Utilitarianism is the name given to any ethical theory that says something is good if, overall, it brings about utility. This idea, that the goodness of something depends on how much utility it brings about, is often called the utility principle.
There is a danger of thinking about utility in too narrow a sense. For instance, I can’t help but hear utility along the lines of “utility belt” or something like that, where utility means useful for a job. But here utility just refers to something that’s beneficial to us, or aids our well-being. You could say that something has utility if it makes us happy; but happiness understood in a broad way as well, to include anything from the comfort of a good chair to the relief of knowing your family is safe.
This way of thinking comes quite naturally to us most of the time. We often think that people should act in a way that brings about the better outcome. You can even see this in the laws or policies that are established.
Utilitarianism holds that everyone ought to increase utility. But this doesn't mean everyone should act the same. For instance, if I have lots of money, then I can increase utility by donating to charity. But if you don't, then you could increase utility by volunteering at a homeless shelter. We would have different actions, but we would be following the same ethical ideal. With this in mind, you can figure out what kind of ethical theory utilitarianism is.
For a Utilitarian, anything that affects consequences is ethically relevant. If you wanted to decide which action is best, you would thus need to figure out which action would have the best possible outcome. This can be difficult because our actions affect people in different ways.
People do not respond in the same way as things do. This is because, unlike mere things, humans make decisions rather than being merely pushed around by various causes. For this reason we can't predict the way humans will be affected by actions in the same way that we can predict the way things are affected by action. Nevertheless, our experience of people can help us predict fairly well some of the consequences of our actions.
This shows that there is at least a rough guide available for your actions, even if you cannot predict with absolute certainty what the consequences of your actions will be.
So far we’ve said that utilitarianism determines the good as what brings about utility. But you need to keep in mind that it isn’t simply about the presence or absence of utility. It is also about the degree or quantity of utility.
Imagine you’re deciding on where to go on holiday. If you decided to go someplace where you could also meet up with some old friends, this would bring about more happiness than if you didn’t. Therefore, the utilitarian will say it’s good.
But if you decided to travel to a place that recently suffered a natural disaster and you volunteer to help survivors, then this brings about even more utility. Therefore, for the utilitarian, this is a better action.
As you can see, there are different degrees of goodness for the utilitarian. The same goes for badness.
The last example we considered also shows that utilitarianism is concerned with the happiness of everyone, not just the person acting. Not paying your taxes may make you happy, but it wouldn’t achieve happiness overall. That’s because many people benefit from the services provided by taxation. Another example is using your family’s savings to buy yourself a yacht. You may be happy, but the rest of your family probably won’t be.
As you may have guessed, a utilitarian is not just concerned with whether or not something has good consequences. They are also concerned about the potential bad consequences. And most actions have both good and bad consequences.
As we have seen, the utilitarian tries to get all the probable consequences in view when evaluating things. They can do so by considering:
We’ve already spoken about the first two. For instance, we saw that a utilitarian can say that one action brings about utility (visiting friends on holiday), while another brings about even more (volunteering to help people in need during your holiday).
We also saw that a utilitarian can calculate which action brings about more utility by contrasting what makes only you happy with what makes many people happy. The example about whether or not you pay taxes showed this.
A utilitarian can think about the probability of a consequence. For instance, you’re more likely to get a decent job if you finish school. Therefore, the utilitarian will say you probably ought to go to school to get that probable utility. We could also predict other utilities further down the road, such as contributing to society more generally.
A system of ethics that maintains that good is proportionate to total probable utility
The increase or decrease in the total happiness consequent to an action