Please discuss your experiences with ethics, including your ethical values, ethical theories, and an ethical decision you have had to make. It is important to remember that as you share your ethical experiences with your faculty that you do not discuss information and details regarding a company or individual by name that are not public information.
Ethical Decisions Worksheet
Page 2 of 2
Ethical Decisions Matrix Worksheet
Complete the matrix below. Respond to each section using 100 to 150 words.
|Describe an event in which you made an individual ethical decision.||[Explain the impact of your decision.]|
|Describe your ethical values and how your personal ethical values impact your decisions.||[Explain how your values impacted your decision.]|
|Explain 2 ethical theories and how the theories could impact future ethical decisions in health care.||[Explain how these theories would impact your future ethical decisions in health care.]|
|Explain an ethical problem-solving methodology to positively impact ethical decisions in health care.||[Explain how you could use this formal ethical problem-solving method to positively impact future ethical decisions in health care.]|
Copyright 2020 by University of Phoenix. All rights reserved.
Copyright© 2020 by University of Phoenix. All rights reserved.
ACP 3F EBK ETHICS THEORY & CONTEMPORARY ISSUES
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:• Explain differences between utilitarianism and egoism as kinds of consequentialism.• Explain the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.• Describe the trolley problem and how it exemplifies the challenge of utilitarianism.• Identify key components of the utilitarian assessment of pleasure: intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood.• Articulate ways that utilitarianism is connected with hedonism and Epicureanism.• Apply utilitarian reasoning to a variety of cases in the real world.• Provide an overview of John Stuart Mill’s defense of utilitarianism.• Defend your own thesis with regard to the value of utilitarianism.
In 2015, the global population exceeded 7.3 billion people. The United Nations predicts that another billion people will be added to the world’s population by 2030, with the population increasing to over 9 billion by 2050.1 The increase in human population during the past two centuries has been explosive. Causes for this growth include industrialization, a revolution in agriculture and other technologies, and better political organization. This growing population has created problems, however, as soils are depleted, oceans are overfished, and pollution has increased. Industrialization and technology have led to massive use of carbon-based fuels, which contribute to global climate change. If the world’s population keeps growing at the current pace—and if the growing human population eats, drives, and consumes at current rates—we may be headed for a worldwide environmental and humanitarian crisis. A recent United Nations report concluded, “should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.”
Some argue that a prudent solution would be to take steps to limit consumption, population growth, or both. The means that are used to control population might include morally controversial technologies such as abortion. Moral concerns also haunt proposals to limit consumption: each of us wants the freedom to earn, spend, and consume as we wish. Even though individuals enjoy expanding their families and consuming products, the cumulative choices of individuals pursuing their own happiness can lead to less happiness for all—as the overall increase in population, pollution, and environmental degradation may well decrease opportunities and life prospects for everyone. When we think about issues from this perspective—one that takes into account the general happiness of everyone—we are adopting a utilitarian point of view.
Large social engineering projects are often grounded in utilitarian concerns. Consider the effort in China to control population growth by limiting reproduction to one child per family. Critics of the policy argued that this violates a fundamental right to reproduce. Can limitations on basic rights be justified by the larger utilitarian concerns of social policies? Utilitarian efforts to maximize good consequences require that we adjust our policies in light of changing circumstances. The one-child policy created outcomes that rippled across Chinese society, including, for example, a shift in family structure and gender ratios. As the Chinese government has adjusted its population policies, it has struggled to manage costs and benefits. Should morality be focused on complex and changing consequences or should it be concerned with abstract and invariable moral principles?
Utilitarian reasoning can be used to justify a variety of actions and policy decisions. How do we justify speed limits on the highways? It might seem that each of us should be free to go as fast as we want. However, unbridled speed would result in more accidents, which not only kill people but also slow the rest of us down. Speed limits satisfy the utilitarian goal of maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Some will be unhappy because they can’t drive 100 mph. But when we each drive at 65 mph and arrive safely, we are each more likely to be better off. Some may be less happy because they are forced to drive more slowly, but overall, more of us are happier.
Some uses of utilitarian reasoning are controversial because they seem to run counter to our intuitions about basic principles of right and wrong. Consider, for example, the use of torture in interrogations of terror suspects. If a terrorist had planted a bomb in a public place that would threaten to kill thousands of innocent people, would it be justifiable to torture the terrorist to force him to reveal the location of the bomb? On the one hand, some assert that torture is never permissible because it violates basic moral principles. The Geneva Conventions regulating warfare prohibit torture and define it as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”3 On the other hand, suppose, for example, that torture could save many lives. Would it then be justified? Former Vice President Dick Cheney maintained that “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding (a process that simulates drowning) produced useful information. According to the New York Times, the CIA waterboarded terror suspect Khaled Sheikh Mohammed 183 times.
In a speech on the tenth anniversary of September 11, Cheney claimed that by waterboarding terrorists such as Mohammed, information was extracted that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.5 Cheney and other members of the Bush administration justified torture on utilitarian grounds. Their view is shared by many. A Pentagon study of “the ethics of troops on the front line” in Iraq found that 41 percent said that “torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine,” and about the same number said that it “should be allowed to gather important information from insurgents.”6 From a utilitarian standpoint, it may make good sense to inflict pain on someone to prevent pain that would be inflicted on a greater number of others. From the same standpoint, however, one may argue that practices such as torture cause greater harm than good—by extracting false confessions and lowering a country’s standing with potential allies. In any event, the question remains: Does a good end justify otherwise objectionable means? Crowded village ferry crossing the River Hooghly, West Bengal, India. Weighing Consequences.
