One famous worry about utilitarianism is that it demands that we regard our own set
of desires, ends, and our own happiness, as just one among a great many others
whose lives we might impact. Accordingly, our own desires, ends, etc. bear very little
weight when determining what the greatest happiness of the greatest number is, and
thus what our moral responsibility is.
Think of a situation or area of life in which this might be true, and our concern for
our own well-being and happiness has to take a back seat to the concern for the wellbeing and happiness of the greatest number. What might a utilitarian say to someone
who thinks this is too high a sacrifice? Would this be a plausible response? Be sure
to back up your answer with references to the resources, and respond to your peers by
considering what someone who disagrees with them might say.
A. Calculate Like a Utilitarian
Here’s the basic idea. Utilitarians decide what’s morally right and morally wrong by working
with a really easy formula.
Step One – Take any action that you’re wondering about and decide: how much harm would be
caused if I choose this action? You’ll need to consider not just harm to yourself and harm to the
others directly involved in the action, but also the harm to everyone who could conceivably be
affected by the action, including society as a whole.
Step Two – Now think about that same action and decide: how much benefit would be caused if I
choose this action? Again, you need to consider not just benefits to yourself and to others
directly involved in the action, but also the benefit to everyone who could conceivably be
affected by the action, including society as a whole.
Step Three – Finally compare the overall harm caused by the action to the overall benefit caused
by the action. If the harm is greater than the benefit, then it’s immoral. If the benefit is greater
than the harm, then it’s moral.
Very simple, right? Many of you will suggest that most of the time we can’t know exactly how
everyone will be affected by any action, but that’s not really a challenge to this theory of
morals. It’s ok to just “take your best shot” – make an honest, rational assessment of the
consequences of the action, compare the harms and benefits that it will cause, and then do
whatever causes the most benefit and the least harm.
B. What’s Wrong With Utilitarianism?
You will remember from last week that the theory of ethics called “relativism” had a fatal flaw –
it doesn’t work for really seriously awful actions. In other words, even a relativist will want to
stand up and say Hitler was immoral for torturing and killing millions of people – and as soon as
there’s one moral truth like that that doesn’t depend on anybody’s culture, the whole theory of
The theory of utilitarianism doesn’t have any fatal flaws like that, and it has something no other
theory has – a practical method for deciding whether an action is morally right.
Of course it does have a down side – not a fatal flaw, but a down side. It doesn’t make sense of
many of our moral instincts. For example, if Joe gives $100 to charity and he had to work three
days to earn that, then Bob gives $1 million dollars to charity that he’ll never even notice
missing, according to utilitarianism Bob is the more moral person, because his action will lead to
more overall benefit than Joe’s.
Let’s say Joe gave the $100 bucks to an animal charity because the suffering of animals bothers
him, and Bob gave the $1 million bucks to an animal charity because he wanted to get his name
in the paper. It seems clear that Joe’s contribution is morally good and Bob’s is a bit suspicious
– but when you use the utilitarian formula you have to conclude that Bob is a better guy than Joe.
A utilitarian doesn’t care what anybody’s intentions are. She thinks intentions don’t make any
difference to morality. What matters is the results of our actions.
C. The Tyranny of the Majority
Your discussion assignment this week asks about the notion of “the tyranny of the majority”, and
this part is a little tricky. Many people have objected that utilitarianism will lead to an elitist
approach to morality.
Think of it this way. If what’s morally right is what brings about the greatest good for the
greatest number, what will happen to, say those who are severely ill. These people can’t really
do much to contribute to the overall benefit for everyone, so utilitarianism will always lead to
moral decisions that leave them in the lurch.
Let’s say you’re in charge of the only lifeboat on a sinking ship. You have to decide which 50
people will be saved with you in the lifeboat – so how do you go about that? You’ll probably
think like a utilitarian. You’ll choose the people who can help bring about the greatest benefit
and the least harm. Will you take the injured people? Probably not – because they will not be
able to contribute to the difficult task of saving everyone’s lives, and they will actually use up the
energies of people who could better contribute to overall survival.
In the context of the lifeboat that makes good sense, but what if the lifeboat situation was
somehow really common? Would it make sense to make a general rule about never saving the
injured because that won’t result in the greatest overall benefit and least overall harm? No, that
wouldn’t make sense. All of us feel instantly that people have a moral obligation to help the
needy when they can. If everybody used the utilitarian approach all the time all the less fortunate
people in our society would be ignored.
That’s what the tyranny of the majority is. The majority benefits, but in the process lots of
smaller groups, and groups that need the support of others, will be morally ignored.
There’s a way around this problem for a utilitarian. We can apply utilitarianism to rules, rather
than to individual cases. When you’re the one in the lifeboat making decisions then and there
maybe it’s right to use the utilitarian method and leave behind the sick and injured. What
happens though if we make that a general rule? Whenever you have to decide who gets to go in
a lifeboat the moral thing to do is to leave behind all the people who are sick and injured – see
how that just doesn’t feel right?
