Utilitarianism

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The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.
~ Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as happiness or pleasure, well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. This view can be contrasted or combined with seeing intentions, virtues or the compliance with rules as ethically important.

The most prominent and influential utilitarians were Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and Peter Singer.

Arranged alphabetically by author or source:
A · B · C · D · E · F · G · H · I · J · K · L · M · N · O · P · Q · R · S · T · U · V · W · X · Y · Z · See also · External links

B[edit]

  • By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.
    • Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1798.
  • By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case come to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party who whose is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community; if a particular individual; then the happiness of that individual.
    • Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1798.
  • Dr. Priestley published his Essay on Government in 1768. He there introduced ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ It was by that pamphlet, and this phrase in it, that my principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined. It was from that pamphlet and that page of it, that I drew the phrase, the words and import of which have been so widely diffused over the civilized world. At the sight of it, I cried out, as it were, in an inward ecstasy, like Archimedes on the discovery of the fundamental principle of hydrostatics, eureka!
    • Jeremy Bentham, “Deontology, or the Science of Morality”, The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, and Ecclesiastical Record, vol. 16, no. 32 (1834), pp. 279-280
  • The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
  • The utilitarian behaves sensibly in all that is required for preservation but never takes account of the fact that he must die. He does everything reasonable to put off the day of his death—providing for defense, peace, order, health and wealth —but actively suppresses the fact that the day must come. His whole life is absorbed in avoiding death, which is inevitable, and therefore he might be thought to be the most irrational of men, if rationality has anything to do with understanding ends or comprehending the human situation as such.

D[edit]

  • In the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate to speak of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species. The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable, if found practicable, to use the same definition in both cases, and to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation on account of political ethics.
  • As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives, according as they lead to this end; and as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong.

G[edit]

We can summarize utilitarianism thus: Happiness is what matters, and everyone's happiness counts the same. This doesn't mean that everyone gets to be equally happy, but it does mean that no one's happiness is inherently more valuable than anyone else's.
~ Joshua Greene
  • Utilitarianism is a great idea with an awful name. It is, in my opinion, the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy.
    • Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), p. 106
  • Bentham and Mill introduced a perfectly general standard for measuring moral value and for making hard moral decisions: All actions are to be measured by the sum of their effects on happiness. Utilitarianism is a splendid idea (...) [b]ut it's also a highly controversial idea, the object of two centuries' worth of philosophical debate.
    • Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), p. 156
  • We can summarize utilitarianism thus: Happiness is what matters, and everyone's happiness counts the same. This doesn't mean that everyone gets to be equally happy, but it does mean that no one's happiness is inherently more valuable than anyone else's.
    • Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), p. 170
  • Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots. Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.
    • Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), p. 275

H[edit]

  • I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.
    • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Chapter 11: Religion Is a Team Sport

M[edit]

The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. (...) To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. ~ John Stuart Mill
  • I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people.
  • the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
  • The ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (...), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, (...) This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.
  • The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted. The only self-renunciation which it applauds, is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others; either of mankind collectively, or of individuals within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind.
  • All desirable things...are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
  • The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.
  • Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this—that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions.
  • That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain, is all of the doctrine of the school of utility, which is peculiar to it.
    • John Stuart Mill, Bentham, Dissertations and Discussions, London, 1859
  • Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer 'immoral,' let the morality of the principle of utility be for ever condemned.
    • John Stuart Mill, Dr. Whewell on Moral Philosophy (1852), in Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical, vol. 2, London: John W. Parker and son, 1859, p. 485.
  • It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings. The human capacity of suffering is what we should cause to be respected, not the mere capacity of existing.
    • John Stuart Mill, Capital Punishment (April 21, 1868), in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 28, p. 270
  • A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception.
  • The satisfaction of the much stigmatized ''animal propensities," or ''carnal desires," whatever they are, may be just as exemplary and noble as the satisfaction of the desire for knowledge or opulence; and they are, in fact, frequently more so. The only rational characterization of a low desire is one incapable of yielding to the universe in its satisfaction large returns of happiness. And a high desire is simply one affording to the universe in its satisfaction wide and profound welfare. The only reason why any desire, so-called "high" or so-called ''low," should be kept in abeyance is that its satisfaction will not contribute to the utilities. There is no reason why any desire capable of satisfaction possessed by a living being should not be satisfied, except that its satisfaction may interfere with the satisfaction of other more valuable desires possessed by the being himself or by other beings.
  • Each living being of the universe, therefore, sustains to every other living being the relation of possible right and wrong, but to the insentient universe no such relation exists. Right is that relation which is conducive to happiness, or welfare, or complete living, or whatever synonym is preferred. Wrong is that which conduces to the opposite of happiness—misery, ill-fare, maladaptation.
  • Why should living beings struggle against each other, except as they struggle to advance the general welfare? Happiness is just as valuable and just as beautiful a thing in one being as in another. Some have greater talent for it than have others but it is a state of sweetness and elation always and everywhere. And each living being, in deliberating on the problem of the proprieties, should realize the fact that, as a matter of fact, it is a matter of indifference whether this relation belongs to his sensorium or to some other sensorium. It is insane for each being to insist that he, as an organism, is the one organism to whom pleasure is indispensable. The only indispensable is that pleasure be maximized. If a definite amount of happiness is to be experienced, it is, in the eyes of the absolute, a matter of indifference whether this happiness is experienced by one individual or by another, by self or by some other conscious portion of the universe.
  • Those things, thoughts, beings, acts, and instincts which help us to the pleasurable experiences of life we call good, and those which deprive us of pleasure or which bring upon us painful experiences we call bad. This is the supreme standard—Utility. Is the thing, thought, being, act, or impulse useful? Does it lead directly or indirectly to happiness and well-being? If it does, it is right, proper, and good. If it does not, it is wrong, improper, and bad.
  • The well being of others is on an average as important as our own, and should as a general thing be appraised at the same value. If a certain amount of happiness is scheduled to fall to the lot of the earth, it makes absolutely no difference whether it falls on me, or on you, or on somebody a thousand miles away. It would serve the ends of absolute ethics quite as well if it fell on an insect or a horse as if it fell on a man. The only important thing from the standpoint of universal good is that the pleasure be experienced. It is not important what particular individual or species is the beneficiary. It might even go to another world, and be just as satisfactory to a universal well-wisher, who looked at Cosmos from the serene altitudes of pure reason, without any prejudices whatever one way or another in the matter. This is the ideal. It is a long, long way from our natures. But only in so far as we approximate this ideal do we rise above those imperfections of our being which have been ground out by the methods that have operated in the development of life on earth.