One way of thinking about this is to compare the benefits and costs of each alternative. Whichever has the greater net benefit is the best alternative. Such an approach begins with the belief that we can measure and compare the risks and benefits of various actions. The idea is that actions are morally better or worse depending on whether they produce pleasure or pain or, more abstractly, on how they affect human well-being and happiness. Unlike egoism, utilitarianism focuses on the sum of individual pleasures and pains. It is not my pleasures or pains that matter—but the cumulative happiness of a number of people.
Another aspect of utilitarianism is the belief that each of us counts equally. Peter Singer, an influential contemporary defender of utilitarianism, derives utilitarianism from the basic idea that each person’s interests ought to be given equal consideration. Related to this is the idea that “my own interests cannot count for more, simply because they are my own, than the interests of others.”7 The basic procedure for utilitarianism is to add up the interests of everyone who is affected by an action without privileging the interests of anyone in particular. Utilitarianism is thus opposed to racist or sexist ideas, for example, which often hold that the interests of some people matter more than the interests of others.
Utilitarianism suggests that we ought to consider the totality of consequences of a policy or action. Forms of utilitarianism will differ depending on how we understand what sorts of consequences or interests matter. Complexities arise in defining key concepts such as happiness, interest, and well-being. Singer, for example, wants to focus on interests instead of pleasures or happiness. This indicates that it is possible that some pleasures are not really in our interest. For example, drug use can produce pleasure, but it is not in anyone’s long-term interest to be addicted to cocaine or heroin. We might also focus on people’s preferences—that is, what people themselves state that they prefer. But again there is an important question of whether our preferences actually coordinate with our interests—or can we prefer things that are not in our interest? In different terms, we might wonder whether pleasure is a good thing or whether genuine happiness can be reduced to pleasure. In any case, utilitarians have to provide an account of what matters when we try to add up benefits and harms—whether it is subjective feeling, taste, and preference, or whether it is something deeper and more objective such as well-being or other interests (in health, longevity, fulfillment, accomplishment, etc.).
Utilitarianism has to provide an account of whose interests or happiness matters. Jeremy Bentham, one of the founding fathers of utilitarianism, extended his utilitarian concern in a way that included all suffering beings, including nonhuman animals. Peter Singer would agree. He is well-known as an advocate of animal welfare. Like Bentham, he claims that the interests of nonhuman animals ought to be taken into account. (We discuss the issue of animal ethics further in Chapter 17.)One important point to bear in mind when discussing utilitarianism is that utilitarians generally do not think that actions or policies are good or bad in themselves. Rather, for the utilitarian, the goodness or badness of an action is solely a function of its consequences. Thus, even killing innocent people may be acceptable if it produces an outcome that saves a greater number of others from harm.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill The classical formulation of utilitarian moral theory is found in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Jeremy Bentham was an English-born student of law and the leader of a radical movement for social and legal reform based on utilitarian principles. His primary published work was Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). The title indicates his aim: to take the same principles that provide the basis for morals as a guide for the formation and revision of law. Bentham believed that the same principles guided both social and personal morality.
James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, was an associate of Bentham’s and a supporter of his views. John Stuart was the eldest of James’s nine children. He was educated in the classics and history at home. By the time he was twenty, he had read Bentham and had become a devoted follower of his philosophy. The basic ideas of utilitarian moral theory are summarized in Mill’s short work Utilitarianism, in which he sought to dispel the misconception that morality has nothing to do with usefulness or utility or that morality is opposed to pleasure. Mill was also a strong supporter of personal liberty, and in his pamphlet On Liberty he argued that the only reason for society to interfere in a person’s life was to prevent him or her from doing harm to others. People might choose wrongly, but he believed that allowing bad choices was better than government coercion. Liberty to speak one’s own opinion, he believed, would benefit all. However, it is not clear that utility is always served by promoting liberty. Nor is it clear what Mill would say about cases in which liberty must be restricted to promote the general good, as in the case of speed limits or airport security rules. In his work, On the Subjection of Women, Mill also emphasized the general good and criticized those social treatments of women that did not allow them to develop their talents and contribute to the good of society. Consistent with these views, he also supported the right of women to vote. Later in life he married his longtime companion and fellow liberal, Harriet Taylor. Mill also served in the British Parliament from 1865 to 1868.A portrait of the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
The original utilitarians were democratic, progressive, empiricist, and optimistic. They were democratic in the sense that they believed that social policy ought to work for the good of all persons, not just the upper class. They believed that when interests of various persons conflicted, the best choice was that which promoted the interests of the greater number. The utilitarians were progressive in that they questioned the status quo. For example, they believed that if the contemporary punishment system was not working well, then it ought to be changed. Social programs should be judged by their usefulness in promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Observation would determine whether a project or practice succeeded in this goal. Thus, utilitarianism is part of the empiricist tradition in philosophy, which holds that we know what is good only by observation or by appeal to experience. Bentham and Mill were also optimists. They believed that human wisdom and science would improve the lot of humanity. Mill wrote in Utilitarianism, “All the grand sources of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort.”
The Principle of Utility
The basic moral principle of utilitarianism is called the principle of utility or the greatest happiness principle. As John Stuart Mill explained it (and as you will see in the reading that follows) “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. It focuses on the consequences of actions. Egoism is also a form of consequentialism. But unlike egoism, utilitarianism focuses on the consequences for all persons impacted by an action. Consider the diagram used to classify moral theories provided in Chapter 1.
