“Utilitarianism is a consequentialism writ large.” – Hans Nilsen Langseth (1846-1927)
Consequentialism is a moral philosophy. It holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment of its rightness or wrongness. Moral is the act (or omission from acting) that will produce a good outcome. Immoral is the act (or omission) producing a bad outcome. Consequences of action are the only objective human standard of right and wrong.
Utilitarianism extends consequentialism moral standards of right and wrong from the individual human being to encompass the happiness and unhappiness of all human beings equally.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), is the founder of utilitarianism. His working description of utility is definitive. Utility is “that property in any object, whereby it produces benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…[or] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.”
The seminal book “Utilitarianism” by English theorist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) formalized utilitarianism in modern society. It distilled consequential utilitarian doctrine to “actions are right in the proportion as they promote happiness, wrong as they produce the reverse of happiness.”
Happiness and its reverse can vary from one culture to another but Mill avoids value judgments, defining happiness as “intended pleasure, and the absence of pain”, physical or mental, and unhappiness as “pain, and the privation of pleasure”, physical or mental.
Utilitarianism defines good as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
Good action is the choice that does “the most good for the most people for the most time”. It’s useful to emphasize timescale. It’s not utilitarian to do good for everyone one day if that decision kills everyone 24 hours later.
Utilitarianism gets attacked by the straw man argument it limits the criteria of choice to a simple, single value approach i.e. limited, blinkered, prone to missing a bigger picture. The straw man tries to redefine what utilitarian means, conflating simplicity of axiom “what does most good for most people” with how it’s applied.
Utilitarian thinking is not straightforward. Trying to apply the ‘simple’ utilitarian ideal with authenticity, in a real-world context, is as complex as any question that requires modeling of reality at scale. Simple aspiration, near-infinitely nuanced application.
Redefining utilitarianism to justify these straw man criticisms invariably tries to impose spurious rules, to limit how to apply the ideal, rather than addressing shortcomings in the ideal itself, e.g. “utilitarian decision-making lacks pluralism” or “utilitarianism doesn’t consider ambiguity or the near-infinite factors and potential outcomes”.
But these diverse considerations are implicit in the utilitarian ideal. Individuals apply their interpretation of the utilitarian ideal in real-world decisions by approximating the “near-infinite factors and potential outcomes”, emphasizing different factors, selecting for preferred outcomes. Whether it’s done well isn’t evidence of a flaw in the utilitarian ideal but a variance in human capability.
Nobody has all the data. No prediction model covers every outcome.
Utilitarian thinking in real-world decisions is an impossible aspiration defined by a perfect goal. Many human ideals are the same. We do the best we can. Keeping sight of the simple but unattainable ideal is a way to be accountable to higher standards, of being well-informed and giving consideration to outcomes, when making choices for the “common” good.
Acknowledging the sheer scale of key factors and potential outcomes in the most rudimentary of real-life utilitarian decisions will correctly inspire skepticism about individuals (or groups) trying to sell their conclusion with absolute confidence it’s the “most utilitarian”.
Contrast the challenge implicit in the utilitarian ideal with the wild conceit of presuming to have mastered all factors and outcomes. Certainty without qualification should always set alarm bells ringing. Certainty is the binding agent calcifying science into dogma. It’s always a reason to make sure the most absolute conclusion gets the most extra scrutiny.
Misplaced (or snake-oil) confidence is the bane of modern society. It’s the antithesis of genuine utilitarianism, whatever straw man conflation may try to argue. It’s been an albatross weighing down human progress in every civilization since the invention of science.
I beseech you… think it possible that you may be mistaken.Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)