1. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of obligation. Theories of normative obligation answer the question, “What ought I to do in this case?” Utilitarianism is a theory of normative obligation which answers the question by saying, “Do that which produces the most amount of good.” The answer is straightforward and makes sense. A right action, it seems obvious, is one that produces a better world, one with more good in it than one with lesser good. After all, isn’t it a better world, one with more good in it, which we are after. A right action is, therefore, the action which gets us to that goal most efficiently. Right actions are instrumental (are to be utilized) in achieving what is desired, namely, the most amount of good.

Let me reemphasize the nature of the determination of the action’s rightness being conditional upon an external factor. For a utilitarian, an action, just considered “naked” (without an examination of the consequences or circumstances of the action) is morally neutral; that is, unless an external factor is appealed to, there is no way to determine the rightness or wrongness of the action. A utilitarian will instruct us to look at some external criterion or criteria distinct from the action to determine the rightness of the action. Usually, this is an evaluation of the consequences of the action. Hence, the classification of utilitarianism as being a consequentialist theory of obligation.

For example, suppose I were to ask a utilitarian whether or not stealing were wrong. He would say, “Tell me more and I will give you an answer. What are the circumstances surrounding this case of stealing? And, most especially, what are the consequences involved with the stealing? Give me the answers to those questions and I’ll tell you whether the action under question is right or wrong. It is necessary that I know what the consequences are before I can pass judgment.”

What about the consequences; what is the ingredient in them that is the deciding factor in determining the rightness or wrongness of the action? A utilitarian, as we have seen, maintains that a right action (or rule) produces good consequences. So, we have to determine what it is that is good, such that it is capable of being the deciding factor.

2. Right actions depend upon producing what is good-in-itself, an intrinsic good. If we do an action, what would be a fundamental reason to do it? One that comes readily to mind is that a good reason to do an action is that doing it makes the world a better place. A right action, thus, is one which produces more good than any other action in the circumstance. Our actions should aim at producing a goal, the world which has the most amount of good in it. Why else should we do actions, if not to be better off in a good world? Utilitarian theory seems to be a no-brainer.

But what is the good at which right actions aim? Utilitarians call this type of good an intrinsic good, something that is good in itself and is desired solely for what it is. There are basically two theories about intrinsic goods. One theory is hedonism, the other is eudaimonism. These theories tell us what is non-morally good, not what is a right action. A right action must aim at a good, not another right action.

Don’t let the Greek words scare you, the concepts relatively simple.

A hedonist says that pleasure is the one and only intrinsic good. All other goods are instrumental goods. That is to say, all other goods are things which will lead ultimately to pleasure, the one thing that is good in itself and not good for producing anything else. Pleasure, pure and simple, is desired for what it is, not for what it can bring. Fame, knowledge, fortune, health, and all other goods are good because they are instrumental in producing pleasure. Fortune is a top instrumental good. With money, we can buy all kinds of things which will give us pleasure. What else would we use money for, but to get us those things which will bring us pleasure? Knowledge is good, but good for obtaining the things that bring us pleasure. Again, pleasure is the one and only intrinsic good.

The euadiamonist has a different notion. Happiness is the intrinsic good, but it consists of many intrinsic goods gained over a sufficient period of time. Sounds complex, and it is, somewhat. What the eudaimonist says is that pleasure is not the only intrinsic good; there are many others. The having of a sufficient number of these intrinsic goods over a sufficient period of time is happiness. Look. Suppose I asked you now whether or not you were happy. You said, “Yes, I am happy.” I would reply, “Not really. You have not had enough fame, fortune, knowledge, experience of beautiful things in the short span of your life to really be happy. Maybe, when you are rich, famous, have traveled the world over, have a collection of fine art, and so on, and are at that late stage in your life where you can truly say, “I’ve had my fair share or enough of all the good things of life,” maybe then you could claim to be happy and I would agree. Until then, you are on your way to happiness and are enjoying life, but are not truly or completely happy.

3. The Utilitarian calculus or how to determine the rightness of an action by examining its consequences. Suppose you were in a position which required an answer to an ethical question. Suppose that your country had been nuked by another country. There is nothing but ruins left of your country. But, because the attack was a sneak attack, the other country was left relatively untouched. However, you found a control that would release a counter-attack of automated missiles. These missiles would devastate the other country. What ought you to do?

INSERT: “Thunder and Roses”

Here’s the way a utilitarian would want you to think. What would be the consequences of your action? Would your action produce the most amount of good, be you a hedonist or eudaimonist? The utilitarian would say, just add up the consequences. Bombing the other country will do no good. So, why do it. Certainly, they bombed you, but the overall effect of effectively destroying the rest of the world is unthinkable. The fallout will be enough for the other country to deal with. Do that action which produces the best outcome. Destroying the other nation, and with it the world, will not produce the most amount of good. As painful as it may be, your duty, what you ought to do, is to do the right action, which is not to counter-attack. That is the one action produces the most amount of good in the end.

