Consequentialist moral theories are teleological: they aim at some goal state and evaluate the morality of actions in terms of progress toward that state. The best known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism. This theory defines morality in terms of the maximization of net expectable utility for all parties affected by a decision or action. Although forms of utilitarianism have been put forward and debated since ancient times, the modern theory is most often associated with the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) who developed the theory from a plain hedonistic version put forward by his mentor Jeremy Bentham (1748- 1832). As most clearly stated by Mill, the basic principle of utilitarianism is:
Both men insisted that "the greatest number" included all who were affected by the action in question with "each to count as one, and no one as more than one." Any theory that seeks to extend benefits not only to the self but also to others is a form of altruism . (Another goal-directed theory is egoism, which promotes the greatest good for the self alone.)
Utilitarianism is a simple theory and its results are easy to apply. It also allows for degrees of right and wrong, and for every situation the choice between actions is clear-cut: always choose that which has the greatest utility.
There are several objections, however--
1. It is not always clear what the outcome of an action will be, nor is it always possible to determine who will be affected by it. Judging an action by the outcome is therefore hard to do beforehand.
2. It is very difficult to quantify pleasures for cost/benefit analysis (but since this only has to be done on a comparative scale, this may not be as serious an objection as it at first seems).
3. The calculation required to determine the right is both complicated and time consuming. Many occasions will not permit the time and many individuals may not even be capable of the calculations.
4. Since the greatest good for the greatest number is described in aggregate terms, that good may be achieved under conditions that are harmful to some, so long as that harm is balanced by a greater good.
5. The theory fails to acknowledge any individual rights that could not be violated for the sake of the greatest good. Indeed, even the murder of an innocent person would seem to be condoned if it served the greater number.
A system of rules would help with the other objections, however,
if they only serve as convenient advice. They would codify the wisdom
past experience, and preclude the need for constant calculation.
some writers propose that the theory of utilitarianism, although it
describes the ultimate sanction of moral principles, is best preserved
for the minority that are capable of applying it. The greatest good is
best served by the masses when they follow rules out of duty and leave
the difficult and subtle calculations to those in authority. This
along with the attempted qualitative distinctions among pleasures, and
utilitarianism's tendency to condone inequitable distributions or even
the abuse of minorities has led to frequent charges of elitism. It
be noted that this was far from Mill's purpose. John Stuart Mill was a
leader in the fight against the African slave trade, and a pioneer for
women's rights and individual liberties. It is a curious fact that his
own theory of ethics fails to serve those ideals any better than it
Copyright © 1997 Charles D.
Kay. All rights reserved.
rev. January 20, 1997