Talk:Utilitarianism/Archive 1

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Peter Singer on Comedy Central

And he did great! It's such a different skill than philosophy and the host was obviously trying to set him up as straight man, but Peter did just fine. The host asked, Aren't we naturally omnivores? Peter said, well, a lot of things are natural, war, for example. An exchange followed on whether the Iraq war was/is necessary.

The show was "The Colbert Report" (either Dec. 11 or 12) in which the host, Stephen Colbert, plays the comedic role of a paleo-conservative. He asked how far down the food chain it went, shrimp? Peter said, better to give the shrimp the benefit of the doubt. The guy then brought up his ficus plant and said, it's kind of animal-ist, isn't it? Peter said, well, actually, more sentience-ist. And clearly for chimpanzees, Peter added, who are so close to us and essentially kept in labs as if they are prisoners who have committed no crime. The guy asked, should chimps be allowed to vote? Peter adroitly turned it back to the guy and said, in many cases they might vote in ways you would like and so perhaps it's a cause you might like to espouse. And Peter said it with such a wonderful light touch. Again, this kind of quick exchange and rapid fire where the guy is obviously trying to paint you into a corner is such a very different skill. It's certainly not part of the job description of being a philosopher, but if you think you can pull it off, sure, why not. (There was a lot more in the show than I'm including. In many ways it was a far better interview than a stiff, formalistic, "serious" interview.)

Peter was on the show plugging his and co-author Jim Mason's new book, THE WAY WE EAT: WHY OUR FOOD CHOICES MATTER (May 2006).

And so, I conclude,

(1) Chalk one up for bringing philosophy to the people!

(2) People can very easily see the whole conceptual arc. So, in addition to philosophy books laid out like Euclidean geometry with axions and derivations, and of course we need all kinds of philosophy books and all kinds of books in general, we can also write books where we do quickly lay out the whole conceptual arc and then move on to the meaningful cases.

People very good at nondiscrimination

We have a Star Trek episode in which the holographic physician joins with other holographs in fighting for their rights. We have the very clever Geico commercial, So easy even a caveman can do it.

In fact, at times I even find it a little bit frustrating, that people are so good at nondiscrimination and not very good at other moral skills, it can become a little one-dimensional. So, should a dentist with HIV be allowed to continue to practice? And the discussion and debate follows as if we can make the decision purely on abstract principles. Whereas of course a large part of such discussion has to be imperfect judgment calls involving all kinds of factual matters (Answer: very slight risk, and even that can be eliminated with easy precautions). Or people have all kinds of problems with affirmative action, and again we seem to want decisions based purely on abstract principles. Fairness is important, but it's certainly not the only dimension by which to judge an economic system. If we judge a good job as one that sometimes engages you and that you sometimes, occasionally, find yourself thinking about and planning and looking forward when away from the job. Well, then maybe 20% of jobs are good jobs. So even if we are scrupulously fair on the question of affirmative action, there is still ample, ample room for improvement. Or this question, if there were a 4% shortage of insulin, we would not say, 'Great market for insulin-seekers.' But we say the exact same thing regarding unemployment and job-seekers. Interesting! It's vaguely believed that some degree of unemployment is necessary in a modern ecomony. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. It rather seems like the kind of belief we should question, doesn't it?

But, all this aside, there has been an absolute sea change in the last hundred years. Prior to that, we were so easily tribalists, suspicious and antagonistic toward anyone different, often different on the most superficial of grounds. If we can continue progress on nondiscrimination and help people develop two (?) other moral skills at the same time, we can literally change the world.

The effect of Mill's book

I am wondering if it would be helpful (or accurate) to the article if at the History section, something else about the effect that Mill's book, Utilitarianism; that Mill argued that pleasure does not differ only in quantity, but also in quality, and that this was contrary to hedonism (remember that Bentham' and Mill's Utilitarianism was also known as Hedonistic Utilitarianism before the book was published in 1861). Consequently the Utilitarainism movement headed away from Hedonsism. Thus consequently ethically superiority was defined as whatever produced the greatest amount of goodness, and not simply pleasure.

Source: Nash, R.H. (1999). Life's Ultimate Qustion's. ISBN: 0-310-22364-4.

--Frederick0511 17:44, 30 April 2006 (UTC)

Opposed as being contrary to common sense

Utilitarianism has been opposed for leading to a number of conclusions contrary to common sense morality. For example, if one was given the choice of saving one's child or two strangers, utilitarianism suggests saving the strangers instead of one's child, since two people will have more total future happiness than one. This seems contrary to common sense, especially to the feelings on duty towards those who they are close that humans have.

I find this a curious example (quite apart from the prose lapse in the last sentence). Yes, the result is counter to "common sense", but if common sense were sufficient, we wouldn't need ethics! I would be deeply suspicious of any system of ethics that came to the opposite conclusion. Can anyone name a philosopher who has made this particular argument against utilitarianism? -- Tim Goodwin

I would argue that the position that I should treat my child's life as equal in value to a stranger is plain silly, for several reasons:

1) Any philosophical position that tries to go counter to millions of years of evolution is simply a non-starter.

2) Valuing all humans equally, regardless of their relationship to me, would make it difficult, if not impossible to focus my efforts, and maintain any kind of normal human relationships.

3) I would rather my family did not become strict utilitarians.

Was it St. Thomas Aquinas who suggested that rather than being responsible for everyone, it makes more sense for us to be responsible for a small number of people, and being responsible for one's family is as good as random selection? -- Michael Voytinsky

Are you proposing a change to the article, or do you just want to chat about philosophy? Markalexander100 22:40, 13 Apr 2004 (UTC)

Tim, I don't think a thorough utilitarian evaluation of the situation would say that you should value your child equally to all others. Utilitarianism doesn't claim that we should all be Mother Theresa, trying to help all people equally as best we can, simply because that would obviously not result in the greatest good. Each individual needs to maximize his own contribution, and you could reasonably expect to do more good in the world by raising your child well, to be a good and intelligent individual, than you can by neglecting him and working alongside villagers in Africa. Essentially, you have to factor in the fact that a) certain people depend upon you, and b) your abilities to make changes in some ways are severely limited. You can't help all people equally, and if you tried, your sum contribution of good would probably be fairly minimal. You'd be the Jack of all Good, but the Master of None. -- Twiffy

In assuming that by aiding your child rather than two strangers, you help two people rather than one –that being all there is to it, you forget that you probably make yourself a great deal less happy than you would have become through the saving of your own child. You therefore either deprive yourself and your child or two other people of their happiness. If, for want of better scales, you assume every person to be equally capable of happiness, you could try and compare how much either act produces.

It would depend not only on the number of people, but also e. g. on how old they are (how much more time they have to be happy), your feelings about strangers, as well as all sorts of minor influences no-one has the faintest idea about. What I mean to say is, that it is virtually impossible to judge the good or bad of an action, as its consequences carry on for ever. And I see no reason for taking future happiness to be less important than present-day feelings because of its greater distance. As far as I observe however, the people around me prefer to overlook this. What is often classified as right and wrong is ultimately based on experience –which is always personal and limited– and or instinct.

Optional Opinion

I also don't think that the utilitarian principle of the greatest number that good is to be distributed to, belongs outside rule utilitarianism. What argument is there for saying that happiness in every situation must needs be shared out equally? This conclusion may be reached and considered obvious by those who treat the desirability of justice as an axiom, which I don't. I would, as a utilitarian, accept justice as good, like everything else (for the moment), if it produces happiness. It often does this by giving a feeling of security to its objects or a sense of having been good to those applying it. Assuming justice, for the sake of analogy, to be like a mathematical constant, sounds to me like rule utilitarianism in its purest form.

Livedevilslivedevil, May 22nd 2006

So, suppose that some situation allows Jill to either lie, deceive, or be honest. Suppose further that lying would yield the most utility of the three possible acts. Suppose further still that Jill's adhering to the policy of honesty would yield more utility than her adhering to any other available policy. Then act utilitarianism would recommend lying and rule utilitarianism would recommend being honest.

Hmm... Not necessarily. Rules can be more complicated than just, "Thou shalt not lie"... A rule could specify circumstances in which it was all right to lie, and circumstances in which it wasn't. As one makes the rules more complex, they could take more of the possible consequences into account, and so (I think) rule utilitarianism would tend to act utilitarianism in the limit of complexity of rules... Does that make sense? But of course as the complexity of the rules increased, people's ability to understand and follow them would decrease, so a rule utilitarianist might argue that there has to be a trade-off, and that rule utilitarianism is better because (a) it approximates act utilitarianism (an unattainable ideal, because no-one can predict the consequences of every action) and (b) is actually humanly attainable (because people can forumlate rules). What? You mean Wikipedia is not a philosophy discussion forum? ;) -- Oliver P. 15:35 Mar 28, 2003 (UTC)
If is is assumed that "Jill's adhering to the policy of honesty would yield more utility than her adhering to any other available policy", then the article's statement is correct. Markalexander100 05:03, 22 Feb 2004 (UTC)

John Locke had a response to Descartes about reasoning with common sense. See Chapter XI, sections 3-7 and page 122.

"For example, if one was given the choice of saving one's child or two strangers, utilitarianism suggests saving the strangers instead of one's child, since two people will have more total future happiness than one."

This argument is not sufficient in either disclaiming or claiming utilitarianism. This is because choosing either option results in the same amount of total future happiness. If you save your child, then you have your own happiness and the child's happiness- two. If you save the strangers, you have the same happiness- two. I don't understand what is so complicated about this.

Relation to liberalism

Utilitarianism, as developed by philosophers like John Stuart Mill, is a source of inspiration for liberal thought. In that way it is related to liberalism. Gangulf 13:51, 24 Jul 2004 (UTC)

I see. Sorry about the revert from before - it just looked very random to me. Raistlinjones 16:18, Jul 24, 2004 (UTC)


Under See also it is claimed that Kantianism is the opposite of utilitarianism. I beg to differ. There are three "classic" theoretical frameworks utilitarianism, deontology (which kantianism is a part of) and virtue ethics. The two first mentioned both focus on actions while the last focus on how one should be as a person. So couldn't one claim that virtue ethics is the opposite of utilitarianism? I'm not making that claim just pointing out it seems fairly arbitrary to call kantianism the opposite of utilitarianism.

