I’ve just completed the Open University’s Exploring Philosophy module. I loved the class but got a little frustrated that the essay assignments steered us down narrow, boring paths when I’d much rather be exploring the topics more broadly. Charlotte suggested that I write two essays: one for my tutor and one for myself. This one is for me.
If you’ve never read philosophy before, you probably expect it to be boring and difficult but lots of people get hooked on philosophy if they give it a chance. I’m especially interested in the question ‘How should we act?’. Maybe you will be interested too.
How should we act?
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said that when making moral decisions, we should always choose the option that provides ‘the greatest happiness to the greatest number’ (Bentham, 1789). He called this moral theory ‘utilitarianism’. At first glance, Bentham’s theory seems like a good one but his critics objected that utilitarianism neglects many of the virtues that make us human, such as duty, courage and honour. Other critics say that a singular focus on happiness can lead to appalling consequences and that an approach to decision-making based on duty or virtue would give better results. I will argue that a clearer understanding of what we mean by happiness will make these objections evaporate like the morning dew. I will also show that a proper understanding of how choices are made redeems utilitarianism as a moral theory and that happiness is, after all, the good that we seek. I will begin by explaining what I mean by happiness and how it relates to utilitarianism.
Bentham’s utilitarianism is based on two principles: consequentialism is the idea that the correct action is the one with the best consequences and hedonism dictates that the best consequences are those that provide the most pleasure and the least pain (Bentham, 1789). When faced with a moral choice, utilitarians will choose the option that results in the most happiness. It’s not just our own happiness that counts—that would be selfish—we should also consider everyone who might be affected by our actions both now and in the future. Utilitarianism can be contrasted with other moral theories where, for example, intentions are more important than consequences and virtues such as duty, integrity or obedience to a rule are more important than happiness. I will now look more closely at what Bentham meant by happiness and pleasure.
Bentham, in his description of utilitarianism, seems to use happiness and pleasure interchangeably as though they mean the same thing. Indeed, Bentham’s protégé, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said that ‘By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain’ (Mill, 1861) but happiness and pleasure are not the same thing at all. Pleasure is a momentary positive emotion that makes us feel good but happiness is a more lasting state of mind. Pleasure occurs in the moment while happiness and the associated qualities well-being, life satisfaction and human flourishing should be considered over a longer period of days, months, years and even a lifetime. An example will illustrate.
A common criticism of utilitarianism is that, if we wish to maximise our pleasure, we could simply inject ourselves with heroin every day. But consider: when you imagine heroin addicts, do you think of them as happy people? Yes, they experience a momentary flash of pleasure as the needle enters their arm but one rarely thinks of heroin addicts as happy. Their lives are not filled with satisfaction, neither are they often described as flourishing. This distinction between pleasure and happiness is not universally accepted but, in this essay, I will use ‘happiness’ to mean a lasting sense of well-being and contentment. With this definition in mind, I will show that happiness—not pleasure—is the proper goal of moral actions and that Bentham’s attempts to measure it were misguided.
Bentham concocted a scheme for computing pleasure. He called this a hedonic calculus and his aim was a system where one could calculate the precise amount of pleasure that results from an action. To this end, Bentham enumerated the sources of pleasure and pain plus modifiers like intensity, duration, remoteness and the number of people affected. Finally, he prescribed an algorithm to tot up these various pleasures, pains, modifiers and quantities to produce a score, which Bentham called an action’s utility. Thus, when making a choice between two actions, one would choose the action with the highest utility (hence, utilitarianism). I have two criticisms of Bentham’s calculus: Firstly, as noted above, happiness (not pleasure) is the proper objective of utilitarianism. Secondly, neither pleasure nor happiness can be added up in the way that Bentham imagines. Qualities like happiness, beauty and freedom are often described as incommensurable, which means that, though they can be compared, there is no objective scale that captures the value of the quality (Hsieh and Andersson, 2021). For example, one can compare flowers and say that one particular flower is more beautiful than another but there is no cardinal scale of flower beauty and we cannot calculate the beauty of a flower arrangement by adding up the beauty of the individual roses. Neither can we say that a particular rose is more beautiful than, say, a sunset or the smile of a young child. Similarly for happiness: we can say that we are happier today than we were yesterday but we cannot simply add up our happy days and subtract our sad days to calculate a lifetime happiness store. Our assessment of happiness is more impressionistic and subjective. This incommensurability creates a problem for a theory that aims to maximise happiness but this problem is not insurmountable, as I will show in the next section.