According to classical utilitarian moral theory, when we evaluate human acts or practices, we consider neither the nature of the acts or practices nor the motive for which people do what they do. As Mill puts it, “He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble.”9 It is the result of one’s action—that a life is saved—that matters morally. According to utilitarianism, we ought to decide which action or practice is best by considering the likely or actual consequences of each alternative. For example, over the years, people have called for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent people from using it to commit suicide. More than 1,600 people have jumped from the bridge to their deaths.10 Building a suicide barrier on a bridge is neither good nor bad in itself, according to utilitarianism. Nor is it sufficient that people supporting the building of such a barrier be well intentioned. The only thing that matters for the utilitarian is whether, by erecting such a barrier, we would actually increase happiness by preventing suicides. After much dispute, officials have agreed to build a suicide barrier—a net to catch would-be jumpers—on the bridge.
Pleasure and Happiness
Of course, there is an open question about whether suicide is good or bad. Some will argue that there is something inherently or intrinsically wrong with suicide. The deontologist Immanuel Kant provides this sort of argument, as you will see in Chapter 6, maintaining that suicide is wrong in principle. But utilitarians cannot argue that suicide is intrinsically wrong—since they do not focus on the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of acts. Instead, utilitarians have to consider the impact of suicide on the happiness of all those it affects.
Since utilitarians reject the idea that certain acts are intrinsically good or evil, they are open to experimentation and evidence. And they are open to various ways of conceiving the goodness of consequences. Any sort of consequences might be considered good—for example, power, fame, or fortune. However, classical utilitarianism is a pleasure or happiness theory, meaning that it tends to reduce all other goods to some form of pleasure or happiness. Utilitarianism was not the first such theory to appear in the history of philosophy. Aristotle’s ethics, as we shall see in Chapter 8, also focuses on happiness, although it is different from utilitarianism in its focus on virtue. Closer to utilitarianism is the classical theory that has come to be known as hedonism (from hedon, the Greek word for pleasure) or Epicureanism (named after Epicurus, 341–270 BCE). Epicurus held that the good life was the pleasant life. For him, this meant avoiding distress and desires for things beyond one’s basic needs. Bodily pleasure and mental delight and peace were the goods to be sought in life.
Utilitarians believe that pleasure or happiness is the good to be produced. As Bentham puts it, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”11 Things such as fame, fortune, education, and freedom may be good, but only to the extent that they produce pleasure or happiness. In philosophical terms, they are instrumental goods because they are useful for attaining the goals of happiness and pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are the only intrinsic goods—that is, the only things good in themselves.
In this explanation of utilitarianism, you may have noticed the seeming identification of pleasure and happiness. In classical utilitarianism, there is no difference between pleasure and happiness. Both terms refer to a kind of psychic state of satisfaction. However, there are different types of pleasure of which humans are capable. According to Mill, we experience a range of pleasures or satisfactions from the physical satisfaction of hunger to the personal satisfaction of a job well done. Aesthetic pleasures, such as the enjoyment of watching a beautiful sunset, are yet another type of pleasure. We also can experience intellectual pleasures such as the peculiar satisfaction of making sense out of something. Mill’s theory includes the idea that there are higher, uniquely human pleasures—as we will explain below.
In Mill’s view, we should consider the range of types of pleasure in our attempts to decide what the best action is. We also ought to consider other aspects of the pleasurable or happy experience. According to the greatest happiness or utility principle, we must measure, count, and compare the pleasurable experiences likely to be produced by various alternative actions in order to know which is best.
CalCulating the Greatest Amount of Happiness
Utilitarianism is not an egoistic theory. As we noted in Chapter 4’s presentation on egoism, those versions of egoism that said we ought to take care of ourselves because this works out better for all in the long run are actually versions of utilitarianism, not egoism. Some philosophers have called utilitarianism universalistic because it is the happiness or pleasure of all who are affected by an action or practice that is to be considered. We are not just to consider our own good, as in egoism, nor just the good of others, as in altruism. Sacrifice may be good, but not in itself. As Mill puts it, “A sacrifice which does not increase or tend to increase the sum total of happiness, (utilitarianism) considers as wasted.”
Everyone affected by some action is to be counted equally. We ourselves hold no privileged place, so our own happiness counts no more than that of others. I may be required to do what displeases me but pleases others. Thus, in the following scenario, Act B is a better choice than Act A:
Act A makes me happy and two other people happy.
Act B makes me unhappy but five others happy.
In addition to counting each person equally, Bentham and his followers identified five elements that are used to calculate the greatest amount of happiness: the net amount of pleasure or happiness, its intensity, its duration, its fruitfulness, and the likelihood of any act to produce it.
Pleasure Minus Pain
Almost every alternative that we choose produces unhappiness or pain as well as happiness or pleasure for ourselves, if not for others. Pain is intrinsically bad, and pleasure is intrinsically good. Something that produces pain may be accepted, but only if it causes more pleasure overall. For instance, if the painfulness of a punishment deters an unwanted behavior, then we ought to punish, but no more than is necessary or useful. When an act produces both pleasure or happiness and pain or unhappiness, we can think of each moment of unhappiness as canceling out a moment of happiness so that what is left to evaluate is the remaining or net happiness or unhappiness. We are also to think of pleasure and pain as coming in bits or moments. We can then calculate this net amount by adding and subtracting units of pleasure and displeasure. This is a device for calculating the greatest amount of happiness even if we cannot make mathematically exact calculations. The following simplified equation indicates how the net utility for two acts, A and B, might be determined. We can think of the units as either happy persons or days of happiness:
Act A produces twelve units of happiness and six of unhappiness (12 − 6 = 6 units of happiness).
Act B produces ten units of happiness and one of unhappiness (10 − 1 = 9 units of happiness).
