DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

4. Arguments for utilitarianism

The most famous argument for utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill’s ‘proof’ (1861). This has three stages:

    Each stage has been subjected to much criticism, especially the first. Mill was an empiricist, who believed that matters of fact could be decided by appeal to the senses (see Empiricism). In his proof, he attempted to ground evaluative claims on an analogous appeal to desires, making unfortunate rhetorical use of ‘visible’ and ‘desirable’. The first stage suggests to the reader that if they consult their own desires, they will see that they find happiness desirable.

    The second stage is little more than assertion, since Mill did not see the vastness of the difference between egoistic and universalistic hedonism (utilitarianism). In an important footnote (1861: ch. 5, para. 36), we see the assumption that lies behind the proof: the more happiness one can promote by a certain action, the stronger the reason to perform it. Egoists will deny this, but it does put the ball back in their court.

    The final stage again rests on introspection, the claim being that we desire, ultimately, only pleasurable states. Thus even a desire for virtue can be seen as a desire for happiness, since what we desire is the pleasure of acting virtuously or contemplating our virtue. One suspects that introspection by Mill’s opponents would have had different results.

    Perhaps the most common form of utilitarianism, as of any other moral theory, is, in a weak sense, intuitionist (see Intuitionism in ethics). To many, utilitarianism has just seemed, taken by itself, reasonable – so reasonable, indeed, that any attempt to prove it would probably rest on premises less secure than the conclusion. This view was expressed most powerfully by Henry Sidgwick (1874). Sidgwick supported his argument with a painstaking analysis of common sense morality. Sidgwick also believed that egoism was supported by intuition, so that practical reason was ultimately divided (see Egoism and altruism §§1, 3).

    In the twentieth century, R.M. Hare wished to avoid appeal to moral intuition, which he saw as irrational. According to Hare (1981), if we are going to answer a moral question such as, ‘What ought I to do?’, we should first understand the logic of the words we are using. In the case of ‘ought’, we shall find that it has two properties: prescriptivity (it is action-guiding) and universalizability (I should be ready to assent to any moral judgment I make when it is applied to situations similar to the present one in their universal properties) (see Prescriptivism). Hare argues that putting yourself in another’s position properly – ‘universalizing’ – involves taking on board their preferences. Once this has been done, the only rational strategy is to maximize overall preference-satisfaction, which is equivalent to utilitarianism.

    Hare’s moral theory is one of the most sophisticated since Kant’s, and he does indeed claim to incorporate elements of Kantianism into his theory (see Kantian ethics). Objectors have claimed, however, that, rather like Kant himself, Hare introduces ‘intuitions’ (that is, beliefs about morality or rationality) through the back door. For example, the logic of the word ‘ought’ may be said not to involve a commitment to the rationality of maximization even in one’s own case.

    Citing this article:
    Chappell, Tim and Roger Crisp. Arguments for utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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