Classic Ulilitarianism 

Classic Utilitarianism is that ethical theory defined and defended by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  It is a hedonistic ethical theory in that it defines "the good" in terms of the happiness, pleasure, or utility of the general public.  As such it is a clearly Social conception of Ethics.

At the start of Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism, Mill makes the point that "questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term" [U-4:1(1)]  This statement has traditionally been interpreted as Mill claiming that no valid deductive argument can be offered for the truth of Utilitarianism.  But this interpretation overlooks the position that Mill takes in his A System of Logic(4).  In that work, Mill maintains that a "proof", properly so called, necessarily involves inference.  For an argument to involve inference, there must be more to the conclusion than just the premises.  Mill's project in his A System of Logic was to show that there is no such thing as deductive inference.  According to Mill, all inference (and consequently all "proof") is inductive.[CW-VII:186-193(2)]  Hence Mill's claim that no proof can be offered must be seen as a claim that no non-deductive (i.e. inductive or abductive) argument can be offered.  An examination of Mill's reasoning in Utilitarianism, in the context of his other positions available from his Collected Works(2), makes it clear that he does actually construct a deductively valid argument in support of the Principle of Utility -- given certain then plausible but now debatable premises.

In the first part of this essay, I will show how Mill constructs this deductive argument.  Along the way, I will insert some comments where Mill's key premises are at least highly debatable, if not actually false.  From these, I will conclude that no "proof" (deductive, inductive or abductive) can be offered in support of the truth of Utilitarianism. 

We must start with three key background premises that constitute the context within which Mill constructs his argument.

(I)  Mill accepts the "is/ought distinction" described by Hume(3) and later made famous by Moore as the "naturalistic fallacy".  "Propositions of science assert a matter of fact: an existence, a co-existence, a succession, or a resemblance. The propositions now spoken of do not assert that anything is, but enjoin or recommend that something should be. They are a class by themselves. A proposition of which the predicate is expressed by the words ought or should be, is generically different from one which is expressed by is or will be." [SL-6:12:6(4)]  For Mill, ought-type propositions are forms of imperatives -- they enjoin actions but do not state facts.  Because the Principle of Utility is an ought-type sentence, it is not possible to provide a fact-based "proof" of its truth.  Being an ought-type principle, it does not make sense to talk of it in terms of true or false.  The argument that Mill proceeds to construct must therefore be considered rather as a reasonable justification for belief and not as a proof of the truth of a statement of fact.

(II)  In A System of Logic, Mill makes it clear that he maintains a foundationalist theory of belief justification.  When beliefs are justified by other beliefs, there are only two methods available: (i) an infinite regress of justifications; or (ii) a self-supporting network of justifications (labelled as "circular" or "coherence" according to whether you approve or not).  Relying on belief justification chains that terminate beliefs that are not themselves justified is called foundationalism.  In a survey of fallacies in A System of Logic, Mill rejects the first two options.  He says that "there cannot be an infinite series of proof, a chain suspended from nothing"[CW-VIII:746] and "Reasoning in a Circle" is simply a "more complex and not uncommon variety of Petitio Principii, or begging the question"[CW-VIII:820].  Foundationalism, on the other hand, involves "propositions which may reasonably be received without proof"[CW-VIII:746].  Being an empiricist, Mill relies on the senses to provide the foundational basis of beliefs that may reasonably be received without further justification.  This empiricist foundationalism is the key to understanding the contentious "visible-desirable" analogy that Mill employs in his proof. 

(III)  Mill's Utilitarianism is, of course, a consequentialist view of morality.  "That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain, is all of the doctrine of the school of utility, which is peculiar to it." [CW-X:111]  Moral reasoning is reasoning about what ends one ought to be trying to achieve.  Moral reasoning, like practical reasoning, is also reasoning about how to best bring about those ends.  Mill's concept of morality is teleological in an Aristotelian vein.  This is in sharp contrast with, for example, religious morality, where the morality of actions is dictated by the nature of the action, rather than the consequences of the action. 

Mill's "Proof" of Utilitarianism

Step 1 of Mill's argument was to demonstrate that for a thing to be desired (as an end rather than as a means to an end) is sufficient proof that the end in question is worthy of being desired. 

