Sandra LaFave

The notion of an ethics based on utility — usefulness for human concerns (as opposed to, say, God's will) — was one of the revolutionary Continental ideas of the Enlightenment period.

Let's think about pre-18th century Europe. At that time, the Church and most governments believed that a person's body belonged to God, and the Church and state were free to inflict extreme pain on wrong-doers because such pain was purifying, and the pain was nothing compared to the pain of Hell. If God created Hell (the place of eternal agony) and also allowed his son Jesus to be tortured to death, then God obviously didn't see anything inherently bad about pain. In fact, suffering was supposed to be purifying; it was actually good for you, and the more the better!1

By the 18th century, the secular power of the Church was waning. Educated Europeans all knew that Europe was only a small corner of the world, and Christianity was only one religion among many. The Enlightenment thinkers thus rejected the notion of purely religious crimes (such as heresy). They favored freedom of speech and thought, and promoted respect for divergent opinions about religion and morality. They said people were free and worthy of respect, including respect for their bodies. Respect for persons demands that the state not use the infliction of pain as the primary form of punishment. Punishments should be inflicted only insofar as they are useful for human purposes, e.g., because more human happiness is thereby created. Governments should not think themselves free to punish inhumanely, and especially not in the name of God.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), for example, in his extremely influential work On Crimes and Punishments, argues that in most cases, torturing people serves no purpose. It does not increase general happiness, except maybe for the folks (always a minority) who derive sexual pleasure from it. But the pleasure of the sadomasochistic minority doesn't outweigh the pain to the victims of torture, not to mention the discomfort of those who do not find pain sexually provocative. Other things being equal, torturing people is simply barbaric and tyrannical.

Beccaria is joined by thinkers such as Hobbes, Hume, Diderot, Helvetius, and Montesquieu.

Enlightenment ideas form the background for the rise of utilitarianism, which bases morality solely on the promotion of human pleasure or happiness and avoidance of human pain and suffering. The utilitarian attitude toward pain seems to modern people far more wholesome and sensible than the medieval Church views. Ordinarily, pain is simply not useful for the promotion of either individual or collective happiness. Hence the popularity of analgesic drugs in the modern era.

These notes focus mainly on the version of utilitarianism defended by John Stuart Mill as expressed in his classic work Utilitarianism (1861).

[STUDENTS, PLEASE NOTE! His name is "M-I-L-L" (not "Mills").]

Mill (1806-1873) was not the first English-speaking utilitarian philosopher; Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a friend of James Mill, J. S. Mill's father, is usually considered the founder of British utilitarianism. The contemporary philosopher Paul Taylor traces the foundations of British utilitarianism back even further, to David Hume (1711-1776), the famous British empiricist, who claims in his Treatise that people invent rules for conduct because having such rules is most useful for society as a whole.

Most of what is said in these introductory notes regarding Mill is equally applicable to Hume and Bentham.

One important difference between Bentham and Mill, however, arises regarding the question, “What, ultimately, do people desire?”. Bentham says pleasure is the highest natural good, and does not think any pleasures are “objectively” better than any others: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” Bentham does not mean all pleasures are equally valuable; pleasures are better if more intense, long-lasting, certain, nearby, fecund (capable of producing even more pleasures), pure (not mixed with pain), and wide-ranged (the more people who enjoy, the better). According to Bentham, these attributes are part of the calculus of felicity, which you should use to compute the overall value of any pleasure.

Mill, by contrast, says that some pleasures are in themselves better than others (whether or not they are intense, long-lasting, certain, etc.). Which are the better pleasures? Properly human pleasures! That is, pleasures that only humans enjoy.

The Utilitarian Project

Let's get clear that from now on, when I talk about utilitarianism, without italics, I mean the theory. When I talk about Utilitarianism, in italics and capitalized, I mean Mill's book of that name.

Utilitarians intend their theory to be not only normative, but also descriptive. In Chapter I of Utilitarianism, Mill says that even though people do agree pretty much about moral matters, they don't really know why they agree. But to Mill people agree for an obvious reason: everyone is really a utilitarian (whether they know it or not)! Utilitarianism is the real (unexpressed) ultimate standard of morality — the real principle in terms of which all moral judgments are made, and, he thinks, should be made. In other words, he is doing both descriptive and normative ethics.

Mill thinks that because he has found the fundamental principle, he can thus show how to proceed whenever a specific moral decision has to be made. Bentham even speaks of a “hedonic calculus,” (the aforementioned Calculus of Felicity) in terms of which we can calculate, using mathematical methods, the answers to moral questions! According to the utilitarians, then, judgments about morality will eventually be as certain and well-grounded as judgments in the sciences. So what is the fundamental moral principle?

