Chad has 30 cars, enough to drive a different car every day of the month. He has plenty of money in the bank, so he does not need to sell the cars to support himself. Chad’s neighbor, Kayla, is the only financial supporter of her family and bikes to work every day because she cannot afford a car. You decide to be a modern-day Robin Hood and steal one of Chad’s cars overnight and give it to Kayla.
Let’s examine the consequences of your action. Kayla’s life has greatly improved since she received the car. She can now spend more time with her family because her commute to work is shorter, and she is less tired when she gets home. She has more freedom to go to the grocery store and essential medical appointments and can now drive her son to soccer practice. Chad, on the other hand, hasn’t noticed the car is gone. He had it parked at the back of his property and can still drive his other 29 cars. Overall, it seems that your action has resulted in overall happiness. According to the theory of utilitarianism, your action was good.
Definition of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that defines the good in terms of overall happiness. Actions that increase pleasure and decrease suffering, such as giving Kayla Chad’s car, are good. Actions that decrease pleasure and increase pain are bad.
How it Works
18th century English philosopher and utilitarian John Stuart Mill developed what he called the Greatest Happiness Principle to determine whether an individual action is good or bad. If an act promotes happiness for the most amount of people, it is good. If it decreases overall happiness, it is bad. The goal of our actions is to create the greatest happiness for the most amount of people. Since everyone’s happiness counts equally, utilitarianism considers maximizing the good from an impartial perspective, meaning that the interests of people close to you should not count higher than those of strangers.
Utilitarianism is focused only on the consequences of actions, which is why it is sometimes called consequentialism. Therefore, an agent’s reasons for acting are not considered when determining the rightness of their action. For example, let’s say you want to help your friend Natalie with her homework. However, when you help her, you end up doing most of the work for her. Not only does she not know the material for the test, but she is now also in trouble for cheating. Although your action had good intentions, it resulted in bad consequences and thus is bad from a utilitarian perspective.
One of the main criticisms of utilitarianism is its occasional violation of rights. Stealing one of Chad’s cars to give to Kayla is a good action under utilitarianism, but it also seems to be violating Chad’s property right to his car. Many believe that no matter how bad Kayla needs a car, it is always wrong to violate Chad’s right. Some utilitarians will bite the bullet and admit that rights violations are sometimes morally acceptable, but others have created ways to reconcile rights and utility. Rule utilitarianism posits rules whose consequences increase overall happiness. “Don’t steal from others” fits this requirement, because if everyone stole from each other, society would collapse and overall happiness would plummet. Therefore, under rule utilitarianism, stealing Chad’s car is still wrong because it violates the rule, even though in this specific case, it would increase the good.
Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it makes supererogatory actions, which are actions that are good but not necessary, morally required. For example, suppose you have one million dollars to spend. If you donated it to charity, you would be morally praised. Yet, if you bought a fancy new house for you and your family, most people would not say you did anything wrong. Under utilitarianism, donating the money to charity is not only praiseworthy, but it is morally necessary, as it does more good for the world than buying a new house. The demandingness of utilitarianism seems to threaten our personal projects unless we can prove they are maximizing the good.
Utilitarianism has been one of the most popular normative theories in modern philosophy. Contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer uses utilitarianism to consider practical ethics topics such as climate change, abortion, and euthanasia. The theory has been particularly effective in the field of animal ethics, as it extends moral consideration to the interests of non-human animals. Many animal ethicists argue that eating and using animal products causes more suffering to animals than pleasure to humans; therefore, it is morally wrong.
If you don’t agree with some of the implications of utilitarianism, your ethical views may align more with Aristotelian virtue ethics or Kantian deontology. However, utilitarianism requires us to consider how our individual daily actions affect the greater community, and whether the personal convenience of things such as eating meat or using plastic is worth their negative implications on the world.