November 5, 2013
What is Utilitarianism?
- Recall the core idea behind divine command ethics. It is that ethics depends on God
- That idea was probably familiar to you, even if the more fully articulated version that we
studied was not
- Before studying Mill, what, in your understanding does utilitarianism hold? What is the
core idea behind the theory?
- A simplistic rendering of the core idea behind utilitarianism would be to say that things
are good just in case they have good consequences. This is a widespread belief, which
explains why there are so many versions of utilitarianism in the history of philosophy
- The theory of utilitarianism was first fully articulated in the 19 century but pre-cursors go
back to antiquity
- We shall study Mill’s version of the theory
- To understand Mill’s version of the theory, one must understand these four matters
a) The basis of rightness and wrongness
b) The concept of happiness
c) The set of agents whose happiness is in question
d) The actual argument for utilitarianism
The Basis of Rightness and Wrongness
- Suppose you have two options- spend twenty bucks on a movie, or spend it buying
meals for the poor. Which would it be right for you to do?
- To answer that question, you need some theory of moral worth, some theory which
allows you to decide right and wrong
o You don’t need to consciously accept the theory; it could be implicit in your
assumptions. But you do need it to make any decision
- Mill has a definite view on what action you should perform
- Mill’s view: The one which is more likely to increase happiness
o “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they
tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (684lc)
- If you want to act morally, then you should act in such a way that will maximize
- Two immediate clarifications are needed o First
This does not mean that actions are right which promote the greatest
good for the greatest number
Instead, it holds that the rightness of any action depends solely on the
goodness of the overall state of affairs consequent with it
Since we are obliged to perform actions which are right, it follows that an
action is morally obligatory if and only if it produces more happiness than
any alternative action available to the agent
Mill enjoins us to undertake actions that are likely to promote happiness.
We can be mistaken; we might think an action will promote happiness,
only to find that it won’t
November 6, 2013
- Consequentialism moral theory
o What matters are consequences
o Includes utilitarianism
- Deontological moral theory
o What matters are intentions
o Includes Kantianism
The Concept of Happiness
- What is Happiness?
o Is happiness money or power?
o Is happiness an emotion, whose opposite is sadness?
o Is happiness a state of being, which lasts through long periods of time?
- There are interesting and important philosophical questions to be asked about
happiness. One of Mill’s virtues is that he has a clear and succinctly expressed
conception of happiness
- To answer the question “what is happiness?”, Mill would refer us to the following text
o “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness,
- In addition, Mill would want us to take note of another key text
o “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends…”
- Putting these two texts together, we learn that o Happiness is nothing more or less than pleasure (and the absence of pain)
o Happiness is the one end