The Fundamental Moral Principle

Mill says the Fundamental Principle of Morality is the Principle of Utility, or Greatest Happiness Principle: pick the course of action that is most likely to produce the greatest good (satisfaction, pleasure, happiness) of the greatest number of people. This is and has always been the fundamental principle of morality, according to Mill.

As Mill says, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” And “the standard is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

For example,

  1. You are driving a rescue vehicle to save ten people who are about to be drowned by high tides. The road is very narrow, one-way only, and there are cliffs on both sides, so there is no room to maneuver and no time to lose. Ten people will all drown if the rescue vehicle does not reach them in 30 seconds. But wait! A totally unexpected injured person is lying right in the middle of the road. If you stop to move this person, you will lose the window of opportunity to rescue the ten. So can you simply run over the person who is blocking your way? A utilitarian would say yes, other things being equal. One person dying will create some pain in the world, but the happiness produced by saving ten people will most likely outweigh the unhappiness produced by killing the innocent injured person.

  2. There are many illustrations involving trolleys.


The Underlying Psychology (Theory of Human Nature)

Much of Utilitarianism is devoted to countering various objections to it. Some of these objections concern “human nature,” and Mill's responses to these objections reveal his psychology.

Objection 1
One objection is that utilitarianism is a simple hedonism, that utilitarians are simply pleasure-seekers. For example, consider the case of the Christians and the Romans. Many Romans supposedly got lots of pleasure from seeing a few Christians get eaten by lions. The objector would say, utilitarianism says the act is right that produces the greatest happiness; but here's a case where the greatest happiness (that of the Romans in the audience, who greatly outnumber the Christians) is produced by acts (lions eating Christians) that are surely quite wrong.

Mill immediately defends utilitarianism against this objection (which was made against Bentham). He takes pains to establish that utilitarianism is a rigorous and demanding morality. True, he says, utilitarianism claims that acts are right in accordance with the degree to which they produce pleasure, and wrong to the degree to which they produce pain. And people naturally do seek pleasure and avoid pain. But the quality of pleasure that satisfies a human is different from that which satisfies an animal. People are capable of more than animals, so it takes more to make a human happy. Thus, a person who is acquainted with both kinds of pleasures — the pleasures of animals and the pleasures of humans — will almost invariably choose the higher-quality, human pleasures, and reject the merely animal pleasures. As Mill puts it,

“Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures. ... It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their side of the question.”

So since the Romans are enjoying what is presumably mere “animal” pleasure — the irrelevant kind of pleasure — it doesn't matter that they're getting a lot of it, more than the Christians. It's the quality, not the quantity, of pleasure that really counts.

Mill is onto something here, I think. Compare a truly human dining experience and the dining experience of your dog. Does your dog care about the aesthetic qualities of the food on the plate? The quality of the dishes and glassware? The quality of art on the walls? The quality of the background music? The general ambiance? A person who prefers to gobble food from a dish on the floor as quickly as possible (i.e., to eat like a dog) probably has no experience of truly human dining. Furthermore, Mill (like Aristotle) emphasizes the importance of education in training a fully-developed human sensibility.

Objection 2
A second objection stems from the fact that utilitarianism demands that people put the interests of the group before their own interests. As Mill says, “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. In the Golden Rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete sprit of the ethics of utility.” Thus, some say, utilitarianism is too hard for people; its standard is too high. If a parent can save her own child or save the lives of ten random children, but not both, what parent would save the ten random children and allow her own child to die? That's not "human nature".

Mill replies to this in a couple of ways:

  1. Cases such as the parent's dilemma (save your child or save ten stranger children) are surely extremely rare, and may be simply tragic. Most people, as a matter of fact, don't have to look out for the interests of any very large group; they are not concerned with “public utility,” but only with “private utility,” the interests of a few people important to them, whose interests they want to protect anyway.

  2. And people possess natural powerful sentiments of “fellow-feeling” and sympathy for others (even strangers), which, if cultivated systematically by education and reasonable social arrangements, could easily be fostered even further. (This notion comes from Hume, who was similarly optimistic about human nature.)

Objection 3
A third objection is that utilitarianism is too easy, because it allows that the right act for a person might well be one that also benefits her (if she acts for the greatest good of the greatest number, it's likely that she'll be among the greatest number). So the right act is the one in accord with self-interest, and might very well be performed for motives of self-interest alone. For Kant, this would negate its moral worth.

Mill separates the question of the moral worth of an act from the question of the moral worth of an agent: “the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent.” There is nothing wrong with self-interest as a motive if it produces the right act. And it might even indicate a highly worthy agent; morally developed persons find the practice of virtue essential to their own happiness. “Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who live it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.”


