Bentham’s act utilitarianism
Jeremy Bentham invented the first form of Utilitarianism – Act utilitarianism. He was one of the first atheist philosophers and wanted to devise a morality that would reflect an atheistic understanding of what it meant to be human. Such an understanding involved no longer considering ourselves as a special part of creation, but as just a part of nature. On this basis, Bentham made this claim:
‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure’.
This means that it is human nature to find pleasure good and pain bad, which Bentham goes on claim suggests that it is pleasure and pain which determine what we ought to do as well as what we will do. We can say that we value something other than pleasure, but Bentham claims we would just be pretending. It is the nature of the human animal to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so that’s all there is for morality to be about. From this, Bentham devised the principle of utility:
‘An action is good if it leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people’
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory because it is what an action “leads to”, i.e. its consequences, that determines whether it is good.
Hedonic Calculus. The principle of utility holds that the ‘greatest’ pleasure is the goal of ethical action. It follows that a method for measuring pleasure is required. Bentham devised the hedonic calculus to do this. It is a list of seven criteria which each measure a different aspect of the pleasurable consequences of an action. In order to decide which action to do, you need to know in advance which action will result in the greater amount of pleasure. The hedonic calculus is what allows you to calculate that.
- How strong the pleasure is.
- How long the pleasure lasts.
- How likely it is that the pleasure will occur.
- How far away in time the pleasure will occur.
- The likelihood that the pleasure will lead to further pleasure.
- The likelihood that the pleasure will be followed by pain.
- How many people are affected.
Utilitarianism justifies bad actions and is against human rights.
The moral basis of human rights is deontological because human rights are intrinsically good. This seems incompatible with consequentialist ethics like Utilitarianism, which argue that something is only good not because of anything intrinsic but depending on whether it leads to happiness. So, Utilitarianism could never say ‘X is wrong’ or ‘X is right’. They can only say that ‘X is right/wrong if it leads to/doesn’t lead to – the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. In that case they couldn’t say ‘torture is wrong’. In fact, if 10 people gained happiness from torturing one person, a Utilitarian it seems would have to say that was morally right as it led to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When a majority of people decide, for their benefit, to gang up on a minority, that is called the tyranny of the majority.
Bentham didn’t accept that his theory had this consequence. In a case like 10 torturers gaining pleasure from torturing one person, that is certainly more pleasure than pain – but Bentham’s theory is not simply about producing more pleasure than pain. It is about maximising pleasure. An action is good if it maximises pleasure, meaning if it is the action which produces the maximum amount of pleasure possible. The action of allowing torture produces less pleasure than the action which finds a way to make everyone happy – not just the torturers.
However, what if, since we have limited resources, the best action we can possibly do is not one which enables everyone to be happy? In that situation, which does seem to be our actual situation, it looks like the logic of Bentham’s theory would justify the sacrifice of the well-being or even deliberate infliction of pain on some minority of the sake of the pleasure of the majority.
The issue of intentions and character
Utilitarianism only views the consequences of actions as good, not the character (integrity) of the person who performs them. This goes against the intuition that a person can be a good person. It also has the bizarre effect that e.g stabbing someone could be good if after being rushed to hospital it was found, coincidentally, they had a brain tumour. Or someone who attempts to do good but bad consequences result which were unforeseeable, such as the priest who saved Hitler’s life when he was a child. The way we’d normally solve this problem is to claim that although the action had good consequences, the person’s intentions or character was bad. However, consequentialist theories seem unable to claim that because for them, it is only consequences which are good or bad, not intentions/character.
Mill responds firstly that a person’s character does matter because it will determine their future actions. The stabber should be condemned for his motive because that will prevent them stabbing others in future. The priest should be forgiven because he’s not likely to do anything bad in the future as his character is good. Secondly, Mill argues that having a good character helps you become happy. Motives and character therefore do matter ethically, though not intrinsically but only insofar as they result in good consequences, in line with consequentialism.
If you were in a burning building and had a choice between saving a child and an expensive painting, which would you choose? Most people on first hearing this scenario would say the child, but utility based ethics seems to suggest that saving the painting is better because we could sell the paining for enough money to save the life of a hundred children.
Giles Fraser argues that saving the painting suggests a lack of sympathy for the child
William MacAskill responds that actually saving the painting suggests a more cultivated sympathy which is able to connect to the many more children elsewhere who are in just as much need of saving and outnumber the single child there now.
The consistency of Bentham’s Utilitarianism with religious ethics
The goal of Christianity is arguably to get into heaven, which is infinite happiness. Arguably the goal of utilitarianism and religious ethics is thus the same, it’s just that Bentham doesn’t believe that there is a heaven so for him it is only the happiness and pain in this life which has moral significance whereas for Christians happiness and pain in this life is insignificant compared to the eternity experiences in the afterlife.