On this measure, Act B is preferable because it produces a greater net amount of happiness, namely, nine units compared with six for Act A.
Moments of happiness or pleasure are not all alike. Some are more intense than others. The thrill of some exciting adventure—say, running river rapids—may produce a more intense pleasure than the serenity we feel standing before a beautiful vista. All else being equal, the more intense the pleasure, the better. All other factors being equal, if I have an apple to give away and am deciding which of two friends to give it to, I ought to give it to the friend who will enjoy it most. In calculations involving intensity of pleasure, a scale is sometimes useful. For example, we could use a positive scale of 1 to 10 degrees, from the least pleasurable to the most pleasurable. In the following scenario, then, Act B is better (all other things being equal) than Act A, even though Act A gives pleasure to thirty more people; this result is because of the greater intensity of pleasure produced by Act B:
Act A gives forty people each mild pleasure (40 × 2 = 80 degrees of pleasure).
Act B gives ten people each intense pleasure (10 × 10 = 100 degrees of pleasure).
Intensity is not all that matters regarding pleasure. The more serene pleasure may last longer. This also must be factored in our calculation. The longer lasting the pleasure, the better, all else being equal. Thus, in the following scenario, Act A is better than Act B because it gives more total days of pleasure or happiness. This is so even though it affects fewer people (a fact that raises questions about how the number of people counts in comparison to the total amount of happiness):
Act A gives three people each eight days of happiness (3 × 8 = 24 days of happiness).
Act B gives six people each two days of happiness (6 × 2 = 12 days of happiness).
A more serene pleasure from contemplating nature may or may not be more fruitful than an exciting pleasure such as that derived from running rapids. The fruitfulness of experiencing pleasure depends on whether it makes us more capable of experiencing similar or other pleasures. For example, the relaxing event may make one person more capable of experiencing other pleasures of friendship or understanding, whereas the thrilling event may do the same for another. The fruitfulness depends not only on the immediate pleasure, but also on the long-term results. Indulging in immediate pleasure may bring pain later on, as we know only too well. So also the pain today may be the only way to prevent more pain tomorrow. The dentist’s work on our teeth may be painful today, but it makes us feel better in the long run by providing us with pain-free meals and undistracted, enjoyable mealtime conversations.
If before acting we are attempting to decide between two available alternative actions, we must estimate the likely results of each before we compare their net utility. If we are considering whether to go out for some sports competition, for example, we should consider our chances of doing well. We might have greater hope of success trying something else. It may turn out that we ought to choose an act with lesser rather than greater beneficial results if the chances of it happening are better. It is not only the chances that would count, but also the size of the prize. In the following equation, A is preferable to B. In this case, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” as the old saying goes
Act A has a 90 percent chance of giving eight people each five days of pleasure (40 days × 0.90 = 36 days of pleasure).
Act B has a 40 percent chance of giving ten people each seven days of pleasure (70 days × 0.40 = 28 days of pleasure).
Quality of Pleasure
Bentham and Mill are in agreement that the more pleasure or happiness, the better. However, there is one significant difference between them. According to Bentham, we ought to consider only the quantity of pleasure or happiness brought about by various acts: how much pleasure, to how many people, how intense it is, how long-lasting, how fruitful, and how likely the desired outcome will occur. Consider Bentham’s own comment on this point: The “quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin (a children’s game) is as good as poetry.”14 The aesthetic or intellectual pleasure that one might derive from reading and understanding a poem is no better in itself than the simple pleasure of playing a mindless game
.Mill agreed with Bentham that the greater amount of pleasure and happiness, the better. But Mill believed that the quality of the pleasure should also count. In his autobiography, Mill describes a personal crisis in which he realized that he had not found sufficient place in his life for aesthetic experiences; he realized that this side of the human personality also needed developing and that these pleasures were significantly different from others. This experience and his thoughts about it may have led him to focus on the quality of pleasures. Some are intrinsically better than others, he believed. For example, intellectual pleasures are more valuable in themselves than purely sensual pleasures. Although he does not tell us how much more valuable they are (twice as valuable?), he clearly believed this greater value ought to be factored into our calculation of the “greatest amount of happiness.” Although I may not always be required to choose a book over food (for example, I may now need the food more than the book), the intellectual pleasures that might be derived from reading the book are of a higher quality than the pleasures gained from eating.
Mill attempts to prove or show that intellectual pleasures are better than sensual ones. We are to ask people who have experienced a range of pleasures whether they would prefer to live a life of a human, despite all its disappointments and pains, or the life of an animal, which is full of pleasures but only sensual pleasures. He believes that people generally would choose the former. They would prefer, as he puts it, “to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”15 Socrates was often frustrated in his attempts to know certain things. He struggled to get a grasp on true beauty and true justice. Because human beings have greater possibilities for knowledge and achievement, they also have greater potential for failure, pain, and frustration. The point of Mill’s argument is that the only reason we would prefer a life of fewer net pleasures (the dissatisfactions subtracted from the total satisfactions of human life) to a life of a greater total amount of pleasures (the life of the pig) is that we value something other than the amount (quantity) of pleasures; we value the kind (quality) of pleasures as well.16 When considering this argument, you might ask yourself two questions. First, would people generally prefer to be Socrates than a pig? Second, if Mill is correct in his factual assessment, then what does this fact prove? Could it be that people are mistaken about what kinds of pleasures are the best, as Socrates himself often implied? This points us back to the question of whether happiness is merely a subjective preference or whether happiness resides in a more objective standard.
The following are just some of the many considerations raised by those who wish to determine whether utilitarianism is a valid moral theory.