It is by the way also claimed on the bottom of the page that utilitarianism could be compatible with kantianism, it's alleged opposite... // Doldis of the swedish wikipedia ;-)

Yes, indeed, I have read the works of that guy also who claims kantian moral and utilitarianism are two sides of the same coin. --Lussmu 19:59, 8 Aug 2004 (UTC)
"Kantian Consequentialism"? I've heard of that, and it makes sense to me. Lucidish 05:43, 12 Aug 2004 (UTC)
It's the title of a book from the 1990s by David Cummiskey. Sorry I don't have time to write more. 19 Dec 2004

Satisficing and Optimific Utilitarianisms

I don't have the time or expertise at present to write up a little bit on satisficing and optimific utilitarianisms, but I just wanted to drop a note in case anyone wanted to do that. Lucidish 05:43, 12 Aug 2004 (UTC)

Here's an example. As a teenager, I attended a Friends Church (I am now happily an atheist thank you very much). And the minister told the following story: As a young man in Kansas, as a storm was coming in, instead of taking the tractor into the barn, he would try and make one more round, and as often as not, would end up getting stuck in the mud. For a time, he had the nickname, "One-More-Round Ron." FriendlyRiverOtter


What about the criticism that utilitarianism doesn't protect the interests of minority groups? I'd add it, but I really wouldn't be able to say much about it. Would anyone be willing to add any counter arguments by utilitarians to the criticisms? sars 16:53, Jan 23, 2005 (UTC)

Rule utilitarianism might place a moral imperitive to protect minority groups if it recognised that in the majority of cases attacking a minority was bad. A strict rule-utilitarian would then still recognise the rule even when it involved a much-maligned minority where an attack may increase overall utility. Act-utilitarianism doesn't really provide any protection of that kind harsheh 31st Jan 2005

Someone needs to bring up the criticisms with respect to punishment and promising, as well as Richard G. Henson's arguments in his "Utilitarianism and the Wrongness of Killing"

the first part of the section "Criticisms of Utilitarianism" has been added by th 21 nov 2005 - it talks about the wisdom om utilitarianism and seems a bit out of placem, should it be reverted? --Moonfisher 18:53, 22 November 2005 (UTC)

Hedonic Calculus

I can see the Hedonic calculus in the text when I go to edit, under "History of Utilitarianism" but it's not appearing in the article?! - sars 17:38, Feb 1, 2005 (UTC)

There is a good which is greater then all other goods. Good is a state that exists outside of good action. The state of good is a state inwhich all that have the capibility of choice mantian that capibility and that is the greatest good. so i think it is choice which is the greatest good that right to choose good or the other not actual good

There is a good which is greater then all other goods. Good is a state that exists outside of good action. The state of good is a state inwhich all that have the capibility of choice mantian that capibility and that is the greatest good.

this good would be balanced with virtues as well, so you do your best to allow one to be comfortable to make choices and hope they do the same for othe this theory does not allow of anything that causes some one to force uncomfortablilty on another

such as fighting for freedom the goal of this could is world good or a connected feeling of good

its not done, it will be soon i will post the rest

any concerns or any plugs you want to make into the theory i would be more then happy to talk to you

Someone needs to bring up the criticisms with respect to punishment and promising, as well as Richard G. Henson's arguments in his "Utilitarianism and the Wrongness of Killing"

I would think that protecting the minority, where it comes to bringing disfatisfaction to the majority, would not be an appropriate utilitarian action.

Is Utilitarianism an 'Aspie' Theory?

This question puts into a conceptual framework some of the criticisms of utilitarianism. And in the best tradition of the personal being political, I'm Aspie. That means either I have Asperger's Syndrome or I'm about as close as you can come. I long for social connection, and often have difficulty getting it. Some social things I perceive very readily, I think better than 'normal,' others I seem not to be very aware of (and like anything, it's hard to be aware of what you're not aware of!). I feel things deeply, seem to care more than other people do, at least more than they let on caring. I remember back in elementary school they showed us a series of films on pollution. I was the only one who seemed to care, who really seemed to care. When I was in my twenties, I found out about us (United States) providing military aid to the regime/government of El Salvador. This was back in 1989-90, Cold War rationale. I could anticipate a dialogue with a person where they argued that, although not a great thing, it was necessary given the circumstances. What I did not anticipate was people weakly agreeing with me, but not really caring one way or the other, certainly not to discuss it in any detail. When I became involved in the anti-war movement against the (first) Persian Gulf War in '90-'91 (lead-up beginning in August '90, the war itself mid-January 91), I thought, finall, a group of concerned individuals, finally a chance to really talk about things. We even took risks together. At one outside protest, someone swerved a car at us, then swerved away (it was close, and actually that was a criminal offense). And there's always a chance that you'll end up on a government list. The bottom line is that you just don't know. But, the friendship possibilities did not work out. Maybe I kind of come on too strong, probably so at least some of the time. Plus, I later decided, people have gone through a lot of recent growth in order to come to the point where they felt ready to publicly protest. They were more in a consolidation phase, rather than a phase of continuing to explore new ideas (and it didn't help knowing about utilitarianism, because no one knew what I was talking about!).

All the same, it seems to me that most people are satisfied living small lives. They seem more interested in issues of popularity, social acceptance cheaply gained, and their own individual career considerations.

I recognize some of my traits in Bertrand Russell. There's a great quote from him, "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." *[1] And he only found true connection with another human being with his third marriage. Now, Ludwig Wittgenstein is the person more commonly thought of as having Asperger's. Bertrand and he were friends, to an extent. Bertrand may have held himself back somewhat, feeling he didn't want to go as far down that path as Ludwig. And as for Jeremy Bentham, he very much enjoyed social interaction, looked forward to them, but then seemed to quickly get his fill and get back alone where he could process them.

And that also is an Aspie trait. Quickly getting your fill of social. If I was a doctor, I would probably do a great job of seeing ten patients a day and I would keep a journal and probably record very perceptive observations. I could probably write a very good book on medicine. And I could learn that most patients (I'm guessing) don't very want detailed explanations but just want to be told what to. But what I could not do comfortably is see 50 patients a day and carry a heavy case load. I could do that from a while and then I'd start getting an increasingly strong desire to take a complete break from medicine.

Please understand that I am not running fallacy-from-origin. What I'm saying is that there are certain aspects of utilitarianism that I recognize, and suspect are cul-de-sacs. If NASA has an accident, the immediate response is more rules, more checking, more precision, more top-down. That is the dominant societal response, not just in NASA, but in the vast majority of our institutions. It's only a minority response for someone to say, Hey, wait a minute, it's a system accident, what we need is less rules, less rules and more transparency. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink would also be part of this minority thread.

Utilitarianism says more precision, more planning. The other side of the coin is less engagement, less participation.

Consider the Trolley Dilemma *[2] A very standard dilemma, if you push someone in front of the Trolley, you can save the lives of five workman down the track. A standard response might be, Hey, wait a minute, are you a safety engineer? Are you so sure pushing a person in front of the track will be enough to stop the trolley, or are we just going to have one additional human fatality? Or, if the trolley is so light and flimsy to be stopped by a person on the track, maybe yelling and screaming would give the driver enough time to stop. Or, the more realistic thing, instead of an overhead bridge, it's a elevated platform on the side, then not only do you need to be a safey engineer, you also need to be a judo-ist or a rugby player, for you must place the person squarely on the track, and not merely partially. Or once again, we will simply have an additional human fatality.

Now, we are geared up emotionally, the primate ability to detect cheating and all that, to judge people and motives. We do that much more readily than we judge acts themselves. In fact, an introductory text on ethics needs to directly and clearly point out: "Ethics judge actions" (and as a corollary, only in hiring employees, as jury members, and selecting marriage partners is it appropriate to judge people). So if someone has a mindset where one of the first things they think about is pushing someone onto the tracks, even if we get lucky in this particular case, even if this is the most optimific choice, it's kind of disquieting to have such a person walking around in society.

"scheming rather than participating," that's how I would summarize the most damaging criticism of the Trolley Dilemma. Or, in less prejudicial terms, "planning rather than participating"<--and that is very much an Aspie trait. If only I can do this big, dramatic thing, then once and for all I can be accepted, in fact praise. So there's a wall of delay and self-questioning, etc.

What the Trolley situation needs is someone who immediately starts screaming, "Hey! Hey! Hey, there's a trolley. There's a trolley!" Starts screaming as they become aware of the situation, before they've fully appraised it, taking a risk of being mistaken, taking a risk of being embarrassment. That will give the workers maximum time to get out of the way, maybe press themselves against the wall of the tunnel. That will give the driver the maximum time to stop. Maybe the workers can jump onto the front of the trolley if it's not quit stopped but sufficiently slowed. And get the fat guy on the bridge yelling with you. Part of a well-functioning social system, he would read you being upset and participate without slowing down to know all details first.

To use a sports analogy, utilitarianism is like football, you run a play and then have plenty of time to mull over how the play worked and plenty of time to plan for the next play. Whereas real life is more like basketball, you need to stay in the flow and only occasionally is there a pause.

The literature on utilitarianism discusses at length, the bad example effect and the good example effect. But that's it. That seems to be the only discussion of the social side. It's as if a veil separates us from other people.

Take this example from the literature on school leadership. Any new change works, any new change brings positve results for a while, in part probably due to the Hawthorne Effect, in part to fresh energy. So a lesson a seasoned principal might draw, if you have a promising change but your people don't buy into it, you might want to find another promising change that your people do buy into. You might even want to get your people involved early on coming up with the change, taking a deep breath, accepting that that will be a messy process.

Not very advanced. And yet I know of nothing within the utilitarian literature like this.

There are other versions of the Trolley example that philosophers use. Rather than the implication of a victum number six, there is the alternative version of doing nothing and hitting five people, OR veering off and hitting one person. The implications for responsibility and negative responsibility are the same for both versions, but the example can also be presented to circumvent the "scheming" behind taking responsibility for sacrificing a life and its possible failure. Both examples either sacrifice one for the many, or not participate and effect the many. However there is a distinction in the level of responsibility and seeming lack of pleasure in participation. One responsible act may be more justifiable than the other and quantitatively represent a lesser degree of absense of pleasure. For most medical students, e.g., the distinction is of no consequence in the final decision. Do nothing. Do no harm and preserve the autonomy of characters. The lack of particiation is done according to planning, or the rules of doing no harm and preserving individual autonomy. Thus, a doctor would probably agree with what you consider the most damaging criticism of the Trolley examples, but would not agree, I think, that planning and participation are necessarily exclusive. They would look to the rules in assessing a situation and subsume it to the rules that are for the quantitative beneficience of the many, and could do so by not participating. Is this an Aspie trait?? Amerindianarts 03:29, 19 October 2006 (UTC)