Step 1.1 of this demonstration was to establish that the terms "utility", "pleasure", and "happiness" are to be considered synonymous.

"Those who know anything about the matter are aware that every writer, from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained the theory of utility, meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain;" [U-2:1]

"By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." [U-2:2]
"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." [U-2:3]

Step 1.2 was to equate the desiring of a thing with the finding of that thing pleasant.  For one to desire something (as an end, rather than as simply a means to some end) is to believe that the thing will deliver (or be a part of) utility / pleasure / happiness. 

"I believe that these sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact: that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility." [U-4.10]

"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." [U-4:8]

From there we get to the famous (and much critiqued) analogy between "visible" and "desirable".

"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." [U-4:3]

For a thing to be desired (as an end) is for that thing to be regarded by the person doing the desiring, as worthy of desire.  For an empiricist like Mill, the only proof capable of being given that something is visible is that someone is actually seeing it.  In an analogous fashion, the only evidence it is possible to produce for a foundational belief that something is desirable, is that someone does actually regard that thing as desirable.  As a foundational belief, the chain of justification ends there.  Nothing further can be said.  Mill is neither assuming nor arguing that something is worthy because we desire it (the usually critique of this passage).  Rather, given his foundationalism, he is relying on the fact of our desiring it as establishing that we see it as worthy.  Of course, this leaves open the possibility that what we see as worthy, may not actually be worthy, and that brings us to the second step of the argument.

Step 2 of Mill's argument was to demonstrate that, as a matter of empirical fact, the only thing that people see as worthy of desire (as an end) is happiness.  Mill's support for psychological hedonism is relatively brief, and deals with few objections.  But having already set things up so that whatever is desired as an end, constitutes part of happiness [U-4:8], this "empirical demonstration" proceeds rather easily.

"It results from the preceding considerations, that there is in reality nothing desired except happiness." [U4:8]

Step 3 of Mill's argument, therefore, proceeds quite naturally.  If to desire some thing (as an end, foundationally) is sufficient to establish that we see that thing as worthy of desire, and if there is but one thing that we do so see as worthy of desire (as an end, foundationally), then it logically follows that there is but one thing that is worthy of desire (as an end, foundationally).  And that thing is happiness / utility / pleasure.

"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 of all human conduct;" [U4:9]

Step 4 of Mill's argument invokes three hidden, but for Mill relatively simplistic, premises.

Step 4.1 of Mill's argument depends on the assumption that if something is of value to someone, it is because it is of value simpliciter.  The impact of this premise comes out most clearly in a private letter from Mill to Henry Jones (13/6/1868):

"[W]hen I said that the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons I did not mean that every human being's happiness is a good to every other human being; though I think, in a good state of society & education it would be so. I merely meant in this particular sentence to argue that since A's happiness is a good, B's a good, C's a good, &c., the sum of all these goods must be a good." [CW-XVI:1414]

Mill is here clearly talking about happiness as a good simpliciter rather than possessively.  Happiness is of value independently of whose happiness it is.  In Mill's day, this was a common belief about the nature of value.  Mill's Utilitarianism was first published (in Fraser's Magazine) in 1861(5).  Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776(6).  David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation was published in 1817(7). And Karl Marx's Das Kapital was published in 1867(8).  All four of these classical political economists shared a common approach to developing their theories of value. They all searched for value in the conditions of production.  In other words, they believed that a thing had value simpliciter rather than possessively.  This was still the common view of value as late as Moore's Principia Ethica, published in 1903(9)

 "When…I talk of anything I get as 'my own good,' I must mean either that the thing I get is good, or that my possessing it is good. In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the goodness of that thing or that possession… The good of it can in no possible sense be 'private' or belong to me; any more than a thing can exist privately or for one person only. The only reason I can have for aiming at 'my own good,' is that it is good absolutely that what I so call should belong to me -- good absolutely that I should have something, which, if I have it, others cannot have. But if it is good absolutely that I should have it, then everyone else has as much reason for aiming at my having it, as I have myself. If, therefore, it is true of any single man's 'interest' or 'happiness' that it ought to be his sole ultimate end, this can only mean that that man's 'interest' or 'happiness' is the sole good … What Egoism holds, therefore, is that each man's happiness is the sole good -- that a number of different things are each of them the only good thing there is -- an absolute contradiction."  (G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 98-99.)

