AQA Philosophy
Moral Philosophy

What is meant by ‘utility’ and ‘maximising utility’

Utility means usefulness. Thinking of the goodness of an action in terms of usefulness refers to the action’s consequences. An ethical theory based on utility is therefore consequentialist, meaning it holds that what makes an action good is not the type of action that it is but the consequences it leads to. In the case of Utilitarianism, it holds that goodness is pleasure or happiness.

Since pleasure and happiness come in degrees, an action is better the more pleasure it produces and the best action we could do is the one which maximises pleasure.

The principle of utility is that an action is good if it maximises pleasure, i.e., if it leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people.

Jeremy Bentham’s quantitative hedonistic utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham invented the first form of Utilitarianism – Act utilitarianism. 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. From this, Bentham devised the principle of utility.

The 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.

  1. How strong the pleasure is.
  2. How long the pleasure lasts.
  3. How likely it is that the pleasure will occur.
  4. How far away in time the pleasure will occur.
  5. The likelihood that the pleasure will lead to further pleasure.
  6. The likelihood that the pleasure will be followed by pain.
  7. How many people are affected.

John Stuart Mill’s qualitative hedonistic utilitarianism

The claim of Utilitarianism, that the morality of an action reduces entirely to how far it maximises pleasure, provoked many to criticise it for degrading morality and humanity; that it is a “doctrine worthy only of swine”.

Mill combated this objection by distinguishing between lower pleasures gained from bodily activity, such as food, sex and drugs, and higher pleasures gained from mental activity, such as poetry, reading, philosophy, music. Swine are not capable of experiencing higher pleasures, so to combat this objection Utilitarianism need only show that higher pleasures are superior to the lower.

Mill points out that Utilitarian thinkers had already successfully defended against this issue by showing that higher pleasures are overall superior at producing a greater quantity of happiness than lower. Lower pleasures are fleeting, lasting only for the duration of the action that produce them. Furthermore, lower pleasures are costly because they are addictive and tempt people to choose instant gratification, or what Mill calls a ‘nearer good’ over greater goods like health, for example by consuming sugar or drinking alcohol. Higher pleasures of the mind have no such ill effects and can have a lasting enlightening effect on a mind which has cultivated a habit of appreciating them.

Bentham claimed that all pleasures were equal, that the pleasure gained from poetry is just as valuable as that gained from playing pushpin (a children’s game). Yet even Bentham’s quantitative approach will judge higher pleasures superior for tending to produce more durable pleasure with less cost than lower pleasures.

However, Mill goes further than Bentham and claims that the superiority of higher pleasures can be proven not only on quantitative grounds, but a ‘higher ground’ than that, their superior quality.

“It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” – Mill

Higher pleasures are of greater quality than lower pleasures. That is why they are worth more. We can determine whether a pleasure is of greater quality than another based on which is preferred over the other. Through education in the collective experience and choices of humanity we can discover which pleasures are desired over others.

‘Competent judges’ are people with experience of both higher and lower pleasures. Mill claims they always prefer higher pleasures to lower pleasures, thus demonstrating their greater quality. Mill now has his full answer to those who say Utilitarianism is a doctrine fit only for swine:

“it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides” – Mill.

Humans can experience mental pleasures of a higher quality than the low pleasures that both humans and pigs can experience. Socrates illustrates that some humans can experience mental pleasures of a higher quality than other humans. Mill’s claim is that when we investigate such cases, we find that beings prefer the highest mental pleasure they are capable of experiencing over lower pleasures. In fact, people acquainted with both higher and lower pleasures show such a great preference for the higher that they will put up with discontent to get them and would not lose it even for any quantity of a lower pleasure. Mill concludes:

“we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account” – Mill.

When we study what types of pleasure are preferred over others by those with the capacity to experience many types, we find that it is those higher pleasures of the mind that are preferred and are often pursued while sacrificing comfort. We can thus conclude of their greater quality.

For example, consider the case of an artist who suffers from financial deprivation to produce their art. A piano player who arduously wades through hours of practice to finally experience the pleasure of playing some composition of genius. A student who avoids short-term pleasures and indolence by diligently studying for their exams, to avoid a monotonous life and pursue the pleasure that comes from development, exercise and eventual mastery of their interests and talents.

Many will object to Mill’s claim that a person who can and has experienced higher pleasures will always prefer them to lower ones. There are plenty of times when mentally cultivated people will occasionally give in to instant gratification or even sink into complete addiction to lower pleasures.

However, Mill responds that this objection misunderstands his argument. Everyone prefers the highest pleasures they have been able to experience, but it doesn’t follow that everyone always chooses them over lower ones. The ability to experience higher pleasures requires careful cultivation which is easily lost, either due to falling into addiction, weakness of will/character, external pressures or lack of internal support.

“Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.” – Mill.

Mill’s ‘proof’ of the greatest happiness principle

Mill attempted to prove that happiness was the one thing that people wanted for its own sake. He drew an analogy with sight, claiming that the only evidence for something being visible is that it is seen, and so the only evidence for something being desirable is that it is desired. The proof that happiness is desirable is therefore that it is desired. It follows for Mill that because he has proved that happiness is desirable, it therefore ought to be desired and so utilitarian naturalism is true.

G. E. Moore argued that Mill commits the fallacy of equivocation here, which is when you use a word which has two meanings and fail to make it clear which meaning you intend in a way that damages your argument. ‘Visible’ does just mean ‘can be seen’ but to suggest it is analogous to ‘desirable’ is to equivocate as ‘Desirable’ could mean ‘capable of being desired’ but also ‘should be desired’. Mill has proved that people are capable of desiring happiness but not that happiness should be desired, so he has failed to show that goodness = happiness.

Mill isn’t claiming absolute proof however. As an empiricist, Mill is looking for evidence. While it’s certainly the case that people can actually desire what they should not desire, nonetheless if there is something that everyone desires i.e. happiness, then that is evidence which makes it reasonable to infer that happiness should be desired.

Non-hedonistic utilitarianism

Preference Utilitarianism (non-hedonistic utilitarianism). Invented by Hare, extended by Peter Singer. This argues that the 7th criteria of the hedonic calculus – extent – is the most important. An action is good if it maximises the satisfaction of the preferences of those involved. Singer argued that when thinking ethically we should be an ‘impartial observer’ – where your own interests should not override the interests of anyone else’s just because they are your interests.

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.

Rule Utilitarianism

Generic Rule Utilitarianism adds the idea of following rules to the principle of utility. So, an action is good if it conforms to a rule which maximises happiness.

We need to determine whether following a rule, e.g., like not lying, will promote more happiness than not following it. If so, then following that rule is good.

This then typically splits into strong and weak rule Utilitarianism. Strong Utilitarianism is the view that the rules should be stuck to no matter the situation. Weak Utilitarianism is the view that the rules can be broken if it maximises happiness to do so.

Strong Rule Utilitarianism is typically criticised for simply becoming deontological, for abandoning the principle of utility and its consequentialism and becoming an empty deontological theory that follows rules for no good reasons, having abandoned its own supposed meta-ethical grounding.

Weak Rule Utilitarianism is typically criticised for in effect reducing into act utilitarianism, since they would judge every action the same. If following a rule such as telling the truth maximises happiness in a situation, then both Act and weak Rule would say to tell the truth. If breaking the rule and lying maximises happiness in a situation, then both act and weak rule would say to lie.

Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism

Mill’s version of Rule Utilitarianism was an attempt to improve on Bentham’s and arguably also avoids the issues of the strong and weak varieties.

The principle of Utility holds that the goal of moral action is to maximise happiness. Mill says he “entirely” agrees with Bentham’s principle of Utility, that what makes an action good is the degree to which it promotes happiness over suffering. Mill calls this the principle of Utility the ‘first principle’.

However, Mill disagreed with Bentham’s approach of judging every action by the principle of utility. Mill claimed that happiness is ‘much too complex and indefinite a goal’ for that.

“Although I entirely agree with Bentham in his principle, I do not agree with him that all right thinking on the details of morals depends on its explicit assertion. I think that utility or happiness is much too complex and indefinite a goal to be sought except through various intermediate goals” – Mill.

This is an attempt to solve the issue of calculation. It is extremely difficult to calculate which action will maximise happiness. Even though that is what constitutes the moral rightness of an action, nonetheless because of our limited knowledge our actual moral obligation is to follow whatever secondary principles humanity’s current level of understanding has produced regarding how to gain happiness and minimise suffering. We can draw on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of our species on what avoids suffering and produces satisfaction and happiness.

This gives us ‘secondary principles’ which are more general rules and guidelines. These are the product of our civilisation’s current best attempt to understand how to produce happiness. They are therefore subject to improvement. As particularly obvious examples, Mill points to murder and theft as being injurious to human happiness.

Another secondary principle Mill thought important enough to be adopted as the practice of government was the harm principle. It essentially states that people should be free to do what they want so long as they aren’t harming others. Mill argued that each individual is in the best position to make themselves happy and so if we all allowed each other to do what made us happy, society would overall be the happiest it could be.

