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Doing the Right Thing (Part I)

Paul Sheehy

1. Introduction

In this article I consider an area of ethics with which you are already acquainted. All of us have been confronted by the need to decide what the morally right thing to do is and to justify one's course of action. The part of ethics which deals with these questions is normative ethics. This is the study of those theories which aim to guide our actions. We are interested in theories which direct our practical reasoning about the right thing to do or way to be and which furnish the justification for the actions which follow from our reasoning. A basic question is what determines the rightness or wrongness of a judgement, decision or action? What makes something morally good or bad? In other words, what is the appropriate standard or criterion to apply when making moral judgements and decisions? How do we answer the questions of what one ought to do or how one ought to be, and how are we to understand the relationship between these questions?

2. Meta-ethics and Normative ethics

Before continuing we should briefly say something about the relationship between meta-ethics and normative ethics. I have discussed meta-ethics in previous articles, here (PDF) and here. This is the branch of philosophy which aims to understand the nature of moral judgements. We are not seeking a substantive ethical theory about what is right, but enquiring into what we mean when we say that an action or person or state of affairs is good or right, wrong, bad, cruel, just and so on. Meta-ethics is centrally concerned with the analysis of moral concepts, the relations between them and other (non-moral) concepts and the logic of their use. In asking what it means to say that stealing is wrong, one is not enquiring about the possible outcomes of acting in that way. Rather, the meta-ethical interest is in whether our moral judgements express beliefs which (at least sometimes) refer to moral facts. These concerns find a focal point in two related questions. Are our moral statements capable of being true or false? Can we possess moral knowledge? A third question (or set of questions) must also be addressed. Are there moral facts or properties and what is the nature of moral facts - are they reducible to some other type of fact or are they irreducible and sui generis?

Those who answer 'yes' are moral realists. They maintain that there are moral facts and that our moral statements are capable of being true or false in virtue of the moral facts. That is, the realist claims there are facts concerning the rightness or wrongness of an action or state of affairs. Moral realists are also moral cognitivists. They hold that we can have knowledge of the moral facts. Realists hold that moral facts are objective. They are independent of any beliefs or thoughts we might have about them. What is right is not determined by what I or anybody else thinks is right.

Those who say 'no' to the questions deny that moral judgements are apt to be true or false for they do not express beliefs. This is anti-realism or non-cognitivism and it holds there is no moral knowledge because there are no moral facts to be known. Non-cognitivists tend to argue that moral claims are subjective sentiments of approval or disapproval or expressions of emotion or grounded in convention, agreement or our acceptance of norms.[1]

The truth of anti-realism would suggest that the study of ethics is properly the investigation of meta-ethics. There are no objective or true theories to guide our actions. For no substantive moral claims are capable of being true. Those moral outlooks which seem to dominate or which we share are certainly important and interesting, but they are the subject of social scientific rather than philosophical enquiry. Under the influence of Logical Positivism and the later Wittgenstein this stance dominated Analytic Philosophy departments from the 1930s to 1960s.

However, the demise of normative ethics has subsequently been arrested and it is now a flourishing and variegated domain of enquiry. The retreat from the position of regarding ethics as meta-ethics was prompted in part by the thought that anti-realism need not (and perhaps cannot) mean that one is not entitled to hold and recommend moral judgements. To refrain from making such judgements and acting upon them would amount to a kind of neutrality or quietism about substantive ethical questions aimed at addressing the challenge of acting in the world. The anti-realist may deny that a moral theory can be proven as true. Yet she may consistently aim to articulate a set of claims which are persuasive in setting the terms for how we engage with one another. Here the notion of being persuasive is not one of rhetorical success, but of appealing to facts about our nature as social creatures and being responsive to the demands of rational argument and consistency. Relatedly, in engaging in moral discourse one is committing oneself to a certain outlook or stance. While the claims embedded in one's commitment may not be truth evaluable, it is nonetheless possible to work out what that commitment means or entails in terms of how one should consistently engage with and regard others. For example, given a set of commitments and the facts of the situation before me there are rational and practical constraints on what I ought to judge to be the appropriate course of action. In doing so one arrives at substantive conclusions about what one ought to do.[2]

