Philosophy 101: Utilitarianism

If Utilitarianism had a tagline, it would be “The greatest pleasure for the greatest number.” That line is the central idea to this field of though, and its appealing nature has been what’s kept Utilitarianism relevant through the years. I mean, come on, what’s not to like about maximum pleasure and enjoyment in life? Jeremy Bentham thought the same thing when he created the theory in the 18th century.

Bentham believed that pain and pleasure were the two “masters” that controlled humans on this mortal coil. How painful or pleasurable actions were was calculated by their intensity, duration, and how many individuals were affected. The utility — or usefulness — of an action was gauged by how positive the outcome was and how many people it benefited.

John Stuart Mill, Bentham’s protegee, argued that the calculations of each action couldn’t be quantified. Instead, we should look at the quality or desire. We all are most interested in our own wellbeing and desires, Mill would argue. Because of this fact, and the fact that we are all interested in society being functional, we must also care about the happiness and desire of everyone. In a very roundabout way, I can see what he meant.

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The easiest way to visualize Utilitarianism in action is through a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem. Since its fruition in 1967 by Philippa Foot, the Trolley Problem has been analyzed extensively — both in and out of classroom settings — although most results come back the same. I’ll set the stage of the original dilemma:

There is a runaway trolley car racing down a track. Ahead, there are five workers unaware of what's happening. Right before them, there is a split in the track where one worker is, who is also unaware. You are watching from afar, standing next to a lever. If you pull that lever, the trolley car will switch tracks.

You have two choices:

  1. Do nothing and let the trolley kill five people
  2. Pull the lever and let the trolley kill one person

What do you choose to do? The answer may be easy for you. When professors ask this question in their classrooms, the response is typically split 80/20, the majority choosing option two. According to Utilitarian principles, option two is morally the best option because it brings pleasure to the greatest number and pain to the least. There is no right or wrong answer to this thought experiment, but this is where we can begin to see holes in Utilitarian ideas.

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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As a way to critique Utilitarianism, let’s look at a variation of the thought experiment:

You are a doctor at a hospital. There are five people who need immediate organ transplants or they will die. In a separate room, there's a healthy man who has come in for his yearly checkup.

 You have two options (again):

  1. Do nothing and allow the five people to die
  2. Use the healthy man’s organs to save the people

Once again, Utilitarian principles would say that the one should die to save the five. This would mean you have to physically aide in the murder of one person — you can see how this wouldn’t sit well with most people. Utilitarianism also asks people to eliminate favoritism, even to themselves. How are you to constantly do what’s right for the “greater good,” but not for yourself?

If you're interested in learning more about this field of thought, here are some thinkers to read up on — Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill!

For a 21st century look on Utilitarianism, check out G. E. Moore and R. M. Hare.