Lesson 2, Section 1: Act-Utilitarianism


Is act-utilitarianism a better theory than the TCT? In its simplest form act-utilitarianism says that what makes an action right is that it maximizes overall happiness, everyone considered. As long as an action maximizes happiness, it is morally correct — regardless of the motives of the people involved or how the happiness is achieved. So doing the right thing means calculating how much happiness can be gained from several possible actions and choosing the one action that achieves the greatest amount of happiness.

Act-utilitarianism is a humanist theory because of its strong emphasis on human happiness and the promotion of the common good. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) founded the theory and gave it its famous formula: Right actions are those that achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) later refined Bentham’s theory, declaring that happiness is “pleasure and the absence of pain” while unhappiness is “pain and the privation of pleasure.”

This theory (and variations on it) has had enormous influence in the English-speaking world. It appeals to many because of its focus on human happiness, its noble ideal of promoting the common good (not just one’s own welfare), and its simplicity. The theory inspired many impressive changes in social policy in the nineteenth century. Utilitarianism seemed to be a rational and humane approach to eliminating all kinds of social evils. Early utilitarians were inspired by their theory to try to abolish slavery, eradicate child labor, and promote the rights of women.

The utilitarian approach to morality, however, has several weaknesses, most of which are based on the fact that the theory conflicts with some of our considered moral judgments. For example, we tend to believe that certain things should not be done to people even if doing them would produce the greatest amount of happiness. We believe that it is wrong to falsely accuse, convict, and punish someone just because doing so would result in greater happiness for everyone concerned. We would think it wrong for fifty people to torture one person to increase the total amount of happiness among the fifty. If slavery in the Old South of the United States and in ancient Greece dramatically improved the economic well-being and personal happiness of society as a whole, would the institution of slavery be morally permissible? Our considered moral judgment says no; act-utilitarianism says yes — if violating someone’s rights or committing an injustice maximizes happiness, the action is morally correct. But in many cases we are loathe to violate people’s rights and commit injustices just because happiness might be enhanced. This conflict with our considered moral judgments is act-utilitarianism’s biggest failing — and probably the main reason why most philosophers have abandoned the theory.

The theory also seems to conflict with our considered moral judgments regarding duties. We tend to believe that we have duties to other people, such as keeping promises and being faithful to people who are closest to us. But act-utilitarianism cannot recognize such duties, for the only duty we are supposed to have is to increase overall happiness. If breaking a promise or being unfaithful can maximize happiness in a given situation, then we should break promises and be unfaithful.

Suppose that action X can maximize happiness in a certain set of circumstances, and likewise action Y can maximize happiness to an equal degree in the same set of circumstances. Action X, however, involves the breaking of a promise. According to utilitarianism actions X and Y are equally right because they will result in equal amounts of happiness. But we would tend to think that actions X and Y are not morally equivalent — precisely because action X would involve the breaking of a promise and action Y would not.

Besides these weaknesses, act-utilitarianism seems to fly in the face of our moral experience. Our moral experience suggests that sometimes we have reasons for acting that arise out of events that happened in the past. Let’s say that we seriously harmed someone last week who did not deserve such treatment. We would probably think that we now have an obligation to somehow make amends. Or maybe yesterday we promised a friend that we would do a favor for them, and so now — since there is no impediment to our keeping our promise — we seem to have a reason to try to do the favor.

Or suppose a Nazi fanatic murdered thousands of innocent people during World War II. This fact about the killer’s past seems like a good reason to find the killer and bring him to justice. The problem for utilitarianism is that such facts about the past cannot give us good reason to act in the present because the only relevant facts are those about the future — about what actions will maximize happiness in the future. But this view seems to conflict with our moral experience. The past does sometimes matter in moral decisions.

These considerations seem fatal for act-utilitarianism. (There is, however, another form of utilitarianism called rule-utilitarianism that has been proposed as a remedy for these weaknesses. We will explore rule-utilitarianism in detail in the next module.) We must keep in mind, though, that both act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism have homed in on an important truth about morality: The consequences of actions do matter. Consistently following a set of absolutist rules while ignoring the consequences of doing so is contrary to our considered moral judgments. Most of us, for example, would probably think it wrong to refuse to tell a lie even if the lie would prevent the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. If the stakes were high enough, we would think that we were justified in breaking at least some rules. In moral theory, we can neither be a slave to consequences nor an absolutist who disregards them.

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