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

2. Conceptions of utility

Before you can maximize utility, you need to know what utility is. It is essential to note that the plausibility of utilitarianism as a theory of right action does not depend on any particular conception of welfare. An account of the good for a person is different from an account of right action (see Right and good).

Utilitarians have held many different views of utility. The ‘classical’ utilitarians – primarily Bentham (1789) and Mill (1861) – were hedonists. There are many objections to hedonism. What about masochists, for example, who seem to find pain desirable? Well, perhaps pain can be pleasurable. But is there really something common – pleasure – to all the experiences that go to make up a happy life? And would it be rational to plug oneself into a machine that gave one vast numbers of pleasurable sensations? Here there may be a move towards the more eclectic view of Sidgwick (1874), that utility consists in desirable consciousness of any kind. Some philosophers, however, such as Nietzsche (1888), have suggested that a life of mere enjoyment is inauthentic.

Hedonists have been criticized for sensualism for millennia J.S. Mill sought to answer the charge, suggesting that hedonists do not have to accept that all pleasurable experiences – drinking lemonade and reading Wordsworth – are on a par, to be valued only according to the amount of pleasure they contain. Bentham and others had suggested that the value of a pleasure depends mainly on its intensity and its duration, but Mill insisted that the quality of a pleasure – its nature – also influences its pleasurableness and hence its value. But why must the effect on value of the nature of an experience be filtered through pleasurableness? Why cannot its nature by itself add value?

Perhaps the most serious objection to any theory that welfare consists in mental states is the so-called ‘experience machine’. This machine is better than the pleasure machine, and can give you the most desirable experiences you can imagine. Would it be best for you to be wired up to it throughout your life? Note that this is not the question whether it would be right to arrange for yourself to be wired up, leaving all your obligations in the real world unfulfilled. Even a utilitarian can argue that that would be immoral.

Some people think it makes sense to plug in, others that it would be a kind of death. If you are one of the latter, then you might consider moving to a desire theory of utility, according to which what makes life good for you is your desires’ being maximally fulfilled. On the experience machine, many of your desires will remain unfulfilled. You want not just the experience of, say, bringing about world peace, but actually to bring it about. Desire theories have come to dominate contemporary thought because of economists’ liking for the notion of ‘revealed preferences’ (see Rationality, practical). Pleasures and pains are hard to get at or measure, whereas people’s preferences can be stated, and inferred objectively from their behaviour.

A simple desire theory fails immediately. I desire the glass of liquid, thinking it to be whisky. In fact it is poison, so satisfying my desire will not make me better off. What desire theorists should say here is that it is the satisfaction of intrinsic desires which counts for wellbeing. My intrinsic desire is for pleasure, the desire for the drink being merely derived.

The usual strategy adopted by desire theorists is to build constraints into the theory in response to such counterexamples: what makes me better off is not the fulfilment of my desires, but of my informed desires.

But why do desire theorists so respond to such counterexamples? It is probably because they already have a view of utility which guides them in the construction of their theories. This means that desire theories are themselves idle, which is to be expected once we realize that the fulfilment of a desire is in itself neither good nor bad for a person. What matters is whether what the person desires, and gets, is good or bad.

For reasons such as this, there is now a return to ancient ideal theories of utility, according to which certain things are good or bad for beings, independently in at least some cases of whether they are desired or whether they give rise to pleasurable experiences (see Perfectionism). Another interesting ancient view which has recently been revived is that certain nonhedonistic goods are valuable, but only when they are combined with pleasure or desire-fulfilment (see Plato, Philebus 21a–22b). The nonhedonistic goods suggested include knowledge and friendship. Questions to ask of the ideal theorist include the following. What will go on your list of goods? How do you decide? How are the various items to be balanced?

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

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