Given a modern understanding of "value", this is the single most contentious premise of Mill's.  Our modern conception of "value" is thoroughly possessive.  Without this premise, the second half of Mill's argument completely collapses.  It might be possible to provide a proof that one ought to maximize one's own happiness.  But it would be impossible to then demonstrate that one ought to maximize happiness in general, regardless of the possessor of that happiness.

Step 4.2 of Mill's argument makes the assumption that the value (simpliciter) of happiness, inherent in various things, is both comparable and additive.  By treating happiness / pleasure / utility as "a good", Mill makes it clear that he considers this good as a singular kind of good - regardless of what might be the source of one's happiness / pleasure / utility, it is always the same kind of good.  Different sources of utility are thus comparable.  And, of course, if one is going to attempt to maximize the net utility - either for oneself or for the "aggregate of all people", then this utility must necessarily be additive.  That this was then a common assumption about value is evidenced by the attitude of economics towards economic value.  Classical economists (like Smith, Ricardo, and Marx) clearly considered the value of goods to be comparable and additive.  So Mill is just reflecting the then common attitude towards the notion of value.

But when it comes to the value of happiness / pleasure / utility, this assumption is highly debatable.  It is the second most contentious premise underlying Mill's argument.  It is not at all obvious that the happiness I experience from consuming an ice cream sundae on a hot summer's afternoon is in any way comparable (much less additive) with the happiness I experience from earning a good mark in a Philosophy course exam, or from helping out a friend in need.  That various sources of utility are comparable or additive (by me) is highly contentious when the only person involved is me.  It is an insupportable hypothesis when there are two or more people involved.

Step 4.3 of Mill's argument adopts the obvious fundamental ethical premise that whatever is of value, whatever is "a good", ought to be maximized.  Hardly a controversial premise.  It forms the basis of corporate finance, economics, and all forms of non-religious ethics from Aristotle's eudaimonia to Mill's utilitarianism. 

With these three hidden premises in hand, Mill is in a position to reach his first ethical conclusion:  One ought to maximize one's values of happiness / pleasure / utility.

Step 5 of Mill's argument extends the argument from the maximization of one's own happiness to the maximization of happiness generally and in the aggregate. Mill requires two additional steps in his chain of reasoning to accomplish this.  The first of these is the establishment of an objective criterion by which to rank different sources of happiness.

"Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference . . . that is the more desirable pleasure." [U-2:5]

"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 . . . 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 intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? 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?" [U-2:8]

"The test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, [is] 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." [U-2:10]

Mill here provides a decisive criterion of desirability.  From this "verdict of the only competent judges . . . there can be no appeal"[U-2:9].  The competent judges (those with experience of both forms of happiness) are not being called upon to report some independent matter of fact.  Mill's competent judges are infallible.  The judicial metaphor is key: a judicial verdict constitutes the legal fact.  Mill is not suggesting that objective rankings of utilities are reflected (possibly inaccurately) by the preferences of the judges.  Rather he is arguing that the comparative rankings are actually constructed from the preferences.

Unfortunately for Mill, this step of his argument runs afoul of the consequence that he is basing the "proof" of his principle of utility on the beliefs of people who have already been brought up to believe that the best things in life are to be had from a social environment.  If he was basing his argument on the facts that empirically the best things in life are to be had from a social environment, it would be one thing.  But he is not.  He is basing his argument on the learned preferences of competent judges, and not on the facts of the matter.  So his argument is essentially circular.

But granting Mill his position, he can now employ this "objective" standard of comparative utilities to "correct" the desires of individuals.  Something that someone views as desirable can now be objectively verified as desirable or not.  Something that someone does not in fact desire can be objectively determined to be desirable for him nonetheless.  Thus, if a preference for the general happiness can be shown to be the preference of the majority of the competent judges, then it is necessarily also desirable for any particular individual.  Even if that particular individual does not in fact actually desire it.  And this leads into the next step.

Step 6 of Mill's argument is that, for various reasons, a policy of acting with the explicit aim of maximizing the general happiness is more likely than not to have the consequence of maximizing one's own happiness than any other policy - including a policy of acting with the explicit aim of maximizing one's own happiness.