N[edit]

  • Hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, or eudaemonism, all those modes of thinking which measure the worth of things according to pleasure and pain, ... are plausible modes of thought and naïvetés, which every one conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down upon with scorn. ... We regard your seriousness as more dangerous than any kind of levity. ... Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us ... a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible.

P[edit]

  • Perfect the Will, the Mind, Feeling, their corporeal organs and their material tools; be useful to yourselves, to your own ones, and to others; and Happiness, insofar as it exists on this earth, will come of itself.

O[edit]

  • In their time, Bentham's ideas promoted progress, reform, wider democracy, and the amelioration of undesirable social conditions. Bentham lived... when common people, the "labouring poor," had little voice and no vote... Their toil and sacrifices enhanced the power of the nation, the glory of its rulers, the wealth of industrialists and merchants, and the indolent ease of the aristocrats. Yet here was a philosopher who said that people are people regardless of their social position. ...[L]egislators ought actively to augment the total happiness of the community. Instead of the people serving the state, the state should serve the people. ...[H]is slogan for government was "Be quiet." But he did not worship laissez-faire as a principle to be accepted blindly. ...[T]he state should monopolize the issue of paper money, thereby saving interest on its borrowing. It should... operate life and annuity insurance, and tax inheritance, monopolies, [etc.] ...Bentham's idea of diminishing marginal utility of money suggested an argument for the redistribution of income. ...[M]ore happiness will be gained by the poor... than will be lost by the wealthy... Bentham's devotion to the greatest good for the greatest number led him to... advocate for.. democratic reforms. He supported universal (male) suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and the secret ballot. He opposed the monarchy and the House of Lords, arguing that only in a democracy do the interest of the gonernors and the governed become identical. ...Bentham urged a system of national education, even for pauper children. Frugality Banks... should... stimulate saving by the poor. Public works should provide jobs for unemployed workers during slack times. ...He designed ...a model prison that would reform criminals rather than punish them. No wonder Bentham and his circle of intellects (including James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Ricardo) were called "philosophic radicals."
    • Jacob Oser, Stanley L. Brue, The Evolution of Economic Thought (1963, 1988) 4th edition, pp. 122-123.

R[edit]

  • It appeared to me obvious that the happiness of mankind should be the aim of all action, and I discovered to my surprise that there were those who thought otherwise. Belief in happiness, I found, was called Utilitarianism, and was merely one among a number of ethical theories. I adhered to it after this discovery.