Application of the Principle
One reaction that students often have to calculating the greatest amount of happiness is that this theory is too complex. When we consider all of the variables concerning pleasure and happiness that are to be counted when trying to estimate the “greatest amount of pleasure or happiness,” the task of doing so looks extremely difficult. We must consider how many people will be affected by alternative actions, whether they will be pleased or pained by them, how pleased or pained they will be and for how long, and the likelihood that what we estimate will happen, will, in fact, come to be. In addition, if we want to follow Mill rather than Bentham, we must consider whether the pleasures will be the lowlier sensual pleasures, the higher more intellectual pleasures, or something in between. However, in reality, we may at any one time have to consider only a couple of these variables, depending on their relevance to the moral question we are considering.
The point of this criticism is that no one can consider all of the variables that utilitarianism requires us to consider: the probable consequences of our action to all affected in terms of duration, intensity, fruitfulness, likelihood, and type or quality of pleasure. It also requires us to have a common unit of measurement of pleasure. (Elementary units called hedons have been suggested.) The difficulty is finding a way to reduce pleasures of all kinds to some common or basic unit of measurement. A utilitarian could respond to these criticisms by arguing that while this complexity indicates that no one can be a perfect judge of utility, we do make better judgments if we are able to consider these variables. No moral theory is simple in its application.
A more difficult problem in how to apply the principle of utility comes from Mill’s specific formulation of it. It may well be that in some cases, at least, one cannot both maximize happiness and make the greatest number of people happy. Thus, one choice may produce 200 units of happiness—but for just one person. The other alternative might produce 150 units of happiness, 50 for each of three people. If the maximization of overall happiness is taken as primary, then we should go with the first choice; if the number of people is to take precedence, then we should go with the second choice. Most readings of Mill, however, suggest that he would give preference to the overall maximization of utility. In that case, how the happiness was distributed (to one versus three) would not, in itself, count.
Utilitarianism and Personal Integrity
A more substantive criticism of utilitarianism concerns its universalist and maximizing agenda—that we should always do that which maximizes overall happiness. Many critics have noted that utilitarian theory does not allow us to privilege our own happiness over that of others. Nor can we privilege the happiness of those we love. In determining what to do, I can give no more weight to my own projects or my own children than other people’s similar projects or their children. For some philosophers, the idea that I must treat all persons equally is contrary to common sense, which tells us that we ought to care for our own children more than we care for the children of distant others. Utilitarians might respond that we should probably give more attention to our own projects and our own children, but only because this is likely to have better results overall. We know better how to promote our own projects and have more motivation to do so. Thus, giving preference to ourselves will probably be more effective.
A further objection maintains that there is something wrong if utilitarianism requires us to not give preference to ourselves and to our own personal moral commitments. Utilitarianism appears to be an affront to our personal integrity. The idea is that utilitarianism seems to imply that I am not important from my own point of view. However, a utilitarian might respond that it is important that people regard themselves as unique and give due consideration to their own interests because this will probably have better consequences both for these individuals and the broader society.
Ends and Means
A second criticism concerns utilitarianism’s consequentialist character. You may have heard the phrase “The end justifies the means.” People often utter this phrase with a certain amount of disdain. Utilitarianism, as a consequentialist moral theory, holds that it is the consequences or ends of our actions that determine whether particular means to them are justified. This seems to lead to conclusions that are contrary to commonsense morality. For example, wouldn’t it justify punishing or torturing an innocent person, a “scapegoat,” in order to prevent a great evil or to promote a great good? Or could we not justify on utilitarian grounds the killing of some individuals for the sake of the good of a greater number, perhaps in the name of population control? Or could I not make an exception for myself from obeying a law, alleging that it is for some greater long-term good? Utilitarians might respond by noting that such actions or practices will probably do more harm than good, especially if we take a long-range view. In particular, they might point out that practices allowing the punishment of known innocents would undermine the legitimacy and deterrent effect of the law—and thus reduce overall utility.
The Trolley Problem
One particular problem for utilitarianism is exemplified by what has come to be called the trolley problem.18 According to one version of this scenario, imagine you find yourself beside a train track, on which a trolley is speeding toward a junction. On the track ahead of the trolley are five workers who will all be killed if the trolley continues on its current course. You have access to a switch, and if you pull it, the trolley will be diverted onto another track where it will kill only one worker. According to utilitarianism, if nothing else is relevant, you would not only be permitted but required to pull the switch, which would result in one death and five lives saved. From a utilitarian standpoint, it is obvious that you should pull the switch, since not pulling the switch would result in greater net loss of life. Now, compare this scenario with another. In this case, you find yourself on a bridge over a single trolley track with the five workers below you. Next to you on the bridge is an enormously fat man. The only way to stop the trolley in this case is to push the fat man off the bridge and onto the tracks ahead of the workers. Would you be permitted to do this? In both cases, five lives would be saved and one lost. But are the cases the same morally? It would seem that according to utilitarianism, in which only the results matter, the cases would be morally the same. However, it is the intuition of most people that the second case is significantly different. You can’t kill one person to save five. To take another example, it seems clear that a doctor who has five patients needing organ transplants to save their lives should not be permitted to take those organs out of another healthy patient, causing his or her death.
