The utilitarian calculus
One of the important feature of utilitarianism is its pragmatism. The morality of an act is “calculated” on the basis of its effects, not the motives behind it. This calculation takes into account the consequences of the act on the well-being of the greatest number. If it supposes the possibility for the actor to calculate the consequences of his actions and to assess his impact on the well-being of others from a rational point of view, it is not, however, a calculation of reason in the Kantian sense. Indeed, in Kant, it is “the autonomy of the will” which founds morality and which makes it possible to act in a disinterested way and therefore outside any practical or measurable contingency. Thus, the categorical Kantian imperative which founds all morality is opposed to utilitarianism in the sense that it cannot be determined by the effects of action but only by reason, that is to say the “idea of the will of every reasonable being conceived as a will instituting universal legislation”. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant also thinks of action in its pragmatic and useful character, but not according to its effects in the real but their conformity with the imperative of reason.
Utilitarianism can include in its calculation not only moral agents, but also moral patients: all beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, that is, endowed with sensitivity. Animals could therefore be included in the calculation of morality. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer will use this aspect in his opposition to speciesism.
Different versions of utilitarianism
One of the most striking aspects of utilitarianism is its ability to subdivide and change to respond to its criticisms. The utilitarian tradition, vast and very rich, therefore offers different types of utilitarianism.
Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism
It was Jeremy Bentham who introduced the term in 1781 and who drew from this principle the most successful theoretical and practical implications. The ethical principle from which he judged individual or public behavior was social utility.
The starting postulate of his utilitarian theory is that ethical good constitutes an observable and demonstrable reality. We can define it from the only elementary motivations of human nature: its “natural” inclination to seek happiness, that is to say a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of suffering. This principle is formulated thus by Bentham
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.”
Benthamite utilitarianism, like many of its followers, claimed to solve very old social problems:
- what principles guide the behavior of individuals;
- what are the tasks of government;
- how can individual interests be reconciled with each other;
- how do individual interests fit in with those of the community?
The principle of the antagonism of pleasure and pain thus responds to all of this problematic. Bentham asserts that there can be no conflict between the interest of the individual and that of the community, for if both base their action on “utility” their interests will be the same. This approach operates on all levels of societal life: religious, economic, educational, in administration, in justice as well as in international relations.
It is important to note that Bentham considers the animal to be part of the community. His reasoning is as follows: “The question is not: can they reason? Nor: can they talk? But: can they suffer?”.
Indirect utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill
Son of James Mill, godchild and disciple of Bentham, John Stuart Mill is the immediate successor of Bentham’s utilitarianism. However, he departs from it by developing an indirect utilitarianism. Where Bentham defines welfare by pleasure, Mill defines welfare by happiness. In doing so, he departs from hedonistic utilitarianism and proposes indirect utilitarianism. Pleasure is no longer the end of morality, it only plays a role indirectly, insofar as it contributes to increasing the amount of happiness of the individuals concerned. We also owe Mill the recognition of the qualitative dimension of pleasures. Unlike Bentham, who does not prioritize pleasures and is interested only in the quantity of them, John Stuart Mill defends a difference in quality between pleasures. One can thus prefer a less quantity of a pleasure of higher quality to a greater quantity of a pleasure of poorer quality.
Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism
Although the strict distinction between act and rule utilitarianism is questionable, some criticism differentiates these two tendencies. If the radical heterogeneity between these two types of utilitarianism is doubtful, we can nevertheless expose their differences.
The terms act or rule utilitarianism refer to the calculation of consequences. For the act utilitarianism, what must be taken into account are the consequences of the particular act that the agent does. For rule utilitarianism what matters are the consequences of adopting a rule of action.
The first question is “does the act of saving this drowning person, in this specific context, have positive consequences?”. For the second, “the adoption of the rule, “we must save a person who is in the process of drowning” have this positive consequences?”.
The act utilitarianism is a contextualism: it always assesses the morality of a single act, which fits into a particular context. The evaluation of the morality of the act “after” the performance of it is more flagrant in this type of utilitarianism than elsewhere. Before performing the act the agent can assume positive consequences; but if the real consequences turn out to be negative the act will be immoral. This view of moral evaluation is classically opposed to the deontological perspective, which offers principles for evaluating the morality of action before it takes place.
As for the rule utilitarianism, it is no longer a question of the particular consequences of a single act which are taken into account, but of the global consequences of the adoption of a rule. The positive consequences of adopting a rule justify its adoption and the fact of following that rule. We can now appeal to general maxims and assess the morality of the action before carrying it out. Perhaps the act of saving that specific person has negative consequences (if he is a tyrant), but adopting the rule “save drowning people” has positive consequences. In the absence of knowing whether the particular act in question has indeed positive consequences, the rule must be followed.