Since the same act might in some situations produce the greatest good of the greatest number, but in other situations not, utilitarianism allows moral rules to change from age to age, situation to situation. Utilitarians consider this flexibility a good feature of their system.

For example, the Catholic Church opposes artificial methods of birth control in all circumstances. But birth control might well be the best practice for producing the greatest happiness of the greatest number in a family or community, in cases of overpopulation and scarcity. So utilitarians would say that in these circumstances, birth control is morally fine. It should be encouraged, possibly even required. On the other hand, if a disastrous plague occurred, wiping out most members of a community, and the community's goal becomes repopulation by producing as many new humans as possible, birth control might be forbidden.

Furthermore, utilitarianism might even permit the deliberate infliction of pain in the sorts of unusual circumstances depicted in films and TV programs such as Homeland and 24. For example, a terrorist has planted a timebomb that will take out New York City, killing millions of people. The authorities apprehend the terrorist before the bomb goes off, but there is no time to spare. The terrorist is the only one who knows where the bomb is. Can the authorities use torture to “persuade” the terrorist to divulge the location of the bomb, thus (possibly) saving millions of lives? A utilitarian might well say yes.

The “Proof” of Utilitarianism

Mill devotes the better part of Chapter IV of Utilitarianism to a “proof” of utilitarianism. Remember, Mill wants ethics to be as certain as logic or science. His proof has been much discussed.

He says, “The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.” This is the claim that requires proof. If Mill can show that happiness is the ultimate end (in the sense of “goal” or “purpose”), then it, and only it, should serve as the basis for morality.

Objection 4
Certainly happiness is something that people in fact strive for; so Mill is certainly correct when he says that people desire it. In other words, he is correct in his description. But note that Mill wants to say more than this; he wants to say that happiness is also the normative end — that is, not only the thing people do in fact strive for, but the thing they ought to strive for. This is the sticky part. Other ethical philosophers, such as Kant, argue that the ultimate normative goal is not happiness at all, but goodness. Kant says the essence of morality is striving for goodness, and being good won't necessarily make you happy; but it's better to be good than to be happy. For Kant, the ultimate end or goal for humans is being good. Mill, by contrast, says the ultimate end is happiness.

So Mill needs to prove his claim that the ultimate end is happiness, i.e., that happiness is the ultimate good, that no good is higher than it. Mill says, “Questions about ends are ... questions about what things are desirable.” Then comes the key move in his proof: “The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.” And this is an empirical question; it can be answered by looking at what people desire. And, not surprisingly, when Mill looks at what people desire, he finds that in fact they desire happiness. “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good, that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.”

Note the fallacy of composition here.

This part of the argument shows that happiness is a good; Mill then goes on to argue that it is the only thing really desired, and that all other things are desired only insofar as they tend to produce happiness (pleasure) and prevent unhappiness (pain). Many philosophers have noted the deficient psychology here. Suppose you see your child run into a busy street. You are horrified. A car is driving very fast toward the child. You see that you can save the child’s life if you run out into the street and grab the child in your arms. Realizing this, do you now stop and calculate how much happiness you’ll receive if you save the child? Do you say to yourself, “Gee, it would make me feel really good to save my child. So I guess I’ll do it!” No. You feel good after saving the child because you saved the child. You didn’t save the child in order to feel good.

In general, you feel good when you get things you already value. You don’t derive the value of something by estimating how much happiness you’d feel if you had it. Its goodness doesn’t come from the fact that it would make you happy; so Mill’s claim that we value things (i.e., we call them “good”) only insofar as they tend to produce happiness seems just false. Rather, our happiness about getting what we think is good comes from the fact that we think it’s good.

Other Objections to Utilitarianism

  1. Some critics charge that it takes too much time to figure out utility in each case. What if it's an emergency and you have to make a decision in a split-second? How do you compute utility values fast enough to make sure you're doing the right thing?

    Mill dismisses this criticism: “defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this — that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if anyone were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments.” There is general agreement, because of the collective, learned experience of people, about what makes for the most utility; we can usually rely on that. Truly atypical cases are rare, and perhaps simply tragic.

    Rule-utilitarianism (see below) formalizes this more rigorously.

  2. Contemporary philosophers such as John Rawls raise an extremely important objection to utilitarianism. Rawls focuses on the issue of rights, justice, fairness, and desert. He asks, is utilitarianism compatible with the notion of inalienable rights (rights that cannot be taken away from a person)? That is, could a person defend both views consistently?