It is important to note that versions of the trolley problem have been employed by psychologists to probe human decision-making procedures. Some of this research examines how different parts of the brain are involved in different ways of making decisions that involve moral dilemmas. This sort of research investigates the psychological sources of our decisions—whether emotional responses predominate, whether we actually do calculate costs and benefits, and whether we tend to feel bound to abstract moral rules. One study used a virtual reality version of the trolley problem to pursue this question. It found that 89 percent of people chose the utilitarian option when confronted with at 3-D virtual reality representation of a run-away boxcar that threatened to crash into a group of people. One issue exposed by these sorts of studies is that people respond differently when confronted with the choice of doing something (pulling the lever to divert the train into the group of people) or not doing something (allowing the train to crash into the group). One conclusion of this sort of research is that sometimes there are conflicts in how we actually react and how we think we should react to morally fraught situations. Other inquiries have considered whether utilitarian calculation involves a sort of “coldness” that runs counter to empathy and other emotional responses. Another study by Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro concludes, “participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and life meaning-lessness.”22 This conclusion appears to follow from the fact that the utilitarian decision—to kill one in order to save others—asks us to overcome an emotional or instinctual aversion to harming others. And yet, it might be that—from the utilitarian point of view—this is exactly what we should do in order to bring about greater happiness for the greatest number. The psychological research into the dilemmas generated by utilitarianism is interesting. But the normative or moral question remains. Moral philosophy is not merely interested in the psychological question of how we react in these situations, it is also concerned with the question of how we ought to react.
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism may appear to justify any action just so long as it has better consequences than other available actions. Therefore, cheating, stealing, lying, and breaking promises may all seem to be justified, depending on whether they maximize happiness in some particular case. In response to this type of criticism, contemporary utilitarians often focus on general rules instead of on individual acts. The version of utilitarianism that focuses on rules is usually called rule utilitarianism. This is contrasted with act utilitarianism, which focuses solely on the consequences of specific individual acts.
Both are forms of utilitarianism. They are alike in requiring us to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. They differ in what they believe we ought to consider in estimating the consequences. Act utilitarianism states that we ought to consider the consequences of each act separately. Rule utilitarianism states that we ought to consider the consequences of the act performed as a general practice.
Take the following example. Sue is considering whether to keep or break her promise to go out to dinner with Ken. She believes that if she breaks this promise in order to do something else with other friends, then Ken will be unhappy—but she and the other friends will be happier. According to act utilitarianism, if the consequences of her breaking the promise are better than keeping it, then she ought to break it.
Act utilitarianism: Consider the consequences of some particular act such as keeping or breaking one’s promise.
A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, would tell Sue to consider what the results would be if everyone broke promises or broke them in similar situations. The question “What if everyone did that?” is familiar to us. According to rule utilitarianism, Sue should ask what the results would be if breaking promises in similar circumstances became a general practice or a general rule that people followed. It is likely that trust in promises would be weakened. This outcome would be bad, she might think, because if we could not trust one another to keep promises, then we would generally be less capable of making plans and relating to one another—two important sources of human happiness. So, even if there would be no general breakdown in trust from just this one instance of promise-breaking, Sue should still probably keep her promise according to rule utilitarian thinking.
Rule utilitarianism: Consider the consequences of some practice or rule of behavior—for example, the practice of promise-keeping or promise-breaking.
Another way to understand the method of reasoning used by the rule utilitarian is the following: I should ask what would be the best practice. For example, regarding promises, what rule would have the better results when people followed that rule? Would it be the rule or practice: “Never break a promise made”? At the other end of the spectrum would be the rule or practice: “Keep promises only if the results of doing so would be better than breaking them.” (This actually amounts to a kind of act utilitarian reasoning.) However, there might be a better rule yet, such as: “Always keep your promise unless doing so would have very serious harmful consequences.” If this rule was followed, then people would generally have the benefits of being able to say, “I promise,” and have people generally believe and trust them. The fact that the promise would not be kept in some limited circumstances would probably not do great harm to the practice of making promises.
Some utilitarians go further and ask us to think about sets of rules. It is not only the practice of promise-keeping that we should evaluate, but also a broader set of related practices regarding truthfulness and bravery and care for children (for example). Moreover, we should think of these rules as forming a system in which there are rules for priority and stringency. These rules would tell us which practices are more important and how important they are compared to the others. We should then do what the best system of moral rules dictates, where best is still defined in terms of the maximization of happiness.
Which form of utilitarianism is better is a matter of dispute. Act utilitarians can claim that we ought to consider only what will or is likely to happen if we act in certain ways—not what would happen if we acted in certain ways but will not happen because we are not going to so act. Rule utilitarians can claim that acts are similar to one another and so can be thought of as practices. My lying in one case to get myself out of a difficulty is similar to others’ lying in other cases to get themselves out of difficulties. Because we should make the same judgments about similar cases (for consistency’s sake), we should judge this act by comparing it with the results of the actions of everyone in similar circumstances. We can thus evaluate the general practice of “lying to get oneself out of a difficulty.” You can be the judge of which form of utilitarian reasoning is more persuasive.
“Proof” of the Theory
One of the best ways to evaluate a moral theory is to examine carefully the reasons that are given to support it. Being an empiricist theory, utilitarianism must draw its evidence from experience. This is what Mill does in his attempt to prove that the principle of utility is the correct moral principle. His argument is as follows: Just as the only way in which we know that something is visible is its being seen, and the only way we can show that something is audible is if it can be heard, so also the only proof that we have that something is desirable is its being desired. Because we desire happiness, we thus know it is desirable or good. In addition, Mill holds that happiness is the only thing we desire for its own sake. All else we desire because we believe it will lead to happiness. Thus, happiness or pleasure is the only thing good in itself or the only intrinsic good. All other goods are instrumental goods; in other words, they are good insofar as they lead to happiness. For example, reading is not good in itself but only insofar as it brings us pleasure or understanding (which is either pleasurable in itself or leads to pleasure).