Also, this type of utilitarianism cannot be confused with the Kantian principle of universalization which founds the universality of morality in reason and not in matter or the effects of action.
One of the reasons to doubt the heterogeneity of the act and rule utilitarianism is that each taken independently, these doctrines are very easily exposed to destructive criticism. For example the incalculability of the consequences for the act utilitarianism, or the disinterest in special cases for the rule utilitarianism. This situation makes them hardly sustainable, taken as strictly dissociated. We can however see them as tendencies within utilitarianism, and not consider them as completely dissociable.
Richard Mervyn Hare’s preference utilitarianism
Hedonistic utilitarianism aims to maximize the well-being of individuals, while preference utilitarianism aims to maximize the satisfaction of individual preferences. Only count the preferences of the individual which concern himself. They must also be well informed; if a poison has been introduced into my glass of wine without my knowledge, the preference utilitarian will allow myself to prevent me from drinking it, for if I was well informed my preference would be not to drink it.
This form of utilitarianism, introduced by Richard Mervyn Hare and taken up by Peter Singer, has the advantage of avoiding deducing the prescriptive from the description: the pre-established individual preferences being by nature already of a prescriptive order, ethics boils down to a universalization operation.
Another advantage is the respect which results from it for individual autonomy: utilitarianism leaves the individual free to choose his own preferences, without forcing him to have to prefer the maximization of his own happiness. Conversely, it may seem strange to have to respect the preferences of an individual who wants to make himself unhappy.
It is on the basis of the utilitarianism of preferences that Peter Singer gives greater importance to the preservation of the life of certain sentient beings – those who are able to form plans for their future and therefore prefer to stay alive – than that of others – those who lack this ability, and whose preferences boil down to short-term pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of suffering. It thus appears less serious to kill a mouse than an adult human, even if it remains as serious to make the first suffer as the second, both having an equally strong preference not to suffer. However, some human beings – fetuses, newborns, profoundly mentally handicapped and senile people – do not have or no longer have the capacity to form projects and to prefer to continue living, which puts them in this perspective, on the same plan, in terms of the harm of killing them, as many non-human animals.
As John Stuart Mill points out, there are two ends that the doctrine demands to pursue: the maximization of well-being and the minimization of suffering.
Negative utilitarianism proposes to pursue only the second. It implies taking into account the well-being of individuals only when it is negative, that is to say, it is a malaise. The fundamental goal is to minimize suffering; happiness, on the other hand, does not count, or at least not on the same scale. One can inflict (or let subsist) one suffering in order to be able to relieve another, greater one; but we will not be able to do it in order to be able to create happiness as great as it is.
Utilitarianism, the new economy version of well-being
This ordinal version of utilitarianism developed in the 19th century through Vilfredo Pareto’s new welfare economy is based on the notion of Pareto-superiority or Pareto optimum, specifying that an option A is Pareto-greater than an option B if some affected people prefer A to B and neither prefers B to A. In a set of options, an option is Pareto-optimal when no other option in that together it is not Pareto-superior. We can rephrase by saying that a situation is optimal in the sense of Pareto if we cannot change the situation without deteriorating the condition of at least one of the agents involved. The Pareto optimum, however, becomes difficult to achieve when it comes to making distributive stakes where unanimity for any decision becomes difficult to circumvent.
Utilitarianism version of “Social choice”
This ordinal version of utilitarianism based on social choice theory (Kenneth Arrow, Amartya Sen) systematically explores the logic of aggregation of preferences, voting rules, and in particular the majority principle. Let us note that the further one moves away from unanimity to approach the simple majority, the more the problems of transitivities appear at the risk of being confronted with the Condorcet paradox in certain cases already noted by Condorcet.
In this cardinal version, total utilitarianism aims to maximize the sum of the levels of member well-being. But this implies a disgusting conclusion to Derek Parfit, namely the duty to increase the world’s population as long as the well-being that additional individuals are supposed to enjoy exceeds the potential net decrease in the well-being of other individuals caused by the increase of the population.
This new cardinal version of John Harsanyi, utilitarianism aims to maximize the average well-being or well-being of each person weighted by the probability of being a rational individual not knowing his position in society. But in theory Peter Singer points out that this version of utilitarianism would promote the elimination of people less happy than average. This would bring happier people closer to the average until all individuals have identical happiness and therefore equivalent to average happiness.