    Rawls, and others, say no: there is no way one could be a utilitarian and maintain a notion of inalienable rights. Why? Because the overriding goal in a utilitarian society is the happiness of the greatest number, the happiness of the group. Mill sees society on the model of a big person, who can control, deny, and delay the gratification of certain parts for the sake of greater satisfaction of the whole. Thus the fates of individuals who might get in the way of the grand plan don't matter much. I have my rights only as far as my having them doesn't interfere with the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

    For Rawls there is something intuitively unfair about this. Rawls' notion of justice as fairness is an attempt to correct this.

  3. Mill sometimes speaks as though the goal of utilitarianism is the greatest total satisfaction. But the greatest total satisfaction doesn't necessarily equal the greatest distributive satisfaction, which in turn does not necessarily equal the fairest distribution of satisfaction. For example, what if there were superhedonists (people whose happiness requires more pleasure than normal) and anhedonists (people who cannot experience pleasure)?

  4. Mill posits a dominant “natural” feeling of sympathy and benevolence among persons. Without this fellow-feeling, it isn't clear that utilitarianism could ever function in practice. But there are many views about “human nature” — including the view that there's no such thing as human nature! — and Mill's is one of the more optimistic ones.

  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher of the latter half of the 19th century, criticizes both Christianity and utilitarianism with the same arguments. He says both Christianity and utilitarianism make the assumption that everybody is equal, in the sense that everyone's satisfactions count equally. Utilitarianism says if it's a choice between my happiness and the good of the many, I am supposed to give up my happiness; Christianity says “Love thy neighbor as thyself'.” Nietzsche says, “Why?” to both principles.

    Nietzsche’s view derives from a common misunderstanding of evolution. He thinks Darwin says that some members of animal species are “superior” to others, because they are “winners” in the struggle for survival. It thus stands to reason that there must be superior humans also. Now suppose I am a superior person. Why should I give up my satisfactions for the sake of the inferior people? For Nietzsche, both Christianity and utilitarianism reduce people to the lowest common denominator. They “sacrifice human quality for human quantity.”

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Mill seems to claim that the criterion of the rightness or wrongness of individual acts is utility. This means, strictly speaking, that there can be no general moral rules, since every case is different. You have to take each possible act separately and compute utility values; this computation alone determines the rightness or wrongness of the act in question.

Besides the question of whether this is possible or practical in actual cases of moral decision-making (where time is often of the essence), Ross and others object in another way. Suppose a case where you have to choose between two acts which have the same utility-value, but one comes under some moral rule and the other doesn't. For example, suppose you must choose between actually doing your piano exercises and telling the truth when your teacher asks, “Did you practice?”; or doing something else instead and lying to your piano teacher that you did them, when you really didn't (say he'd be extremely happy if you told him this and would never know the difference). Since we are looking only at the utility of the act, and the utility of these two acts is equal, a utilitarian shouldn't care which we do. It looks as though neither act is morally better, by utilitarian standards. So you could do either one.

But many people object here; they say obviously it's better not to lie, even if the utility is the same. Notice we ignore considerations of utility when we say this, and we say it anyway. So, for Ross and Hospers, there must be more to morality than utility.

Cases such as these caused philosophers to begin to distinguish Mill's act-utilitarianism and a different version of utilitarianism, called rule-utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism says morality lies in abiding by those rules that, if followed universally, would most likely produce the greatest happiness. So, for example, you decide there's no need for you to go out of your way to vote on Election Day. You reason that your vote most probably won't make any difference to the outcome (and certainly you are correct here; the chances of the election being decided by one vote are very slim indeed). So, you reason, no one will be hurt by your failing to vote (no utiles lost), and your not voting is thus perfectly justifiable under act-utilitarian criteria.

The rule-utilitarian would disagree. The rule-utilitarian would say it's still wrong for you not to vote — hence the total number of positive or negative utiles from any particular act isn't the only relevant factor in determining morality. The rule-utilitarian reasons that utility (more high-quality pleasure, happiness, etc.) would surely result if everyone followed rules such as “Perform your duties as a citizen” than if everyone followed the rule “Ignore your duties as a citizen.” Therefore, you must vote, the rule-utilitarian would say, because of the bad consequences that would result if everyone acted as you are acting. And in general, says the rule-utilitarian, you are morally bound to avoid actions that if performed by everyone would produce negative utiles.

Note that it's not really clear whether Mill was actually an act-utilitarian as portrayed in these test case problems; he just didn't think of these kinds of cases. Even Hume, earlier, had recognized that individual acts in accordance with the rules may well NOT serve the public interest, but that the rules should be followed nonetheless because of their overriding usefulness. Thus, we find in Hume the outlines of the position that later came to be known as rule-utilitarianism.

1. Many writers have noted the link between sadomasochism and medieval practices of the Church such as regular flagellation for purposes of discipline within convents and monasteries. Such practices were also once common in the military. They are still common in Islamic sharia law.





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