The reinvigoration of realism has contributed significantly to the restoration of normative ethics. Realism holds that moral claims can be true, and so allows immediately the question of what moral theory (best) expresses the truth concerning our deliberation and conduct. Now, it need not follow that a realist theory commit itself to a particular normative approach, but it can do so. Indeed, in developing an answer to the question of how we should understand the nature of moral facts a theory may express a particular substantive moral theory. Neutrality on substantive issues of what is right or good may not, though, be anything more than an interim position for any meta-ethical theory. The moral facts are the focus of our actual moral practice and of the normative theories which aspire to guide that practice. It seems, then that '(I)f we are interested in the final resolution of meta-ethical questions - in whether or not there really are any moral facts - then...we therefore have little alternative but to engage in normative ethical debate and to see where the arguments that we give ultimately lead us.'[3]

While acknowledging the distinct kind of questions posed, the refusal to treat meta-ethical and normative issues in isolation reflects the historically dominant approach. In considering, say, the nature of a good life or the basis of right action philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Kant have developed substantive normative ethical theories while being reflective about and sensitive to the status of their claims.[4]

Let's return to the characterisation of the concern of normative ethics as focused on the questions of what one should do or how one ought to be. These questions are not equivalent; they are not simply restating the same enquiry. Rather each arises from a different conception of what is at the centre of ethical reasoning - to put matters in perhaps too dramatic a fashion, of what normative ethics is about. The first conception places our actions centre-stage. Ethical theory articulates the criterion(a) by which actions and so persons are judged. An action may be evaluated in terms of its good or bad consequences. Or, it may be judged as the right or wrong thing to do by reference to the motivations of the agent and her duties. The second conception begins with the idea of what makes for a flourishing or worthwhile life. This is not to ignore the necessity and importance of acting, but rather locates action and agency within an account of the psychology and social relations constitutive of the good life for an individual. The first conception finds expression in consequentialist and deontic (duty-based) theories and the second in virtue theory.[5]

In the remaining sections of this article and a second one I shall examine the consequentialist approach by focusing on the classical utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill. In the present article I shall discuss the motivations and structure of utilitarianism and in the next some challenges it faces. In part considerations of space dictate a narrow focus. Also, the theories of Aristotle with his emphasis on virtue and Kant with his concentration on duty are discussed elsewhere in this journal, in an article by Roger Crisp here (PDF) and an article by Brad Hooker here (PDF). Moreover, utilitarianism demands detailed consideration because of its influence in the course of the last 150 years on public policy making, economic theory and its intuitive hold over much everyday thinking about right action.

3. Bentham, Mill and Utility

Consequentialism identifies the right thing to do by reference to the outcomes or consequences of an action. The moral evaluation of actions depends on the goodness or badness of their consequences. This approach can be summarised as the Right being determined by the Good: the Good is prior to the Right. The outcomes of our actions can in some way be measured and ranked in accordance with a criterion of value or goodness.

...those institutions and acts are right which of the available alternatives produce the most good, or at least as much good as any of the other institutions and acts open as real possibilities.[6]

Perhaps the most compelling, and certainly widespread, form of consequentialism is utilitarianism. The right action is the one that maximises overall utility or happiness. This is the central idea of the classical utilitarianism developed through the nineteenth century in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.[7] The right thing to do is determined by a consideration of what action produces the greatest level of overall happiness or utility. This is a compellingly simple thought - one which has been criticised as simplistic. Let's examine why one might think that such a simple approach could provide the basis for the complex institution of morality.