"whatever amount of this feeling [for the good of others] a person has, he is urged by the strongest motives . . . of interest . . . to the utmost of his power to encourage it in others; and even if he has none of it himself, he is as greatly interested as any one else that others should have it. Consequently, the smallest germs of the feeling are laid hold of and nourished by . . . the influences of education; and a complete web of corroborative association is woven round it, by the powerful agency of external sanctions.
. . . the influences are constantly on the increase, which tend to generate in each individual a feeling of unity with all the rest; which feeling, if perfect, would make him never think of, or desire, any beneficial condition for himself, in the benefits of which they are not included. If we now suppose this feeling of unity to be taught as a religion, and the whole force of education, of institutions, and of opinion, directed, as it once was in the case of religion, to make every person grow up from infancy surrounded on all sides both by the profession and by the practice of it, I think that no one, who can realize this conception, will feel any misgiving about the sufficiency of the ultimate sanction for the Happiness morality." [U-3:9].

It is Mill's argument that in a civilized society, social institutions and cultural pressures will together act in to reinforce the impulses of sympathy.  Man is not commonly motivated to anti-social behaviour.  Instead, we are motivated to promote the general happiness.  Mill argues that there are two classes of motivations that drive us in this direction.  First, there are external motivations arising from our hope of pleasing, and fear of displeasing, other members of our society -- social and peer group pressures; laws and judicial punishments.  More importantly, there is internal motivation.  For Mill, this consists of an amalgam of sympathy, learned (habitual) reactions, and feelings of self-worth.  The binding force is the experience or anticipation of pleasure or pride when one acts according to these feelings, and of pain or remorse when one acts against them.  Mill argues that the motivations we have towards the general happiness is subjective and develops only with experience in a civilized society.

"Of the external sanctions it is not necessary to speak at any length. They are, the hope of favour and the fear of displeasure, from our fellow creatures or from the Ruler of the Universe, along with whatever we may have of sympathy or affection for them, or of love and awe of Him, inclining us to do his will independently of selfish consequences.  . . .  The whole force therefore of external reward and punishment, whether physical or moral, and whether proceeding from God or from our fellow men, together with all that the capacities of human nature admit of disinterested devotion to either, become available to enforce the utilitarian morality, in proportion as that morality is recognised; and the more powerfully, the more the appliances of education and general cultivation are bent to the purpose." [U-3:4]

"The internal sanction of  . . .  is one and the same- a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility. This feeling,  . . .  is the essence of Conscience; though in that complex phenomenon as it actually exists, the simple fact is in general all encrusted over with collateral associations, derived from sympathy, from love, and still more from fear; from all the forms of religious feeling; from the recollections of childhood and of all our past life; from self-esteem, desire of the esteem of others, and occasionally even self-abasement." [U-3:5]

"Now, society between human beings, except in the relation of master and slave, is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted. Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally. And since in all states of civilisation, every person, except an absolute monarch, has equals, every one is obliged to live on these terms with somebody; and in every age some advance is made towards a state in which it will be impossible to live permanently on other terms with anybody. In this way people grow up unable to conceive as possible to them a state of total disregard of other people's interests." [U-3:12]

According to Mill, it follows from one's being civilized and having developed the appropriate socialized habits of thought to act from a desire to maximize aggregate happiness, that one will maximize one's expectations of individual happiness.  This is because following the Principle of Utility provides unique sources of pleasure (i.e. the pleasures of social approbation); and being a member of a civilized social group increases one's efficiency (measured as a percentage of capacity for happiness satisfied).  If mutual concern did not, as a matter of empirical fact, promote overall happiness, Mill would oppose it on exactly the same utilitarian grounds he relies on in his logic.

Conclusion:  Mill is thus now in a position to reach his final ethical conclusion that one ought to maximize the general aggregate of happiness / pleasure / utility.  The argument he has constructed does not meet his own standard of "proof" for two separate reasons.  One is its subject matter: ultimate ends are a category of ought statements - beyond the reach of factual inference or proof.  The other is the argument's form: a deductively valid argument is merely "apparent, not real"[CW-VII:158].  Yet it is a deductive construction (based on several key premises) that "may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof."[U-1:5].

