By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.

The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. Hence, utility is a teleological principle. This once again raises some of the same basic issues of associated with hedonism, as discussed in the earlier section on Teleological Theories. Recall that a hedonist believes that the good life consists solely in the pursuit and experience of pleasure or happiness. The feelings of pleasure and pain are biological events involving our central nervous system, which are controlled by our cerebral cortex. We obviously experience pleasure when we perform certain acts that fulfill biological functions such as eating, drinking, and having sex. We also experience pleasure when we perform certain intellectual activities, such as reading a philosophy textbook, playing guitar, or drawing a picture. We sometimes, but not always, experience pleasure when we do the right thing. Conversely, we experience pain when these functions are left unfulfilled.


Many utilitarians believe that pleasure and pain are objective states and can be, more or less, quantified. Hedonistic terms like intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood, imply that pleasure can be measured quantitatively, perhaps on a scale from 1-10, as part of a hedonistic calculus.



If you are a hedonist, the most important question is: "Whose pleasure counts the most?" Classical utilitarians are altruists to the extent that they believe that the standard of right or wrong is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Therefore, the "Good" increases the number of persons experiencing pleasure among members of a specific group. The "Bad" increases the number of persons experiencing pain. There are several interesting problems here.


A few years back, Cincinnati government officials had a community vote on whether to use the proceeds from a proposed sales tax increase to build two new sports stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. A classical utilitarian would have to examine how that expenditure would effect everyone in the community. This determination entailed calculating beforehand the amount of pleasure and pain that the various members of the community would experience as a result of building those stadiums; then decide whether the benefits (pleasures) outweigh the costs (pains)? Of course the primary beneficiaries of the larger more modern stadiums would be the wealthy team owners, players, perhaps a few downtown restaurant owners, parking lot owners etc. If the levy fails, at least one of the teams will probably move to another city. That would cause pain to some members of the community including fans, venders, parking lot attendants etc. Defenders of the tax argued that even the retailers in the suburban malls wouldbenefit economically from keeping the sports teams. If they move they will lose customers on game days.


The fundamental problem for utilitarianism is justifying the altruistic principle of self-sacrifice in order to benefit others. Since, I do not attend the games played at the stadium, and will not benefit from hot dog revenues, why should I contribute to either project? Under classical utilitarianism, at least some members of the community must sacrifice his/her own interests for the interests of others without benefiting personally. Indeed it is often the case that what turns out to be in the public interest conflicts with the private interests of some individuals. How can one justify such altruism based on utilitarian principles?


Sometimes, it is possible for an act to provide a large amount of quantifiable pleasure for a few persons at the cost of a small amount of quantifiable pain for everyone else. Suppose, for example, we have a small, but significant number of homeless children that could be helped by imposing a small tax on everyone in Cincinnati. A utilitarian would not be able to justify imposing that tax, unless it could be shown that more people are helped than harmed. One way to get around this would be to count not only the number of persons that experience pleasure and pain, but also weigh the intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood of the pleasures involved. Hence, we might argue that if we weigh the amount of pleasure that homeless children experience, as the result of providing them shelter, against the minimal pain that tax payers experience, then we might rationally justify building that shelter at public expense. 


The problem with this approach is that at any given time, many individuals might benefit from a specific policy. Suppose that only the wealthy team owners would substantially benefit from building the stadium and that the tax was very small, wouldn't we be able to justify building the stadium for that wealthy team owner at the cost of a majority? If so, on what basis could we justify building the shelter and not the stadium? Therefore, if utilitarianism assigns weight to particular pleasures and pains, rather than merely merely count heads, then we would be obligated provide benefits to a host individuals and minorities, regardless of need. How about a tax to buy a new Volvo for every philosophy professor in Cincinnati? Obviously, the economics of the debate turn out to be enormously complicated. This inherent complexity undermines at least one of the major attractions of utilitarianism, its purported simplicity.


Utilitarianism faces five serious puzzles.


First, of all it is by no means clear as to whether pain and pleasure are really as objective and measurable as the utilitarians claim.


Second, is the fact that we are often faced with moral decisions where we cannot predict how an action might impact others. We often just don't know whether one act or policy will promote more pain than pleasure. But what about those cases where we just aren't certain? What do we do, guess? In cases of uncertainty, like the sports stadiums, it would seem that the utilitarian would have to resort to intuitionism or some other principle.


Third, most deontological theorists say that utilitarianism often conflicts with our moral intuitions. For example, if I were an extraordinarily clever shop-lifter, I could justify my theft based on the fact that I probably would not get caught or that the store might not keep accurate enough inventory to detect the loss.


Fourth, utilitarians, and all altruists, cannot explain why we should be morally obligated to act in the public interest at the expense of our private interests. If the utility of moral self-sacrifice is its only justification, then it would seem to follow that each of us would be more likely to approve of self sacrifice in others before we would approve of it for ourselves.


Fifth, utilitarianism seems to have a built in bias (or sometimes a preference) against individuals and minorities. What happens when it seems to be in the public interest to inflict extreme hardship on an individual or minority in order to advance the public interest? For example, based on utilitarian reasoning, Japanese Americans were hoarded into detention camps during World War II because the government feared that some of them might support Japan and perhaps engage in terrorist activities. Indeed, the greatest happiness principle has often been used in support of totalitarian schemes in which the price paid for collective happiness has been personal freedom. Thatís why there is a consensus among contemporary philosophers that utilitarianism cannot operate without other principles, especially justice. But once utilitarians admit this, the doctrine loses even more of the simplicity that attracted us to it in the first place.


Although the principle of utility is difficult to apply and often leads to immorality, it is, nevertheless, an important moral principle.




classical utilitarianism

Issue to Think About

As a utilitarian, how would you go about reasoning about drug laws in the United States. Should we legalize all drugs? How about abolishing the practice of requiring a doctorís prescription for some drugs? .