We need to begin with a picture of human psychology. For morality can only be grounded in our nature. The demands placed upon us must be conformable to the kind of creature we are. The proper place to begin moral science is therefore with an understanding of ourselves. In adopting this approach Bentham and Mill stand in the empiricist tradition of Hobbes and Hume. Indeed, it is arguable that there are important elements of the utilitarian approach to be found in the work of Hume. Setting this background point of interpretation to one side, Bentham understood people to be fundamentally directed by the experience of pleasure or pain.

Mankind governed by pain and pleasure. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognises this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system.[8]

As we shall see Mill adds sophistication to the notion of pleasure. For Bentham, though, pleasure and pain are to be regarded as sensations. Morality is then based on our capacity to experience pleasure or pain. The principle of utility is '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. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.'[9]

Jeremy Bentham

Why should we accord primacy to this capacity to enjoy pleasure or endure pain? Given the truth of the empirical claim about our psychology Bentham could reply that there is no way of formally proving the principle of utility since 'that which is used to prove everything else, cannot itself be proved: a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere. To give such a proof is as impossible as it is needless.'[10] More importantly and standing at the base of the whole utilitarian enterprise is the thesis that it is only pleasure or happiness which is intrinsically valuable. That is, it is happiness that is valuable in its own right or 'as such'. This is an axiological claim - a claim within the theory of value - and it is twofold. First, there is only one intrinsically valuable state of affairs which is the experience of pleasure. Second, everything else is valuable only in relation to some other thing. That is, all other activities or states are extrinsically valuable. The intrinsic value or goodness of pleasure underpins the view that morality should aim at the maximisation of the overall level of utility. For what else could its end be?

In applying the principle of utility actions and states of affairs are evaluated in respect of the pleasure and pain brought about from an impartial standpoint and on the basis that every individual counts equally. This expresses a deep commitment to egalitarianism. No individual is privileged. From the moral perspective every person is equal in that they are subject to the same standards of judgement. No person's pleasure receives any kind of special treatment or consideration. The duration, intensity and quality of the pleasure or pain are the relevant factors, not the identity of the individual who enjoys or endures them. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by aggregating the sum of pleasure and pain it produces in the persons within its scope. There may, of course, in practice be enormous difficulties in calculating outcomes. The principle is that the only way to rank outcomes in a way that respects the intrinsic value of pleasure and the fundamental equality of persons is to measure them impartially in accordance with a common metric.

4. Immediate Worries

Utilitarianism faces the immediate criticism that we simply cannot in any practical or effective way measure the pleasure or pain that any action brings about nor rank it against potential actions. This is not an unimportant challenge, but it is one that seems to have most obvious force against the kind of purely hedonic utilitarianism we find in Bentham, which bids us to measure, among other features, the quantity and intensity of a pleasure. Even here, though, the challenge may be met in part by acknowledging that any process of measurement will actually be of a rough and ready variety, aiming to follow, yet inevitably falling short of, the neat, idealised process specified in a philosophical text. As Bentham notes '(I)t is not expected that this process should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgement, or to every legislative or judicial operation. It may, however, always be kept in view'.[11]

Pie-eating - a lower pleasure

The worry about measurement seems in any case subordinate to a deeper concern about the model of human nature and value underpinning utilitarian theory. Let us grant that we do fundamentally value pleasure as such and that its pursuit is basic in our psychological make-up. The question now arises of how rich or complex our understanding of pleasure ought to be. For Bentham the experience of pleasure can be brought about in many ways and all that really matters are the intensity and duration, certainty, proximity and the production of further pleasures or pains. There is no sphere of activity or way of being which is in itself better or worse. Everything - be it the enjoyment of opera, the following of soap operas, the study of philosophy or the consumption of pork pies - is judged by the pleasure or pain it produces. The problem is that this seems to misrepresent the complexity of our psychology and the ends we pursue. No doubt, it is true that the raw experience of pleasure or pain is important. It is equally true that much of a life is spent in the pursuit of ends and practices which we regard as valuable in their own right, whose achievement or mastery thereof is a source of intense satisfaction which is neither identical with nor reducible to the sensation Bentham has in mind.

