Short Essay Utilitarianism

by Brian Tomasik
First written: 2006; last update: 27 Nov. 2013


This piece briefly summarizes the utilitarian mindset for making a difference in the world.



Some organisms (people and many animals) experience emotions. Denote as "positive emotions" (or "utility") those feelings that an organism would prefer to experience. Examples might include pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, love, awe, beauty, and "meaningfulness." Call those emotions that an organism would rather not experience "negative emotions" (or "disutility"). Examples might include pain, sadness, depression, anger, and hopelessness.

Utilitarians care about these emotions because the emotions matter to the organisms that experience them. Of course, not all emotions matter equally, and it would be nice to have some way of capturing the fact. Utilitarians do this by assigning numbers to different emotions in proportion to their importance. Of course, this process will be inexact and sometimes arbitrary, but unless we want to abandon the goal of capturing differences in magnitude between emotions, we have little alternative.

Example. Suppose Alice enjoys watching TV but finds it more meaningful and rewarding to spend time playing with her kids. Let's assign the number +2 to the pleasure of watching an hour of TV and +10 to the satisfaction that Alice feels when she spends an hour with her kids.

Note that the ratio of these numbers is 10/2 = 5. In assigning rough magnitudes of utility to two different experiences, A and B, it can be helpful to ask, "How many times would I have to experience A in order for it to equal one experience of B?" The answer to that question gives the ratio of the utility of B to the utility of A. In the case of the Example, the answer is 5, because 5*2 = 10.

Changes in utility

Once we assign numbers to different outcomes, we can look at changes in utility that result from actions.

Example. Alice makes a decision to spend an hour with her kids instead of spending that hour watching TV. Her utility increased from 2 to 10, meaning that her action caused a change in utility of +8.

We can also look at changes in "aggregated utility" over groups of organisms:

Example. A deer finds a lush patch of grass and begins to eat it, giving the deer a utility of 5. Two other deer come along and steal the food, which increases the utility of each of those deer from 0 to 4 but lowers the utility of the original deer to 2. The total change in aggregated utility is

Deer 1: (final utility) - (initial utility) = 2 - 5 = -3
Deer 2: 4 - 0 = 4
Deer 3: 4 - 0 = 4
Total: -3 + 4 + 4 = 5.

Why it matters

All of this may sound abstract and fanciful. After all, there are many organisms in the world enduring experiences that are almost indescribably awful. How can utilitarians be so callous as to play around with made-up numbers? The fact is, though, that some actions will do more to relieve that suffering than others. It doesn't help those in pain for us to take the first action that comes to mind or do something because it makes us feel good. What helps those in pain the most is for us to systematically analyze the consequences of our actions and make tough decisions about some things being more important than others. The toy examples developed here were merely intended to illustrate that process.

This essay – or post if you wish – is intended as a concise exploration of utilitarianism, one of many ethical movements within the world of moral philosophy. An understanding of this topic could prove useful to IB philosophy students taking ethics as one of their chosen options. I am focusing here on the nature of utilitarianism and am not considering its weaknesses. These will be looked at in a separate post.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory generally considered to have been founded by Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher and social reformer. It is centred around the concept of happiness, and seeks to promote it. The idea here is that all people seek happiness, and that it is the ultimate goal of all human beings to be happy. Therefore, according to classical utilitarianism, when a person wishes to act in an ethically sound manner he or she should strive to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible amount of people. This is known as the greatest happiness principle. Another, similar idea is that a person should always strive, if incapable of producing happiness, to reduce unhappiness. As the theory is wholly focused on the outcome of a person’s actions, it is classed as a “consequentialist” theory, i.e. a theory that concerns itself with consequences and not actions in themselves.

Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial. – The New Oxford American Dictionary

Utilitarianism can be seen as a highly mathematical theorem, looking at the total units of happiness that a particular action gives rise to. For instance, you might have a choice between taking your sick neighbour’s dog for a walk or going out for drinks with a few of your colleagues. Imagine that the neighbour is desperate to find someone to exercise his canine companion, while your friends are fully capable of enjoying themselves without you. Taking the dog for a walk might add 10 units of happiness to the world’s total stock, whereas going out for drinks would only add a total of 6. Certainly, the latter would make a greater quantity of people happy (the former only benefiting one person), but it is the quantity ofthe happiness produced that is of interest to utilitarians. It is also important to note the impartiality of utilitarianism in this example; your personal relationships are of no importance – it does not matter how close you are to your colleagues, the right thing to do would still be to take the dog for a walk.

But let us look more closely at Bentham’s utilitarianism. To understand his approach more fully, it is vital that one come to an appreciation of exactly what he meant by “happiness”. His ideas here are, really, quite simple. Bentham thought that we should look at happiness as being  based on pleasure. Naturally, it follows from this that he also felt that we should treat unhappiness as something consisting of pain. This view on happiness has led his particular brand of utilitarianism to be seen as a hedonistic theory. Furthermore, Bentham did not distinguish between different forms of pleasure. To him, anything that gave rise to happiness – be it drugs or reading – was fundamentally good.

Other philosophers have striven to develop Bentham’s theories further. One of the more notable of these is John Stuart Mill, who sought to distinguish between what he termed “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill disagreed with Bentham’s all-inclusive view on pleasure, feeling that there was a fundamental difference between the varying forms of pleasure available to people, and that some had a finer quality than others. It was Mill who put forth the notion that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

Mill’s idea was fairly straightforward, namely that while there are many simple, sensual pleasures in life, such as eating or drinking, there are also certain pleasures which are of a more cerebral nature, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry. According to Mill, these latter pleasures are of a greater quality, and should therefore be considered more important. He posited that someone who has experienced both forms of pleasure would naturally feel inclined to choose the higher pleasures. For instance, a man who is familiar with both tasty food and good poetry would view the latter as something more valuable than the former.

This is a fairly straightforward exploration of the most common forms of utilitarianism. The most important thing to remember about these theories is that they are consequantialist and, above all else, that they are concerned with the greater good. Utilitarians don’t care about your personal agenda or whether your actions happen to hurt some people. As long as the eventual results of your actions lead to more pleasure than pain, you’re in the clear.

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