My immediate inclination is, No, that's a 'normal' trait! Over-reliance on logic is a normal trait, whereas we Aspie people have already gone through our over-logic phase and see it's limitations! This is, of course, a generalization. But Asperger's is truly an example where "differently abled" is not merely a political correct label. Bentham saw some things very clearly, and other things, seemingly not at all. He may well have not been Aspie, he may not have been. But he was different, and that's okay, for he had a lot to contribute his different way of looking at things.
I very much liked what you said about planning and participating, that they are not necessarily exclusive. I would only add that planning itself itself is most helpful when it has a large social component. Some people work better with others, others better alone, and good management, good leadership, is working this balance and pulling in people's best results given preferred work habits (etc, etc, easier said than done, one thing that has been helpful for me has been the concept of measured honesty, and I'm so tired of a co-worker or boss criticizing me precisely because I am different, I know that, why don't you look past that and see what I can contribute).
But don't agree that the way utilitarianism has development, especially the over-reliance on 'dilemmas,' has been an amazingly lone-wolf theory?
About the Trolley dilemma, if you're driving on a highway at night, and you see flashing lights on the shoulder up ahead, you should start slowing down and preparing to move one lane over, even before you understand what else is going on. So the trolley driver, when he sees something dicey up ahead should start sounding the horn and hitting the brake, even before he understands what else is going on. And if he's sounding the horn and hitting the brake, he's unlikely to freeze up, and can go either left or right at the fork, whichever has the fewest people---this situation not having pleasure on the part of the actor as you point out (the pride that he's such a tough guy, whatever). But, this would be appalling safety. A live full-speed trolley should never get that close to workers.
This might be a good time to point out the complete lack of interplay between theory and practice in almost all organizations. When it's found that people have been deviating from the rules, the response is to remind people, either nicely or harshly, to get back to the rules. Hardly ever is it considered, that the rules might need some flex, and what's evolved into common practice might have some excellent parts that should be formalized.
I assume you're talking about the Medical Lottery, the five transplant patients and the one healthy patient. But we both know the answer is Zero! The healthy patient will be a good match for exactly zero of the transplant patients (otherwise would be like drawing three royal flushes in a row). Plus, it requires a whole transplant team so we're back to the social aspects. Which is in turn part of a national system, whether you distribute organs regionally, or nationwide as far as waiting list. And I got from Melvin Konner's excellent book Becoming a Doctor, that the greatest loss of utility was that you just didn't have time to do everything that needed to be done.
One thing that is an Aspie trait is feeling that you're the only person who really understands what's at stake, like Bertrand Russell during WWI, and maybe like Carl Sagan regarding nuclear war. FriendlyRiverOtter
"the greatest loss of utility was that you just didn't have time to do everything that needed to be done". I like that. It is a good point. But I think you are missing the point on the hypothetic examples. Too much planning. Are we to presume that the conductor has the time to run the gamet of auxillary hypotheses? That is why I used an alternative of the Trolley dilemma and not the Medical Lottery. The Trolley is a pure hypothetical teaching example to gauge decisions by impulse. It might be said that to use such pure examples is simply theory and not real, but conversely to assume that one has the time to access the auxillaries is again to resort to too much planning (wasted time or loss of utility?) which is in itself nothing but theory compounding what is meant to gauge decisive action. So which is more real? Even the most devote doctor as a driver might yield to a non-professional human compassion and veer off at the last moment, yielding to impulse. Is this not a "normal trait" and converse to how you portray it? In order to treat the hypothetic as a real situation it must be assumed to gauge impulsive, decisive participation. Even to not participate, according to negative responsibility, is the decision to participate. Amerindianarts 23:33, 19 October 2006 (UTC)
I think we have real different views about the usefulness of dilemmas. Many dilemmas feel rather like a trick. And some, including the bystander version of the trolley dilemma, seem like a type of bullying, similar to the elementary school taunt, "That's not the real reason! You're just scared!" Why must I immediately agree that it's right and proper to push the fat man onto the tracks? Or it's like a salesperson for a car dealership trying to slam-dunk me on a Saturday evening. Yes, they have laid out a very logical case why I should buy the car, in fact why I should buy it this very evening. And all I have on my side is the feeling that it's not a good decision, and I can't even articulate the feeling. Yet, I should still go with the feeling rather than "logic." And one could even make the case that professionals who are the best in their field (doctors, engineers, even professional poker players for that matter) operate primarily by sense of feel, following a narrative thread as it were, and only supplement this with logic. I will agree that dilemmas can be useful in getting me to think about what I most value. I will also agree that someone facing an emergency decision and doing the best they can, that there's nothing gained from coming down on them like a ton of bricks. But, as far as expanding my repertoire, mentally rehearsing actions that are likely to be useful in actual situations, I don't think dilemmas are very good.FriendlyRiverOtter

The concept of a System Accident

This is an excellent example of the pitfalls of perfectionism and overplanning. If we as utilitarians held political power, we might well end up like human resource departments. They look for reasons not to hire, rather than reasons to hire, they have a very goody two-shoes, plain-vanilla definition of what a good person is, etc, etc.

And even in our own lives, overplanning is not such a great thing. So the concept of system accident, something that is fairly well studied, might give a little bit of a handhold or foothold in understand this. For if it's true with safety, itself a meaty, substantial concept, how much more true is it going to be with quality of life?

A good starting point for system accident might be Charles Perrow writing about Three Mile Island, “Two failures were on the “hot” side of the plant, and two on the “cold” side, making their interaction mysterious. Three of the four had occurred before without undue harm, and the fourth was a new safety device introduced because of earlier problems with a failure. It just happened to fail too.” *[3]

So, you have something that's already pretty complex, then an overlay, an overlay, an overlay. Each overlay might be legitimately an improvement, but all together they make a system where it's hard to understand anything that's going on. They add opaqueness where we very much need transparency.

I think it's significant that it was a safety device which added the fourth layer. I go further than Perrow, that it's safety or what is called "safety," it's like an alligator eating its own tail. We clunkily do something for the sake of "safety," and if it doesn't work out, we kind of shrug our shoulders, well, we really tried and in fact went overboard, so we're not to blame.

You may have observed this in organizations, leaders at times reverted almost to a Neanderthal style of management: "Don't question it, just do it!" This, on the one area where you most need employee engagement, where you most need transparency. That so much is being sacrificed for "safey," we're not going to make additional sacrifices, we're not even going to open the door to possible additional sacrifices. Safety is viewed as something external rather than part of the flow of the main activity.

Now let's look at college admissions and "fairness." Most colleges are similar, most colleges use the same procedures. In fact, it's almost considered "unprofessional" to do anything different from the norm. They look at both a students grades and SAT scores, as well as extracurriculars, volunteer work, etc, the totality of the student. Well, what's wrong with that? Nothing, if we've gotten it exactly right, and if we trust a centralized group to make these very important decisions for all of us. Consider a student who got good high school grades the first two years and then up-and-down grades the last two years. Then we find out that there was an upswing of alcoholism and family violence during those last two years, and it's remarkable that the student did as well as he or she did. Oops, we forgot to include that in our formula. Okay, we will ask about family violence on the forms. That's the bureaucratic response. And that's closing the aperture even more. For then, only well-rounded people who feel comfortable talking about such personal things on a form will really get an even chance at it.

We should change the AND to an OR. A student who has good grades OR does well on the SAT. A young person who did real well their junior year in high school. That's enough, they show some promise, they would be a different student, not just superficially different as far as ethnic group, but really different. Taking this further, the history department could give out some admissions on their own terms, the philosophy department on their own terms, which hopefully would be different, the only requirement being that they're not out-and-out discriminatory, that is, that they're not terrible on their face at which time the burden of proof would shift, the dance department on their own terms, the English department on their terms.

That it's multi-path, rather than single path.

And, some of the things we've been suspicious of, that I've been suspicious of, might not be such a bad thing, like athletic scholarships, like members of Congress being able to pick people for the service academies.

For the service academies, the nominees still need to meet all the regular requirements. And if you think about it, that opens up another door. Okay, so Harvard gets some applications that are clearly exceptional, great grades, great SATs, school and/or community leadership. And they receive a number of applications that are good, not great, probably everyone of them would make fine students if there were enough spaces. So, admit the exceptional students, and then merely randomly select from the good students. Don't pretend you can fine-cut the distinctions more than you can. And similar for a medical school, you can break applicants into three broad categories: the clearly exceptional (grades and previous work/volunteer in medical field), the good, and the not going to make it. Select the exceptional and then simply randomly select the rest of the spaces from the good. In fact, one could argue that where doctors are really playing god is not where they are making necessary life-or-death decisions that someone is going to have to make, but when they pretend they can tell whether someone will make a good doctor in a fifteen minute interview! (when all candidates are mouthing the same platitudes, being coached by the same get-into-medica-school books).

So, Harvard University, 60% of admissions can go through the admissions department, "the totality of the student." 40% could be these multi-path, quirky ways. Would that not be a far freer institution?

Yeah, it might not be fair to the athletes who are merely of average intelligence in an environment where they're surrounded by really smart people and feel like dummies. A lot of other questions, about jobs too. We need a far freer society where differences are accepted and in fact appreciated. More good jobs, and more places in college. We could start by questioning why people with thoroughly adequate intelligence, 100 IQ if you want a number, who could contribute a lot if they merely had open fields, are instead stuck in service jobs.

So we have a system where the overwhelming concern is fairness, where we try and be perfect, and we don't even end up with good.

Utilitarianism sometimes tries and make something slightly better at the danger of the whole thing exploding. "Should we frame and execute an innocent man to prevent a riot where hundreds of people will die painful deaths." You have got to be kidding! It's this kind of official misconduct that lays the groundwork for riots. Riots have predisposing factors and then precipitating factors. Yeah, an example like this can elucidate a conflict between rights and welfare, but at the cost of making us less effective in the real world. I think these dilemmas sand down our skills at finding better alternatives.

Do our examples assume that we're the smart, thoughtful puppetmasters and other people are the recipients? Yeah, they do.

A better example might be envisioning a really good mayor, teenagers get into mischief because they don't have enough to do, there aren't enough arts in the town, they aren't real discussions of the issues, senior citizens are lonely, etc, etc. Let's get as much done as we can, delegating, and happily accepting messy, nonperfect results. We ought to think of ourselves more as coaches. And if there's not enough public support for a project, fine, let's move on to the next one where there is and maybe come back to this one later.

The Internet is a model of the de-centralized approach, and we could debate how well it works, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. I wish we had other models. Perhaps you could contribute one or two.

The utilitarian literature on social skills.

What utilitarian literature on social skills? Yeah, that's just the problem!

On managing a baseball team, there's a rich literature, regarding interacting with different personalities, regarding achieving success along different dimensions. On being a school teacher, a rich literature, not just on making social moves that helps the kids, but in doing so in a way that resonates with your own personality, that works for you, too.

But with utilitarianism, what do we have? We have contemporary philosopher William Shaw pointing out that if your friend gives a thousand dollars to a charity, but you know it's not the most efficient charity, maybe you ought not say anything because to do so might dampen your friend's inclinations to give to charity in the future. That's true, but look how guarded you're going to be talking with a friend (or aquaintance, look how guarded you're going to be in general).

Primates or Bears?

Bears are pretty cool animals, but they are largely solitary. The social interactions, like at McNeil Falls during salmon season, tended to be clunky and discrete. If you were training to be a naturalist observing bear behavior and it was a good class, say a video and then you and an experienced person go out and sit together and observe the same bears, and later compare notes and then watch a video of what you observed, well, then perhaps within a week you could be accurately observing bear behavior and contributing to the project. (Most training is not near this good! Most "training" consists of an overly long, overly abstract block at the beginning, and then you're largely cut loose with minimal help and minimal followup after that.)

Chimp behavior within a week? No way, it's orders of magnitude more complex. Maybe, maybe, in six months, a lot of one-on-one with a really experienced chimp person, a lot of sustained effort on your part, maybe you'd start to get it. It's not just who's the alpha animal, it's who's the allies of the alpha chimp, which is a big way he maintains power, it's family ties of greater or lesser strength, and so on and so forth. Very layered, a lot is going on at once. Even Jane Goodall herself! Starting in the mid-80s, she got more involved in advocacy, for conservation of the habitat of wild chimps and for group housing whenever possible for chimps in labs, I bet even Jane herself had to re-familiarize herself with the language, so to speak, each time she returned to the field after a long absence.

The point is that we human beings are emphatically on the chimp side, very textured, very complex social interactions. Utilitarianism treats us as if we had the clunky, long-distance intereaction of bears.

(And not to disparage our ursine friends! Bears are complex enough that each has his or her own personality. If you want a good book, try Doug Peacock's Grizzly Years.)

Negative Utilitarianism

Did Karl Popper really develop the theory or was this more something he said in passing? Kind of like Joseph Priestley wrote "the greatest good of the greatest number," but of course Jeremy Bentham was the guy who really ran with it. I am not asking this rhetorically. I really don't know.

A form of moderate NU: we give some extra weight to intense suffering, some extra disutility, as we kind of do naturally in our less unreflective judgments. No destroy-the-world business, just some extra weight to avoiding the really bad stuff. And then we just run the regular calculations, or rule utilitarianism if you wish (or motive utilitarianism if you prefer that).

We could also look at Popper's time, 1945. Stalin and Hitler had both murdered large numbers of human beings, in both cases supposedly as a necessary precondition for a really glorious future that would develop. Of course, no such future developed. So, Popper wanted to get to the principle behind this and say, No, we're not going to sacrifice people for a supposedly better future (this, it goes without saying, would be a grotesquely bastardized form of utilitarianism, more of an excuse really, by people who already have their own agenda, or enough of an excuse to cast doubt and discourage other people from acting).

Popper was highly critical of what he called "historicism," the idea that we willingly accept sacrifices for a supposed Golden Age (even proudly accept the sacrifices to show how devouted we are, especially if the sacrifices are borne by other people less "pure" than ourselves). He even wrote a book entitled The Poverty of Historicism. I'm just not sure he put similar energy into NU.

The real problem with utilitarianism as I see it is that it includes no heuristics at all. It doesn't help us generate actions that are realistically likely to be helpful. We just evaluate from a (very limited) menu of pre-existing choices.

"However, advocates of the Utilitarian principle (including Mill) were quick to suggest that the ultimate aim of negative utilitarianism would be to engender the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity, as this ultimately would effectively minimise pain."

Where does Mill say this? I would guess that it would be in Utilitarianism, but I have not read that. LavosBacons

Has anyone really worked on the moderate form? FriendlyRiverOtter 00:10, 15 September 2007 (UTC)

Motive Utilitarianism

It's how you get there. The argument that motive utilitarianism is a hybrid between act and rule would be as follows: you start with act utilitarianism, you develop motives that are likely to be generally useful over the course of your life (and the Zen approach of allowing yourself to develop such motives), and you end up with something that looks a lot of rule utilitarianism.

Recent edits

Ultramarine, I really appreciate all the hard work you have put into this article, and the article on the Categorical Imperative. I made a slight edit, adding back three lines to this article, to guide interested readers to a fuller discussion of an interesting topic, but I made no changes to your work. RK 01:46, Apr 29, 2005 (UTC)

Check out the new page on Quality Utilitarianism. -- Twiffy 2/1/06

Mill the father of rule utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill wrote a famous (and short) book called Utilitarianism. While Bentham can be considered the father of act utilitarianism, Mill is often considered the father of rule utilitarianism.

By whom is Mill so considered and on what grounds? My understanding is that the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism postdates both Bentham and Mill; this seems at best anachronistic without a further explanation of who made the claim and on what grounds.

Mill, for his part, defines what he believes in Utilitarianism in terms of the direct judgment of actions in light of 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. (Ch. 2 ¶2)

The closest that he comes to advocating rule utilitarianism as opposed to act utilitarianism, as far as I can tell, is in Ch. 2 ¶¶23-24. For example, he suggests that it is almost always wrong to lie, even if momentary gains can be achieved, because sustaining the principle of honesty is more productive of happiness than whatever the benefits of any individual lie could be:

Thus, it would often be expedient, for the purpose of getting over some momentary embarrassment, or attaining some object immediately useful to ourselves or others, to tell a lie. But in as much as the cultivation in ourselves of a sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity, is one of the most useful, and the enfeeblement of that feeling one of the most hurtful, things to which our conduct can be instrumental; and in as much as any, even unintentional, deviation from truth, does that much towards weakening the trustworthiness of human assertion, which is not only the principal support of all present social well-being, but the insufficiency of which does more than any one thing that can be named to keep back civilisation, virtue, everything on which human happiness on the largest scale depends; we feel that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of such transcendent expediency, is not expedient, and that he who, for the sake of a convenience to himself or to some other individual, does what depends on him to deprive mankind of the good, and inflict upon them the evil, involved in the greater or less reliance which they can place in each other's word, acts the part of one of their worst enemies. (Ch. 2 ¶23)

But this passage actually provides absolutely no evidence at all either for or against the claim that Mill is a rule utilitarian. He makes it clear that he thinks that principled honesty is better than opportunistic lying in almost every case, but you can believe that whether you are a rule or an act utilitarian. Mill actually compares the effects of a keeping or betraying a rule here with the direct effects of an act, which is something that you're really not supposed to do in rule utilitarianism at the first place (since it requires you to directly appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle to judge the rewards of not just a rule, but also a particular act of lying in a particular instance, in order to make the comparison). He also immediately goes on to claim that there are undeniable exceptions to the rule, and to claim that the question of where the exceptions are to be made ought to be answered by direct appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle:

Yet that even this rule, sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all moralists; the chief of which is when the withholding of some fact (as of information from a malefactor, or of bad news from a person dangerously ill) would save an individual (especially an individual other than oneself) from great and unmerited evil, and when the withholding can only be effected by denial. But in order that the exception may not extend itself beyond the need, and may have the least possible effect in weakening reliance on veracity, it ought to be recognised, and, if possible, its limits defined; and if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates. (Ch. 2 ¶23)

Now, he could be claiming that the appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle "for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another" is a matter of appealing to the Greatest Happiness Principle to judge further rules for when it is licit to make an exception to the virtue of honesty. The suggestion that "limits" should be "defined" and "the region within which one or the other preponderates" should be "mark[ed] out" suggests this reading. But given what has gone before, and what has gone after, and the fact that the distinction post-dates Mill's work anyway, the most likely reading is just that he isn't aware of, or isn't concerned with, the distinction at all.

He objects to those critics of utilitarianism who claim "that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness", by saying:

This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. ... People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand. It is truly a whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it; but on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better.

But again, this does not commit him to rule utilitarianism as against act utilitarianism; in (¶24) he makes it clear that his concern is epistemological rather than ethical:

But to consider the rules of morality as improvable, is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly by the first principle, is another. It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. ... Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life, is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy. (Ch. 2 ¶24)

The issue at hand here doesn't have anything directly to do with the controversy between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism; the issue at hand is the usefulness of general rules in discovering what's good and applying the Greatest Happiness Principle. Mill nowhere states whether he means that what you in fact discover by means of these general rules, and what you apply the Greatest Happiness Principle to with their help, are (a) general principles of conduct, or (b) individual acts.

The point of all this is not to claim that Mill is an act utilitarian rather than a rule utilitarian. Rather, what I want to know is what grounds there are for saying that he's a rule utilitarian rather than an act utilitarian. If rule utilitarians have claimed his arguments as influential, then we ought to mention them by name, since they are at the most imposing a distinction made after Mill was dead and claiming that if you make his position more precise than he in fact made it, you might have some good arguments for their preferred side of the distinction. If we're going to indulge in anachronism it should be acknowledged anachronism. If, on the other hand, there aren't later writers to mention by name, then I can't see any grounds for making the claim at all, and the sentence just ought to be struck from the article.

Radgeek 06:10, 20 Jun 2005 (UTC)

We can certainly change the statement. I just vaguely remember seeing in one philosophical encyclopedias that some consider him the be the father and other do not. But that is not very strong evidence. :) Ultramarine 18:14, 21 Jun 2005 (UTC)

He did write a book named Utilitarianism, maybe that's why he's the "father" of it.


Happiness is but one standard for utility that utilitarians could adopt. "Good" is a generic term for desirable or beneficial consequences used more commonly in moral philosophy. Since not all utilitarians are interested in eudaimonism, I feel it is misleading to say that all utilitarianism is only using happiness as a yardstick. I will present academic references that the "good" is in fact the standard term for desirable consequences (contrasted with the "right") upon request. --Malathion 7 July 2005 08:57 (UTC)

Happiness is what Bentham and Mill used. You seem to be confusing Utilitarianism with Consequentialism. Eudaimonism is term often used when refering to Aristotle and Virtue ethics. Ultramarine 7 July 2005 10:07 (UTC)
Bentham and Mill are not the be-all-end-all of utilitaranism. Please reference your claim that all utilitarians define utility as happiness. --Malathion 7 July 2005 10:09 (UTC)
It is rather up to you to prove that this is not the case, since I have already shown that the fathers of utilitarianism meant happiness. Ultramarine 7 July 2005 10:46 (UTC)
Very well. From
"Many consequentialists deny that all values can be reduced to any single ground, such as pleasure or desire satisfaction, so they instead adopt a pluralistic theory of value. Moore's ideal utilitarianism, for example, takes into account the values of beauty and truth (or knowledge) in addition to pleasure (Moore 1903, 83-85, 194). Other consequentialists add the intrinsic values of friendship or love, freedom or ability, life, virtue, and so on.
If the recognized values all concern individual welfare, then the theory of value can be called welfarist (Sen 1979). When a welfarist theory of value is combined with the other elements of classic utilitarianism, the resulting theory can be called welfarist consequentialism.
One non-welfarist theory of value is perfectionism, which claims that certain states make a person's life good without necessarily being good for the person in any way that increases that person's welfare (Hurka 1993, esp. 17). If this theory of value is combined with other elements of classic utilitarianism, the resulting theory can be called perfectionist consequentialism or, in deference to its Aristotelian roots, eudaemonistic consequentialism.
Similarly, some consequentialists hold that an act is right if and only if it maximizes some function of both happiness and capabilities (Sen 1985). Disabilities are then seen as bad regardless of whether they are accompanied by pain or loss of pleasure.
Or one could hold that an act is right if it maximizes respect for (or minimizes violations of) certain specified moral rights. Such theories are sometimes described as a utilitarianism of rights. Even if happiness and other values count in addition to rights, the disvalue of rights violations could be lexically ranked prior to any other kind of loss or harm (cf. Rawls 1971, 42). Such a lexical ranking within a consequentialist moral theory would yield the result that nobody is ever justified in violating rights for the sake of happiness or any value other than rights, although it would still allow some rights violations in order to avoid or prevent other rights violations."
--Malathion 7 July 2005 11:02 (UTC)
Refers to consequentialism, not utilitariansim. Also from Stanford:
"The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism, whose classic proponents were Jeremy Bentham (1789), John Stuart Mill (1861), and Henry Sidgwick (1907). Classic utilitarians held hedonistic act consequentialism. Act consequentialism is the claim that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion. (Cf. Moore 1912, chs. 1-2.) Hedonism then claims that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. Together these claims imply that an act is morally right if and only if that act causes "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," as the common slogan says."
"This array of alternatives raises the question of which moral theories count as consequentialist (as opposed to deontological), and why. In actual usage, the term ’consequentialism‘ seems to be used as a family resemblance term to refer to any descendant of classic utilitarianism that remains close enough to its ancestor in the important respects. Of course, different philosophers see different respects as the important ones. Hence, there is no agreement on which theories count as consequentialist under this definition.". Ultramarine 7 July 2005 11:07 (UTC)
The entry on utilitarianism says "See consequentialism." They are covered in the same article and the author uses the terms almost interchangably. Thanks for reasserting what we already knew (that Bentham and Mill were eudamonistic consequentialists), but I don't think you've given a reason to ignore to the myriad of utilitarianism variants the article lists. --Malathion 7 July 2005 11:15 (UTC)
Again, the article is about consequentialism and utilitarianism is mentioned as a subset. There is no support for your claim that utilitarianism refers to "good" instead of "happiness". However, we can certainly add that there is some confusion about the definitions of utilitarianism and consequentialism even among philosophers. Ultramarine 7 July 2005 11:23 (UTC)
For a reference to the "good" please see John Rawls A Theory of Justice Chapter 5, Classical Utilitarianism: "The two main concepts of ethics are those of the right and the good... Teleological theories differ, pretty clearly, according to how the conception of the good is specifed. If it is taken as the realization of human excellence in various form of culture, we have what may be called perfectionism. This notion is found in Aristotle and Nietzche, among others. If the good is defined as pleasure, we have hedonism; if as happiness, eudaimonism, and so on."
I don't think it is fair to say that the presence of several competing variants of utilitarianism constitutes "confusion". These people know what they are talking about. --Malathion 8 July 2005 04:12 (UTC)
The correct definition is not what one particular philosopher happens to think but what is accepted by most. Stanford clearly states that there is no consensus on what consequentialism exactly is. On the other hand, classic utilitarianism is exactly defined. Ultramarine 8 July 2005 04:29 (UTC)
Thanks for reaffriming what Rawls said in the above quotation (that there is no agreement). This article is not on classical utilitarianism. If this is so difficult to grasp I think it would be best to simply remove the statement all together since it doesn't add much anyway. --Malathion 8 July 2005 04:29 (UTC)
You have not managed to show that utilitarianism defintely refer to anything else than what the classic utilitarianism thought, namely happiness.
Encylcopedia Britanica "Utilitarianism in normative ethics, a tradition stemming from the late 18th- and 19th-century English philosophersand economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it."
MS Encarta: "Utilitarianism (Latin utilis, “useful”), in ethics, the doctrine that what is useful is good, and consequently, that the ethical value of conduct is determined by the utility of its results. The term utilitarianism is more specifically applied to the proposition that the supreme objective of moral action is the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest number."
Merriam-Webster:"a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically : a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number" Ultramarine 8 July 2005 04:39 (UTC)

Also, this article seems excessively friendly to utilitarianism, in particular by giving the last word to the utilitarians in every debate. --Malathion 7 July 2005 08:57 (UTC)

Please add more relevant critical argument. Please also note that the same can be said for the other articles on ethical and moral systems, for example that they are usually totally useless for solving more complex and ambiguous real world situations where different absolute inviolable rules collide. Ultramarine 7 July 2005 10:55 (UTC)
Malathion asked for my opinion, so I shall give it for what it's worth. Utilitarianism is indeed a subset of consequentialism, as Ultramarine suggests, and they are not synonymous. Utilitarianism, however, does most often promote a theory of the good, and that is the desired consequence of our acts; however, while it has often been construed as such, the good need not only be happiness or pleasure, as Bentham or Mill suggest. For example, so-called negative utilitarianism would seek to minimize suffering; the absence of suffering, however, does not necessarily entail happiness or pleasure. These are not opposites, for some would derive pleasure from suffering, and, when we are not suffering we are not necessarily experiencing pleasure or happiness. The esteemed Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Vol. 8) states, "Utilitarianism can most generally be described as the doctrine which states that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the goodness and badness of their consequences. This general definition can be made more precise in various ways, according to which we get various species of utilitarianism." The piece then goes on to define the various forms, most of which are hedonic, though not all of them are (e.g., negative utilitarianism, ideal utilitarianism a la Rashdall and others).
Of course, G.E. Moore (in direct response to Mill's conception), among many other philosophers, would argue that saying that the good is equivalent or synonymous with pleasure or happiness is to commit the Naturalistic fallacy. Moore himself subscribed to a species of ideal utilitariainsm with his theory of organic unities, and I certainly would not characterize this as consiting of a hedonic principle.
In any case, I would be more inclined to say that utilitariainsm propounds a theory of the good, and that it purports that our acts ought to maximize those consequences that are deemed to be good for the greatest number, and that this is often construed as consisting of soem state of happiness or pleasure, or as in the case of Sidgwick, consequneces that comport with some principle of beneficence, though some utilitarian theories might seek to produce other consequneces or theories of the good.
Finally, I must say, the article as it stands today does not compare well to the venerable Encyclopedia of Philosophy or even to Stanford's newer on-line version. It really needs a good deal of work. You will please pardon me, however, if I refrain from participating any further, here, for it is not among my present interests. All the best. icut4u
Since philosophers can not agree on what consequentialism is, there can hardly be any agreement on exactly what utilitarianism is. This simply reflects the intermixed historical development of utilitarianism and consequentialism. Mainstream sources like EB or MW do include happiness. But we can certainly state the ambiguity clearer. Ultramarine 8 July 2005 10:39 (UTC)
Two points concerning consequentialism and utilitarianism.
First, it is seriously misleading to describe G. E. Moore as an "ideal utilitarian." This is, as far as I know, a name that was imposed on him by others; in any case, in Principia Ethica he does not describe his position as "utilitarian" at all; in fact, he holds that utilitarianism is decisively refuted by his arguments against hedonism (see Chapter II, and especially § 64). The term comes from Rashdall's Theory of Good and Evil (1907); imposing it on Moore's work of four years prior, in which Moore explicitly distinguishes his position from utilitarianism without qualification, is a serious anachronism.
Second, for reference, here is how John Stuart Mill defines utilitarianism:
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.
—Mill, [Utilitarianism Chapter 2 ("What Utilitarianism Is") ¶2
Now, you might object as Malathion did that Mill (or Bentham) is not the be-all end-all of utilitarianism. That's true, but since he did invent the word as it is used today, it does seem to me that his opinion ought to carry some weight.
There are three main classes of references which have been cited above. The first are those in which ambiguities in Mill's definition are made more precise (by, for example, pointing out that the minimizing of suffering and the maximizing of pleasure are not necessarily the same thing, and taking one or the other as the chief good); the second are those (mainly cited by Malathion) in which "utilitarianism" is not actually mentioned at all, but rather "consequentialism" or "teleological theories" (which cut no ice at all, since it is agreed that consequentialism and teleological theories can include non-hedonistic accounts of value); the third is the specific case of Rashdall's (not Moore's) "ideal utilitarianism." The first don't actually challenge the claim that utilitarianism entails a hedonistic theory of value; they just point out that there are different possible hedonistic theories. The second cut no ice at all in the debate. The third case is worth mentioning in the article, but it's not at all clear that the general gloss of what utilitarianism is should be qualified in order to fit it. Rashdall's usage is peculiar, in direct conflict with the meaning given to the term by its coiners, and it has mostly been eclipsed by Anscombe's term "consequentialism". (Thomas Jefferson and some other deists had a peculiar understanding of "Christianity" under which they counted themselves as "Christians" even though they denied that Jesus had any unique role in salvation and repudiated all the parts of the New Testament that claimed that Christ performed miracles. This may be a view worth noting in a general overview of Christianity; it's not a view worth altering or qualifying the general definition of "Christianity" in order to accomodate.)
Utilitarianism should be defined specifically in terms of happiness and unhappiness or pleasure and pain. In fact, the current definition of the utilitarian ethical standard ("quantitative maximisation of some good for society or humanity") is hopeless even as a definition of consequentialism (any ethical theory holds that "some good for society or humanity" ought to be maximized; Kant--for example--just says that the only good "for society or humanity" is an autonomous will). What say let's change this. Radgeek 06:12, 8 August 2005 (UTC)
Since philosophers can not agree on what consequentialism is, there can hardly be any agreement on exactly what utilitarianism is. I think this is the root of the problem. I don't think there is really any disagreement about what utilitarianism is. The real issue is that there are many varieties of it. You can't simply pick one variety, such as the eudaimonistic or hedonistic examples you cited, and say "this is utilitarianism" without violating WP:NPOV. You'd be silencing too many voices, and too many utilitarians who have a different conception of the good.
Also, I think your characterization of Kant as a maximizer of good is severely misplaced. Kant explicitly stated that consequences are morally neutral and utterly irrelevant to moral deliberation in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. --malathion talk 06:24, 8 August 2005 (UTC)
Of course Kant argues that consequences are irrelevant to moral deliberation. This does not mean that Kantian ethics do not hold that the good should be maximized; it does mean that Kant holds that a good will and only a good will is good as an end in itself. "Maximizing good" doesn't entail that the maximizing actions are valuable only as means; that is why it is not even a good definition of "consequentialism" (which, at a minimum, must hold that actions are justified only by the goodness of their further consequences, and thus only as means).
You claim above that philosophical debate concerning the precise meaning of "consequentialism" rules out any agreement on the precise meaning of "utilitarianism." I'm not sure this is true, since the word "utilitarianism" is older than the word "consequentialism," and a definition of "utilitarianism" that requires the word "consequentialism" could therefore be accused of anachronism. But I'm even less sure that it's relevant. Difficulties with defining "consequentialism" only affect this debate if they somehow touch on which sorts of accounts of value can count as utilitarian (not just consequentialist) accounts of value. Could you give an example of a disagreement amongst authoritative sources that's relevant to this question?
You also claim that by giving the general definition of utilitarianism explicitly in terms of happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and pain (as Mill did, when he coined the term "utilitarianism"), would be "silencing too many voices, and too many utilitarians who have a different conception of the good." Could you give an example of which philosophers, precisely, would be "silenced" by such a definition? How many people are we talking about, what is their position within the tradition? How many of them actually identify themselves as "utilitarians"? (Moore, for one, has been cited, but he does not consider himself a "utilitarian" at all.) If we are talking about a peculiar usage with a fairly limited reach (Rashdall's "ideal utilitarianism," for example), I can see good reasons to discuss it downstream in the article (which we currently do not do), but why should we eviscerate the general gloss (as we currently do) in order to accomodate an idiosyncratic usage that is in direct conflict with the original definition?
Radgeek 06:51, 8 August 2005 (UTC)
I agree with Radgeek's general position; but I read Moore differently. He holds "Good actions are those which maximize total pleasure" (but as a theorem, not a definition) and is therefore classed by others as a utilitarian. But he did not regard this as a practical test, for no-one has long enough experience to apply it. Hence his final position, of the wisdom of tradition and the goodness of purely retributive punishment. Septentrionalis 17:28, 8 August 2005 (UTC)
Moore does not hold that good actions are those which maximize total pleasure. He holds that right actions are those which under the circumstances would produce the greatest possible amount of intrinsic goodness. He also holds that many things other than pleasure (among them knowledge, compassion, friendship, and aesthetic beauty) are good for their own sake, independent of any affect they may or may not have on total pleasure or pain. He argues directly against the view that pleasure and pain are the only things good or evil in themselves in Chapter III of Principia Ethica. (If the issue were only epistemological, as you seem to be portraying it, it would be appropriate to call him a utilitarian; he would just be a utilitarian who believes that we must use something other than the hedonic calculus as our external criterion of good actions. But it is not merely epistemological; Moore rejects hedonism (and thus, on his own view of the matter, utilitarianism) not only as a means of discovering the good but also as an account of what the good is. —Radgeek 03:41, 9 August 2005 (UTC)
It's been a while, but I recall him as being (briefly) closer to utilitarianism than that; I understand Principia Ethica to be an effort to produce a Grand System, which makes other systems intelligible, however mistaken, as its partial realizations. But this is thoroughly off-topic in any case; reply to me personally if you like. Septentrionalis 17:54, 9 August 2005 (UTC)

Rule Utilitarianism

Further criticism to Utilitarianism

I've added another criticism, along with the utilitarian response offered by William Shaw, to the list of criticisms. This one is in regards to the fact that the only right action(s) in utilitarianism is the one which creates the most good. Therefore actions which still greatly increase the greater good would be judged as morally wrong by Utilitarianism if there was another option that would increase the good even more. The criticism as it appears in the article may need to be cleaned up a little, I'm tired and wasn't able to express it as clearly as I'd like to. The Way 04:58, 31 August 2005 (UTC)

I've tinkered with some of the wording, and I took out "However, such a response to this criticism makes the meaning of right and wrong questionable", since it seems to be editorial commentary. (As a utilitarian I'd propose that U distinguishes best and not-best rather than good or bad, which does indeed make the meaning of right and wrong questionable, but I'm not eminent enough to cite). Mark1 05:10, 31 August 2005 (UTC)


While published, repeatedly, as fiction, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas can also be read as an essay presenting an elaborate hypothetical. The subtitle credits a sentence from William James; her introductory note also cites Dostoyevsky; these may be worth adding. I retain the description, because what confuses Ultramarine may also confuse other readers. Septentrionalis 15:57, 28 September 2005 (UTC)

Since Ultramarine continues to revert discussion of a work he misdescribes, I will explain further. Either he has not read it, or he has failed to understand it Omelas consists entirely of the posing of a moral dilemma in a hypothetical setting, described with enough detail to make it vivid. It has no plot, no characters, no dialogue; and it comes to less than eight pages hardcover. LeGuin does not attempt to solve the problem, and it is left to the judgment of the reader to decide whether the utilitarian analysis is unacceptable or incomplete.
Many forms of utilitarianism should approve of Omelas, since it does secure the greatest happiness of the overwhelming majority.
I think parable may be the best description, with the proviso that parables don't have to be allegories. Septentrionalis 19:08, 28 September 2005 (UTC)
You have still not explained why scapegoating should be mentioned. This is not an essnetial element of utilitarianism. Ultramarine 22:11, 30 September 2005 (UTC)
Do you guys think it would be better to resolve this discussion through talk rather than reverting every time you post a talk message? ausa کui × 04:45, 1 October 2005 (UTC)


The intro now states that utilitarianism is about "welfare"? I have only seen that it refers to "happiness" or maybe "good". As such, I will change the intro unless someone has a good objection. Ultramarine 08:51, 28 December 2005 (UTC)

Yes, the fact that such a change would be WRONG. Welfare includes the good from the individual. Happiness is blatantly wrong, since that's not at all what is being maximized, and the good is not only ambiguous unless you already know the technical definition of "good" but also is misleading because it does not provide the frame (unit) of analysis. Vincent Vecera

The fathers of utilitarianism mentions happiness. Please give the philosphers who uses "welfare". Ultramarine 10:36, 29 December 2005 (UTC)

No no no no no! Mill and Bentham BOTH develop constructions based on definitions of "welfare"! Further, Sidgwick uses welfare as a term and defines it in terms of pain, pleasure, and consciousness. Welfare is correct. not. It is only an INSTANTIATION of welfare, not an equivalency, certainly not hte maximizing aim of utilitarianism. You are wrong wrong wrong. Vincent Vecera---

Mill in Utilitarianism: "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".[4] I see no mention of welfare. As such, I will shortly remove "welfare" unless some philosophers and the actual work who have used welfare are given. Ultramarine 12:43, 30 December 2005 (UTC)
Mill uses welfare later when it had become clear that happiness is unable to make account (see Considerations of Representative Government and Bentham uses it heavily. Sidgwick almost exclusively. To see the absurdity of changing away from the accepted term to a less precise and less expansive term, see this google search: [5]
That should give you a quick run down of the relationship between formulations of welfare (which are controversial) and what welfare actually is (which is what matters). Endorsing happiness as welfare would be the same thing as saying the happiness or pleasure over pain formulation is correct, which, while not only being wrong, would be extremely POV. Perhaps not to you, as you seem not to recognize the difference, but to people who actually understand that what you are advocating is a controversial position, it's an important issue. Welfare includes all formulations of utility, happiness does not. It's a bit like saying "Cuba" instead of "socialist states."
Give an exact page numbers or direct link, citing a thick book (or none at all) is not acceptable. Cite work by philosophers. I quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism, whose classic proponents were Jeremy Bentham (1789), John Stuart Mill (1861), and Henry Sidgwick (1907). Classic utilitarians held hedonistic act consequentialism. Act consequentialism is the claim that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion. (Cf. Moore 1912, chs. 1-2.) Hedonism then claims that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. Together these claims imply that an act is morally right if and only if that act causes "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," as the common slogan says."[6].
Encylcopedia Britanica "Utilitarianism in normative ethics, a tradition stemming from the late 18th- and 19th-century English philosophersand economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it."
MS Encarta: "Utilitarianism (Latin utilis, “useful”), in ethics, the doctrine that what is useful is good, and consequently, that the ethical value of conduct is determined by the utility of its results. The term utilitarianism is more specifically applied to the proposition that the supreme objective of moral action is the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest number."
Merriam-Webster:"a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically : a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number" Ultramarine
Spare me your guesses regarding what I understand. Maybe you do not understand the difference between consequentialism and utilitarianism, you may try to take "welfare" to that article.Ultramarine 22:19, 30 December 2005 (UTC)
Okay, you know what? If you insist on being wrong, fine. Be wrong. Get it wrong on wikipedia, why not? I don't care. You clearly do not understand that happiness is a FORMULATION of welfare. It is the formulation most early proponents adopted, but is insufficient to explain utilitarianism in whole. Early utilitarians used welfare as a term synonymous with the particular formulation of welfare, but all of modern moral philosophy has adopted the broader term, welfare, to encapsulate all formulations. I mean, I understand that you may believe in the particular formulation of happiness, that's fine, but it's not neutral point of view. To say that utilitarianism is necessarily the maximization of happiness excludes formulations of welfare that describe welfare through other hedonistic lenses. I'm done, if you want to revert me because of the writers of dictionaries are not moral philosophers (much like you) and do not understand the nuances of the term. Perhaps we could just agree to use "pleasure"? This would make the hedonism clause unnecessary in the intro, and would also be accurate, to the exclusion of very little. My problem with happiness is that it's just not correct. Pleasure would be if part of the intro were rewritten. I'm open to compromise on that. Vincent Vecera---
"Happiness or pleasure" is meaningless. Happiness is subsumed by pleasure.
If this is your only objection, why did you revert all of the changes? Please do not do that again. Ultramarine 16:13, 31 December 2005 (UTC)
I have given several well-known encyclopedia and dictionaries who use happiness. I see no reason to exclude and I find your arguments that writers of these works do not understand the subject strange and not acceptable by Wikipedia policy. Ultramarine 16:13, 31 December 2005 (UTC)

VV is correct. Utilitarianism is commonly referred to by modern literature as a welfarist doctrine. See L.W. Sumner: "Welfare, Ethics, and Happiness". Also pointed out explicitly by Sidgwick. Lucidish 02:51, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Liberty principe

Not dropped, moved to better place. Ultramarine 16:29, 31 December 2005 (UTC)


Does anyone know what specifically in this article needs to be cited? I've got a bunch of utilitarian literature, including a ton of stuff by the Churchlands, so let me know and I will dig up some juicy utilitarian goodness. KrazyCaley 21:26, 31 January 2006 (UTC)

Actually I'd need a reference for the "Wittgensteinian Critique". Does anybody know of a publication by Cora Diamond or the other guy who made the argument about the tautological foundation of the concept of utility? --Olaf g (talk) 16:52, 18 March 2008 (UTC)

Quality Utilitarianism? Seems to be made up

I'm thinking that this "quality utilitarianism" thing is just made up. I won't delete it yet but if no-one replies to this message in a decent amount of time with a source confirming the existence of quality utilitarianism, I suggest deleting the section.--Catquas 19:14, 16 February 2006 (UTC)

It's a plausible way of describing Mill's views as opposed to Bentham's. Lucidish 02:43, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

To boldly go...

Are the Vulcans utilitarianists? Wouter Lievens 10:02, 20 February 2006 (UTC)

[nerd] Spock was, in Star Trek 2. [/nerd] Lucidish 02:43, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

request for review of Consequentialism

I have been working for a couple of months on Consequentialism and recently submitted it for peer review. If anyone here can offer me any advice as to how to proceed with this article, I would appreciate it greatly. Ig0774 01:30, 10 March 2006 (UTC)

Dubious: "most moden..."

We're really going to need someone to justify the idea that most modern utilitarians are somehow anti-intellectuals. Lucidish 02:41, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Also, where does David Hume advocate utilitarianism? Lucidish 02:42, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

I don't think the charge is that most modern utilitarians are "anti-intellectuals", but that, unlike Mill, they don't frequently give priority to "intellectual pleasures" over other kinds of pleasure (or basic satisfaction of needs / preferences / whatever). Hume never advocates utilitarianism. He is seen as a precursor to utilitarianism based on Bentham's statement that his utilitarianism was inspired by his reading of Hume (of course Kant claimed his entire system was inspired by Hume — does this mean we should see Hume as advocating deontological ethics?). iggytalk 03:02, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Things to do

Just to reiterate what I said two years ago: a few words on optimizing and satisficing utilitarianisms may be appropriate. Lucidish 19:11, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Mill and Preference Utilitarianism

Mill's quote, "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," was cited as meaning Mill was a preference utilitarian. Actually, he was talking about how to compare different pleasures. Preference utilitarians do not want to maximise pleasure, they want to maximise preference-satisfaction. Preference utiltarianism is generally considered to be a modern creation. In preference utilitarianism, for example, if someone wants a tree to live, they are hurt if that tree dies, even if they never find out. For Mill, we should maximize happiness, and the best happiness is that which would be chosen by someone who had experienced all forms of happiness. Thus, for Mill, experience is necessary, and for preference utilitarianism it is not.-- 04:16, 19 May 2006 (UTC)

Agreed. If that particular argument of Mill's is to be characterized, it ought to be in terms of the quality-quantity distinction, not in terms of preferences, which is tied to the more modern preferentialism. Lucidish 18:09, 23 May 2006 (UTC)

Minor terminological point

Just because it drives me crazy: the theory is called utilitarianism; an advocate of that theory is called a utilitarian (not a utilitarianist). This isn't directed at anyone in particular, it's just that I've noticed a few outbreaks of utilitarianist above... Cheers, Sam Clark 21:34, 17 August 2006 (UTC)

'Proof' section

I don't understand this at all. It has not been proved by science or logic to be a correct ethical system. The section effectively says "not everyone agrees. But then, there are lots of things not everybody agrees on." Should it really be here? --Awesome 09:24, 1 September 2006 (UTC)

I agree that the section is pretty unclear, but something should probably be said about the point, since it's a major issue for John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians - what kind of proof can any ethical system have? For Mill, the answer is that we can find out what's good (i.e. desirable) by finding out what is actually desired (happiness). No further proof is necessary or possible. Cheers, Sam Clark 09:29, 1 September 2006 (UTC)
Also, Kant claims that his ethical system is essentially proved. I'm not sure if he used the word "proved" exactly, but basically he says it is irrational to act any other way, and explains why this must be the case (according to him). Thus people from other ethical theories may ask what proof utilitarians have for their theory (remember the proof section is in objections to utilitarians and responses to them).-- 15:57, 3 December 2006 (UTC)

Right and wrong dichotomy

Isn't there a better example than the "donation of $1,000"?

OR tags

I've tagged a few places that seem like OR - if someone has a cite or source for these contentions, please add a ref, as they seem potentially weasely and abstract to the extreme. - WeniWidiWiki 16:48, 13 January 2007 (UTC)

References for quotes

I realize that a bibliography is listed at the bottom. However I would appreciate a specific reference for quotes, specificially the Singer quote in the "Biological Explanation..." section. Thanks. eddiecoyote 00:39, 20 January 2007 (UTC)

von Mises based his libertarianism on utilitarian principles? citation please.

Complete Utilitarianism

There is another important form, Complete Utilitarianism, it says that the total amount of pleasure, minus the total amount of pain, felt, multiplied by the subject's sentience value, or amount of sentience, throughtout the entire past, present and future should be maximised. Ozone 05:53, 25 February 2007 (UTC)

Rule v.s. Deontology

What's the difference between Rule Utilitarianism and Deontological ethics? The article may need to help make the distinction between the two.