5. Mill

In the work of Mill we find both the worry set out and addressed from the utilitarian perspective. Mill agrees with Bentham that pleasure is the basis of morality and sets out a clear commitment to the Greatest Happiness Principle.

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded - namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.[12]
John Stuart Mill

However, Bentham is criticised for presenting an impoverished conception of human nature and the sources of value within a life. While for Bentham a game of push-pin (a child's game) could have equal value to poetry if the quantity of pleasure generated is equal, Mill thought it 'better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.' The point for Mill is that there is more to a fully human conception of pleasure or happiness than the experiencing of a certain sensation. The lacuna in Bentham's approach was that '(M)an is never recognised by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring, for its own sake, the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without the hope of good or fear of evil from other source than his inward consciousness.'[13]

Mill offers an analysis of pleasure which takes account of the range, complexity and sophistication of our distinctively human capacities. In his language there are lower pleasures which are superficial and appeal to our animal nature. Contrasted to these are the more enduring and profound higher pleasures. These reflect our possession of rational and emotional capacities that allow us to engage with others and the world in a reflective, creative fashion and in ways that allow us to develop or progress as individuals. It is because we have these distinctive capacities that we will not be fully satisfied by any happiness that does not involve their exercise.

Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.... If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.[14]

There are intellectual pleasures which are demanding in that it takes effort, and perhaps training and the development of skills in order to enjoy them. Such pleasures contrast with lower level pleasures with their overwhelming reliance on our physiological functions and sensory capacities. The delight of chomping your way through a delicious piece of chocolate cake or the joyous relief of scratching that itch are easily recognisable pleasures. So too is the intense and more or less immediate pleasure yielded by the first smoke of the day or, the initial rush of diamorphine entering the system of the addict. A distinctly human set of pleasures, though, belong to the sphere of activity in which we exercise our rational and emotional capacities in a more demanding way. The pleasures of intellectual enquiry or of artistic endeavour or devotion to a cause may not come in the form of an immediate, more or less literally bodily hit, but emerge from, or are constituted by, the process of being committed to the enquiry, endeavour or cause. For example, the pleasure of coming to understand in a deepening fashion the work of Bach or in struggling to grasp what philosophical lessons are to be drawn from the work of Wittgenstein is hard won, but not the kind of pleasure anyone would be prepared to abandon once experienced.[15]

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.... It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.[16]

In identifying the higher pleasures as corresponding to the intellectual and artistic tastes of a Victorian gentleman and intellectual Mill can certainly be criticised as presenting a rather narrow account of those pleasure which contribute significantly to genuine human welfare. What does one say to someone who says Mill is perhaps an oddball or someone who embodies the Victorian idea of the Age of Improvement and that there's no proof that pleasures beyond the bestial are any better? Perhaps there is little to say in the sense that we have reached a stand-off between fundamentally opposed views of human nature - a nature which ultimately grounds the judgement on the real nature of pleasure.

Nonetheless Mill is onto something. For the Millian will object to the criticism that this grants too much to a debased notion of both our nature and the pleasures which inform a genuinely flourishing life. Intuitively there is something important missing from a life in which the pleasures sought are just the superficial, ephemeral ones to be gained from, say, the physical enjoyments of food, drink and sex and the intellectual and artistic stimulation afforded by confessional TV and pop music. Note, this is not to say that there is no genuine value in such activities - the author would certainly face a loss in the value of his existence if that were the case - but that there must be more to a truly or more fully satisfying and pleasurable life. Mill allows utilitarianism to be articulated to recognise that there is a difference in the types of pleasure we can enjoy, and that to be properly happy one must enjoy those pleasures which arise from the exercise of our distinctively human capacities.[17]

This brings us to the question of whether happiness is desirable in itself. The answer was obvious to Bentham given the psychological make-up of humans. In chapter 4 Mill provides us with a 'proof' of the utilitarian doctrine that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable as an end, which he stresses is not a proof in the formal sense.