Of course, secondary principles will sometimes conflict. Another secondary principle could be helping others. In the case of the trolly problem, where killing one person is the only way to save five people, the harm principle conflicts with the principle of helping others. In the case of theft, which is a harm, if it is the only way to save a starving family then the secondary principles of not harming and not stealing come into conflict. Mill explains that to resolve conflicts we need to apply the first principle:

Those who adopt utility as a standard can seldom apply it truly except through the secondary principles … It is when two or more secondary principles conflict that a direct appeal to some first principle becomes necessary” – Mill

If we appeal to the first principle of utility, it looks like we should steal to save starving people or inflict harm (to the point of killing) by pulling the leaver in the trolly problem, to save five people.

It’s debated whether Mill is a Rule Utilitarian. He clearly thinks that it is morally right to do an action that conforms to a rule which experience has shown to maximise happiness. However, Mill clearly also thinks that sometimes individual actions should be judged to resolve a conflict or applicability issue in rules/principles. Arguably the question of how exactly to categorise Mill is irrelevant and we could simply conclude that Mill’s Utilitarianism is the perfect synthesis of Act and Rule Utilitarianism. It does avoid the problem of generic Rule Utilitarianism, that it either becomes a meta-ethically empty deontological theory or collapses back into Act Utilitarianism.

The meaning of good/bad and right/wrong in Utilitarianism

For moral realist theories, goodness & badness are metaphysical terms which describe objective properties. Right/wrong are properties of actions.

For hedonic Utilitarianism, ‘good’ means pleasure or happiness. Right/wrong refer to actions which maximise plesaure/happiness

For non-hedonic Utilitarianism, ‘good’ means the satisfaction of preferences. Right/wrong refers to the satisfaction of preferences.

Issues for Utilitarianism

Whether pleasure is the only good

Nozick came up with a thought experiment he thought showed that pleasure was not the only good, which would show that both Bentham and Mill’s arguments for utilitarianism are false.

If a machine existed which could simulate a fake reality full of only positive pleasurable experiences, would people choose plug themselves into it? Nozick suggests not everyone would because humans value their connection to reality and having authentic real experiences.

Integration: Nozick attacks the foundational premise of utilitarianism: that we only ultimately desire pleasure/happiness.

To respond to Nozick, a Utilitarian would have to show that those who would choose not to enter the experience machine are confused. The reasons they give for not entering the machine might appear to differ to a desire for happiness, but a Utilitarian could try to argue that those reasons actually do reduce to a desire for happiness.

Arguably the reason people value connection to reality is because they have emotional connections to family, society and perhaps the future state of the human race. People want to take part in ensuring that humans in reality are as happy as possible. That suggests that their desire to be connected to reality is really founded on a desire for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, so utilitarianism is still true.

Fairness and individual liberty/rights

The moral basis of human rights is deontological in that 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 a Utilitarian 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 to exploit a minority, for their benefit, that is called the tyranny of the majority. Arguably that is what Utilitarianism leads to.

Integration: this suggests utilitarianism violates the moral intuitions of most people. It could also show that Utilitarianism is incompatible with social stability and thus fails in the essential criteria for a normative theory, that of successfully guiding action.

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.

Rule utilitarianism attempts to solve the issue of rights & tyranny of the majority too. The rule ‘do not torture’ will result in a happier society than one which follows the rule ‘do torture’, therefore Mill can overrule individual cases where torture might result in happiness. Mill does not believe in rights. He thinks that everyone should be free to do whatever they want except harm others. The justification for this freedom from harm is not that people have a ‘right’ to be unharmed, but that it is for the greatest happiness for the greatest number that we live without harming each other. So, while Mill doesn’t believe in intrinsic rights, he proposes rules which sees identical in their ethical outcome.

Problems with calculation

(including which beings to include)

Utilitarianism seems to require:

  • That we know can the future.

If the goodness of an action depends on whether it maximises pleasure, then we need to know the consequences of the action before we do it. That seems to require that we know the future. Yet, predicting the future is often incredibly difficult.

Worse, we need to know not only the consequences of an action, but of all the possible actions we could do in a situation.

  • That we can make incredibly complex calculations about the range of possible actions, sometimes under time-constraints.

Once we know the consequences of all the actions we could do, we then need to calculate the impact they will have on pleasure and pain. Not just in the short, but in the long-term. Worse, we might need to make these calculations in time-sensitive situations.

  • That these calculations include the objective measuring of subjective mental states like pleasure and pain.

We can only make objective measurements of objective things. For example we can measure a thing’s length by putting a tape measure next to it. The calculations about the amount of pleasure and pain an action will lead to require that we measure subjective feelings, which seems impossible. There is no objective way to measure subjective feelings because we can’t put a ruler next to them.

