what is utilitarianism

Whether in ethics class or elsewhere, almost everyone has heard of a utilitarian act and knows that it is about an ethical theory. We will look at some of the details of utilitarianism in this article, introducing some of the basic ideas behind this theory.

1.      Repeat: what is utilitarianism?

2.     Defense against criticism against utilitarianism

3.     A thought experiment

4.     No thanks, I don’t want any more oranges!

5.     Various other versions of the review

6.     We need rules: rule utilitarianism

7.     Modern version: preferential utilitarianism

8.     Controversial: preference as the only yardstick

1.      What is the foundation of utilitarianism?

2.     What criticism is there against this first form and how can one respond to it?

3.     What are the fundamental weaknesses of utilitarianism? Can they be eliminated?

4.     What does rule utilitarianism mean?

5.     What modern developments are there in utilitarian ethics?

Repeat: what is utilitarianism?

In the first part of the article on utilitarianism, we heard the most important basic theses and some criticisms of this normative theory. We have seen that there are four pillars on which utilitarianism rests, namely:

  1. Consequentialism:Whether an action is good or bad is always determined by the consequences.
    2. Hedonistic principle:The overriding principle of all action is happiness and the avoidance of suffering.
    3. Principle of universality: The focus is on the well-being of all those affected by an action.
    4. Principle of utility: What counts with a consequence is the benefit. This must be maximized.

With these four aspects alone, one has already fully characterized classical utilitarianism. In the last part we took a closer look at the consequences to be drawn from this, that is, above all the intuitive moral contradictions. We finally stopped at the criticism, where we want to pick up again in this article.

Defense against criticism against utilitarianism 

In the first place I introduced the objection that utilitarianism seems to have no place for promise and justice. In most situations it would even be morally necessary to break promises because you could use your resources better. The concrete example was:

  • Person S has a permanent employment relationship and receives monthly wages from his employer for work performed. S ‘boss now decides not to pay S his wages at all, but rather to donate them to a charitable organization. This would give more people more pleasure and is utilitarian justified.

One possible response of the utilitarian to this would be to consider the future consequences that would arise if such behavior became general. Suppose there is no point in trusting a given promise or signed contract because people could break the obligation at any time – what follows from that?

A thought experiment

What would a society look like that did something like that? It would simply create chaos. No one would trust anyone any more and any form of organization would collapse. The utilitarian argues that he is looking at the overall benefits of this generalized act and noting that:

The happiness-suffering balance would ultimately be very negative . People are worse off when there are no promises. Thus the behavior of the boss would not be justified in a utilitarian way. Let’s look at the second example:

  • Person S lives in a slave society. S becomes enslaved and is forced to work for the good of others. His reluctance could well be  outweighed in the final balance by the positive  overall benefit and the resulting pleasure for other people, which is why his enslavement is utilitarian justified.

Here, too, the utilitarian can find a solution in the same way. It becomes clearer in the more radical example that I have given in this context: can one cannibalize a person for his organs in order to implant these others? First of all, the utilitarian would have to agree, because of course the balance is positive (more people have more luck as a result).

But let’s imagine a society again where this possibility (spontaneous exploitation) is the order of the day. What would happen? Of course, trust would be broken here too. Everyone would have to live in constant fear because it could be that they would be the next victim – the ‘voluntary donor’. What about the last example?

No thanks, I don’t want any more oranges!

  • A company wants to distribute one-off rewards for good employee performance and gives all 100 employees € 50. According to Bentham’s hedonistic calculation, it should make no difference – if you equate a reward with a unit of pleasure – if you only give 10 employees € 500, or € 5,000 to one.

Here the utilitarian can no longer talk his way out of it so easily with the already known content of his theory building. He needs an original new solution – and he has it in the form of a  marginal utility  (also known as Gossen’s first law).

Simply put, it means nothing more than the fact that one is less and less happy for every new portion of a good or happiness. Now, for example, I’m very happy about my first orange, but much less about my tenth. So it would make more sense not to give me another seventh, eighth or ninth orange, but to someone who didn’t have one.