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.[18]

There are three issues which we need to consider here. Let us consider first what the 'proof' from experience delivers. Next we shall need to consider the question of whether the attainment of happiness is the moral criterion or just one consideration among others. Finally, the issue remains of whether we can move from a thesis about the pursuit of individual happiness to one about the maximisation of happiness across a whole community of individuals.

That happiness is desirable as an end in itself is shown by Mill in the proof. He makes it clear that he is not attempting to present a formal, deductive proof. Instead he is presenting compelling empirical considerations for the truth of the utilitarian claim. Our knowledge is ultimately grounded in our perceptual experiences. In his discussion of theories of perception Mill regards our knowledge of the external world as grounded in our knowledge of our immediate perceptual states - objects are 'permanent possibilities of sensation'. To be visible is to be see-able; and the only way of establishing whether an object is actually visible is to establish whether it is being seen. Now, the only way to demonstrate that something is desirable in itself is, according to Mill here, to appeal to experience. Given that Mill thinks that visibility is ultimately to be analysed in terms of a certain set of experiences, the analogy between being visible and being desirable is one that it is open to Mill to employ. For an individual happiness is always desirable as an end in itself.

Mill notes that opponents of utilitarianism allow that people do desire happiness for its own sake, but that they also 'desire things which, in common language, are decidedly distinguished from happiness'.[19] From this opponents 'deem they have the right to infer that there other ends of human action besides happiness, and that happiness is not the standard of approbation and disapprobation'.[20] Mill recognises that there are many things people value and desire for their own sake, the desirability of which cannot be reduced to a common Benthamite hedonic metric. The components of happiness are diverse. The pleasure of appreciating Bach can be compared to that of composing one's own haiku, but they are not being measured in terms of a single, mathematical standard. They are not strictly commensurable. Different activities can come to be valued in their own right even if they originated as means of pursuing some other end. Mill blocks the relegation of the virtues such as the altruistic concern for others and the appreciation of beauty by allowing that they can come to be valued for their own sake and in doing so constitute the parts of the concrete whole of happiness.[21]

The ingredients of happiness are very various, and each of them is desirable in itself, and not merely when considered as swelling an aggregate. The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, is to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.

At the same time Mill preserves the utilitarian commitment to the notion that it is the sum or aggregate happiness which is morally salient. Different activities such as the love of music or the desire of health can be desirable in their own right. Yet, in being desired for its own sake 'it is desired as part of happiness...Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole'.[22] To understand the nature of happiness is to see that over a complete life happiness consists of many different elements, and that the attainment of happiness is the fundamental end at which we aim. That is, we engage in activities either as a means to attain happiness or because they are an ingredient of happiness. It is happiness alone that is itself desired for its own sake.

The picture so far is that experience tells us that happiness is desirable in its own right and that happiness is to be understood as a complex whole. In granting these claims we can agree with Mill that happiness is the sole end of human action. However, there is a crucial third element in the utilitarian argument. This is the inference from the claim that happiness is the only desirable thing in itself to the view that morality aims at the promotion of the general good. Recall the argument presented in the proof. Happiness is a good and each person's happiness is a good to that person. The general happiness is, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.

This brings us to a deep problem for utilitarian approaches. As long as I am maximising my happiness why should I care about the overall level of utility? From the truth that I ought to aim at maximising my happiness it does not follow that I should aim to maximise the happiness of everyone considered together.[23] An argument for the good of overall utility optimisation requires a premise that this be a good for any individual. As things stand in accepting Mill's reasoning any (rational) individual - say, Bob - would need to acknowledge that another person's happiness is a good for that person in the way his happiness is a good for Bob. That, though, does not get us to the claim that overall happiness should be promoted.

