To begin with, recall that utilitarianism is the name given to any ethical theory that says something is good if, overall, it brings about utility. If an action brings about utility, then we say that happiness or well-being is the consequence of that action.
You also need to remember that a utilitarian isn’t just concerned to add up all the good consequences when evaluating an action. They have a bigger picture in mind. They also calculate all the bad consequences as well. This is so they can get a complete account of the utility that an action has by weighing up the good and bad to see what the overall outcome is.
In the next section we will look at the various ways a utilitarian can evaluate actions. But before doing so, let’s remind ourselves of the terms that ethical theorists use to evaluate actions.
Make sure you’re thinking about these evaluative terms when we go on to see utilitarianism in action in the next section.
For a utilitarian, something is permissible if it doesn’t bring about an overall reduction in utility. Be careful here, though. This doesn’t mean that an action isn’t allowed to bring about any reduction in utility. It only means that there can’t be an overall reduction in utility.
Imagine you were just elected the leader of a country and you’re a utilitarian. You would need to think about the overall outcome of your actions. Suppose you decide to take the land and buildings of some millionaires to reuse for services for the poor.
Although there is a small loss of utility, this is more than made up for by the greater gain in overall utility.
An act is only impermissible if there is an overall reduction in utility. For example, reconsider the above situation, but this time imagine that you took the land and buildings for your own personal gain. Since you are only one person, and the millionaires are more than one person, there is an overall reduction in utility. Thus the utilitarian will say it’s wrong to do this.
Now we will look at how a utilitarian would evaluate actions as either neutral, obligatory, or supererogatory. First of all, let’s take the example of lying to find out what is obligatory for the utilitarian.
Imagine your friend asks to hide in your house because there’s a crazy killer after them. If the killer knocks on your door and asks if you’ve seen them, then you should lie and say no.
That’s because lying will bring about greater utility in this situation (a saved life is of greater utility than being honest to someone). This action is obligatory for the utilitarian since you must do something if it will bring about an increase in utility.
By contrast, lying would be neutral for the utilitarian if it didn’t either bring about an increase in utility nor a decrease in utility.
Of course, it could be the case that your discomfort is greater than their pleasure. In which case, it would be impermissible since there would be an overall reduction in utility. Weighing up pleasure and displeasure is something the utilitarian must grapple with to make a decision here.
For a utilitarian, a supererogatory action is one that not only increases utility, but one that produces the most utility possible. In other words, you would need to maximize utility.
Now that you have seen how ethical evaluations can be based on consequences of actions, you can think about using this in a specific situation. Consider the example below and think about how you would evaluate each action if you were a utilitarian.
The actions would have been evaluated in the following way: