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Utilitarianism as a Science of Society

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based on the idea that human actions should bring the best possible consequences. This theory is referred to by some as the consequentialist ethical theory. It is expressed in the form that asserts that people should always act so as to produce the greatest ratio of good to evil for everyone. The utilitarians believe that when choosing between two actions, the one that produces the greatest net happiness should be the one chosen. Where most of them disagree with one another is in the area of how this principle should be applied. There are also several stated weaknesses in this concept. It ignores actions that appear to be wrong in themselves; it espouses the concept that the end justifies the means; the principles may come into conflict with that of justice (utilitarianism seems to associate justice with efficiency rather than fair play); and it is extremely difficult to formulate and establish satisfactory rules of application.

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For utilitarians, an act is right just insofar as it maximizes community happiness. The utilitarians, however, leave us without specification as to how the community is to be defined over time. The most reasonable interpretation of “community” is that it includes all relevant people (Kymlicka, 2002), If we are to include future generations, however, it would seem that the magnitude of their happiness will always overwhelm the magnitude of the happiness of people alive currently. The moral philosopher Richard T. De George, in what seems to be a philosophic reprise of the position taken by the economist Beckerman, asked what our moral obligations are to future generations. His answer is that we have none: “presently existing human beings have no obligation to future-and-not-yet existing set or class of human beings.” De George’s analysis gets around the issue, but it is difficult to imagine a utilitarian moral rule to support the view that the current generation is morally permitted to take away from the quality of life of future generations without even considering those generations. William T. Blackstone, who identifies himself as a rule utilitarian, has tried in recent times to turn utilitarianism to the task of the environment. He argues that there is a fundamental human right for a “livable” environment. The problem is that our current “livable” environment is bought at the expense of the environmental quality of future generations. If the current generation is required to maximize the potential quality of life of generations (including future ones), the current generation will be required (morally) to live at subsistence level (Kymlicka, 2002), The current generation plus one will also be so required. That generation plus one more will also be so required, and so on. By mathematical induction, all actual generations will be so required. Consequently, all people for all futures will be morally required to live at subsistence level–a curious conclusion for utilitarianism. The attempt to achieve maximum happiness actually ends in producing minimum happiness. “A theory like classical utilitarianism holds that the only property that matters is how far sentient beings enjoy happiness” (Pettit 1991, p. 230).

The main objections to utilitarianism were developed by Williams (1973). Williams developed and described a doctrine of negative responsibility. According to this doctrine, a person can choose an action that does not bring harm or negative consequences but, at the same time, does not bring the greatest happiness. From the utilitarian perspective, it will be a wrong choice (Hare 1982). While his approach is promising, its fundamental direction has problems analogous to those faced by the utilitarians. If people are to place themselves behind the veil of ignorance, they shall be ignorant of what generation we shall belong to when the veil is lifted. “That the doctrine of negative responsibility represents in this way the extreme of impartiality, and abstracts from the identity of the agent” (Williams 1973). The purely logical and mathematical analysis behind the veil, however, will tell that the probability that we shall be part of future generations is higher than that we shall be part of near-term generations (Kymlicka, 2002),

The other problem with the utilitarian approach is that it recognizes ‘me’ doing something and ‘the others’ doing something. In this case, moral good and happiness will differ greatly. Consequently, people would want to make sure that the future environment is as beneficial as possible. We would not want to inherit the environment that we of this generation will leave to our successors (Kymlicka, 2002), We come, then, to as good an approximation as we cannot manipulate others. In order to carry that out, however, we shall have to be, in essence, manipulated by future generations (or the abstraction of them) (Hare 1982). That will always be true of any given generation, and thus each generation will be effectively manipulated by future generations. We shall all be used as means only ad infinitum. In contrast, Goodin (1991) underlines that “no-one, morality would almost invariably lead us to prefer the former to the latter. Therein lies the great appeal of utilitarianism, as the theory of the good most standardly used to fill out the larger consequentialist framework” (p. 242).

