Imagine you are in a country that suffers from a severe lack of donated organs, with thousands of people on the waiting list for a transplant. A full set of organs from one person would be able to save seven lives. You, as a doctor, could choose to remove the organs from one healthy but homeless beggar in order to save seven important high-ranking members of society in your care. Would you do it?
Or what about the converse, removing the organs from one healthy, important high-ranking member of society in order to save seven homeless beggars in your care?
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory and a type of consequentialism that focuses on maximizing happiness, or pleasure, and reducing pain. When faced with a decision, a utilitarian would consider the available options and ask themselves how many people would benefit and how many would suffer from it. The most ethical course of action in utilitarianism is the one that causes the greatest amount of good to the most number of people, or the least harm to the least number of people.
Utilitarianism believes that all living beings, present or future, are equal to the extent that they can experience pain and pleasure. As such, in the organ transplant examples above, a utilitarian would always choose to sacrifice one person to save the seven, no matter who was a beggar and who was an important member of society, because all humans are equally capable of experiencing pain and pleasure.
In early times, utilitarian philosophers sought to come up with a scientific process of determining which course of action would be the most ethical. They came up with a calculative method similar to a cost-benefit assessment, weighing the consequences of each action in terms of the benefits received and losses incurred by all affected sentient beings. Sentient beings were not just restricted to human beings, but animals as well, because they also have the ability to feel pain and pleasure (though utilitarianism considered that animals felt pain and pleasure to less of an extent than humans).
The calculation process took into account a number of factors, including the following:
- The number of sentient beings that would benefit (i.e. feel pleasure or happiness)
- The number of sentient beings that would suffer losses or be harmed (i.e. feel pain)
- The intensity of any resulting pleasure, and how long it would last
- The intensity of any resulting pain, and how long it would last
Utilitarian thinking sees all people as equals. As such, if you were to choose either to benefit your one child or benefit five strangers, a utilitarian would choose to benefit five strangers as more people would be happy that way. Although you are making the decision and could choose to make someone you know happy, utilitarianism believes that a person’s identity has no bearing on their ability to feel pain and pleasure, and thus, each person’s happiness is just as important as another person’s happiness. Utilitarianism employs an impartial calculation process to determine the most ethical course of action.
Utilitarianism has seen many applications throughout the world’s history. It was used to bring an end to slavery, end the mistreatment of animals, orphans and child laborers, as well as providing better treatment to adult laborers, prisoners and criminals, the poor and those with mental conditions. It helped in fighting for women’s rights and the equal treatment of any gender.
Today, not everyone may rely on calculations to make choices in their daily lives. However, we can still see the impact of utilitarianism in teaching us that all people are equal and everyone’s happiness is just as important, regardless of their wealth, age, gender, race, social status or anything else.
Many modern societies make decisions based on this rationale, and the community in general usually tries to choose the action with the most benefit and least harm. For example, when a major decision is to be made, voting is carried out among the affected populace to determine the public’s opinion, and the majority vote is taken. This ensures that the option chosen is the one that makes the most number of people happy, thereby maximizing happiness and reducing harm. Additionally, in an ideal voting system, everyone’s vote has an equal weightage regardless of their position in society, demographics or other factors, which aligns with the utilitarian belief that all humans’ happiness is equally important.
Despite the advantages of utilitarianism, the ethical theory still has its drawbacks. Remember the organ transplant scenario discussed at the start of this article? Well, it is generally considered unacceptable in modern society to harm a perfectly healthy person even if it could save thousands of other lives. If it was socially acceptable to sacrifice one life to save seven others, what would happen to our society?
Another flaw of utilitarianism is the assumption that all humans involved in the consequences are equal. Consider a car driver who has to choose either to swerve to another lane and kill one person, or stay on the current lane and kill four people. Utilitarianism would prompt the action that results in less harm, which would be swerving to kill that one person, thus sparing the other four. However, what if you later learned that that one person was a business owner and solely responsible for the livelihoods of a thousand other people, including the four you spared?
Additionally, utilitarian thinking assumes that the course of each action will result in the expected consequence. What if you chose the ethical action, but it actually resulted in an unexpected – and worse – consequence? Would your action still be ethical then?
Do you think that the calculative process of utilitarianism is a viable way to determine the most ethical course of action? Why or why not?
Can you think of one situation not mentioned in this article that displays a flaw of the theory of utilitarianism?*
Some people say that some types of pleasure can be better than other types of pleasure and some types of pain can be worse than other types of pain. Other people think that all types of pleasure are equally good and all types of pain are equally bad. Which do you agree with, and why?
Utilitarianism works based on the principle that one can assume that others will respond to a consequence in the same way as they do. In other words, a person can assume that whatever causes them pleasure will similarly cause others pleasure, and whatever causes them pain will similarly cause others pain. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
*One example: Suppose you had to choose either to give ten billion people a free ride at an amusement park, or heal the terrible chronic pain of one person. Assuming that receiving a free ride would make each of those ten billion people happy, utilitarianism would theoretically dictate that the more ethical course of action would be to give ten billion people a free ride because it makes more people happy, instead of healing one person’s terrible chronic pain and making just that person happy. However, most people would probably agree that the ethical course of action in this case would be to alleviate one person’s terrible pain instead of giving ten billion people a free ride, which they can easily do without. This is an example of how, in some cases, no amount of pleasure can add up to terrible pain.