Bentham explicitly creates an ethical theory without reference to God or the Bible. His view that happiness is valuable does not derive from faith or the Bible. Furthermore, Theologians like Aquinas think the goal of good actions should be glorifying God, not getting yourself into heaven. So arguably the goals are not that similar.
Jesus seemed to act in a way which showed concern for suffering and happiness rather than ridged adherence to the rules of the old testament. This suggests Jesus had a consequentialist approach – rules could be bent or broken depending on the consequences for happiness. When asked whether the Sabbath had to be kept, Jesus replied ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
Religious ethics seems deontological in that the Bible explicitly condemns actions rather than consequences. E.g. the ten commandments “Thou shalt not murder”. So perhaps Jesus felt there was some leeway with the rule about the Sabbath, but that doesn’t justify interpreting his as a consequentialist. In fact Jesus made the rules on killing more strict, by saying you couldn’t even have hatred in your heart for someone.
Christianity seems to value intention, such as doing things out of love, whereas Utilitarianism holds that only consequences are morally relevant.
Utilitarianism can indirectly value intentions for the good or bad consequences that good/bad intentions can have.
Valuing intentions indirectly is not the same as regarding them as having direct value in themselves, however.
Kant’s attempt to base morality on reason
Kant was part of the intellectual movement called the enlightenment, which was in part a reaction to religious warfare which had been destructive in Europe and many wanted to find a way to prevent it.
Whereas natural law thought reason could discover a natural moral law in our nature, Kant thought reason could discover a moral law in reason itself. Kant claims that what it means to be human is to have be a ‘rational agent’, which means to have reason, be able to make choices and have goals (ends). Our reason also tells us that all humans are rational agents and that therefore we are all equal.
It is unreasonable to act contrary to what our reason tells us is the case. If I did an action that couldn’t be done by everyone, then I would have to think that I was somehow special or better than others. However, reason tells us we are all equal. So, reason tells us that we should only act on principles that can be followed by everyone.
An action could only in accordance with the universal moral law if it could be done by all people in all situations. Kant called this a categorical imperative; something we should always do (you should do X). A hypothetical imperative is a moral action that a rational will adopts for reasons other than duty (you should do X if you want Y). As rational beings we may adopt ends that are not categorical, which makes them hypothetical. However, true morality and duty, the universal moral law, cannot depend on our desires and so must be categorical.
The first formulation of the categorical imperative
This is the first claim that we should only do something if everyone can do it. Kant says ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you could at the same time will it become a universal law’. This is the test of universalizability. The maxim of your will is the moral statement of what you want to do. The test if whether you can rationally will that everyone do what you want to do. E.g Lying – Kant thinks lying cannot be universalised because if everyone were to lie, there would be no such thing as truth anymore. However lying depends on truth, therefore by willing everyone to lie, we would be willing the undermining of the concept on which lying depends for its existence in the first place. That is inconsistent and therefore irrational and therefore a maxim involving lying cannot rationally be willed into a universal law.
Kant thinks this universalisibility test is the final test of whether we have truly removed consequences and personal feelings from consideration. If we have, then all that should be left of an action is the pure action itself in the abstract as done by anyone or everyone. Therefore, once we have removed consequences and personal feelings, an action should be universalisible which is why it is a good test of its morality in Kant’s view.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative – Kant says ‘Always treat persons, whether others or in yourself, always as an end, never as a means’. This essentially means ‘don’t use people, or abuse yourself’. Our reason makes us a rational agent and thereby no better or worse than anyone else inasmuch as they are also rational agents. Rational agents have and seek goals which Kant called ‘ends’. To treat a person as if they were a mere means to an end is irrational as it contradicts the fact that they have their own end. Your treating them as a means is dependent on your viewing yourself as a rational agent who adopts means to achieve ends, but denying that another rational agent has their own ends is to contradict the basis on which you attempted to use them in the first place; that you are a rational agent who adopts means to achieve ends. It’s like suggesting that denying the intrinsic value of another human being amounts to denying your own. Kant claimed that all rational agents are therefore ends in themselves.
The Good Will. For Kant, a Good will is one which has the right intention when performing moral actions. Once we have used our reason to figure out our duty, we should then just do it out of a sense of duty because it is our duty. We should leave out personal feelings/desires and just do ‘duty for duty’s sake’. For example, if it is our duty to give money to charity, we should do it because it is our duty, not because we want to or because we feel empathy. The only morally good motivation for doing an action is out of a sense of duty.
The three postulates
Kant argues that reason can figure out this basis for ethics. However, he doesn’t think that ethics makes sense without three postulates. A postulate is something you have to assume to be true in order to have a basis for reasoning about something. Kant thought that there were three postulates we have to assume to be true if ethics is to be based on reason.
- Immortality (of the soul in an afterlife).
- Free will. Kant thought that without free will, we could not be responsible for our actions and thus surely ethics would be pointless.