There are two main contentions in this argument. One is that good is defined in terms of what people desire. The other is that happiness is the only thing desired for itself and is the only intrinsic good. Critics have pointed out that Mill’s analogy between what is visible, audible, and desirable does not hold up under analysis. In all three words, the suffix means “able to be,” but in the case of desirable, Mill needs to prove not only that we can desire happiness (it is able to be desired), but also that it is worth being desired. Furthermore, just because we desire something does not necessarily mean that we ought to desire it or that it is good. There is a risk of the naturalistic fallacy (as defined in Chapter 1) here. Is this a case of illegitimately deriving an ought from an is?
Mill recognizes the difficulty of proving matters in ethics and that the proofs here will be indirect rather than direct. On the second point, Mill adds a further comment to bolster his case about happiness. He asserts that this desire for happiness is universal and that we are so constructed that we can desire nothing except what appears to us to be or to bring happiness. You may want to consider whether these latter assertions are consistent with his empiricism. Does he know these things from experience? In addition, Mill may be simply pointing to what we already know rather than giving a proof of the principle. You can find out what people believe is good by noticing what they desire. In this case, they desire to be happy or they desire what they think will bring them happiness.
Utilitarianism is a highly influential moral theory that also has had significant influence on a wide variety of policy assessment methods. It can be quite useful for evaluating alternative health care systems, for example. Whichever system brings the most benefit to the most people with the least cost is the system that we probably ought to support. Although Mill was perhaps too optimistic about the ability and willingness of people to increase human happiness and reduce suffering, there is no doubt that the ideal is a good one. Nevertheless, utilitarianism has difficulties, some of which we have discussed here. You will know better how to evaluate this theory when you can compare it with those treated in the following chapters.
The reading selection in this chapter is from the classical work Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. Mill considers the importance of happiness—and the need to consider the happiness of others. His work remains one of the important touchstones for thinking about utilitarianism.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf (accessed January 13, 2016).2. United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 12: Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/ (accessed January 13, 2015).3. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” http://www.un.org/millennium/law/iv-9.htm4. Scott Shane, “Waterboarding Used 266 Times on 2 Suspects,” New York Times, April 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/20/world/20detain.html?_r505. Chris McGreal, “Dick Cheney Defends Use of Torture on Al-Qaida Leaders,” Guardian, September 9, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/09/dick-cheney-defends-torture-al-qaida6. San Francisco Examiner, February 2, 1993, A4; San Francisco Chronicle, May 5, 2007, p. A5.7. Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 16.8. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. Oskar Priest (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), p. 20.9. Ibid., p. 24.10. John Bateson, “The Golden Gate Bridge’s fatal flaw” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/25/opinion/la-oe-adv-bateson-golden-gate-20120525 (Accessed January 13, 2016).11. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1789).12. Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 22.13. These elements for calculation of the greatest amount of happiness are from Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation.14. Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation.15. Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 14.16. Note that this is an empiricist argument. It is based on an appeal to purported facts. People’s actual preferences for intellectual pleasures (if true) are the only source we have for believing them to be more valuable.17. J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973). Also see Samuel Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). In The Limits of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Shelley Kagan distinguishes the universalist element of utilitarianism—its demand that I treat all equally—from the maximizing element—that I must bring about the most good possible. The first element makes utilitarianism too demanding, whereas the second allows us to do anything as long as it maximizes happiness overall.18. Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,” in Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978); and Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem,” The Monist (1976), pp. 204–17.19. See, for example, work done by Joshua Greene and the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, http://wjh.harvard.edu/~mcl/20. C. David Navarrete, Melissa M. McDonald, Michael L. Mott, and Benjamin Asher, “Virtual Morality: Emotion and Action in a Simulated Three-Dimensional ‘Trolley Problem,’” Emotion 12, no. 2 (April 2012), pp. 364–70.21. K. Wiech, G. Kahane, N. Shackel, M. Farias, J. Savulescu, and I. Tracey, “Cold or Calculating? Reduced Activity in the Subgenual Cingulate Cortex Re?ects Decreased Emotional Aversion to Harming in Counterintuitive Utilitarian Judgment,” Cognition 126, no. 3 (March 2013), pp. 364–72.22. Daniel M. Bartels and David A. Pizarro, “The Mismeasure of Morals: Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas,” Cognition 121, no. 1 (October 2011), pp. 154–61.23. See, for example, the explanation of this difference in J. J. C. Smart, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism,” Philosophical Quarterly (1956).24. Richard Brandt, “Some Merits of One Form of Rule Utilitarianism,” in Morality and the Language of Conduct, ed. H. N. Castaneda and George Nakhnikian (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), pp. 282–307.25. This explanation is given by Mary Warnock in her introduction to the Fontana edition of Mill’s Utilitarianism, pp. 25–26.
WHAT UTILITARIANISM IS
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that 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. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded—namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain
.Now such a theory of life excites in many minds, and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose, inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling, as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened; and modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.
When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. I do not, indeed, consider the Epicureans to have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic, as well as Christian, elements require to be included. But there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former—that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might have taken the other and, as it may be called, higher ground with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
Some Pleasures Are Better Than Others*
If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.
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; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it; but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise than momentarily an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior—confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. 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 only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
It may be objected that many who are capable of the higher pleasures occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years, sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that, before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower, though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.
From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intenser of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced? When, therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to those of which the animal nature, disjoined from the higher faculties, is susceptible, they are entitled on this subject to the same regard.
