What Is Utilitarianism?

July 27, 2023
10 MIN READ
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Utilitarianism is an ideology that says the most ethical choice is the action that will produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. This will be true not just for the performer of the action but also everyone that could be affected by it. Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism, a broader philosophy that says that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Utilitarianism takes this a step further by saying that the ends can justify the means if they serve the greater good. Even though British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is widely recognized as the founder of utilitarianism, it should be noted that it was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who popularized this philosophy. Today, utilitarianism is still regarded as an influential moral theory that shapes the thinking of many leaders, politicians, business professionals, etc.

Understanding How Utilitarianism Works

The core teaching of utilitarianism is that actions are:

●       Good if it produces the greatest happiness or pleasure for the most amount of people.

●       Bad if it produces more pain than pleasure for the greatest number of people.

Because no one can predict the future or the extent of how many people will be satisfied by an action, utilitarianism relies upon the theory of intrinsic value. In other words, something is held to be good in itself, and all other values are believed to derive their worth from their relation to this intrinsic good as a means to an end.

Utilitarianism is regularly cited as the only moral framework that can be used to justify military force or war. Because a country must defend itself against an opposing invasion, the casualties inflicted are seen as necessary to produce the outcome of freedom from oppression.

Three Principles of Utilitarianism

The concept of utilitarianism can be summarized by three basic axioms:

1) Pleasure or Happiness Is the Only Thing That Truly Has Intrinsic Value

At the root of all the things people do is the pursuit of pleasure or happiness. While some may argue that we are motivated by love or greed, utilitarians would debate that these emotions have “instrumental value” instead of intrinsic value. To say in another way, people seek out love or chase after money because of the pleasure it brings them, not for the sake of the emotions themselves.

2) Actions Are Right Insofar as They Promote Happiness, Wrong Insofar as They Produce Unhappiness

This principle demonstrates utilitarianism's roots in consequentialism. Although it makes sense on the surface, critics will generally point out that this statement does not reflect the motives behind the action. For example, under utilitarianism, someone selfishly giving $10,000 to charity for political gain would be better than another person selflessly giving $100 simply because they believe in the cause.

3) Everyone's Happiness Counts Equally

This principle was originally introduced during a time in history when a slave's life was regarded as less than their owner's. While slavery has since been abolished, today’s modern society still deals with issues of social class based on a wide variety of factors: race, net worth, occupation, political influence, etc. A utilitarian would say that everyone's happiness matters equally no matter who they are or where they come from.

Bentham's Model of Utilitarianism

The degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to induce can be quantified through an algorithm developed by Bentham called the felicific calculus.

Also called the hedonic calculus, this model is based on the following seven variables:

●       Intensity - How strong is the pleasure?

●       Duration - How long will the pleasure last?

●       Certainty or uncertainty - How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?

●       Propinquity or remoteness - How soon will the pleasure occur?

●       Fecundity - The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.

●       Purity - The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.

●       Extent - How many people will be affected?

Utilitarianism In Business Ethics

Businesses will often sell products, make promises, or support causes that align with utilitarianism. However, it can sometimes be hard to discern their motivation from attempts to increase their bottom lines since it's unknown what's discussed behind closed doors.

At the core of every for-profit company are the profits themselves. Without a steady flow of more revenue than expenses, the business will eventually cease to exist. Therefore, much like humans need food to survive, it's plausible to assume that businesses will operate in a way that keeps them financially solvent.

However, from the perspective of utilitarianism, there is nothing wrong with this as long they also do things that help make the world better. This may include:

●       Developing life-changing technologies

●       Creating jobs

●       Doing good things for the community like making donations to local charities and fundraisers.

Therefore, there should be a balance between its ethics and costs.

Businesses will often fall into one of two types of utilitarianism:

●       Rule utilitarianism helps the largest number of people using the fairest methods possible.

●       Act utilitarianism makes the most ethical actions possible for the benefit of the people.

An example of this would be how pharmaceutical companies bring new products to market. Ethically, they would not want to sell medication that will cause unwanted side effects to its users. However, the company cannot spend millions or even billions of dollars to perfect its formula. Additionally, delaying this medication could be fatal to people who are sick and in need of it. Therefore, the pharmaceutical company will generally develop the medication to the point where it can pass FDA regulations and then sell it to the public while also disclosing the potential side effects.

Limitations of Utilitarianism

While the aim of utilitarianism is to promote as much good in the world as possible, there are many problems with its execution.

For starters, utilitarianism fails to take into account a sense of justice. Even though the masses may be satisfied with an action or decision, what about the rights or happiness of the individual who loses in this situation?

A good example of this is the classic story of Robinhood. Robinhood was regarded as a hero by the people because he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Despite his noble intentions, many would argue that stealing under any circumstances is unethical. Simultaneously, just because someone acquired wealth does not make them a bad person, nor should their right to retain that wealth be ignored.

Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it is often too black and white. There is more to life than simply pleasure over pain. Between them is a spectrum of emotions as well as the individual perception of quality of life. Unfortunately, utilitarianism ignores this sentiment.

The Bottom Line

Utilitarianism is the philosophy that ethical choice is the action that leads to the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. This is because utilitarians believe that pleasure and happiness are the only true intrinsic emotions that people have.

Utilitarian ideas are often argued by a wide range of leaders and thinkers as a way to justify social needs or change. Businesses will also incorporate utilitarianism principles into their code of ethics as a way to promote good welfare while also advancing their bottom line.