The plausibility of the move from the thesis that happiness is the key good for an individual to the universal claim that overall or aggregate happiness is the goal of morality may depend on whether (a) utilitarianism is to be understood as a theory of motivation or justification and (b) of whether it is one's actions or the rules one follows which are subject to utilitarian scrutiny and judgement.

6. The Structure of Utilitarianism

A theory of motivation is one that identifies reasons for an individual to act in a particular set of circumstances. The reason to help your neighbour carry her shopping rather than hurry to the pub is that it is the act which brings about the greatest level of happiness. The utilitarian principle features in the psychological make-up of the individual. Understood as a theory of motivation utilitarianism tells us that when acting in a certain way will maximise the overall level of happiness one has reason to act in just that way. In light of the bounds on our knowledge and capacity to process information the requirement that I be motivated by consideration of which act will bring about the greatest level of happiness may well be self-defeating. The costs of acquiring the relevant information and the process of deliberation may outweigh the good generated by acting. Or, under the constraint to act, an individual may just have to opt to do something, which, given the constraints on reasoning, will prove to be sub-optimal.

The idea that we 'think utilitarian' in our actual decision making and that this is reflected in moral theory may strike you as a profoundly unrealistic picture of our psychology. The reasons on which we act are diverse and not at all obviously connected to considerations of one's own - let alone overall -happiness. You might help your neighbour because you feel duty-bound to do so, and while carrying the bags become increasingly miserable at the prospect of your friend chatting up the person you had hoped to ensnare with your charm. In learning moral concepts we do not first acquire a grasp of happiness and its importance, but are taught that certain practices like telling the truth are right and others like the infliction of wanton cruelty are wrong. This is not to deny that consideration of one's happiness or others' plays a role in moral decision making, but it cannot be the whole story. Given utilitarianism's claim to be just that, it would seem to fail on the face of things as a theory of motivation.

Utilitarian theory need not be regarded as a theory about the psychology of moral motivation. Rather, it is a theory of justification. The maximisation of utility is the standard by which actions or states are to be judged. To the extent that one's motivations have an impact on the level of utility within a situation, then motivation is relevant. The role of the principle of utility is to determine the rightness or wrongness of some action judged from an impartial perspective from which each individual is regarded equally. It is not primarily concerned to supply the reasons for an agent's actions, but with their consequences.

We can now find the reason we can move from the truth of happiness being of fundamental importance to any individual to the demand that morality aims at promoting overall happiness. The missing premise is that actions are justified by the happiness they generate measured impartially. The right act is the one that maximises the good of happiness more than any other. Any act which would produce a lesser degree or amount of happiness cannot be justified as the right one to take.

7. Act and Rule Utilitarianism

So far we have spoken in terms of actions being justified by the amount of happiness they produce. In doing so we have followed Bentham and much of the language of Mill. It is now time to introduce a distinction within utilitarian theory between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences of the action itself. Rule utilitarianism is the view that actions are justified to the extent that they accord with rules which are themselves selected solely on the basis that adherence thereto maximises general happiness.

With act utilitarianism moral judgement is always situational in the sense that the judgement focuses on this act being undertaken in this particular context. This invites the immediate criticism that it renders impossible judgements about the overall impact of any particular act. There is no-one with the impartial perspective or cognitive capacity to take in all of the relevant considerations. We simply cannot attain a position from which to judge the outcomes of actions.