In this way utilitarianism manages to build a certain form of justice into its theory.

Various other versions of the review

Of course, these three rather grave objections are not all that can be said against utilitarianism. In addition to further content-related criticism, as for example Immanuel Kant formulated it with his deontological ethics, there is a special formal objection that I would like to introduce briefly.

It is the so-called self-destruction objection. Originally referred to as self-defeating-critique , it says nothing more than that one would never be able to carry out an action with a utilitarian attitude. Ultimately, utilitarianism requires us to determine the maximum benefit in every act. [2]

In this way, however, we have been degraded to transforming calculating machines that would always only carry out benefit calculations without ultimately performing an action, because one can never complete one’s calculation in practice.

If, as a utilitarian, one wants to put things into perspective and admit that a good assessment of the benefit would be sufficient, or an increase instead of maximization, then utilitarianism would not be particularly helpful in making meaningful statements about our actions.

With this admission, there would be no objective criterion of moral judgment at all if relativisms were allowed – why then speak of an ethical theory?

In addition to these points of criticism, there are a few others, which I am simply leaving out here for reasons of time. Instead, we should much rather begin to look at what the utilitarians have come up with to counter these criticisms.

We need rules: rule utilitarianism

One possible response to the objection of self-destruction is the transition from utilitarian action to utilitarian rule. The classic version belongs to the first variant. The individual actions are judged according to their benefit and a moral assessment is carried out accordingly.

However, as we have seen, for pragmatic reasons that would be an intolerable imposition. For this reason, utilitarians have come up with a convenient solution: We no longer look at every action, but rather at categories of actions that should be determined using rules.

Action utilitarianism is therefore a rather atomistic theory: the correctness of an individual action is determined by its consequences for the world. Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, takes the view that the correctness of an action is not determined by its relative utility, but by the utility that results from having a relevant moral rule. [3]

The determination of this relevant moral rule is central to this entirely new version of utilitarianism. First of all, this rule is defined as precisely the one whose acceptance would lead directly to a maximization of social utility in predominantly similar situations.

Then one then defines the morally correct action in accordance with this rule, which itself, however, is directed towards a concrete goal. Of course, there are critical objections here too – can you think of any?

Modern version: preferential utilitarianism

Finally, I would like to introduce a contemporary and highly controversial position of utilitarianism, namely so-called preferential utilitarianism . Preference here means preference, need or interest.

Peter Singer (* 1946), probably the best-known representative of this school of thought, argues in favor of evaluating the consequences of an action from the point of view of the interests of an individual being who is affected by the action. This is obviously a completely new approach. His attitude to life is also exciting (TED talk –  video ).

In this way alone, the utility in the utility balance should then be assessed. With this, Singer says goodbye to the age-old pleasure-pain standard and introduces a much more general assessment that unfortunately leads him to some difficult-to-swallow conclusions.

Indeed, Singer claims that every living being has interests, and every being’s interest deserves equal consideration. All differentiating criteria that we can cite, such as gender, race, species, religion and so on, are thus dissolved.

The human being as homo sapiens is therefore in no way superior to the chicken or the cow. What makes the difference, however, is the quality of specific interests. According to Singer, all reflected beings endowed with rationality have the weighty preference of future planning.

Controversial: preference as the only yardstick

So it is quite legitimate – in Singer’s view – to weigh preferences against each other and in terms of rationality he is not afraid to express this conclusion:

For preference utilitarians, taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being, since persons are highly future-oriented in their preferences […] In contrast, beings who cannot see themselves as entities with a future cannot have any preferences about their own future existence. [4]

In this way, Singer gets into a highly controversial position because he denies intrinsic characteristics such as ‘dignity’. He differentiates between homo sapiens (potentially without rationality) and person (a person who earns personal status due to his rationality and the preferences resulting from it ).

Preference utilitarianism simply does not call a person without preferences a person. What follows from this should be pretty obvious. All disability associations demonstrate regularly at Singer’s lectures.


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