The Moral Standard
I have dwelt on this point as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of utility or happiness considered as the directive rule of human conduct. But it is by no means an indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard; for that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others, and his own, so far as happiness is concerned, were a sheer deduction from the benefit. But the bare enunciation of such an absurdity as this last renders refutation superfluous.
According to the greatest happiness principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable—whether we are considering our own good or that of other people—is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality and the rule for measuring it against quantity being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. This, being according to the utilitarian opinion the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality, which may accordingly be defined “the rules and precepts for human conduct,” by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.…
OF WHAT SORT OF PROOF THE PRINCIPLE OF UTILITY IS SUSCEPTIBLE
It has already been remarked that questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles, to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of fact—namely, our senses and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what other faculty is cognizance taken of them?
Questions about ends are, in other words, questions [about] what things are desirable. 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. What ought to be required of this doctrine, what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfill—to make good its claim to be believed?
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. 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. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct and, consequently, one of the criteria of morality.
But it has not, by this alone, proved itself to be the sole criterion. To do that, it would seem, by the same rule, necessary to show, not only that people desire happiness, but that they never desire anything else. Now it is palpable that they do desire things which, in common language, are decidedly distinguished from happiness. They desire, for example, virtue and the absence of vice no less really than pleasure and the absence of pain. The desire of virtue is not as universal, but it is as authentic a fact as the desire of happiness. And hence the opponents of the utilitarian standard deem that they have a right to infer that there are other ends of human action besides happiness, and that happiness is not the standard of approbation and disapprobation.
Happiness and Virtue
But does the utilitarian doctrine deny that people desire virtue, or maintain that virtue is not a thing to be desired? The very reverse. It maintains not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself. Whatever may be the opinion of utilitarian moralists as to the original conditions by which virtue is made virtue, however they may believe (as they do) that actions and dispositions are only virtuous because they promote another end than virtue, yet this being granted, and it having been decided, from considerations of this description, what is virtuous, they not only place virtue at the very head of the things which are good as means to the ultimate end, but they also recognize as a psychological fact the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself, without looking to any end beyond it; and hold that the mind is not in a right state, not in a state conformable to utility, not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner—as a thing desirable in itself, even although, in the individual instance, it should not produce those other desirable consequences which it tends to produce, and on account of which it is held to be virtue. This opinion is not, in the smallest degree, a departure from the happiness principle. The ingredients of happiness are very various, and each of them is desirable in itself, and not merely when considered as swelling an aggregate. The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, is to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. 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.
To illustrate this further, we may remember that virtue is not the only thing originally a means, and which if it were not a means to anything else would be and remain indifferent, but which by association with what it is a means to comes to be desired for itself, and that too with the utmost intensity. What, for example, shall we say of the love of money? There is nothing originally more desirable about money than about any heap of glittering pebbles. Its worth is solely that of the things which it will buy; the desires for other things than itself, which it is a means of gratifying. Yet the love of money is not only one of the strongest moving forces of human life, but money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself; the desire to possess it is often stronger than the desire to use it, and goes on increasing when all the desires which point to ends beyond it, to be compassed by it, are falling off. It may, then, be said truly that money is desired not for the sake of an end, but as part of the end. From being a means to happiness, it has come to be itself a principal ingredient of the individual’s conception of happiness. The same may be said of the majority of the great objects of human life: power, for example, or fame, except that to each of these there is a certain amount of immediate pleasure annexed, which has at least the semblance of being naturally inherent in them—a thing which cannot be said of money. Still, however, the strongest natural attraction, both of power and of fame, is the immense aid they give to the attainment of our other wishes; and it is the strong association thus generated between them and all our objects of desire which gives to the direct desire of them the intensity it often assumes, so as in some characters to surpass in strength all other desires. In these cases the means have become a part of the end, and a more important part of it than any of the things which they are means to. What was once desired as an instrument for the attainment of happiness has come to be desired for its own sake. In being desired for its own sake it is, however, desired as part of happiness. The person is made, or thinks he would be made, happy by its mere possession; and is made unhappy by failure to obtain it. The desire of it is not a different thing from the desire of happiness any more than the love of music or the desire of health. They are included in happiness. They are some of the elements of which the desire of happiness is made up. Happiness is not an abstract idea but a concrete whole; and these are some of its parts. And the utilitarian standard sanctions and approves their being so. Life would be a poor thing, very ill provided with sources of happiness, if there were not this provision of nature by which things originally indifferent, but conducive to, or otherwise associated with, the satisfaction of our primitive desires, become in themselves sources of pleasure more valuable than the primitive pleasures, both in permanency, in the space of human existence that they are capable of covering, and even in intensity.
Virtue, according to the utilitarian conception, is a good of this description. There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain. But through the association thus formed it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good; and with this difference between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame—that all of these may, and often do, render the individual noxious to the other members of the society to which he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue. And consequently, the utilitarian standard, while it tolerates and approves those other acquired desires, up to the point beyond which they would be more injurious to the general happiness than promotive of it, enjoins and requires the cultivation of the love of virtue up to the greatest strength possible, as being above all things important to the general happiness.
Happiness the Only Intrinsic Good
It results from the preceding considerations that there is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so. Those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united; as in truth the pleasure and pain seldom exist separately, but almost always together—the same person feeling pleasure in the degree of virtue attained, and pain in not having attained more. If one of these gave him no pleasure, and the other no pain, he would not love or desire virtue, or would desire it only for the other benefits which it might produce to himself or to persons whom he cared for.We have now, then, an answer to the question, of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible. If the opinion which I have now stated is psychologically true—if human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness—we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable. If so, happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge all human conduct; from whence it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality, since a part is included in the whole.