Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that takes as its standard of value the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, where the greatest pleasure is measured in terms of the concept of “utility”. This theory of moral action treats the consequences of an action as more important than the motivation for that action, or the virtues involved in coming to that decision (Mill). The assumption of utilitarianism, both in its rule and act forms (a distinction that will be addressed subsequently), is that pleasure is quantifiable and pleasure itself is not differentiable in terms of its value between individuals. Pleasure is a subjective facet of individual experience, and cannot be directly compared in quality, only in quantity, between people. Thus, an action is moral if and only if it maximizes pleasure. This runs in contrast to Kantian and deontological ethical theories that place value not in its results, but in its conformity to the universal, categorical imperatives governing human action. But while deontological theories are not without their due criticism, utilitarian theses in the field of ethics deserve critical scrutiny as well, and they have received this scrutiny since the 19th century when such theories were first popularized. While utilitarianism holds some merits as an alternative to deontic and virtue ethics, the theory itself rests upon a number of false premises that ultimately undermine the strength and integrity of any complete system based upon the consequentialist attitude.
Utilitarianism, under this characterization, seems to constitute nothing more than a primitive hedonism in which individuals fight and compete to satisfy their transient, fleeting desires for pleasures and happiness. However, John Stewart Mill’s development of the utilitarian thesis suggests that because a human being is capable of higher pleasures, and a wider range of them, the happiness of a pig is not on the same level even as the unhappiness of a human being based on the range of difference of the subjective experience (Mill 94). But while Mill’s formulation of utilitarianism holds to the value of human happiness, it remains a form of hedonism that runs contrary to many modern individuals’ intuitive notion of what it means to be moral. Utilitarianism, however, in its initial formulation, does not require a defense of utility in order for the theory to succeed, for it is also the case people intuitively agree with the principle of utility, saying that happiness-maximization is what all people desire. As a form of consequentialist ethics, this utility is placed as the teleological center of all action, toward which all actions are directed. That is, nothing is desired for itself but only as a means of achieving some kind of subjectively qualified, objectively quantified happiness.
Taking “the greatest good for the greatest number” as a moral ideal may strike some as strange, insofar as it promotes a kind of ethical democracy in which the interests of the majority are placed above those of the minority. In such a case, the cannibal murder and consumption of a human being by fifteen starving anthropophagites could be justified by the greatest pleasure principle, just as the torture of one person to save thousands, as is often promoted in ticking time-bomb scenarios, could be justified with “the ends justify the means”. This question of whether the consequences of an action outweigh the means of promoting those consequences has troubled philosophers consistently by forcing them to argue either for the normative value of the means or the normative value of the consequence, without establishing a connection between the two. In the utilitarian view, it seems, the good is not an abstract concept floating somewhere in space, but rather something determined strictly by the interests and utility of the greatest number. One might object that, like in democratic systems, the vote on an issue does not necessarily mean that collective decision was the right decision. Likewise, in ethics, simply because the most people are interested in one action does not necessarily legitimize that action. Thinking otherwise indicates such heinous crimes as torture and murder can be moral acts given the circumstances under which they are committed lead the moral agent to some higher consequence.
In Louis Pojman’s critical defense of utilitarianism, he clearly delineates five different objections to the theory, to which he gives the utilitarian answer with varying degrees of plausibility (Pojman). First, however, he defines the difference between an act utilitarian and a rule utilitarian; the former is defined by a belief that “an act is right if and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative”, where “good” obviously refers to utility according to the theory, and the latter is defined by a belief that “an act is right if and only if it is required by a rule that is itself a member of an act of rules whose acceptance would lead to greater utility for society than any available alternative” (Pojman 104-5). Pojman remarks that this distinction allows utilitarianism to avoid many of the criticisms made of its formal system, such as the “publicity objection”, which he claims “only works against act utilitarianism” (Pojman 110-1). Arguments against the formal system of utilitarianism (that is, its practical use in the world or whether it is applicable to society as a whole) are strictly limited to formalistic matters, rather than the philosophical and normative center of the theory (or, as Pojman calls it, the material core) located in its standard of value: utility.