Rule utilitarianism preserves the aim of morality as the maximisation of happiness and the minimisation of pain, but introduces two levels of judgement. Individual acts are assessed by moral rules. Those rules are selected on the basis that observance of the rule (or combination of rules) will produce over the long run a greater level of overall happiness than any other arrangement. The motivation for rule utilitarianism springs in part from the difficulties faced by spelling out act utilitarian in a way that allows judgements to be (really) made. By contrast the rule utilitarian makes the rather plausible claim that the practice of following certain rules - say, of keeping promises and respecting the physical well-being others - promotes happiness over the long term. To this can be added the thesis that a sub-optimal level of overall happiness is likely to be generated if individuals are left to decide which action to perform on the basis of their judgement of its beneficial effects.[24]

On this approach utilitarianism is an indirect theory of morality. Our first-order actions are justified by a set of rules or principles which do not require that a particular action is itself utility maximising. Indeed, some theorists have argued that the maximisation of overall utility may require that the general population is actually unaware of the utilitarian grounding of the rules. They should take the rules at face value, while an elite would know the justification of the moral norms of that society.[25]

Few would endorse this violation of the transparency of the rules which govern our moral practice, but rule utilitarianism is not committed to any such esoteric approach. It can point out that the acknowledgement of the fundamental moral end of utility maximisation rests consistently with the recognition of first-order moral rules and principles governing our actions. This respects the way in which a range of considerations from the promotion of happiness to the view that individuals possess certain rights actually figures in our moral deliberations. While the rules tend to the promotion of our overall utility, the detailed weave of our engagements with others looks to the rules themselves and not the bigger, ultimate picture.

8. Concluding Remarks

Utilitarianism gives expression to a deep commitment to the equality of individuals. No person begins from a privileged position of having their interests or needs accorded a special status. Outcomes are measured impartially with each person counting equally. In utilitarianism there is also the compelling force urging us to recognise the moral significance of the consequences of our actions. It is surely better to bring about better rather than worse states of affairs. In determining which states are better than others utilitarianism offers a metric which speaks directly to our nature - we should aim to bring about states which promote our happiness.

Utilitarianism has been articulated in different ways. Bentham is the canonical classical act utilitarian. He also thinks that utilitarianism is a theory of justification and motivation. The maximisation of utility is a consideration that should figure decisively in practical deliberation even though Bentham recognises that the mathematical simplicity of utilitarianism may not be capable of anything like exact realisation in much of our ordinary conduct or in the deliberations of legislators for whom the principle of utility should be a cardinal rule. Categorising Mill is a matter of much greater controversy. While Mill certainly allows a place for rules, particularly of justice, it may be that his conception of a rule is really of a 'rule of thumb'. That is, rules provide a helpful guide to acting in the right way in a given situation, but are defeasible in light of the (utilitarian) demands of that particular situation.

In the next article I shall consider some challenges facing utilitarianism. Among the difficulties facing the theory are the epistemic challenges of working out the consequences and the view that the appeal to rule-utilitarianism is blocked by its inevitable collapse into a commitment to act-utiltarianism. Perhaps, though, the most pressing challenge is that utilitarianism is unable to accommodate either the significance of an individual's projects - the importance of the personal or agent-centred view - or the respect morality demands for the integrity of the individual.

Paul Sheehy
Richmond-upon-Thames College


[1]  In his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin, 1977) ch.1 John Mackie presents an 'error theory', which allows the realist conceptual claim (i.e. that moral concepts are objective), but denies that there are any features or facts in the world in virtue of which any moral statement turns out to be true. In articulating his scepticism about moral truths and of moral knowledge, Mackie suggests that moral statements are indeed to be evaluated in terms of truth or falsity. The statements are not to be analysed as simply being expressions of attitude and therefore as not being capable of assessment in terms of truth as are factual statements. However, he goes on to maintain that all moral statements turn out to be false: this has become known as the error theory of morality. Our moral language is cast in realist terms, but all its claims are false because there are no moral facts to make them true.  [back] 

[2]  C.f. Hare in his later work such as Moral Thinking (Oxford: OUP, 1981).  [back] 

[3]  Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) p.202.  [back] 