The Flaws in Utilitarianism

The first flaw in Mill's logic is easily missed because the point is made very early on in his Utilitarianism.  This is where Mill argues against what he terms 'intuitionism'.  You would have thought that with his stress on the foundational aspect of 'what we desire' as being that which determines what is 'desirable', Mill would have given some credence to the evident fact that people do in fact have strongly held moral beliefs -- derived from religion, or their moral conscience -- which are, in effect, desires about how they and others should behave.  Yet he is adamant that any attempt at basing ethics on such 'intuitions' is worthless.  It begs the very question he is seeking to answer.  If my moral intuitions differ from yours, there can be no argument or discussion, whereas the point of moral philosophy is to discover a common coin in which the questions of ethics can be rationally discussed.

This starting point leaves very little alternative to a consequentialist ethics.  Although Mill ventures the hypothesis that his utilitarianism is close to what Kant intended by the categorical imperative, he does not make any attempt to assess the prospects for an a priori or logical basis for ethics in the manner of Kant.  So really, to complete the above logical derivation of Utilitarianism, Mill's rejection of intuitionism should be added as 'Step 0'.

The second flaw is that "strong Utilitarianism" has a terrible problem: it is grossly inconsistent with most people's ethical intuition in certain cases.  For instance, suppose that (never mind how; all that matters is that it should be conceivable) I could, by subjecting my aged grandmother to the most appalling tortures (which I shall leave to your imagination, should you happen to have that sort of imagination), relieve a sufficiently large number of people from one minute's toothache.  No matter how small the amount of suffering from which each person is thus delivered, and no matter how great the amount I cause to my grandmother, if the number of people is large enough then the total amount of suffering in the world will be decreased by this transaction. Therefore I ought to torture my grandmother. This, it seems to me, is unacceptable to most people.  Especially in light of the public outcry in the United States over the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture) in the war against terrorism.

Of course, various Utilitarian writers have suggested ways round this problem. For instance, we could model happiness and misery with a modified number system, containing values incommensurable in the sense that no integer multiple of one was as big as the other (for mathematicians: in other words, we could work with a non-Archimedean valuation). Or we could replace the idea of adding up utilities with some other operation: take the single biggest happiness or misery, and just look at that, or something. (Actually, either this second option actually reduces to the first, or else it doesn't work. Proof left as an exercise to the reader.)

So, we can get around that particular problem. Alas, there are others.  Here is a list and commentary gleened from Gareth Evans on the Internet(10.1):

1.      The only aspect of the state of the world which has any direct moral significance is the happiness or misery of people. Suppose I tell a defamatory lie about you to an acquaintance of mine, who has never had and never will have any sort of interaction with you, and swear him to secrecy. This makes no difference whatever to your future happiness. Does that make it OK? It seems clear to me that it doesn't (and if you disagree, there is really nothing I can say to convince you). Isn't there, in fact, something fundamentally good about truth and bad about falsehood? Some such idea seems to underlie the near-universal agreement that lying is in itself bad. And what about, say, someone who takes great pleasure in annoying other people? Suppose I get enormous satisfaction from causing you minor but genuine unpleasantness. Does that mean that it's right for me to do so?

2.      Actions, as such, have no moral value. What matters is their effect on the state of the world. Is this really plausible? It doesn't seem so to me. If I kill someone, isn't there something intrinsically bad about that, even if (as might be the case) the killing turns out to be right in terms of maximizing utility? I think most people would agree that a killing of this sort would be at best a necessary evil.

3.      The only relevance of the state of a family or a society is the effect it has on its individual members.  In particular, only individuals matter.  I wouldn't like to claim that this is obviously wrong. But is it really obviously right?

4.      One person's happiness is precisely as important as another's.  All people are, ethically speaking, equal, in all situations.  What about criminals? If I am in the process of raping your wife, do you really have to consider my well-being as carefully as your wife's in deciding how to go about stopping me? (Perhaps the answer is "yes". It certainly doesn't seem like an easy question to answer.)

