Utilitarianism

Intrinsic or Instrumental Value: Some thing (a person) or event or property is intrinsically valuable if it should be valued for its own sake. Friendship and justice are plausible candidates. Some thing is instrumentally valuable (money, for example) if it is valuable in virtue of leading or contributing to something of intrinsic value.

Utilitarianism, or Consequentialism, is a moral theory that assesses the rightness or wrongness of an act in terms of its consequences. In other words, all actions are considered to be of instrumental value. The value of the consequences is sometimes measured in terms of happiness or preference-satisfaction, those things that are taken as intrinsically valuable. Thus moral action is defined in terms of its instrumental contributions to the intrinsically valuable ends: if doing an act will result in greater good than harm, a consequentialist will see doing the act as possessing a greater value than omitting to do the act.  These theories are often viewed as secular, but they have different religious advocates.  Jeremy Bentham who is commonly seen as the father of modern utilitarianism, was preceded by theistic utilitarians.  William Paley was a leading theistic consequentialist.Although it is controversial whether one can measure happiness in reality, some refer to units of happiness as “hedons,” and units of unhappiness as “dolars.”

Act utilitarianism is the view that an agent should perform the act that is such that there is no other act available that will produce greater utility.

Rule utilitarianism is the view that an agent acts rightly when she acts in accordance with a rule, such that: if all or most people were to act in accordance with that rule there would be no less utility than if they acted in accordance with any other rule.

The reason for such awkward formulations is that a more simple rule, such as “an act is right if it produces the greatest pleasure or happiness,” is that there might be two acts that produce identical amounts of happiness or pleasure.

One may be a utilitarian and not limit one’s values to pleasure, choosing an alternate intrinsic good. For example, one might include in addition to happiness such goods as friendship, promise-keeping, beauty, and so on.

Among the concerns raised by utilitarianism: What if believing and acting on the basis of utilitarianism would produce the least amount of happiness? This would mean that if utilitarianism is true, it might be obligatory not to believe it. Should utility be measured in terms of the actual utility produced by an act? Or what it is reasonable for people to believe will produce the greatest utility? Utilitarians tend to treat acts and omissions as not morally distinguishable – a controversial position (See “Acts & Omissions”). Can utilitarianism generate a sound understanding of virtues and vices?