Today, I am going to talk about Utilitarianism. So, I spend my time thinking about morality. About what makes actions morally right or morally wrong? And I wanted to talk today about a very simple, quite popular answer to that question.
A moral theory that goes by the name of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has a lot going for it, but also raises some very interesting worries, and I’m going to talk a bit about some of those. So utilitarianism is the view that actions are morally permissible if and only if they produce at least as much net happiness as any other available action.
In other words, the more happiness and less suffering that results from our actions, the better the action is, and the right action is the one that produces the greatness balance of happiness over sufforing
In fact, according to utilitarianism, any other action is morally wrong. This utilitarian principle is supposed to be absolute and all-encompassing. It will tell you of any decision whatsoever, exactly what you should morally do. And it admits of no exceptions.
Utilitarianism has been around for a long time, but it gained a lot in prominence and popularity in the late eighteenth century, due in part to the work of a British philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. He published the “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” in 1789. But he was also a very political and social active guy. In fact, he was an defender of Economic Liberalisation, Freedom of Expression, The separation of church and state, Women’s right, animal rights, the right to divorce, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform, and even the decriminalization of homosexual acts. Remember this was 1789. Many pf which are now uncontroversial. In this, he was well ahead of his time, and in large part, I would think, because of his embrace of utilitarianism.
That for me, counts heavily in favor of it as a moral theory. And in fact aspect of utilitarianism can look very hard to resist. We can break the utilitarian thesis up into two parts: A theory of what is valuable, and a theory of right action given what’s valuable.
First, the theory of what is valuable
It says that the only thing that’s valuable in its own right is happiness and the absence of suffering.
Other things, like money, might be derivatively valuable, because it helps us get happiness.
Second, the theory of right action. The right action is the one that maximises, produces the most of, what’s valuable, or if that’s uncertain, that produces the most expected value. If you put those two pieces, the theory of what’s valuable and the theory of right action given what’s valuable, together, you get utilitarianism.