In other words, from a purely linguistic perspective, the utilitarian notion of the good, or pleasure, is meaningless. The center of the utilitarian theory is utility, but utility is itself without definition or a basis in reality. In reality, happiness means a variety of very different things to very different people; this notion of a universal happiness has, in fact, undermined itself to a kind of meaninglessness, much in the same way clichés become meaningless through time. If utility is the theory’s first and primary principle, then there is nothing else on which to base the notion of pleasure, and so the notion of pleasure itself becomes recursive. That is to say, pleasure is what people desire, and what people desire is pleasure. In this case, there is no foundation on which the utilitarian theory, of either the rule or act variety, rests firmly. All that remains is the ethical prescription for the value of pleasure across cultures and societies. Rather than achieving a standard that is universal and based on reason, what happens to utilitarianism is the collapse of meaning in its ethical claims. And rather than being able to hide behind the act/rule utilitarian distinction, the theory itself becomes invalid insofar as both are dependent on an independent notion of pleasure as the good.
In order to succeed, either act or rule must answer the question of why utility is a good in itself, and whether the value of utility itself exists outside of a human ethical system. It can only be argued that the implementation of a utilitarian system in society would be beneficial or practical for that society to adopt. However, as Pojman states in his “publicity objection”, it is not necessarily a good idea for everyone in a society to act as a utilitarian, for deliberating on what is right and wrong as is required by the theory may slow that society considerably. Pojman’s answer to the objection focuses on the hidden disasters inherent to otherwise legitimate moral, utilitarian rules, such as the cutting down of trees, which, if done regularly, would be devastating. This creates the need for public laws and contracts. The need for public laws and contracts is based on the idea of a social utility, where society benefits as a result of having these things. But “benefits” in what way? In terms of efficiency, justice, fairness, etc.? Pojman has already answered the justice objection saying justice, like almost other abstraction, is not an absolute, but a means toward accomplishing a communal utility. To that end, the social utility must be grounded in some kind of notion of what it means for that society to be happy, which is indeed relative to that society, just as it is relative between individuals.
Pojman follows this fifth objection with a side note on a possible sixth: the intuitive complaint that rule utilitarianism, from his characterization, sounds relativistic or contingent on human wants. If the discussion over utilitarianism can, as previously concluded, be only one of whether it is practical or beneficial for a society to implement, then it seems utilitarianism is indeed relativistic, insofar as it is implemented on the rational choice of whether it is beneficial for a society. But, then again, a kind of circularity arises once again: what is beneficial is what is valued and what is valued is beneficial. While social utility may seem like the highest value, the utilitarian must then ground this value in some kind of fact, not merely in the ethical prescription that says it is “good in itself” or in the intuition that people seek it “for its own sake”. Contrary to Pojman’s response, rules under this framework are accepted within a community based on social preferences and the extent to which these preferences advance the social utility. A rule like “Don’t waste water” is not made merely by the fact that water is plentiful, but because the society has consciously chosen to value social utility, and, as a matter of social utility, it is a good idea not to waste water, regardless of whether water is plentiful or not.
Utilitarianism is both an intuitive and counterintuitive ethical theory proposing utility as the standard of value by which we ought to evaluate actions as right or wrong. As a consequentialist framework for analysis, the theory treats the means of achieving the good as subservient to the ends it accomplishes. If the end maximizes utility, then the action is appraised as good. However, the notion of “good” in utilitarianism is recursive: what is desired is happiness and happiness is what is desired. Ultimately, the basis of the theory breaks down to a meaningless construct. An ethical theory could just as easily put freedom as the standard of value without changing the theory: what is desired is freedom and freedom is what is desired. Individuals and moral communities can choose whether its own happiness or the happiness of its people is of the greatest value and thereby choose to accept or reject utilitarianism. This makes the theory relative and a matter of pragmatic choices among many. As a universally applicable moral “science”, utilitarianism fails.
Mill, John S. “Utilitarianism.” Cahn, Steven M. Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 92-103.
Pojman, Louis P. “Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism.” Cahn, Steven M. Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 104-111.