Essentially, utilitarianism holds that the correct course of action is that which will create the greatest level of happiness. Bentham called this the greatest happiness principle or the greatest felicity principle. He wrote the greatest happiness of all those whose interests are in question, as being right and proper, and only right and proper and universally desirable, end of human action.
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Utilitarians seek an empirical basis for morality through the measurement of happiness. The question that a utilitarian will ask himself is will this, of all possible actions, contribute most to the general happiness? Happiness is seen as the only thing that is good in itself and unhappiness the only thing that is bad in itself.
Utilitarianism has broadly been categorised as either act utilitarianism, which is the form upon which Bentham founded his hypotheses and rule utilitarianism, which was developed by John Stuart Mill. Act utilitarianism envisages that the best course of action in any given situation is the act that will result in the greatest utility (i.e. the greatest benefit). Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, holds that the correct course of action is that which follows the general rule which gives rise to the greatest utility. So, for example, it might be justifiable in terms of act utilitarianism for a group of friends to rob a person and share the money between themselves, but if this was to be the rule applied in every such situation then the effect on society as a whole would be such as to outweigh any happiness created by the act.
CRITICISMS OF UTILITARIANISMIntuitively speaking, utilitarianism appears to be an extremely attractive philosophy. It offers a simplicity that many other philosophical approaches lack and in particular cuts through the mish mash of moral rules favoured by deontological thinkers. It is reconcilable with the majoritarianism favoured by democratic systems of government. Moreover, utilitarianism offers an obvious answer to the question of why we should act in a certain way in the absence of a religious justification.
Despite this, the theory has attracted copious criticism. On a practical level, utilitarianism has been derided as unworkable, and even absurd. It has been argued that there is no adequate means of defining happiness, nor any suitable method for quantifying levels of happiness. Even if the theory can be made to work on a practical level, others argue, the results are morally wrong. Others object to the reduction of the human experience to the pursuit of pleasure.
The various criticisms are too numerous and intricate to discuss in detail here and as such I will confine my discussion to two criticisms that are particularly prevalent in philosophical literature: the first relating to practical problems in applying the utilitarian concept and the second dealing with concerns arising from the results of utilitarian analysis.
(1) Impossibility the untenability of the felicific calculus
One of the most obvious problems with utilitarianism is that happiness, which lies at the heart of the theory, is an abstract concept. How can we hope to measure a quality that exists only in our minds? Furthermore, if we cannot measure happiness, how can we tell the effects that an action will have on the amount of happiness within a society?
Bentham proposed a mathematical formula for calculating how an action will affect levels of happiness, which he called the felicific calculus, or utility calculus. In Chapter 4 of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham sets out his formula in detail. In spite of this attempt at mathematisation, it is clear, as Smart points out, that the weighing of consequences seems more often a matter of vague intuition than of scientific calculation. The felicific calculus cannot really account for different degrees of happiness nor of the fact that different people are made happy by different things, and to different degrees. It cannot scan the minds of the population and know for certain what will increase their happiness.
It is often impossible to predict even what the consequences of an action will be, so any attempt to predict the effects on happiness are presumably equally unfeasible. For example, a utilitarian might argue that, if it were possible to travel back in time, then it would be entirely permissible to murder Hitler in order to prevent the deaths of millions of people. However, it is impossible for us to know what the results of this would have been. Perhaps an even more wicked dictator would win power in his place and this could result in the suffering and death of twice as many people.
Based on this difficulty, Bernard Williams, among others, ridicules the felicific calculus as absurd. He argues that utilitarians would be trapped in an eternal process of calculation in an effort to determine every tiny consequence of their actions. One utilitarian response to this accusation is that utilitarian calculations should be carried out subject to reasonable limits. If the calculation procedure was left to rattle on ad infinitum then it in itself would become too costly and would itself outweigh the benefits to be derived from the calculation. Allison said that utilitarians should adopt the summary rules approach taken by Rawls in A Theory of Justice. A pragmatic approach seems reasonable.
J S Mill argued that, although the calculations were crucial, they have already been carried out in the whole past duration of the human species and have now come to form part of our moral rules. Therefore, we do not require to sit calculating the outcome of every action before we make it.
Of course, to some extent it will be possible to tell instinctively what will result in the greatest happiness. Unfortunately, this does rather undermine the empirical approach that utilitarians seem to be aiming for. In any event, the felicific calculus is unconvincing as a tool of genuine usefulness and even modern utilitarians appear to have come to reject it.
