in ways likely to enhance the lives of everyone around us, close by and far-flung. We are increasingly connected globally as a human community. floating along on our little blue earth. The moral challenge, to consider the common good, has never been more complicated, nor has ever been more crucial.

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2 thoughts on “Utilitarian Ethics–a Tall Order

  1. In a time marked by increasing narcissism, including at the top, I agree it’s critical that we consider the common good. I don’t understand why that is so hard, but then I’m kinda simple.

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