January 30 , 2012
“The principle of Charity” something I should have mentioned at the start…
Utilitarianism and Consequentialism:
Everything we do has consequences; every act leaves the world in some ways
different from before. Some of these consequences are unimportant. Whether you
put your right sock on before your left rearranges the molecules in the air a little
differently than otherwise, but matters little beyond that.
Some actions have consequences that are much more significant.
But, if all that we do has consequences, this suggests a simple and compelling
approach to acting morally. Why not simply do what has the best consequences? How
can that be improved on?
Consequentialism, in short, is the view that it cannot be improved on.
Stated plainly: consequentialism is the view that acting morally means acting so as
to produce the best outcomes.
Consequentialism can take many forms; Utilitarianism being a famous species
within the genus.
Jeremy Bentham argued that there is one ultimate moral principle, namely, the
Principle of Utility. This principle requires us always to choose whatever action or
social policy would have the best consequences for everyone concerned.
“By the Principle of Utility is meant 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…”
1 All of this may seem trivial and platitudinous, but consider what this picture of
morality leaves out:
(1)Gone are the references to God or to abstract moral rules “written in the
(2)Morality is no longer to be understood as faithfulness to some divinely given
code or some inflexible set of rules.
(3)The point of morality according to utilitarians is the “happiness of beings in
this world, and nothing more; and we are permitted even required to
do whatever is necessary to promote that happiness. That, in its time, was a
Utilitarianism is one attempt to give morality a purely secular foundation.
Bentham and Mill were both Atheists – Bentham more raucously than Mill – and
both intended utilitarianism as a moral principle governing individuals’ actions, but
also, as a principle that could be put in the service of social policy, law, and politics.
The crux of utilitarianism is: We should judge actions right or wrong depending on
whether they cause more happiness or unhappiness.
As Mill noted – paying tribute to Aristotle’s old idea :
“The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable,
as an end; all other things being desirable to that end.”
2 And an important condition:
Each person’s happiness must be counted equally in utilitarian reasoning!
“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct
is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own
happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly
impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” (Mill, Utilitarianism)
This would forbid any partiality to one’s family or friends. It requires that we
assign each person’s utility – your mother’s and a perfect stranger’s – equal
weight. Can we do this? Is it possible? Does this count for or against
Utilitarianism in your view?
*This includes non-human animals – insofar as they are capable of suffering.
As Bentham wrote:
“The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which
never could have been witholden from them but by then hand of tyranny. The
French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a
human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It
may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the
skin….are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same
fate….Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown
horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable
animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month…..The question is not Can
they Reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?
3 What do you find attractive about this view?
2 Theories of Utilitarianism: Act and Rule
AU = An act is right if and only if it produces at least as great a balance of good over
bad in its consequences for all people affected as any other act available to the agent.
Gladitorial contests, Organ Harvesting, and Rights…..
What about the following case?
“Suppose that Jones has suffered an accident in the transmitter room of a television
station. Electrical equipment has fallen on his arm, and we cannot rescue him
without turning off the transmitter for fifteen minutes. A World Cup match is in
progress, watched by many people, and it will not be over for an hour. Jones’s injury
will not get any worse if we wait, but his hand has been mashed and he is receiving
extremely painful electrical shocks. Should we rescue him now or wait until the
match is over? Does the right thing to do depend on how many people are watching
– whether it is one million or five million or a hundred million?”
(T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe To Each Other, p. 235)
RU = An act is right if it accords with a rule the general following of which produces
as great a balance of good over bad for all people affected as any alternative rule.
-In other words, the question is: what rules should we follow if happiness is to be
maximized? Individual acts are then judged right or wrong according to whether
they are acceptable or unacceptable by these rules.
4 First, note that RU isn’t strictly speaking a consequentialist ethics. It is no longer
solely the consequences of the act itself that determine its rightness or wrongness.
If this act of telling a lie would have better consequences than telling the truth, but I
don’t tell the lie because following the rule: “Do not tell lies” has good consequences,
then it is the rule – not the action’s consequences- that are appealed to.
Are AU and RU distinct or equivalent?
A serious problem arises for RU when we ask whether its rules have any exceptions?
What about the rule” “Don’t tell a lie”?
(1)If the proponent of RU says that, yes, there are sometimes exceptions, then
RU collapses back into AU – since we are (after all) focusing on specific acts
rather than rules per se.
(2)If the proponent of RU says that there are never exceptions, then it seems
that the utilitarian’s original concern for promoting welfare [happiness for
the greatest number of people] has been replaced by irrational ‘rule
Problems for Utilitarianism in General:
(1) How deep do consequences go? Does Utilitarianism require omniscience?
The Case of My Uncle Riding in a Jeep…..
A true story…
My dad’s brother (Raffi) was riding in a jeep in Israel during the summer of 1974.
The jeep he was riding in was a convertible, with a removable hard top. There had
been rain in the forecast when he left for his drive through the dessert and so the
5 top was on. But on a break for lunch, a few hours into their journey, my uncle and
his friend decided to take the top off the jeep.
A couple of hours later, Raffi accidentally drove the jeep off a steep cliff.
Fortunately, both he and his friend escaped with their lives. As the jeep started
tumbling down the cliff, both men were able to free themselves from their seatbelts
and escape through the now open top of the jeep. Both men were bruised and
mildly injured, but amazingly, neither were hurt in any more serious way.
In the summer of 1976 (two years after the accident) my father, now a full and
proud Canadian citizen, flew to Israel for a visit. The purpose of the visit, above all,
was to spend time with his brother. My uncle was working and living on the
farming commune because he had started dating a woman, Sarah, who was born
and grew up there.
While there, my dad came across a young Belgian woman volunteer. Who, to make a
long story short, is my mother.
Now the lesson about consequences is this:
My uncle’s seemingly routine decision to remove the hard-top from the jeep had
tremendous consequences at least for me!
Had Raffi and his friend said, “Taking the top down is too big a hassle; let’s just leave
it up and continue our trip.” I would