S[edit]

Those proud Islanders are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility. All knowledge they have robbed of life and use only as dead wood to make masts and helms for their life's voyage in pursuit of gain.
~ Friedrich Schleiermacher
The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism. This means that all beings with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain should be included; we can improve their welfare by increasing their pleasures and diminishing their pains.
~ Peter Singer
How far we are to consider the interests of posterity when they seem to conflict with those of now-existing human beings? The answer to this, though, seems clear: the time at which a man exists can’t affect the value of his happiness from a universal point of view; so the interests of posterity must concern a utilitarian as much as those of his contemporaries
~ Henry Sidgwick
  • This utilitarian view of the mind ... is an external view only, which marks the place and conditions of the mind in nature, but neglects its specific essence. ... If the intellect is a device produced in organic bodies to expedite their processes, these organic bodies must have interests and a chosen direction in their life; otherwise their life could not be expedited, nor could anything be useful to it.
  • Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance.
  • Those proud Islanders whom many unduly honour, know no watchword but gain and enjoyment. Their zeal for knowledge is only a sham fight, their worldly wisdom a false jewel, skilfully and deceptively composed, and their sacred freedom itself too often and too easily serves self-interest. They are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility. All knowledge they have robbed of life and use only as dead wood to make masts and helms for their life's voyage in pursuit of gain.
  • The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view...of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other.
  • We have next to consider who the “all” are, whose happiness is to be taken into account. Are we to extend our concern to all the beings capable of pleasure and pain whose feelings are affected by our conduct? or are we to confine our view to human happiness? The former view is the one adopted by Bentham and Mill, and (I believe) by the Utilitarian school generally: and is obviously most in accordance with the universality that is characteristic of their principle. It is the Good Universal, interpreted and defined as ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure,’ at which a Utilitarian considers it his duty to aim: and it seems arbitrary and unreasonable to exclude from the end, as so conceived, any pleasure of any sentient being.
  • How far we are to consider the interests of posterity when they seem to conflict with those of now-existing human beings? The answer to this, though, seems clear: the time at which a man exists can’t affect the value of his happiness from a universal point of view; so the interests of posterity must concern a utilitarian as much as those of his contemporaries—except in that the effect of his actions on the lives and even the existence of posterity must be more uncertain.
  • The core precept of utilitarianism is that we should make the world the best place we can. That means that, as far as it is within our power, we should bring about a world in which every individual has the highest possible level of wellbeing.
  • The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism. This means that all beings with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain should be included; we can improve their welfare by increasing their pleasures and diminishing their pains.
    • Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (1981)
  • The kind of equality utilitarianism supports is given by Bentham’s formula...: ‘everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one’...Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness, and in deciding how to calculate whether happiness is being maximized, no one’s pleasures or pains should count for less because they are peasants rather than aristocrats, slaves rather than slave-owners, Africans rather than Europeans, poor rather than rich, illiterates rather than doctors of philosophy, children rather than adults, females rather than males, or even, as we have seen, non-human animals rather than human beings.
  • The sentiment to which [the utilitarian] appeals is generalized benevolence, that is, the disposition to seek happiness, or...good consequences, for all mankind, or perhaps for all sentient beings.
    • J. J. C. Smart, An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics, in Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, B. Utilitarianism For and Against, Chapter I. Introductory
  • Another type of ultimate disagreement between utilitarians, whether hedonistic or ideal, can arise over whether we should try to maximize the average happiness of human beings...or whether we should try to maximize the total happiness or goodness...Would you be quite indifferent between (a) a universe containing only one million happy sentient beings, all equally happy, and (b) a universe containing two million happy beings, each neither more nor less happy than any in the first universe? Or would you, as a humane and sympathetic person, give a preference to the second universe? I myself cannot help feeling a preference for the second universe.
    • J. J. C. Smart, An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics, in Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, B. Utilitarianism For and Against, Chapter 4. Average happiness versus total happiness
  • [A] purely hedonistic utilitarian, like Bentham, might agree with Mill in preferring the experiences of discontented philosophers to those of contented fools. His preference for the philosopher’s state of mind, however, would not be an intrinsic one. He would say that the discontented philosopher is a useful agent in society and that the existence of Socrates is responsible for an improvement in the lot of humanity generally.
    • J. J. C. Smart, An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics, in Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, B. Utilitarianism For and Against, Chapter 3. Hedonistic and non-hedonistic utilitarianism
  • It's the flock, the grove, that matters. Our responsibility is to species, not to specimens; to communities, not to individuals.

W[edit]

  • Before the age of adulteration it was held that behind each work there stood some conception of its perfect execution. It was this that gave zest to labor and served to measure the degree of success. To the extent that the concept obtained, there was a teleology in work, since the laborer toiled not merely to win sustenance but to see this ideal embodied in his creation. Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity. The craftsman of old time did not hurry, because the perfect takes no account of time and shoddy work is a reproach to character. But character itself is an expression of self-control, which does not come of taking the easiest way. Where character forbids self-indulgence, transcendence still hovers around.
When utilitarianism becomes enthroned and the worker is taught that work is use and not worship, interest in quality begins to decline. … There is a difference between expressing one’s self in form and producing quantity for a market with an eye to speculation. Péguy wished to know what had become of the honor of work. It has succumbed to the same forces as have all other expressions of honor.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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