To fix this problem, the utilitarian focuses on general rules rather than on specific actions,
pointing out that it’s not an overall benefit to society for the needs of all the sick and injured
people to be ignored. All of our lives would be worse if we applied the general rule of ignoring
the sick and injured whenever it seems those who are well can make a greater
contribution. That’s how the utilitarian gets around the problem of “the tyranny of the majority”
II. Animal Rights
When we apply the utilitarian theory to the issue of animal rights we get a view proposed by a
utilitarian philosopher named Peter Singer.
Think about where our meat comes from. The vast majority of it is produced on factory farms,
and those are run by people who care more for profits than they do for the suffering of animals.
It’s easy to make a lot of money in factory farming if you use excruciating methods for
“processing” the animals – like trapping them for their entire lives in indoor stalls too small to
allow any movement, or feeding them so much that they are unable to stand on their own legs, or
skinning them alive because it’s cheaper to do it that way. Do animals feel pain? Yes they do.
That’s actually not debatable – it’s a fact, so we need to add all that pain to our assessment of
You get the picture. Meat production methods cause excruciating suffering to millions of
animals every day. When we eat meat we effectively encourage this unnecessary cruelty,
because we are paying the factory farms to keep doing it.
Now think about the overall benefits of eating meat. People in our society really enjoy eating
meat – it’s what’s for supper! (Have you heard that ad?) Those who work in the business of
meat production do have the benefit of making a living, so we should consider that too. Can we
add the nutritional benefits of eating meat to our list? No, because human beings don’t need to
eat meat to be healthy, and that’s not debatable. We are healthier we eat less meat, so those
nutritional benefits can’t go in the benefits column. If anything, we should add them to the
It’s not hard to see how this turns out when we compare the overall harms to the overall
benefits. Eating meat brings us pleasure, helps some people make a living, but it causes
excruciating torture to literally millions of animals every day. Does the benefit outweigh the
harm? No, definitely not. That means that if you’re a utilitarian it is morally wrong to eat meat.
Why/ Getty Images
You have your way. I have my way. As for
“It is the mark of an educated mind
the right way, the correct way, and the only
to be able to entertain a thought
way, it does not exist.
without accepting it”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
After reading this chapter, students will be able to:
1. Characterize the classical theories of ethics—utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
2. Identify some of the problems these theories confront.
3. Describe other metaethical views, such as relativism and egoism.
4. Apply ethical theories to problems that affect both individuals and larger groups, including
What We Will Discover
• Philosophers have developed theories to provide support for our claims about right and
• Other theories such as egoism and relativism offer alternatives to traditional theories of
• Ethics has many specific applications to our lives, from the very personal and specific to
those that affect everyone in society.
6.1 How Should One Act?
thics, or moral philosophy, investigates how we
can evaluate our behavior in terms of right and
wrong, good and bad—in other words, how we
determine what we should do, what we should not
do, and how to tell the difference. After looking at
the three classical ethical views that philosophers have
presented and some of the problems with these theories, we will explore some alternative approaches.
Suppose you and five of your friends are hanging out
one night and decide to order a pizza. You are all
equally hungry and decide to order two pizzas, each
of which has six slices. Thus, when the pizzas are
delivered, it is pretty easy to determine how to divide
the pizzas in a way that is the fairest: Everyone gets
two slices. It may be that one person wanted a third
slice, and someone else may have only wanted one.
Yet without knowing anything else, this arrangement, more than any other, will be the most beneficial to the greatest number of people.
Photos.com/© Getty Images/Thinkstock
Jeremy Bentham is associated with the
founding of utilitarianism, which states
that given a choice between two acts,
the one that creates greater happiness
for the greatest number of people should
This simple example demonstrates the basic notion at
the heart of the ethical doctrine known as utilitarianism. Often associated with the philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1822) and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism offers a very straightforward and
direct way to evaluate behavior. When given a choice between two acts, utilitarianism states that
1/6/14 2:33 PM
Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
the act that should be chosen is the one that creates the greatest amount of happiness for
the greatest number of people. Philosophers (and economists) often use the term utility
to express this quality. Utility is the satisfaction one gets from something. For instance, if
you like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla ice cream, we can say that chocolate ice
cream has a higher utility for you, relative to vanilla ice cream. In theory, at least, each of
us can rank all of our choices according to a scale that indicates our relative preferences.