5.      It is possible to measure happiness, in the required sense, on some sort of comparative linear scale.  It is possible to add up different people's degrees of comparative happiness, producing a meaningful "Total (net) happiness".  And, again, the results can meaningfully be compared. Is it really obvious that different sorts of happiness are commensurable? How do you compare the pleasure person A gets from an hour of wild sex with his wife, the contentment person B has from the knowledge that his money in the bank is earning him piles of interest for his retirement, the wonder person C feels on contemplating the starry sky, the thrill person D has when listening to her favorite piece of music, person E's enjoyment of an evening listening to a stand-up comic, and so on? And how do you weigh those up against person P's toothache, person Q's unhappy marriage, person R's fear of cancer, person S's resentment of unfair treatment long ago, person T's frustration at having spent three weeks chasing a bug in his computer program? I don't know, that's for sure. I don't even know how to do similar comparisons when all the people involved are myself. In difficult cases it feels a lot more like tossing a coin than like choosing the best of a neatly ordered set of options.

Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that all those problems are resolved, and that I'm fully persuaded that Utilitarianism (of your favorite variety) is correct. I now have a decision to make; for instance, I have to decide whether to cycle home in the dark without lights (thus endangering a few people slightly, maybe) or to be late home (thus upsetting my wife and perhaps not managing to get anything for dinner). This is a trivial example; it should be easy to work it out. . . . Not a bit of it. I have to work out the entire future of the whole universe (possibly radically different in the two cases: remember the butterfly effect), work out exactly how happy each person is in each case and for how long, and add it all up. Good grief.

In practice, what Utilitarians usually recommend is much simpler. I should make guesses as to the likely effects of the actions I'm considering, estimate the resulting levels of happiness, and do the best I can at adding them up in my head. Anything more is impossible, impractical, and in any case I can't be blamed for things I can't predict.

That last remark, if actually made by a Utilitarian, would amount to an abandonment of one of the key principles of Mill's development of Utilitarianism:  You don't do things so as to have done the Right Thing; You do them because it has results which are Good. In other words, when making an ethical decision you aren't out to maximize your own righteousness: to the Utilitarian, that is a horribly selfish way of thinking. You're acting for the common good.  Utilitarianism is a Social / Altruistic conception of morality -- what matters is the overall net total of happiness / pleasure / utility. 

But we can't have it both ways. Either I take into account all the effects of my actions (impossible even in principle, and certainly impractical), or I abandon the attempt to maximize overall utility -- for the future consequences of my actions are in most cases much greater than those in the foreseeable future. Perhaps it's possible to get round this by claiming that there is some irreducible random element in exactly what happens, and that beyond some point in the future the consequences of my actions will be swamped by the results of amplified random noise; if this is so, I need only consider a finite portion of the future, and things look less bleak.

If you are some sort of non-utilitarian, you have probably been reading the foregoing sections with either boredom or glee, depending on whether you've already thought of all those arguments against Utilitarianism yourself. I'd now like to suggest that there is much to be said in favor of Utilitarianism, despite its problems.

The first point is one I've made already: Utilitarianism, in so far as we can actually apply it (which means, in practice, only looking at a small chunk of the future and only looking at a small region of the universe), actually does a pretty good job of giving answers to ethical questions. And, subject to those approximations, it's quite easy.  Most of us are capable of guessing "what will happen if. . .", and of imagining others' responses to the ensuing situations; and in many cases it's possible to compare the resulting utilities without too much trouble.

Secondly, Utilitarianism provides a valuable corrective against the sort of excessively rule-based ethics which come naturally to the religious, and perhaps to anyone who lives in a society with a very well-defined set of laws.

Thirdly, utilitarian arguments are, so to speak, portable.  If you need to discuss ethical questions with someone else who doesn't share your system of ethics, you can often get some way towards agreement by considering the utilitarian question first. Then you can discuss the corrections that need to be made.

Variations on a Theme

The Wikipedia Encyclopedia article on Utilitarianism(10.2) offers a good description of the variations on the basic Utilitarian Ethical premise:

Act Utilitarianism:  This is the usual title applied to the Utilitarianism of Mill, as described above.  Act Utilitarianists judge a moral agent's act in terms of the consequences of that act alone (such as lieing to the axe murder).  And it has all the flaws described above.

