Utilitarianism: Measuring Happiness

In analyzing moral behavior, two questions are often raised:

  1. What makes an act right or wrong
  2. Which things are good, and which are bad?

Utilitarianism, introduced by Jeremy Bentham and later altered by John Stuart Mill, is the most common consequentialist theory. It holds that the only thing of value, and the only thing that is good in itself, is happiness. Though other things have value, their value is merely derived from their contribution to happiness.

Types of Utilitarianism

While there are many types of utilitarianism, the two most well- known forms are act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism

In act utilitarianism, only the results and consequences of a single act are taken into account, and an act is deemed morally right when it creates the best (or less bad) results for the largest number of people. Act utilitarianism looks at each individual act and calculates utility each time the act is performed. Morality is then determined by how useful the results are to the largest amount of people affected.

However, act utilitarianism has its criticisms. Not only can it prove challenging under act utilitarianism to have a complete knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions; the principle also allows for immoral acts to be justified. For example, if there is a war between two countries and the war can end by finding the whereabouts of one man who is in hiding, act utilitarianism states that torturing the man’s child, who knows of his father’s location, would be morally justified.

Rule Utilitarianism

While act utilitarianism looks at the results of a single act, rule utilitarianism measures the results of an act as it is repeated through time, as if it were a rule. According to rule utilitarianism, an action is considered morally right when it complies with the rules that lead to the greatest overall happiness.

Rule utilitarianism states that an action is morally correct based on the correctness of its rules. When a rule is correct and followed, the result is the greatest amount of good or happiness that can be attained. According to rule utilitarianism, while following the rules may not lead to the greatest overall happiness, not following the rules will not either.

Rule utilitarianism also faces criticism. For example, in rule utilitarianism, it is entirely possible to create rules that are unjust. A perfect real-world example is slavery. Rule utilitarianism could claim that slavery is morally right if the mistreatment of a select group of people results in an overall happiness.

What is Right or Wrong?

In both act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, nothing is ever simply right or wrong on its own. No matter the type of utilitarianism, neither form appears to require an absolute ban on lying, cheating, or stealing. Indeed, utilitarianism seems at times to require that we lie, cheat, or steal so long as it is the route by which maximum happiness is achieved (though according to rule utilitarianism, activities like lying, cheating, and stealing would undermine the trust upon which human society is founded, and any rule which permits these actions cannot maximize utility if it is universally adopted).

In utilitarianism, morality is always based on the consequences that arise as a result of an action, and never based on the actual action. Because of this focus on consequences rather than intentions, the moral worth of an action seems to become a matter of luck. The final consequences of an action must become evident before it can be determined whether the action was good or bad. However, we can certainly imagine actions with good intentions that ultimately lead to bad consequences, as well as actions with bad intentions that lead to good consequences. Furthermore, because it is necessary to determine how many people will be affected, how intensely they will be affected, and the effect of any available alternatives, utilitarianism leaves much room for miscalculation. Therefore, though utilitarianism does an adequate job of banning deceitful behavior, it seems to be a weak moral theory.