Also, the article seems to find it important to remind the reader that rule utilitarinism is not about "rule of thumbs"; however, I can't see why it doesn't use rule of thumbs. Maybe this bit can be explained further also. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talk) 22:57, 8 March 2007 (UTC).

Rule Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism; ergo it is the consequences of an action that decide whether it was ethical or not. Deonotology instead focuses on the motives and intentions of the act. Also, next time, ask your question here: Wikipedia:Reference_desk/Humanities --ĶĩřβȳŤįɱéØ 10:23, 11 March 2007 (UTC)

Preference utilitarianism

I think that preference utilitarianism is a different concept of utility, not a different method for maximizing it (as act and rule utilitarianism are). A paper by Richard Brandt, "Two Concepts of Utility", says as much:

Utilitarians have agreed that acts . . . should be appraised by their actual or expectable consequences . . . The various kinds of act utilitarians, utilitarian generalizers, and rule utilitarians agree on this, however much they disagree about whether it is total or average utility, actual or expectable utility, the individual act or the acceptance of a rule that counts, and so on.
Utilitarians of all these kinds have a decision to make: how to define "utility" or "welfare," that is, what is it that is to be maximized. In what follows I consider the comparative virtues of two views: the hedonist view, which I shall call the "happiness" theory, and the currently popular "desire" theory. . . .
Brandt, Richard (1982). "Two Concepts of Utility". In Miller, Harlan B. and William H. Williams. The Limits of Utilitarianism. University of Minnesota Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-8166-1044-4. 

Brandt seems to see preference utilitarianism as a view of utility and not a kind of utilitarianism in the usual sense, so I've moved the mention of preference utilitarianism from the Types section to the introduction. Please feel free to put it back if I've made a mistake. — Elembis (talk) 01:56, 20 March 2007 (UTC)

'There is a tendency'

While there is a tendency to consider only the well-being of humans when interpreting this doctrine, some utilitarians count the interests of any and all sentient beings when assessing overall utility.

Doesn't this kind of comment fall foul of Wikipedia's weasel words policy? What evidence is there for this tendency?

Given that Bentham, the first utilitarian (inasmuch as you can draw a line), favoured animal welfare and that prominent utilitarians popularised the animal welfare movement, such a tendency seems doubtful. Even where utilitarians have dismissed some or all of the arguments for animal welfare, from what I've seen it's usually because they don't believe animals have the capacity for suffering/desires etc - not because they believe animals have desires and we should ignore them. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by Jinksy (talkcontribs) 13:15, 12 April 2007 (UTC).

I removed an opposing statement suggesting that it is all sentient beings that are normally considered, which I believe false. Again, this does need a citation, but we don't exactly see a very large proportion of ethical discussions that deal with anything besides humans. The implications of including animals in the framework of average vs. total utilitarianism, for example, are huge, yet I wouldn't even be that surprised if I was to find they had never once been discussed. Richard001 03:14, 7 September 2007 (UTC)

The opposing statement was my best attempt at modifying the piece, since I thought the original claim was utterly wrong. I'll grant you it was a crap sentence (I was hoping a real scholar would be able to provide more detail), but I think it was true. Bentham, the main founder of utilitarianism, discusses animals in this well-known passage:>. Peter Singer's most famous book, is almost certainly Animal Liberation, which basically kickstarted what has come to be known as the 'animal rights' movement (a phrase not endorsed by Singer, since, being utilitarian he has little time for ethical rights). David Pearce, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Organisation with Nick Bostrom, has a manfifesto to try to explain 'how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.'

I don't know of anyone who specifically discusses the comparitive implications of animal welfare on total vs average and other structures, but I *would* be surprised if no-one has. Besides it's tangential to the point of the original sentence.

I don't know that a mention of animal treatment belongs in the introductory paragraph anyway, but I do think it's a prominent enough feature in utilitarianism (compared to other normative philosophies) to merit some section in this piece. I don't think I could do it justice, though.

Incidentally, is there a 'reply' button I'm missing, or is editing this section the only way to respond directly to comments?

Jinksy 00:53, 28 October 2007 (UTC)

Average, total and the mere addition paradox

It's good to see someone has expanded on this a little, but isn't it a bit much to have three separate articles on what is basically one issue? I would favour keeping it all together, either at Average and total utilitarianism or Mere addition paradox. Richard001 03:14, 7 September 2007 (UTC)

Can we have both? I mean, since it sounds like people have already done the work, can we keep the shorter articles, and at the same time maybe include a longer discussion in our main article here?
One perennial problem I have with wikipedia is 'bluebirding.' And I think you probably know what I mean. Instead of writing, we end up simply mentioning.
Two paragraphs within the main article is probably about right for a really juicy sub-topic. FriendlyRiverOtter 00:36, 15 September 2007 (UTC)

You don't seem to be addressing why we need so many articles on the subject. By the way, I'd recommend not 'improving' the text other people have added on talk pages. It's fine on articles, but generally discouraged on discussion pages. Removing off topic discussion and correcting typos where their meaning is not conveyed are examples where it's more appropriate. Richard001 00:55, 15 September 2007 (UTC)

I guess that's why they have chocolate and vanilla! Some people prefer shorter articles, other people prefer longer articles. Actually, I think I'm kind of in the minority. I like long, meaty, substantial, almost conversational articles. If other people prefer shorter articles, that's fine. I would just like our article here to be built up to be as substantial as possible.
And about the edits in "Negative Utilitarianism" above, I wrote that section myself when I was relatively new to wiki and did not yet have the FriendlyRiverOtter account.
I want us to do the best work we possibly can, and I don't want the goofy rules of wikipedia to hold us back. For example, you said in an above section, "The implications of including animals in the framework of average vs. total utilitarianism, for example, are huge, yet I wouldn't even be that surprised if I was to find they had never once been discussed." And Richard, I think you might be absolutely correct. Peter Singer once said, possibly raise large flocks of happy animals, or something like that, but he said it in passing and did not develop the idea at all. So, this might be an absolutely open field. And, if this is a topic that interests you, by all means, run as fast and as far as you can. Give yourself permission to do really good work. And the wikipedia rule against original research ? ? ? People have got to be kidding. We have a world to save! Sure, we will identify it as original research, that's part of intellectual honesty, and we will engage in the debate within the wikipedia community as needed, and do so respectfully, and we will also set up mirror web site(s) to protect ourselves. But let us make the progress. Bentham was radical, Mill in his own way kind of radical, Bertrand Russell was radical. We can be a little radical, too! FriendlyRiverOtter 00:44, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

So, to clarify, you are supporting merging average and total utilitarianism? I see having two articles on the subject as silly as having an article on the head and tails side of a coin. However, my efforts to have act and rule utilitarianism merged was unsuccessful, so it wouldn't be the first time I met opposition.

Regarding original research, I don't think that policy is going to change. Just because ideas may be valid or worthy of discussion, if nobody else had discussed them in reliable sources, we have to remain silent. I'd like to research this more but I've barely read a philosophy book in my life (well, one by Dennett, and most of Utilitarianism...), so I can hardly contribute much myself.

<Philosophical aside>I do think about it a lot though. As you mention above, things like raising lots of happy animals is one idea that I'm sure many philosophers have never entertained. In fact, if one was trying to maximize the total happiness they would probably be best culling all the happy animals and letting the land go back to forest or whatever - there are a lot more animals in a natural habitat than on grazed pasture. On the other hand, when one considers quality more important, one must realize that the Vast majority of conscious beings, even assuming only warm blooded vertebrates are conscious (and I personally think it goes a lot further than that), are animals and hence live a fairly miserable life compared with us (a lot of people think animals have a fairly sweet life but it's fairly obvious they are in a hopeless struggle for existence). If we wanted to maximize the average happiness of all beings, we would probably have to go about killing as many animals as possible. So as you can see, the problem becomes far more complicated (and the conclusions of either school of thought far more repugnant; I'm sure you can figure out what the conclusion of the first one is) when we stop being anthropocentric. It's far more complex than that too, but this is all just speculation, so you'd have to find a real source before you could add discussion of such things to the article.</Philosophical aside> Richard001 01:09, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

Note: I've placed merge tags on the articles, and suggest continuing discussion of this matter at Talk:Average Utilitarianism. Richard001 01:21, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

Richard, I am a radical. But I'm a polite radical, so I will soon move discussion to Talk:Average Utilitarianism. But I do have a few more things that I wish to say here first.
To be very clear, I am advocating that we openly disregard the policy. Let's show them what a good article can really be all about! Kind of like if we were in the rock era of 1959, if we could time-forward and do a Zepplin show '71!
So, openly identify it as original research. We owe people that as part of an honest communication. But let us go forward.
Okay, about animals. Animals don't worry like we do. Animals are not excluded (not in the same hurtful way that humans are, and maybe partial exclusion is the worse of all). And, most of these are just theoretical trade-offs anyway. We want a world where there's lot of natural areas left, and animals in the city, because it's good for us, too! I often finds that seeing a animal unexpectedly and just watching it for a short time kind of centers me.
A lot of utilitarianism (and philosophy in general), in my opinion, pursues false dilemmas. It's like, say, when Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies was pursuing a consecutive game streak last Summer. You can just see a reporter asking the manager, Will you pull him if you need defensive help in late innings? Well, Chase is an excellent defensive player. Will you pull him if he walks, ends up at third, and you need a really fast runner? . . . So, it becomes a self-fulfilling-prophecy type of thing. We're obsessing on things that are kind of low-percentage things to begin with. We ought to be thinking about, how do you stay in the flow when things are going well? How do you ride different kinds of flows over a long streak. Those are the higher-probability things. (I am not enough of a baseball fan to know all the details, but I will stick with my general point.)
And shoot, if you've read Mill's Utilitarianism, and you've thought about it a lot, that's the most important thing. By all means, jump in. And give yourself permission to make mistakes.
And I agree with you that animal happiness and suffering of moral count goes down further than we commonly give it credit for. I still get back to the point that animals don't have the same types of regrets, internal questions, etc, that we humans have. That when an animal has a full belly, things are pretty good, and even when it's engaged in food acquisition, with the realistic hope of success, or maybe just an outside chance . . . (I don't want to paint an overly rosey picture, but I don't want to preclude an optimistic conclusion either). FriendlyRiverOtter 03:33, 16 September 2007 (UTC)
I don't think you have a very realistic idea of how Wikipedia works, my Mustelid friend. Even if amateurs writing from the gut was a good idea, it wouldn't be allowed by current policy. Wikipedia:No original research is one of the main premises of the encyclopedia, and without it there would be no realistic way to stop all sorts of weirdos and no-names from publishing their original thought as fact. If you plan to rewrite the article, I suggest you get consensus to do away with the no original research policy first.
I might also point out that talk pages shouldn't be used for discussions like this, especially your entry below. You'll have to take it to a forum elsewhere - this isn't the place for it, and it is liable to be deleted (perhaps by me). Richard001 06:19, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

Can we include realistic, substantial examples of motive utilitarianism?

One example might be a gay person coming out of the closet. Although they may not feel they had been living a deceptive life at work, not lying, just not telling; however, when they do come out, Wow, it astonishes them how much more power and flow they feel in their life.

Another example might be a politician breaking with a war. Whereas before, he or she may have been guarded and cautious in criticizing, they can now speak freely. And again, Wow, they may find a lot of new power and flow in their life. (After a while, however, they may find themselves somewhat lonely. Their old friends are largely gone and it takes a while to make new friends. And the same may also be somewhat the experience of the newly out gay person. Sometimes. Life is very complex, and people and the social aspect, all the more so!) FriendlyRiverOtter 00:27, 15 September 2007 (UTC)

We can run homeless shelters, progressive businesses, community arts centers!