All three of these conditions are plagued with difficulty, and yet each seems absolutely necessary if we are act on the principle of utility.

Integration: This issues attacks the ability of Utilitarianism to successfully guide action, which is an essential feature of a normative ethical theory.

Bentham’s response to issues with calculation. Bentham claims that an action is right regarding “the tendency which it appears to have” to maximise happiness. So, we actually only need to have a reasonable expectation of what the consequences will be based on how similar actions have tended to turn out in the past.

To further defend Bentham, we could argue that we can measure subjective feelings. In hospital, doctors ask patients how much pain they are in out of 10. Doctors will admit that this is never a perfect indicator, but it is accurate enough to be informative.

Mill’s response to issues with calculation. Mill’s version of Utilitarianism seems to avoid these issues regarding calculation. We do not need to know the future, nor make incredibly complex calculations, nor measure subjective feelings. We only need to know the secondary principles that our civilisation has, through its collective efforts and experience, judged to be those best conducive to happiness. We then need to simply follow those principles as best we can. For Mill, the moral rightness of an action depends on maximise happiness, but because of the immense complexity of that, our only moral obligation is to just do our best to follow the principles geared towards producing happiness of our society, which are themselves only the best current principle that our current stage of civilisation and culture has managed to develop.

Mill is admitting that to perfectly act on the principle of utility is currently impossible. However, he denies that this means Utilitarianism fails in its requirement as a normative theory to successfully guide action. For that, Utilitarianism can rely on the principles and rules that, to the best of our current knowledge, most produce happiness. Society also ought to be progressive, meaning it should retrospectively assess and improve its principles and rules. This works well enough and in principle can continue to work better as we discover more, biologically, psychologically, sociologically and politically about how to maximise happiness.

In cases of a conflict of rules, Mill adopts the same approach as Bentham and says we must judge the individual action by the principle of utility, though Mill adds that we should consider the quality not only quantity of the pleasure it could produce. He agrees with Bentham’s point that when judging individual actions, we can base our calculations on what we know of the ‘tendencies’ actions have. We do not need to exactly predict their consequences.

Regarding how to calculate or measure the quality of a pleasure, Mill explains that we need only investigate people’s preferences and we see that people always prefer higher pleasures to lower ones, except when falling into addiction or weakness of character.

Mill’s response to issues with calculation is quite amusing in how dismissive he is, so I’ve been tempted to quote part of it in full:

“Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this—that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent … Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong” – Mill.

Issues around partiality

Utilitarianism holds that we should do whatever action leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This requires that we put aside any personal feelings or desire to do otherwise. To follow Utilitarianism seems to require that we act impartially.

Our personal feelings are not completely irrelevant. If a person would be negatively impacted psychologically by doing an action, then that is relevant. However, it is only relevant as one data point in the calculation. If overall happiness were maximised by doing that action then the person ought to do the action.

Utilitarianism therefore asks a lot of us and some worry that it is not suited to human psychology such that we can’t expect people to actually follow it.

This problem is seen and felt most keenly in moral situations where family or friends are involved. For example, if a person were faced with having to choose between saving a family member’s life or five unknown people. This is an alteration to the trolly problem, if that the person having to make the choice had a close family relationship with the singular person on the tracks.

The Utilitarian calculation would be that saving the five unknown people would maximise happiness. Even though it might cause a lifetime of unhappiness to the person making the choice and the family who would suffer the loss of the one person, that seems clearly outweighed by the benefit to overall happiness of saving the five people.

However, arguably it cannot be realistically expected that people will or even can act on utilitarian lines in such cases. The nature of human psychology regarding family or friend relationship is that we do prioritize them over others. Even if one thought this were an unfortunate feature of human psychology, it nonetheless seems to be the reality. A normative theory has to work in and with reality.

Integration: This suggests that utilitarianism is incompatible with human psychology. It therefore cannot successfully guide action and thus fails as a normative theory

Mill tried to respond that most people don’t have the opportunity to help a multitude of people so it’s good to just focus on those in our lives.

However, these days we have charities so Mill’s argument seems outdated.

Peter Singer makes the point that being brought up in a loving family is the best way to ensure children grow up to be as happy as they can. Singer points out that there have been experiments at bringing up children without parents and that they haven’t worked out well. So, if no one had a family, people would be much less happy therefore perhaps the happiness we gain from family is worth the unhappiness caused by our acting partially.

Integration:  in that case, Utilitarianism can accept acting partially, since given the nature of human psychology it increases happiness to do so. Utilitarianism therefore can work in and with the reality of human psychology.

Whether utilitarianism ignores both the moral integrity and the intentions of the individual