Rule Utilitarianism:  This is a version of Classic Utilitarianism designed to address some of the flaws of Act Utilitarianism.  The basic premise of Rule Utilitarianism is that it is not particular acts of the moral agent that are relevant to the calculus of happiness / pleasure / utility, but the establishment of generally applicable rules.  Rule utilitarianism argues that  "the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance."(10.3)  A moral agent's action is right to the extent that it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. For rule utilitarians, the correctness of a rule is determined by the net amount of good it brings about when followed. Rule utilitarians argue that following rules that tend to lead to the greatest good will have better consequences overall than allowing exceptions to be made in individual instances, even if better consequences can be demonstrated in those instances.(11)  However, as pointed out by R.M.Hare(12), there is no constraint in Rule Utilitarianism on the nature of the Rules that can be considered.  As a result, the rules can be "as specific and un-general as we please."  Unless extra-Utilitarian restrictions are placed on the kind of rules that can be considered, Rule Utilitarianism quickly collapses into Act Utilitarianism.          

Two-level Utilitarianism:  Hare then arguessuggests that one of the main reasons justifying Rule Utilitarianism is its provision of the general rules that people need for moral education and character development. He suggests that a distinction can be maintained between a "specific rule utilitarianism" (Act Utilitarianism) and "general rule utilitarianism" (Rule Utilitarianism).  Hence a two-level Utilitarianism. When moral judgements and decisions are appraoched from the "ideal observer" point of view, we use Act Utilitarianism.  And when we are determining what Rules to teach and follow, we also use Act Utilitarianism.  But when we are being ourselves, using messy reasoning in chaotic circumstances, we should use the more general Rule Utilitarianism -- relying on Rules previously discerned (presumably when we have the time and resources to employ careful reasoning and greater knowledge of consequences, or have the advantage of hindsight on previous experience to guide us).  Hare argues that in practice, most of the time, we should be following the Rules(12, p 17)  In Moral Thinking(13), Hare provided this example of his thesis.  The "archangel" is the hypothetical person who has perfect knowledge of the situation and no personal biases or weaknesses and always uses critical moral thinking to decide the right thing to do; the "prole" is the hypothetical person who is completely incapable of critical thinking and uses nothing but intuitive moral thinking and, of necessity, has to follow the general moral rules they have been taught or learned through imitation.  It is not that some people are archangels and others proles, but rather that "we all share the characteristics of both to limited and varying degrees and at different times."(13)  Of course, since the Rules are formulated using the principles of Act Utilitarianism, even a Two-Level Utilitarianism is going to suffer from all the flaws outlined above.  Accepting a set of pre-calculated Rules merely makes the calculus simpler.  It does not address any of the other problems.

Preference Utilitarianism: First suggested by John Harsanyi in 1977.(14)  But also supported by  R. M. Hare,(13) Peter Singer(15) and Richard Brandt.(16)  Classic Utilitarian is Hedonistic -- defining "utility" in terms of pleasure or happiness.  However it is far from obvious that everything we do is motivated by a desire to maximise happiness / pleasure and minimise misery / pain.  According to Harsanyi, "preference utilitarianism is the only form of utilitarianism consistent with the important philosophical principle of preference autonomy. By this I mean the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences."(14, pg:55)  Of course, two caveats complicate this seemingly simple principle.  The first caveat is that antisocial preferences, such as sadism, envy and resentment, have to be excluded.  Harsanyi does this with the ad hoc determination that any personality that harbours such antisocial feelings must be excluded from moral consideration. Secondly, Harsanyi distinguishes between "manifest" preferences and "true" preferences. The former are those "manifested by his observed behaviour, including preferences possibly based on erroneous factual beliefs, or on careless logical analysis, or on strong emotions that at the moment greatly hinder rational choice" whereas the latter are "the preferences he would have if he had all the relevant factual information, always reasoned with the greatest possible care, and were in a state of mind most conducive to rational choice."(14, pg:55)  However, even with these two caveats, it is unclear how Preference Utilitarianism would address any of the difficulties faced by Classic Utilitarianism.

Negative Utilitarianism:  Argues that the principle "maximize pleasure" should be replaced by "minimize pain".  First suggested in 1945 by Karl Popper in his The Open Society and its Enemies.(17)  Popper argued that from the ethical point of view, there is no symmetry between misery and happiness, or between pain and pleasure.  One of the main criticisms of the Utilitarian hedonistic calculus is that it assumes a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But many argue with Popper that from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not your pain by my pleasure.  Some advocates argue that a higher weight ought to be applied to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness.  Which would render Negative Utilitarianism similar to Act Utilitarianism.