Some philosophers, such as Bentham, even attempted to assign numbers to these preferences. If someone likes chocolate ice cream five times as much as vanilla ice cream, that
person would presumably be willing to accept five vanilla ice cream cones as a substitute
for one chocolate ice cream cone. It should also be noted that utility is regarded in terms
of net utility: The correct moral choice is that which generates the greatest good and also
Read more of
on this topic
in his work
section of the
Because utilitarianism considers an act’s consequences in assessing its morality, utilitarianism is also regarded as a consequentialist theory. The basic idea in consequentialism is
to consider the consequences that will result from the choices one confronts: If the consequences of one act produce the greatest net good—or the highest utility—for the greatest number of people, this is the act one should carry out. Many people find this to be a
rather obvious ethical viewpoint; clearly if we had decided to give all the pizza slices to just
three people and no slices to the other three, this would seem rather unfair. It should also
be clear that utilitarianism offers an approach to scenarios other than distributing pizza
and ice cream. Imagine Mary really loves to dance, but she does not get to go dancing
very often. Mary has three children, with whom she enjoys spending time and who enjoy
spending time with her. One night she is given the option of staying home and spending
time with her children or going dancing. What should she do? The utilitarian might argue
that, on the one hand, the pleasure Mary gets from dancing is greater than staying with
her children. Yet on the other hand, her children will receive great pleasure if she does not
go dancing. Therefore, the “utility calculation” is that the net happiness of Mary and her
three children will be higher if she stays home, even though Mary’s individual happiness
might be slightly lower than it would have been if she had chosen to go dancing.
Utility is often described in terms of pleasure, which can be problematic for utilitarianism. Imagine someone finds pleasure in playing video games and drinking beer all day
long. Given a choice between, say, helping out in a homeless shelter or drinking and
playing the newest video game, a person may well choose the latter, which suggests to
some that utilitarianism has no way to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures.
Presumably, we want our theory to be able to make a distinction between hedonistic and
nobler pleasures. Mill saw this as a potential problem and insisted that pleasure should be
considered not just in terms of quantity but also quality: that certain kinds of pleasures,
or certain ways of satisfying desires, are simply better than others. A pig may be happy
rolling around in the mud and eating garbage, but Mill insisted that people who take that
approach to pleasure fail to develop their potential as human beings (relative to pigs, at
least). According to Mill, it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. This is
not to say that one should always choose something less pleasurable; rather, it is simply an
indication that pleasures themselves can, or perhaps should, be distinguished from each
other. It is not always easy to say that one pleasure is “superior” to another, and certainly
people have long argued about this issue. However, these kinds of examples indicate a
problem utilitarianism confronts if we evaluate acts solely in terms of their pleasurable
consequences (Mill, 1909).
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
Many people find utilitarianism to be an easy and useful approach to making ethical decisions.
When distributing goods, services, or even time, it would seem to be a “no-brainer” to choose
the option that would satisfy or please as many people as possible, compared to any other available choice. However, philosophers have raised a number of problems in response to utilitarianism, which may make it a less plausible ethical theory than it first appears.
Problems With Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism has what philosophers call an intuitive appeal: It seems to be relatively obvious,
and just plain common sense, to evaluate our actions based on the results those actions produce. If all we know about a situation is that four kids in a sandbox have one toy, the best option
would be for the children to share that toy, even if each child is quite sure he or she would get
the most pleasure from playing with it alone.
However, many philosophers have objected to utilitarianism, and for a number of reasons. As
we have seen, distinguishing different kinds of pleasures from each other can be difficult. Does
utilitarianism have any way to address the situation of a person who gets pleasure from staring
at the wall or doing something else that most people would find quite unpleasant (something
often called masochism)? Mill (1863) suggests there are “higher” or “more refined” pleasures
and that they should be preferred, but who is to say which is a “higher” pleasure? Is reading
poetry somehow better than watching soap operas? What if someone gains pleasure by sleeping all the time or hitting his thumb over and over with a hammer?
More significant objections to utilitarianism have been posed on the basis of calculating the outcome, or consequences, of a choice. Suppose you are on a cruise ship that catches fire; you and
19 others are lucky enough to survive on a lifeboat. There is enough water to last for a week or
more, but you have no food and do not know whether you will be rescued. Everyone is aware
of how grim the future looks; as the boat drifts, everyone gets hungrier. It becomes apparent
that everyone is going to die unless your group finds food. The utilitarian in the group poses
the following options: All 20 people die, or 19 people live if one person is killed and eaten! To
justify his position, he cites historical examples of similar cases in which cannibalism helped the
majority survive. However, while this scenario may appear to result in the greatest good for the
greatest number, do we really want an ethical theory that not only allows cannibalism, but actually endorses it as the fairest and most ethical decision?
Few of us are likely to experience a situation this extreme, but we may find ourselves in situations
where the basic utilitarian calculation actually leads to results that are very unfair and unjust. This
is particularly threatening anytime individuals find themselves in a minority, whether because
of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the other ways in which society categorizes people. For example, suppose a local grade school must decide if it should use
taxpayer money to build ramps to make the building accessible to students in wheelchairs. This
tax will likely decrease the pleasure of each taxpayer and may only be used by a few individuals
throughout the year. In this way it would result in a net utility that would favor a decision not to
build the ramps. Would you consider this a fair outcome?
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
Great Ideas: The Trolley Problem
A very famous challenge to our ethical intuitions, originated by Philippa Foot, is easy to describe but
more problematic to solve. In Foot’s 1967 essay “The Problem ...
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