Sooo… utilitarianism. I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time.
I consider myself a utilitarian, which most broadly speaking means that I aim to “maximize utility”. In friendlier terms, this means I’d like to bring about a world where as many people are as happy and fulfilled as they possibly can. A problem with utilitarianism is that while much has been written on it recently, most people only read it in the context of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and frequently only hear of utilitarianism in the eyes of the critics.
While I’ve written an entire series of essays on meta-ethics, this essay is intended to be stand-alone post that I can build off of and hopefully convince you to consider utilitarianism, or at least think that such a position is a reasonable choice. For some people, utilitarianism is the only theory of ethics that makes sense, whereas to others utilitarianism sounds obviously incorrect or even horrifying. My intention is that while utilitarianism might start off as unintuitive, I hope to make utilitarianism appear like “common sense”.
Utilitarianism as Equality for All
What is utilitarianism? It may sound overly intellectual, stuffy, cold, mechanical, logical, and/or unemotional at times. But if you think about it, it really isn’t.
Utilitarianism starts from the recognition that many entities have preferences or interests. In other words, they have a welfare, and can be meaningfully harmed or helped. Utilitarianism is about treating those with preferences as equal; giving people equal consideration. Regardless of whether you’re a good friend, a bitter enemy, a malnourished African child, or a cow in a slaughterhouse, utilitarianism takes your preferences into account and wants things to go as well for you as they can. Anything else would be some sort of arbitrary, discriminatory bias — like racism in ignoring the preferences of other races, sexism in ignoring the preferences of other genders, speciesism in ignoring the preferences of other species, etc. If there’s no reason to favor someone more, the default position seems to be equality, and that’s where utilitarianism starts.
So utilitarianism is about people’s maximizing everyone’s welfare, considered equally. Furthermore, utilitarianism holds that when evaluating a situation, the only thing that matters is how it ultimately impacts people’s welfares. For example, lying is not condemnable by utilitarian standards simply because it’s lying, but rather because deception frequently makes people worse off. (Though there are many cases where deception makes people better off, and thus lying is right by utilitarianism in those circumstances.)
Thirdly, utilitarianism is about prioritization. If you can spend an hour offering Alice homework help or spend an hour saving Bob from drowning, then, all else being equal, utilitarianism asks you to spend your hour saving Bob from drowning. This is because while Alice would definitely receive a benefit from getting helped with her homework, Bob would receive a dramatically larger benefit for the same amount of time, and that would maximize welfare more with the same amount of resources, which utilitarianism considers better (all things being equal). This makes utilitarianism very similar to any other sort of cost-benefit analysis, except costs and benefits are measured in the happiness of all those being affected.
Why Should *You* Be a Utilitarian?
As a minor interlude, the first question (nearly) everyone asks about utilitarianism is why they should have to be one. Is there some sort of fancy proof? I’ve seen a few, but I haven’t really liked any of them. The way my meta-ethics works out, it’s clear that utilitarianism is just one functional moral standard among many, so you can pretty much get your choice how you want to evaluate the actions of others and hold other people accountable.
Honestly, if you’re not down with this whole everyone should count equally thing, there’s really nothing I can say to you that I expect to change your mind. It’s just a fundamental difference in values. More might be said on this, but not here…
What about me? I’ve long defined myself as a “part-time” utilitarian. I do a lot of things based on the belief that everyone counts equally, like joining GivingWhatWeCan and pledging to donate 10%+ of my income to charitable causes where I believe my dollars go furthest to increase welfare. That being said, if I donate 10% of my income, that’s ~80% I’m keeping for myself (after taxes).
Surely my interests in buying “Magic: The Gathering Cards” or going to the GenCon gaming convention are not equal to that of other interests that could be addressed for that same $250, like prevent a death from malaria. Yet, I go to GenCon anyway, and I don’t feel all that guilty about it. I spend time watching television when I could be thinking more about how to save the world, etc.
Better/Worse, Not Right/Wrong
Some of this is just that I need to prevent myself from burning out, but much of it is me just wanting to be selfish at times and spend money on me. Thus I may not be an ideal or perfect utilitarian, but I’m still doing very well, so I’m “satisficing” and tapping out at a certain level. …And I have been increasing that level periodically.
On ideal utilitarian grounds my behavior may be seen as sub-optimal, but this doesn’t mean that I’m horribly immoral or deserve condemnation. Instead, in utilitarianism, actions can be placed on a scale from better to worse, our goal is to strive for better. There are still lots of utilitarian things you could be doing, and I feel like everyone could take more seriously the value that everyone should count equally. If you’re doing a fairly good job, I won’t condemn you. Instead, I will encourage you and myself to do better.
Indeed, such encouragement seems more effective at promoting good behavior, and is thus good for improving welfare, and thus what utilitarianism would suggest! I’ll talk more about blameworthiness in utilitarianism on a later date.
Utilitarianism and Separateness of Persons
Let’s get back to Alice and Bob. As I’ve described Utilitarianism, we care about both Alice and Bob (as well as everyone else who has preferences, including nonhuman animals, equally in proportion to the strength of their preferences), but occasionally have to neglect to help one in order to use our resources to help the other instead. Or, worse, we may have to hurt Alice in order to help Bob more.
This leads many people to think that utilitarianism is just chasing aggregate utility for the sake of aggregate utility and doesn’t care who has to get hurt in the process. This is referred to as the “separateness of persons” objection, which states that utilitarianism is flawed because it doesn’t take seriously the fact that people are distinct. But this misses the mark.
As argued by Richard Chappel, the loss to Alice for the sake of Bob is regrettable; we wish that it could have turned out that both Alice and Bob received benefits. However, the benefit to Bob outweighs the harm to Alice, and thus should take place. It isn’t some aggregate that is the focus of attention, nor is it that we expect Alice to somehow be compensated by the benefit that Bob receives. Instead, its just the end result of caring for both Alice and Bob equally and then working out the priorities under the condition of limited resources. We can’t bring benefits to them both, but we have an opportunity to drastically help Bob with a little harm to Alice, so we should take it.
Utilitarianism, Love, and Warm Calculations
The cold and calculating image of utilitarianism brings to mind more than someone concerned with aggregation over that of actual people, but rather someone who only does things out of cold calculation. Your friend hospitalized and needs visitors? Should you go? You best do a utility calculation and only go if it comes out to maximize total welfare! Right?
Well, hopefully not! First, calculations don’t also have to be cold and unemotional; that’s Straw Vulcan stuff. We make calculations specifically because we’re warm and we care, and we want to make sure we do what we can to help as many people as possible. That aside, ignoring your friends on the basis of utility calculations would diminish friendship altogether, which very much would make the world worse! Quite frankly, love and the human element are one of the most important factors for people’s well-being, so it would be very remiss for utilitarianism to not include them at all.
Secondly, no utilitarian would actually be calculating constantly if he or she wanted to be a practical utilitarian. When I next analyze utilitarianism, I’ll expand on this and sketch out how utilitarians can actually make decisions in a real and practical world.
Followed up in: How a Utilitarian Crosses the Street
Thanks to Sasha Cooper, Boris Yakubchik, Stephen Diamond, and Gregory Lewis for improving this essay.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.