OK. So, the story stretches the fiction a bit, but not much. Let me give an example which may be more to the point. Should you cheat on the next exam (or your income tax form, depending upon who is reading this)? The utilitarian says make a list of the possible actions and calculate.

Actions Consequences (good produced)

x: CHEAT +100

y: NOT TO CHEAT --100

Suppose that you think as follows. If I cheat, I will get a good grade and pass the course. The professor will never catch me. So, the rewards are 100. (Let’s be hedonists in this case. The 100 units of good are pleasure.) If I do not cheat, then I will flunk, not pass a core-curriculum course, and get into a time bind. Consequences are --100. So, evaluation of the consequences leads to the conclusion to cheat. Adding up all the plusses and minuses, the total indicates that cheating is the right action, for cheating produces the most amount of good.

3. The difference between rule and act-utilitarianism. If you are an A student (or if the example applied to taxes, an honest taxpayer), then the above example probably rubs you the wrong way. How could cheating really produce the most amount of good?

Let me lead to an answer by telling a bit of a science-fiction story. I don’t know how many of you know, but stoplights are conscious, and they hold grudges. You know of the stoplight in your neighborhood which is conscious. I do. Imagine the following.

I’m coming home late at night. I’m tired, weary and all that I want to do is hit the sack. But, there is this light up ahead. It’s green. It knows me and that I am coming. It stays green until the last moment and then turns red. There I am, in the middle of the night, stopped at this light. There is no one else around. The light ticks on for what seems to be forever. What should I do? I want to run the red light and get home.

A small voice from the back seat says, “Hi. I am your resident act-utilitarian. You should do that act which produces the most amount of good. Since the act in question is running the red light, since you are the only one here, the most amount of good will be to run the light. Just go ahead and do it. Running the red light will produce the most amount of good in this situation.”

I think to myself, “Now that makes sense. Let’s get home and to bed.” I start to step on the gas, but then another voice pops up from the back seat. That voice says, “Stop! Hi, I’m your resident rule-utilitarian. Don’t run the red light. That action would be wrong. Here’s why. We have rules of behavior for persons in society. When everyone obeys those rules the most amount of good is produced. One of those rules is, Stop at red lights. Were you to run the light, you would be breaking a right rule. Your action would be wrong in virtue of its breaking the rule which produces the most amount of good when everyone obeys it. If you break the rule now, and if everyone thought the way you are now thinking, what would society be like? I’ll tell you, it would be pure chaos. So, stay put. Do the right action by obeying the right rule. Society will be better off if you do so.”

Notice that both “residents of moral behavior” are utilitarians. How could they come up with different prescriptions? One says the right action is to run the red light, the other says the opposite. Since they both claim that their action is the one that produces the most amount of good, what is the difference?

The difference is that the act-utilitarian concentrates on the specific act and its consequences, whereas the rule-utilitarian concentrates on the kind of act involved as it is expressed in a rule. It is the rule which is right or wrong primarily for the rule-utilitarian, not the act. An act is right or wrong inasmuch as it is in accord with or violates a right rule. The rule-utilitarian claims that relying on applying consequences to rules is far better than applying them to acts. Why? Precisely because of the cheating on exams and running red light problems. The rule-utilitarian claims that adhering to the rules, even when it looks as though the most amount of good will be produced by paying attention to the act, is the correct way to go; obeying the right rule produces the most amount of good. Their proof is simply to say, “Imagine what the world would be like if people started breaking the rules. It would be chaos. Who would want to live in that world? Not me. And, more than likely, not you when you think it over.”

But, the act-utilitarian is not finished. He may reply, “OK, Mr. rule-utilitarian. Let’s say that everyone should always stop at red lights. And, let’s say that when people obey that rule, the most amount of good is produced. But, what if you have a medical emergency and you have to get your mother to the hospital. Were you to stop at each red light, she will die. Surely, you will run the red lights. And, surely, everyone will think that you ought to run the red lights. So, rule-utilitarianism does not work in all cases. If it does not work in the medical emergency case, why do you think it will really work in the case of getting home to bed? Why not run the red light, if a person can be sure that the most amount of good will be produced by that act?”

Good question. You can see that there is an ongoing debate between act and rule-utilitarians. The issue is not settled. But, just to show you how a rule-utilitarian may reply, consider the following.

“Sure,” the rule-utilitarian replies, “everyone would say that it would be the right thing to run the red light in a medical emergency case. But, the action is right because it is in accord with an updated rule that produces more good than the original rule. The new rule, Stop at red lights except in medical and police emergencies, is a rule which, when everyone obeys it, produces more good than the rule, Stop at red lights. There can be exceptions to a rule which can be built into the very rule itself. In doing so, the rule becomes a better rule; that is, the rule with the exceptions built in, produces more good than it would without the exceptions.

Well, you can see that the rule-utilitarian has responses. But, so does the act-utilitarian. I’ll leave it to you to continue the debate.

In the meanwhile, let’s take a look at some problems with utilitarianism.

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