An example of truncated ethical discourse for failure to conceive of the environment as a biosphere is the economic analysis of utilitarianism. Once again, environmental harms are interpreted as failures of the market mechanism. The evils of pollution lie not with its destruction of the planetary life community but with its economic inefficiency. It is said that the market price for the commodities of a business that pollutes often does not reflect the true cost of production. The internal or private costs of the polluter do not include the external costs of the pollution itself, which is imposed on some immediate segment of society (Hare 1982). The resulting disparity between the lesser private costs of the polluter and the higher external costs to society indicates a failure of the market to price commodities accurately. This results in a misallocation of resources since more of the commodity is being produced than society would demand if it had an accurate measure of what it is paying to produce the commodity (Kymlicka, 2002), The resources being consumed by overproduction of the commodities are resources to be used to produce other commodities–thus, the misallocation of resources. At the same time, resources are being wasted because the polluter, not taking into account the external or social cost of the pollution, has no incentive to decrease or eliminate them and thus continues the pollution. Those most immediately affected by the pollution must spend more to counter the effects of the pollution than other consumers, and thus they have less to spend on their share of market commodities (Hare 1982). Consequently, their share of goods is not proportioned to their desires and needs as compared to other buyers not so immediately burdened by the costs of the pollution. Pollution is wrong, finally, because it imposes price differentials In the utilitarian conception, then, harm to the environment is primarily a breakdown of the market mechanism, leading to the misallocation and waste of resources and inefficient distribution of commodities. The remedy for these wrongs is merely to ensure that the costs of pollution are properly absorbed by the producer (Smart, 1973). So long as the producer pays for the harms imposed on others by the polluting activity, the equity of this environmental ethic is satisfied. Since the environment is essentially a series of commodities, each with a quantifiable value, there is no notion of irreparable damage (Williams 1973). Moreover, the principles themselves do not contain any built-in limitations or lists of conditions circumscribing their applicability. Furthermore, when parties are disagreeing about behavior within the “range of acceptability,” they use words like “rights,” “unfair,” and “justice,” and they seem to communicate with each other. This may suggest that concepts and categories closely affiliated with or derived from basic moral principles are indeed operative in situations involving choices within the range of acceptability (Smart, 1973). Perhaps, then, there is no such range. But, then, there would be no issues of “right versus right,” no conflicts among different ways of life, and we would be left seeking some way of determining definitively why someone is right and the other party is wrong. Goodin (1991) states: “Where, through some defect of cognition or will, the two standards diverge, welfare utilitarianism would suppress short-sighted preference satisfaction in favor of protecting people’s long-term welfare interests” (p. 241).

Utilitarianism, as a science of society, should not be entirely preoccupied with the ‘external culture’, the purely rational mode of thought and behavior. What this meant is that the external environment, and by implication, the project to fashion the ‘correct’ conditioning factors did not have the central importance. Utilitarianism can be seen as thinking that idealized earthly life, the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made. A reasonable person would accept that the greatest happiness principle is the principle on which society, in general, should be managed, but many utilitarians do not expect each person to aim at anything other than his own happiness. The best way to maximize the general happiness of the community is for those responsible for the management of society to arrange matters, by employing the necessary. Williams underlines that utilitarianism has limitations and drawbacks which limit its scope and applicability.


Goodin, R. E. 1991, ‘Utility and the good’ in Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 241-248.

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Hare, R.M. 1982, ‘Ethical Theory and utilitarianism’ in Amartya Sen & Bernard Williams (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge.

Kymlicka, W. 2002, Contemporary Political Philosophy 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pettit, 1991, ‘Ph. Consequentialism’ in Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 230-240.

Smart, J.J.1973, ‘An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics’ in J.J. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge, pp. 3-73.

Williams, B. 1973, ‘A critique of utilitarianism’ in J.J. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge, pp. 77-150.

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