The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics
Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre,
Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer
Imagine that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gets wind of a plot to set off a dirty bomb in a major American city. Agents capture a suspect who, they believe, has information about where the bomb is planted. Is it permissible for them to torture the suspect into revealing the bomb's whereabouts? Can the dignity of one individual be violated in order to save many others?
Greatest Balance of Goods Over Harms
If you answered yes, you were probably using a form of moral reasoning called "utilitarianism." Stripped down to
its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the
morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces
the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. So
long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism
does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation,
Many of us use this type of moral reasoning frequently in our daily decisions.
When asked to explain why we feel we have a moral duty to perform some
action, we often point to the good that will come from the action or the
harm it will prevent. Business analysts, legislators, and scientists weigh
daily the resulting benefits and harms of policies when deciding, for
example, whether to invest resources in a certain public project, whether
to approve a new drug, or whether to ban a certain pesticide.
Utilitarianism offers a relatively straightforward method for deciding
the morally right course of action for any particular situation we may
find ourselves in. To discover what we ought to do in any situation, we
first identify the various courses of action that we could perform. Second,
we determine all of the foreseeable benefits and harms that would result
from each course of action for everyone affected by the action. And third,
we choose the course of action that provides the greatest benefits after
the costs have been taken into account.
The principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy
Bentham, who lived in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis that would provide
a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England
should enact. He believed that the most promising way of reaching such
an agreement was to choose that policy that would bring about the greatest
net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into account. His
motto, a familiar one now, was "the greatest good for the greatest
Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been expanded and
refined so that today there are many variations of the principle. For
example, Bentham defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure and pain.
John Stuart Mill, a great 19th century utilitarian figure, spoke of benefits
and harms not in terms of pleasure and pain alone but in terms of the
quality or intensity of such pleasure and pain. Today utilitarians often
describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfaction of personal preferences
or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits over monetary costs.
Utilitarians also differ in their views about the kind of question we
ought to ask ourselves when making an ethical decision. Some utilitarians
maintain that in making an ethical decision, we must ask ourselves: "What
effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance
of good over evil?" If lying would produce the best consequences
in a particular situation, we ought to lie. Others, known as rule utilitarians,
claim that we must choose that act that conforms to the general rule that
would have the best consequences. In other words, we must ask ourselves:
"What effect would everyone's doing this kind of action have on the
general balance of good over evil?" So, for example, the rule "to
always tell the truth" in general promotes the good of everyone and
therefore should always be followed, even if in a certain situation lying
would produce the best consequences. Despite such differences among utilitarians,
however, most hold to the general principle that morality must depend
on balancing the beneficial and harmful consequences of our conduct.
Problems With Utilitarianism
While utilitarianism is currently a very popular ethical theory, there
are some difficulties in relying on it as a sole method for moral decision-making.
First, the utilitarian calculation requires that we assign values to the
benefits and harms resulting from our actions and compare them with the
benefits and harms that might result from other actions. But it's often
difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain
benefits and costs. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to
art? And how do we go about comparing the value of money with, for example,
the value of life, the value of time, or the value of human dignity? Moreover,
can we ever be really certain about all of the consequences of our actions?
Our ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting
from a course of action or a moral rule is dubious, to say the least.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty with utilitarianism is that it fails
to take into account considerations of justice. We can imagine instances
where a certain course of action would produce great benefits for society,
but they would be clearly unjust. During the apartheid regime in South
Africa in the last century, South African whites, for example, sometimes
claimed that all South Africansincluding blackswere better
off under white rule. These whites claimed that in those African nations
that have traded a whites-only government for a black or mixed one, social
conditions have rapidly deteriorated. Civil wars, economic decline, famine,
and unrest, they predicted, will be the result of allowing the black majority
of South Africa to run the government. If such a prediction were trueand
the end of apartheid has shown that the prediction was falsethen
the white government of South Africa would have been morally justified
by utilitarianism, in spite of its injustice.
If our moral decisions are to take into account considerations of justice,
then apparently utilitarianism cannot be the sole principle guiding our
decisions. It can, however, play a role in these decisions. The principle
of utilitarianism invites us to consider the immediate and the less immediate
consequences of our actions. Given its insistence on summing the benefits
and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us to look beyond self-interest
to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions.
As John Stuart Mill once wrote:
The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in
conduct, is not...(one's) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As
between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires
him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.
In an era today that some have characterized as "the age of self-interest,"
utilitarianism is a powerful reminder that morality calls us to look beyond
the self to the good of all.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent the position of the
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. We
welcome your comments, suggestions, or alternative points of view.
This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V2 N1 (Winter
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