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

3. Types of utilitarianism

Theories of right and wrong have to be about something, that is, have to have a focus. Usually, at least in recent centuries, they have focused on actions, attempting to answer the questions, ‘Which actions are right?’, and, ‘What makes those actions right?’. The ancients also asked these questions, but were concerned also to focus on lives, characters, dispositions and virtues. Nearly all forms of utilitarianism have focused on actions, but in recent decades there has been some interest in utilitarianism as applied to motives, virtues and lives as a whole.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But it is important to note that, since utilitarians can attach instrinsic moral importance to acts (especially, of course, the act of maximizing itself), there are problems in attempting to capture the nature of utilitarianism using the act/consequence distinction. A recent alternative has been to employ the ‘agent-neutral’/‘agent-relative’ distinction. Agent-neutral theories give every agent the same aim (for example, that utility be maximized), whereas agent-relative theories give agents different aims (say, that your children be looked after). Logically, however, there is nothing to prevent a utilitarian’s insisting that your aim should be that you maximize utility. Though this theory would be practically equivalent to an agent-neutral theory, its possibility suggests there may be problems with attempting to use the agent-neutral/agent-relative distinction to capture the essence of utilitarianism.

What clearly distinguishes utilitarianism from other moral theories is what it requires and why, so we should now turn to that. The commonest, and most straightforward, version of utilitarianism is act-utilitarianism, according to which the criterion of an action’s rightness is that it maximize utility.

Act-utilitarians might offer two accounts of rightness. The objectively right action would be that which actually does maximize utility, while the subjectively right action would be that which maximizes expected utility. Agents would usually be blamed for not doing what was subjectively right.

Another distinction is between total and average forms. According to the total view, the right act is the one that produces the largest overall total of utility. The average view says that the right action is that which maximizes the average level of utility in a population. The theories are inconsistent only in cases in which the size of a population is under consideration. The most common such case occurs when one is thinking of having a child. Here, the average view has the absurd conclusion that I should not have a child, even if its life will be wonderful and there will be no detrimental effects from its existence, if its welfare will be lower than the existing average.

But the total view also runs into problems, most famously with Derek Parfit’s ‘repugnant conclusion’ (1984), which commits the total view to the notion that if a population of people with lives barely worth living is large enough it is preferable to a smaller population with very good lives. One way out of this problem is to adopt a person-affecting version of utilitarianism, which restricts itself in scope to existing people. But there are problems with this view (see Parfit 1984: ch. 18). Recently, certain writers have suggested that one way to avoid the ‘repugnant conclusion’ would be to argue that there are discontinuities in value, such that once welfare drops below a certain level the loss cannot be compensated for by quantity. There is a link here with Mill’s view of the relation of higher pleasures to lower.

Imagine being an act-utilitarian, brought up in an entirely act-utilitarian society. You will have to spend much time calculating the utility values of the various actions open to you. You are quite likely to make mistakes, and, being human, to cook the books in your own favour.

For these reasons, most act-utilitarians have argued that we should not attempt to put act-utilitarianism into practice wholesale, but stick by a lot of common sense morality (see Common-sense ethics). It will save a lot of valuable time, is based on long experience, and will keep us on the straight and narrow. Act-utilitarians who recommend sole and constant application of their theory as well as those who recommend that we never consult the theory and use common sense morality can both be called single-level theorists, since moral thinking will be carried on only at one level. Most utilitarians have adopted a two-level theory, according to which we consult utilitarianism only sometimes – in particular when the principles of ordinary morality conflict with one another.

The main problem with two-level views is their psychology. If I really accept utilitarianism, how can I abide by a common sense morality I know to be a fiction? And if I really do take that common sense morality seriously, how can I just forget it when I am supposed to think as a utilitarian? The two-level response here must be that this is indeed a messy compromise, but one made to deal with a messy reality.

Act-utilitarianism is an extremely demanding theory, since it requires you to be entirely impartial between your own interests, the interests of those you love, and the interests of all. The usual example offered is famine relief. By giving up all your time, money and energy to famine relief, you will save many lives and prevent much suffering. Utilitarians often claim at this point that there are limits to human capabilities, and utilitarianism requires us only to do what we can. But the sense of ‘can’ here is quite obscure, since in any ordinary sense I can give up my job and spend my life campaigning for Oxfam.

The demandingness objection seems particularly serious when taken in the context of widespread non-compliance with the demands of act-utilitarian morality. Most people do little or nothing for the developing world, and this is why the moral demands on me are so great. An argument such as this has been used to advocate rule-utilitarianism, according to which the right action is that which is in accord with that set of rules which, if generally or universally accepted, would maximize utility. (The version of the theory which speaks of the rules that are obeyed is likely to collapse into act-utilitarianism; see Lyons 1965.)

Unlike act-utilitarianism, which is a direct theory in that the rightness and wrongness of acts depends directly on whether they fit with the maximizing principle, rule-utilitarianism is an indirect theory, since rightness and wrongness depend on rules, the justification for which itself rests on the utilitarian principle.

The demandingness of act-utilitarianism has not been the main reason for adopting rule-utilitarianism. Rather, the latter theory has been thought to provide support for common sense moral principles, such as those speaking against killing or lying, which appear plausible in their own right.

Rule-utilitarianism has not received as much attention as act-utilitarianism, partly because it detaches itself from the attractiveness of maximization. According to rule-utilitarianism there may be times when the right action is to bring about less than the best possible world (such as when others are not complying). But if maximization is reasonable at the level of rules, why does it not apply straightforwardly to acts?

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

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