(2) Conflict with the concept of individual rights
Utilitarianism, as has previously been remarked upon, is primarily concerned with the interests of the majority of the community. This is anathema to those who support the concept of individual rights as paramount.
Dworkin, for example, believed that rights are trumps that overwhelm all other moral considerations. Although he noted the apparent egalitarian and impartial nature of utilitarianism, and acknowledged that utilitarian argument not only respects, but embodies, the right of each citizen to be treated as the equal of any other he goes on to point out that this was deceptive and could easily lead to the infringement of individual rights. He gives the example of how racial segregation might be justified under the happiness principle on the basis that segregation might be of benefit to a white law student as it would protect his interests even though a minority would suffer. Dworkin neatly summarises his position when he writes If someone has a right to do something then it is wrong for the government to try to deny it to him even though it would be in the general interest to do so.
It has been argued that the consequentialist nature of theory means that all manner of rights violations and atrocities might be justified by utilitarian analysis. If the end justifies the means then, to give a topical example, is it acceptable to torture a terrorist in order to obtain information as to the whereabouts of a bomb? Is it acceptable to torture his family to pressurise the terrorist into talking? If the torture results in the finding of a bomb, which is then defused, saving many lives, then the utilitarian position would presumably support the torture in both cases. Rights-based theorists, on the other hand, would consider torture to be a violation of the terrorist&s rights that could never be justified. Moreover, at an instinctive level the average person would be revolted at the thought of torture, if not of the terrorist then certainly of the terrorist’s family. It is difficult to see how utilitarianism can be reconciled with human instinct in such circumstances.
A rule-utilitarian would seek to circumvent this problem by arguing that torture, if applied as a general rule, would have such a detrimental effect on society that its use cannot be justified under the greatest happiness principle. Torture in a single situation might be justified, but the fear and shame that would arise in the community at large as a result of a widely used policy of torture would outweigh the immediate benefit in this situation. John Stuart Mill also argued that there was utilitarian value in the protection of rights, since this would increase overall happiness. This is a compelling argument. The act-utilitarian, however, would seemingly be bound to accept the torture as morally legitimate.
What, then, of large-scale atrocities? It could be argued that a consequentialist approach has been used to justify many of the world&s worst crimes against humanity. Smart concedes that, under a strict utilitarian analysis, it would be justifiable to cause suffering and death to a large number of people on the grounds that an even larger number would ultimately benefit. However, he points out that it would be necessary in utilitarian terms to be very sure that the future generation would benefit and, since it would almost certainly be impossible to be so certain of the future, utilitarianism would not in fact sanction the atrocity. Moreover, he says, even if we could predict the future with absolute certainty, the chance that a large-scale atrocity would result in a benefit of sufficient scale to outweigh the horror it causes is so remote that utilitarians would almost certainly condemn the atrocity.
Unfortunately, this defensive argument serves to re-iterate one of the criticisms previously alluded to allude: namely, the difficulties inherent in predicting the consequences of one&s actions. By admitting that we cannot predict the outcome of, for example, genocide, Smart leaves utilitarian theory open to the accusation that there are many actions for which we cannot predict the outcome, which would suggest that it is too risky to ever take any action at all. Smart confesses that a utilitarian may have to confess doubt and ignorance is of course in accordance with his empirical attitude, however this seems to be passing the buck somewhat given the staunchly empirical tradition that underlies utilitarianism.
The classical conception of utilitarianism as presented by its early adherents is certainly flawed and, with such keystone concepts as the felicific calculus having been undermined, it might appear that utilitarianism as a philosophical position is otiose. Moreover, it is difficult to see where utilitarianism can sit comfortably within our contemporary culture of individual rights and freedoms.
Modern utilitarians, however, continue to argue their corner. Raymond Frey, also quoted by Allison, argues that utilitarianism has never ceased to occupy a central place in moral theorising [and] has come to have a significant impact on the thinking of many laymen. The actions of governments, both in this country and abroad, in response to a perceived increase in the threat of terrorism is arguably testimony to extent to which utilitarianism influences current political thinking. Of course, it may be some time before we discover whether these actions are ultimately successful in terms of the maximisation of happiness or whether they have the opposite effect.