Motive Utilitarianism:  Like Rule Utilitarianism's focus on using the Utility calculus to pre-consider Moral Rules to be used by moral agents instead of completing the calculus on each potential action, Motive Utilitarianism focuses on pre-considering the motives and dispositions that might drive the moral agent to one alternative versus anther.  Motive Utilitarianism was first proposed by Robert Merrihew Adams in 1976.(18)  As argued above, when describing Classic Utilitarianism, trying to apply the Utility calculus to each potential alternative is theoretically impossible, and will probably lead to a sub-optimal outcome.  Motive Utilitarianism is thus very much like Rule Utilitarianism.  And its advocates employ the same sort of arguments that are used to support Two-level Utilitiarianism.  Applying pre-considered Rules at the social level (Rule Utilitarianism) and motives and dispositions at the personal level (Motive Utilitarianism) is more likely to lead to a better overall outcome. 


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Notes and References

(1)  Mill, John Stuart; Utilitarianism. Online access provided by eBooks@Adelaide; URL==<>.
(references in the essay indicated by "[U-chapter:paragraph]")

(2)  Mill, John Stuart; Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, J.M. Robson (ed.), University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada 33 vols. 1963-1991. Online access provided by The Online Library of Liberty; URL=<>.
(references in the essay indicated by "[CW-volume:page]"). 

(3)  Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature, L.Selby-Bigge & P.H.Nidditch (eds.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1978. Book III, Section 1 "Of virtue and vice in general".

(4)  Mill, John Stuart; A System of Logic, Online access provided by CUWS (Classical Utilitarianism Web Site); URL=<>.
(references in the essay indicated by "[SL-book:chapter:section]").

(5)  Wikipedia contributors. "Utilitarianism (book)" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(6)  Wikipedia contributors. "The Wealth of Nations" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(7)  Wikipedia contributors. "On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(8)  Wikipedia contributors. "Das Kapital" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(9)  Wikipedia contributors. "G. E. Moore" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(10.1)  Evans, Gareth;  "Utilitarianism", URL=<>.

(10.2)   Wikipedia contributors. "Utilitarianism" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(10.3)  Garner, Richard T.; Bernard Rosen (1967). Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics. New York: Macmillan. p. 70. ISBN 0-02-340580-5.

(11)  Wikipedia contributors. "Rule Utilitarianism" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(12)  Hare, R.M.;  "The Presidential Address: Principles" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series 73: pgs 1–18. (1972–1973).

(13)  Hare, R.M.;  "Moral Thinking: its levels, method, and point. Oxford New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press. 1981. ISBN 9780198246602.

(14)  Harsanyi, John C.; "Morality and the theory of rational behavior" in Social Research (The New School), special issue: "Rationality, Choice, and Morality". Winter 1977. Vol 44 (4). Pgs  623–656.
Reprinted as Harsanyi, John C.: "Morality and the theory of rational behaviour" in Sen, Amartya; Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1982. pp. 39–62. ISBN 9780511611964. 

(15)  Singer, Peter;   Practical Ethics (2nd ed.). Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press. 1993. ISBN 9780521439718.

(16)  Brandt, Richard B.;  A theory of the Good and the Right. Oxford New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press. 1979 ISBN 9780198245506

(17)  Popper, Karl;  The Open Society and Its Enemies: Volume 2. Routledge. New York, New York. 2002. ISBN 978-0415278423. p. 339.

(18)  Adams, Robert Merrihew; "Motive Utilitarianism" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 14, On Motives and Morals (12 August 1976), pp. 467–481


Ashford, Elizabeth: "Utilitarianism, Integrity, and Partiality" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 97, No. 8 (Aug 2000), pp 421-439

Brink, David, "Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

Crisp, Roger; Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, Routledge, London, England. 1997. ISBN 0-415-10978-7

Driver, Julia; "The History of Utilitarianism" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

Mill, John Stuart; The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, Random House, New York, New York, 2002. ISBN 0-375-75918-2

Moore, G.E.; Principia Ethica.  URL=<>.

West, Henry R.; Mill's Utilitarianism, Continuum Books, London, England. 2007. ISBN 0-826-49302-5