Chapter 8 Utilitarianism


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

—John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

So far we have examined a number of approaches, all of which are popular, but all of which have proven to be unsatisfactory in one way or another. This may lead you to wonder whether all of this philosophical analysis is really such a good idea. Shouldn’t we have some results by now, after all of this investigation? Won’t philosophers be capable of poking holes in every theory that comes along with their hyper-critical methods of analysis? The answer is a definite “yes and no.” Although no ethical theory that has been developed is entirely without problems and criticisms, there are a couple that seem pretty good, even to us skeptical philosophers. In this chapter we will consider one of these more promising theories. It is known as utilitarianism and was developed in its most explicit form in the 19th century by two British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. To situate this theory in relation to the theories we have already examined, consider the following case :

Fred is on his way to a job interview and happens to be running late. On his way to the bus station he happens to notice a small child apparently drowning in a pool. He quickly glances at his watch and realizes that if he does not hurry, he will miss his bus and will be very late for the job interview. Fred decides not stop and help. He catches the bus and not only makes it to the job interview on time, but gets the job.

Something is clearly wrong here. Fred should have stopped to help, even if it meant being late for the job interview. The simple reason he should have stopped was that someone else was in need of help. And the fact that this person was in need overrides his personal interest in getting to the interview on time. Now, in spite of how obvious this might seem, none of the theories we have considered so far can really account for this simple moral intuition. And this does not make them look very good as theories about our ethical obligations. Consider what each would say about this case:

  • Relativism: “Stop and help if your culture values helping strangers.”
  • Divine Command Theory: “Stop to help if and only if God commands you do help strangers.”
  • Natural Law Theory: “Stop to help if and only if it is part of human nature to help others.”
  • Psychological Egoism: “Helping would be selfish anyway, do whatever suits you more.”
  • Ethical Egoism: “Don’t help since it is best to let people help themselves.”
  • Social Contract Theory: “Stop to help because it is in your long term best interests to help others.”

None of these approaches can account for what seems compelling about this case, that is, that we just should help in cases when someone is desperately in need and it would cost us comparatively little to help them. Their interests should count for us at least this much. This, in a sense, is the moral intuition that utilitarianism tries to account for. It is an explicit attempt to justify our normal, everyday, moral sense that we should take other people’s interests seriously. Our systematic analysis of the varieties of egoism gives us a theoretical motive for considering this point – if we can’t defend selfishness shouldn’t we at least try to see whether the case for moral concern for others does any better? But our humanity should give us a deeper reason for examining the nature and justification for this very ordinary feeling of moral concern that we should feel and expect others to feel as well.