[4]  C.f. Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 2nd edn p.3. He goes on to make the point that the neglect of normative ethics and the attempt to work on meta-ethical questions in isolation by many modern philosophers has produced 'extremely arid and dissatisfying moral philosophy...which is bad even as meta-ethics, just because it is isolated from substantive considerations and is therefore based on artificial and over-simplified examples of moral beliefs.'  [back] 

[5]  Geoffrey Thomas in his An Introduction to Ethics (London: Duckworth, 1993) also marks a 'distinction between ethical theories that emphasise the requirements of action and theories that emphasise the condition of the person' (p. 64). The former are theories of the moral criterion (p.8) and the latter theories of the moral ideal or standard (p.9).  [back] 

[6]  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford:OUP, 1971) p.24  [back] 

[7]  Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1824); Mill, Utilitarianism (1871). The key sections of Bentham and Mill's essay are collected together in Utilitarianism and Other Essays ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin, 1987). Page references in this article are to the Ryan collection. While we shall focus Bentham and Mill it is important to note that a full discussion of the development of moral philosophy would include Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan,1907).  [back] 

[8]  Bentham op cit. Chapter 1 §I.  [back] 

[9]  Ibid. §II.  [back] 

[10]  Ibid. §XI.  [back] 

[11]  Bentham, Chapter IV §6.  [back] 

[12]  Mill, Utilitarianism Ch.2 p.278  [back] 

[13]  Mill, 'Bentham' p.162 in Ryan (ed).  [back] 

[14]  Mill, Utilitarianism Ch.2 p.279  [back] 

[15]  Mill takes the higher pleasures to be exclusively intellectual. They involve, for example, the contemplation of art, reflection on ideas, a reflective concern for spiritual issues. The lower pleasures correspond to pleasures derived from physical activities. As, for example, Norman op cit p.96 points out one can reject this correlation of higher to intellectual pleasures if lower pleasures are 'lower' because they are superficial. There are plenty of physical activities which involve skill, reflection and a commitment to the practice of that activity. The work of craftsman and the practice of a martial art do not seem to yield an immediate or superficial pleasure.  [back] 

[16]  Mill, Utilitarianism Ch. 2 p.280  [back] 

[17]  A neat summation of the spectrum of classical utilitarian views on what counts as pleasure is provided by Jack Smart in his defence of utilitarianism:

An act utilitarian judges the rightness or wrongness of actions by the goodness or badness of their consequences. But is he to judge the goodness and badness of the consequences of an action solely by their pleasantness and unpleasantness? Bentham, who thought that quantity of pleasure being equal, the experience of playing pushpin was as good as that of reading poetry, could be classified a hedonistic act utilitarian. Moore, who believed that some states of mind, such as those of acquiring knowledge, had intrinsic value quite independent of their pleasantness, can be called an ideal utilitarian. Mill seemed to occupy an intermediate position. He held there were higher and lower pleasures. This seems to imply that pleasure is a necessary condition for goodness but that goodness depends on other qualities of experience than pleasantness and unpleasantness. I propose to call Mill a quasi-ideal utilitarian.

See J.C.C.Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge:CUP, 1973) pp. 12-13. This book remains an important statement of arguments for and against the theory. Smart defends and Williams criticises.  [back] 

[18]  Mill, Utilitarianism ch.4 p. 307  [back] 

[19]  Ibid. p.308  [back] 

[20]  Ibid.  [back] 

[21]  Mill, Ch. 4. p.309  [back] 

[22]  Ibid. p. 310  [back] 

[23]  Furthermore, what is the good for everyone considered together? Leaving to one side the problem of measuring utility, is it the sum of total happiness or the average level of happiness or the utility enjoyed by a supra-individual entity consisting of the individual persons? Utilitarian theory has followed Bentham in the view that everyone is to count for one, nobody for more than one. This seems to rule out any appeal to utility being enjoyed by a social group as such.  [back] 

[24]  Consider the outcomes of Prisoners' Dilemma scenarios.  [back] 

[25]  C.f. Sidgwick op cit.  [back]