Hey, hey, we have no specific qualifications for this at all. That is true. But, on the other hand, on the other hand, we have no specific disqualifications either! And it is this kind of interplay between theory and practice where we can do so much, learn so much, that can is such a furtile area. FriendlyRiverOtter 03:05, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

Is triage really our crowning jewel?

Yes, it’s obvious that in that situation we should treat the people where it can do the most good, but why should we allow ourselves to get into that situation in the first place?

There are many, many examples of the medical system being stretched thin. A person with a possible/probable broken arm goes to the emergency room and ends up waiting seven hours, and it’s not even a particularly busy night. What would the hospital have done if something really had happened?

Utilitarianism is a theory that is very open to challenging the status quo. At its best, it is about open fields, about being proactive, and about throwing off conventional, old-fashioned, and superstitious morality, and hopefully creating something better. And whereas rights theory, virtue theory, and social contract theory are not necessarily against better alternatives. They are not emphatically in favor of them either, not like utilitarianism is.

In addition, there are many cases in which we can freely take away suffering and/or freely add happiness, without counterbalancing negatives (or almost freely). We should get very good at these kinds of cases, and allow them to become a big thick part of our repertoire. FriendlyRiverOtter (talk) 01:05, 27 November 2007 (UTC)

chaos theory?

I was wondering if it would be good, or even accurate, to add about the relationship to Utility and chaos since in my mind at least it seems that Utility is an extension of chaos or vis versa. For if you recognise that every act has a knock on 'butter fly wing' effect on the world then utilitarianism is simply the doctrine of trying to control those events to lead to the best outcome? —Preceding unsigned comment added by Curuxz (talkcontribs) 08:27, 5 December 2007 (UTC)--Curuxz (talk) 09:17, 5 December 2007 (UTC)

I think there's a lot to this, just like if we drop a pebble into a lake, the waves radiate outward--although not nearly as predictable and not necessarily with the magnitude decreasing either (which I take to be the main idea of the theory of chaos). Okay, one conclusion, this gives some reason not to choose present sacrifices for a supposed better future. And, we might want to move away from the model of the utilitarian as the uber-planner and other people, I suppose, as marks to be played. This is not directly stated in examples, but it is often implied. Instead, we might want to move toward a model where the utilitarian is more of a coach and a teacher. FriendlyRiverOtter (talk) 01:11, 22 December 2007 (UTC)

Other coments

so what does it really mean? cause i dont get what some people are trying to say.? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:41, 13 January 2008 (UTC)

NPOV of comparing happiness

The article has a NPOV tag on the comparing happiness section, but so far as I can tell, there is no explanation on the discussion page. Crasshopper, who added the tag, or someone who agrees with his assessment should either 1) Briefly explain what the issues with that section are or 2) Edit the article to fix the problems. If not, we should remove the NPOV tag, since I don't see a particular problem with the section. —Preceding unsigned comment added by JustinBlank (talkcontribs) 13:21, 31 January 2008 (UTC)


An entire article on utilitarianism, in which the single mention of "welfare" is a link to an animal welfare article. This is inexcusable. If you need a source - you'll find it implicit that welfare is what contemporary utilitarianism is about in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on consequentialism. If implicit does not suffice, reference William H. Shaw's book "Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism", an overview of the different views within utilitarianism, as well as the criticisms and (sometimes partial) refutation of those criticisms. However, I'm sure that you can easily cite hundreds of other sources as using welfare rather than happiness. DDSaeger (talk) 08:58, 30 March 2008 (UTC)

Criticism of Other Schools

Shouldn't utilitarian criticism of other schools be mentioned on the pages of those schools, rather than this page? After all, this page is about the theory of utilitarianism, not about other, alternative theories. DDSaeger (talk) 00:54, 31 March 2008 (UTC)

Looking at the content of the section, it seems pretty relevant to me. Richard001 (talk) 08:01, 8 May 2008 (UTC)

Average vs. Total section, problematic passage.

I was reading through this page and I came across this passage at the end of the "Average vs. Total" section.

"So, the question is between a very large population and a very small population. And obviously, rather like a good engineering problem, the optimum choice is most likely to be somewhere in the middle. It is similar to the local max provided by a downward opening parabola, except this will be in multi-dimensional space. We of course want both quantity and quality of happiness. In fact, if there's a lot of quantity, there's a greater chance that due to good luck, repertoire of skills, and genuine friendship connections, that there will be peak experiences.

And, through a stroke of spectacular good luck, as far as persuading people to have fewer children, the "nice," low-key methods of social security and education for women work among the best. The problem is that we are not moving fast enough with these nice methods. And, the question can be raised, how much progress do we make in ethics through the method of heightened "dilemma"? Sometimes it might help to clarify a point. But this has become the dominant method, to such an extent that other methods and possible methods are considered suspiciously as not really philosophy. Why couldn't philosophers contribute to a discussion of when institutions work well and when they work poorly? In fact, to get a healthy interplay going between theory and practice, why couldn't we as philosophers embark on a number of very practical projects such as homeless shelters, community arts centers, and independent businesses? To this, one might object, Hey, we have no special qualifications in these areas at all. That is quite true. However, it is also true that we have no special disqualifications either!"

I'm not sure what's going on in these two paragraphs, it's a drastic change in narrative from the rest of the article and not particularly encyclopedic. I feel like it might violate WP:NPOV in a big way, however it does try to address how these two branches of philosophy attempt to deal with certain criticisms. Maybe it can be cleaned up instead of just deleted? I haven't been a participant on this page so I didn't want to go making any drastic changes as I am not up to speed on the page's history.Warhorus (talk) 16:56, 24 April 2008 (UTC)

It was Friendly River Otter, solving the mere addition paradox for us all! I've told this user about this sort of thing before, I'm really disappointed to see him adding his personal editorial here like this. I can sympathize with his psychological need to come to some position on this problem, but to add such blatant original research editorials like this is unacceptable. The only thing more unbelievable than this being added in the first place is that it survived long enough for me to read and delete it. Appalling article maintenance, though probably slightly above average by Wikipedia's bottom-of-the-barrel scraping standards. Richard001 (talk) 11:02, 29 April 2008 (UTC)

Edit to 'other species' section

This edit was made after I added a little more to Utilitarianism#Other species. Let's go through the changes so this doesn't happen again.

Firstly, almost all organisms alive are certainly not conscious. Ignoring some weird wish-washy ideas that trees and mountains are conscious entities, we can safely say that only animals that have a centralized nervous system are conscious. No other animals make any sort of decision process that could possibly involve consciousness. I can't go much further than that in saying what more would be required for consciousness, but I think we can all surely agree that jellyfish (and trees!) are not sentient beings. (We need an article specifically on animal consciousness!)

As for biodiversity and such, there's an important distinction that I didn't make, between utilitarians and utilitarianism. Utilitarians may (almost certainly do) have other values that aren't derived strictly from utilitarian thinking. They may place value on biodiversity 'for its own sake' (personally I find this silly, as 'biodiversity' is not a conscious entity). I have corrected this to read 'utilitarianism'. There's no way you can get intrinsic value (value that isn't derived indirectly from the happiness or so such of some other conscious entity) for biodiversity from utilitarian thinking. If you still value it, you're not a purist utilitarian.

It then goes on to say "Some utilitarians however take in to account the future happiness of things that have not yet become sentient, whether in the form of very young or even prenatal children or in the form of animals that have not yet evolved consciousness."

The only thing relevant to this section is the 'animals that have not yet evolved consciousness'. How do we know whether an animal will evolve (or lose; evolution isn't progressive in this way!) consciousness? How do we know non-animals might not evolve it one day (by evolving into something like animals - it could happen in theory). Basically this is just OR - cite a utilitarian talking about the future rights of non-conscious-entities-that-might-evolve-consciousness and I'll reconsider.

Then: Similarly, utilitarianismmany utilitarians places[sic] little or no intrinsic value on biodiversity, except that which arises from it's use by sentient life.

As I've said, there's nothing in utilitarianism from which you could derive intrinsic value for biodiversity. Maybe people who think they are utilitarians might be uncomfortable with this, but that doesn't change the facts. Value derived from indirect ways, e.g. biodiversity being good for people or the animals of ecosystems, is not intrinsic.

Finally: It must be noted though that while there is at least a vague consensus on what constitutes sentience, there is very little if any on where the boundary line between sentience and not lies. A brain dead human is usually considered to be not sentient, but what about a severely mentally challenged person? What about a person in a coma?

The writing (especially questions) are sloppy and again this should be about animals, not humans. I've replaced this with a footnote mentioning the distribution question in animal consciousness. Richard001 (talk) 11:38, 29 April 2008 (UTC)

Nothing under "Individual interests vs. greater sum of lesser interests"

There's nothing under this sub-heading. Anybody planning on adding anything? I'm not an expert on the subject, so I can't really put anything in there, though I would like to see something there. HoCkEy PUCK (talk) 02:31, 1 September 2008 (UTC)

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Human Right v. Utilitariansims

How can both be compatible? According to the theory of human rights all humans have inalienable rights that are absolute, not awarded by human power, not transferable to another power, and incapable of repudiation. Each human being has these rights regardless of the possible consequences. Utilitarianism isn't concerned with rights at all. As long the the total utility is positive, an action is held to be morally correct. In my opinion this is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of human rights. A utilitarian cannot regard such a right as absolute if the human right conflicts with the total utility of its consequences in a particular situation. Last but not least, Bentham refuted the concept of human rights and published a "Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights". Kikl 20:51, 31 January 2006 (UTC)

Look into "rule utilitarianism." With that doctrine, you can advocate laws to protect liberties because adherence to those laws maximizes good consequences, even if the consequences would be better by violating those liberties in some cases. The justification can be that these situations are so infrequent, that good consequences will be maximized by relieving people of the complexity of making the calculations to forecast the outcome for every situation that arises. So, you could advocate inviolable human rights even if you don't believe in them --because people believing in them leads to the best consequences. RJII 05:52, 2 February 2006 (UTC)

They aren't both compatible. Rule Utilitarianism is a terrible system, and just meant to make a version of Utilitarianism that is compatible with human rights. Rule Utilitarianism is stupid because

  1. It was made just for that purpose
  2. Regular Utilitarianism qualifies as Rule Utilitarianism, because you create and adopt the rule that you should always maximize utility.

Human rights are a concept necessary for a democratic society to function well and be self-sustained, but they are morally indefensible once you get down to it. Do humans have the right to freedom? We violate that with prisons. When can we violate those rights, or when do they lose those rights? When they show themselves to be a threat to society, maybe? Sounds suspiciously like a maximization of utility to me. -- Twiffy 2/2/06

First of all, you've just been provided with an explanation. It is bad faith to call it "stupid". Second, the compatibility, as I see it, would come in that the utilitarian would be very skeptical of absolute rules, and be more willing to entertain the idea of violating them -- though ultimately, as RJ indicates, they have the doctrinal freedom not to. Lucidish 02:48, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Have you ever read Mill's On Liberty? "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."[7] That sounds like human rights to me. --JHP (talk) 01:16, 20 November 2008 (UTC)

Quick notice pertaining to Human rights in Criticism. The entire second is a rebuttal without the original criticism being claimed, would say that's slightly POV. Mullanaphy 04:33, 13 May 2010 (UTC) —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk)