8.1 Happiness and The Highest Good

Utilitarianism is one of the major contemporary philosophical theories about the nature of and justification for ethical principles. It has its roots in the writings of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), although the name “utilitarianism” is most closely associated with the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Utilitarianism is an attempt to provide a rational basis for ethical decision making. It focuses on the consequences of actions and measures their value by the amount of good they do for whoever it is that is affected them. As Mill puts it,

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

“Whose happiness?” you may ask. “Everybody’s!” the utilitarian would answer. The sophisticated moral theory developed by Bentham and Mill in defense of this simple point is what we will be examining further here.

Both Bentham and Mill aim to make ethics into nothing less than a science of human happiness. This science starts out with a distinction that is important for ethical theories in general, a distinction between different types of value. Some things have a value only because they help to bring about other things of value. For example, a car is valuable to me since it helps me to get around easily. If I live in a place where owning a car is not necessary to get around, or it becomes prohibitively expensive because I cannot afford parking, gas or maintenance, then it loses this value. This type of value is known as “instrumental value.” Something has instrumental value if it allows me to realize other goals I have. On the other hand, some things just have value in themselves. For example, I may want a higher salary since the extra money will enable me to rent a bigger apartment and this in turn will make happier. But my quest for happiness itself is not for the sake of anything further. Being happy is something I want for its own sake and not for the sake of something else, unlike the bigger apartment or the salary increase, both of which I want for the sake of something else. Something that has value on its own, without its being valuable for something else has “intrinsic value,” as opposed to instrumental value. Utilitarianism starts with the claim that the only thing that has intrinsic value is happiness. Everything else of value is valuable to us to the extent that we believe it will help us to attain happiness. Happiness alone is something that is desirable for its own sake. Thus it may make sense to ask someone who takes on an extra job to earn more money why she needs or wants the extra money, but it makes no sense to ask someone why they want more happiness out of life. It is the one thing we are all striving for, even if we each have our own unique perspectives on exactly what will make us happy.

Now the question arises, “what is the best way to attain happiness?” Is there a reliable, rational, “scientific” way to increase our happiness? Both Bentham and Mill answer that there indeed is a scientific way to attain happiness, and it is called “maximizing utility.”

Each of us has his/her own idea of what will lead to happiness, but in general we are all out to maximize happiness. Now every pleasurable thing that we strive for has a cost including time, money, effort, and/or opportunity costs. But, both benefits and costs are uncertain. So the rational way of attaining happiness is by getting as much satisfaction for as little cost as possible given the uncertainties involved. This is “maximizing utility” or the rational approach to happiness.

The rational way to attain happiness is to strive to maximize utility by taking into account the costs and benefits (as well as their respective probabilities) of each possible choice we may have in a give situation. So far, we have only been speaking of the way each of might satisfy his or her own selfish desires. Both Bentham and Mill argued, however, this account can be the basis of ethics as well. If each of of is out to get the most pleasure for the least cost, then the ethical thing to do would be the course of action that enables the most people to satisfy their personal interests at the least cost. Ethical choices are choices that lead to the greatest overall utility.

Implications of utilitarianism

So what then, are the implications of utilitarianism? It has a number of positive implications. First, it makes ethics relevant to the real world, by defining ethical actions as those that have the best overall outcomes. Being ethical would not be a matter of personal conscience alone, but would be something that would be good for everyone. Second, the ethical nature of an action or a decision is something that could be measured. This idea was particularly attractive to Jeremy Bentham – he was a strong advocate of legal reform and used as his criterion for evaluating laws the question of whether or not a given law was beneficial or harmful overall. Third, making ethical decisions would not require anything other than the ability to figure out how much our actions impact the interests of others. All of us are equally capable of adding up the expected good and bad results of our actions and deciding accordingly.

On the other hand, there are negative implications to the theory as well. We will be considering these in greater detail in the next section and in the next chapter, since the final position we will look at in the theoretical part of the course, Kantian ethics, is an explicit attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the utilitarian approach. Three problems stand out. First, since utilitarians claim that the moral worth of an action depends on it having better consequences than the alternatives we may wonder how we can ever really determine these consequences when we are making a decision. Of course, some actions have obviously bad consequences, like tossing a burning cigarette butt into a dry field of tall grass. But can we really reliably predict the consequences of our actions in the majority of cases? After all, moral problems seem to arise in just those cases where it is not entirely clear what the best thing to do really is. In addition, as many large scale engineering projects have shown, determining whether the consequences of a decision are for the best or not in part depends on when you ask the question. For example, the building of dams as sources of cheap power may seem like nothing but a win-win situation, but the long term environmental consequences of such projects may end up costing more than the proponents of the project could foresee.

Second, since utilitarianism depends on comparing the benefits and costs of different actions on everyone who is affected by those actions, it assumes that it is possible to compare the impact of one’s actions on different people. But how can we do this? Is there one neutral standard of comparison that might reveal that, for example, person A gets 3 units of utility from action X and 5 units of utility from action Y, while person B gets 5 units of utility from action X and only 1 unit of utility from action Y?

Finally, we have the problem that, if utilitarianism is correct, and the moral worth of an action is to be measured by the amount of good it does in the world, this seems to do away with the concept of rights. As long as an action leads to a sufficiently good outcome, anything goes. For example, suppose framing and executing an innocent person for murder would lead to great happiness for the whole of a community. As long as we could show that the benefits to everyone else outweigh the costs to this innocent person, a utilitarian would not have a problem with this. But, what about the rights of an innocent person not to be punished for a crime he or she did not commit? We will return to this question in the next chapter.

In spite of some of the troubling consequences of utilitarianism, however, it remains a popular theory. Part of the reason for its popularity is the plausibility of the argument for this view. It it to this that we now turn.