Kant pointed out that good people are not always rewarded in life, and some times bad people do seem to be rewarded. This was unjust. For ethics to work, there needs to be justice. So, Kant thought that there must be a God who lets us in to an afterlife where good people are rewarded with happiness. Kant called this the ‘summum bonum’, meaning the highest good.
Clashing Duties. If you had two duties which could not both be done, those duties would clash. This is a problem for Kant’s ethics because he claims that our reason can figure out what our actual objective duty is. If our duty is not something we can do, then it’s not our duty according to Kant who said that “ought implies can”, meaning that if something is our duty then we must be capable of doing it. If there are clashing duties, it looks like Kant’s ethics is flawed. One popular example is a soldier who universalises that it is his duty to go to war and fight for his country, yet also universalises that it’s his duty to stay home and look after his sick mother. He cannot do both but both are universalizable and neither involve treating people as a means therefore both are his duty, and so there are classing duties.
Kant’s response to this objection is to claim that if we think there are clashing duties, we are haven’t used our reason properly. He distinguished between perfect duties, where there is only one way of fulfilling them, and imperfect duties, where there are multiple ways of fulfilling them. We have a perfect duty to tell the truth because there is only one way we can fulfil our duty to tell the truth, and that is to avoid lying. However, in the case of looking after a sick relative or fighting for your country, there are multiple ways in which these duties could be fulfilled. You could pay for someone else to look after your sick family member, or help the country’s war effort while remaining at home, perhaps by working in a factory, while then also being able to look after your sick family member. So it is possible to fulfil both duties because they are imperfect meaning they have multiple options for fulfilment which lets you choose the options that do not clash.
Kant’s vs consequentialism
If a Nazi asked whether we were hiding Jews and we were, it seems Kant is committed to the view that it’s wrong to lie. That seems to go against most people’s moral intuitions because of the obvious terrible consequences to telling the truth in that situation. This puts Kant at odds with consequentialist theories like Utilitarianism.
Kant could respond that each person is ultimately responsible for what they do. As a rational agent, you are responsible for what you do, and the Nazi is responsible for what they do. Lying to prevent the Nazi from killing is to act as if you were responsible for the Nazi’s action, but you are not. You are responsible for what you do, and so you should not lie. Kant points out that we cannot control consequences in the example of the murderer at the door. If we lied about where the victim was, yet unknown to us the victim had actually moved there, then we would be responsible for their death. So Kant is arguing that we cannot control consequences and thus cannot be responsible for them. So, they cannot be part of our moral equation.
However, just because we can’t control consequences completely, does that mean they don’t matter ethically? Also, consequentialism isn’t arguing we can completely control the consequences, just that we should consider them when acting. Furthermore, we can control consequences to a degree. Shouldn’t we therefore be responsible for them to that degree?
Bernard Williams claims it is inhuman and ethically wrong to suggest that moral judgement should be free from emotion and an ethic like Kant’s which recommends it is therefore immoral. For example, giving money to charity because you feel empathy for suffering people seems like a moral act, but Kant would regard it as non-moral.
Kant would respond by arguing that something is either right or wrong regardless of how a person might feel about it. Those who think it morally good to give money to charity out of empathy are actually committing themselves to the claim that the goodness of the act consists in their feelings of empathy, at least in part. If they asked themselves why it was good to give money to suffering people, however, satisfying the empathetic feelings of the giver would generally not be considered a reason. The deservedness of the receiver of charity is not thought by anyone to depend on the presence of feelings of empathy on the part of the giver. Therefore, those who think it morally good to give to charity out of empathy should recognize, Kant would argue, that the goodness of their act does not depend on their feelings. Acting out of feelings is therefore failing to act morally.
Arguably it is actually impossible in practice to act without any influence of emotion on your moral motivation. So, Kant’s ethics may be good in abstract theory, but don’t work in practice given the kind of emotional beings that we in fact are.. This is what Hume argues.
The consistency of Kantian deontology with religious ethics
Two of the three postulates are religious; God and immortality. Furthermore, the goal of morality for Kant is the summum bonum, which is similar to the goal of Christian ethics and the idea of judgement and an afterlife in which those who did good actions receive a reward.
Kant arrives at this formulation through reason, not faith. Therefore even though it is similar to Jesus’ command in practice, the foundation for belief in it is very different. Kant believed that we should figure out ethics using reason, not by having faith in the revelation of the Bible.
Nonetheless that is not too dissimilar to Aquinas’ view that the natural law could be figured out by human reason.
However Aquinas also believes in the Divine and eternal law which require Faith. Kant’s rejection of faith as a foundation for ethics is arguably non-Christian.
Kant’s second formulation involving treating people as ends is arguably similar to loving your neighbour as yourself.
Kant’s first formulation of universalizability doesn’t seem similar to religious ethics and could be used by atheists.
Furthermore, Kant believes on acting without emotion. Arguably this is inconsistent with acting based on agape/love?