We have seen that we cannot add happiness scores together to obtain a total score but there are also problems with comparing one person’s happiness to another’s. It seems to me that while happiness, like beauty, is not entirely objective, it is not entirely subjective either. At the extremes, we might all agree that a poorly-treated slave working a copper mine, for example, is probably less happy than an emancipated slave running a successful café thus making emancipation an obvious choice for a utilitarian but it gets harder to decide when the contrast between outcomes is less stark. Are astronauts happier than gardeners? Would the country be happier with more lawyers or more accountants? Will the citizens of Bristol be happier with a beautiful garden in Queen Square or with a highway running through the middle of it? Opinions will vary.
We should not expect utilitarianism to provide all the answers but it does provide a guide to the right questions to ask, both in our personal lives and in public life. Whenever we make policy decisions, we should be asking ‘Does this policy make people happier?’ and we should think about ALL the people affected by the decision. For example, when thinking about the highway through Queen Square, we should think about the old people sitting quietly on park benches and the students playing volleyball on a Sunday afternoon as well as the commuters speeding home to their families after a day’s work in the city. We should think about the deaths caused by particulate matter from polluting diesel vans as well as the frustration of waiting for a bus that will probably be late again. Decisions like this are difficult and must take into account a diversity of views but focusing on the consequences helps guide us towards the right choice, even when the choice is difficult to make. As we have seen in the arguments about clean air zones and low-traffic neighbourhoods, the hardships imposed on tradesmen who can’t afford to replace their polluting vans are important but so is the happiness of the children who can no longer play in the street because of the overabundance of traffic. While we can’t directly compare the happiness of the drivers of polluting trucks with the happiness of the children dying of respiratory diseases (Royal College of Physicians, 2016, we can focus on their respective happiness to give us a common basis for discussing a solution.
At this point, it is worth noting briefly that critics—and occasionally supporters—sometimes claim that the proper goal of utilitarianism is the maximisation of utility points rather than happiness. I suggest that substituting the more abstract utility points for the more concrete happiness introduces unnecessary ambiguity. When speaking of utility points, it’s inevitable that we lazily think of them as a kind of currency that can be averaged and summed in a way that happiness cannot. Furthermore, there is a certain rhetorical power in asking ‘But does this make you happier?’. We can, perhaps, imagine that a road through the middle of Queen Square results in more utility points (whatever they are) but it is harder to imagine that it results in greater happiness. Similarly, when choosing the design for a new building, we should ask ‘Which design will bring the most happiness?’ but when we think of a building that is ‘utilitarian’, we think of a grey, Soviet-era office building—the very opposite of a building that makes us happy. Happiness is not measured in utility points. It’s unfortunate that Bentham chose such an ugly name for a theory that aims to maximise happiness but, unhappily, we appear to be stuck with it. I will now briefly consider some other common criticisms of utilitarianism before looking at some alternative ethical theories.
Several arguments against utilitarianism describe extreme scenarios where the rights of a single person or minority group are weighed against the pleasure of thousands. This supposedly highlights utilitarianism’s neglect of traditional virtues like honour, justice and respect but I contend that many such scenarios can be resolved by returning the focus to happiness rather than some other consequence that the critic has chosen to highlight. An often-quoted scenario describes a trip to the hospital for a minor operation. While at the hospital, the doctors discover that you are a perfect match for several transplant patients so they decide to kill you and harvest your organs so that five other patients can be saved (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2022). Five lives for one. It is often claimed that this is a knockdown case against utilitarianism but let’s look more closely at the consequences. Firstly, utilitarianism does not aim to maximise the number of lives saved: it maximises happiness. If you were the doctor in this case (or a theatre nurse, or one of the patients or the parent of a patient), would you be happy to kill a healthy patient to harvest their organs? If so, I suggest that you are a moral monster and a greater focus on the happiness of the people around you might save you from any number of moral crimes. Secondly, if hospitals made a habit of killing healthy patients to harvest their organs, no one would ever visit a hospital again which would result in even more deaths and more unhappiness. We must consider all of the consequences of an action, not just the immediate effects. Killing patients to harvest their organs is not a good strategy for maximising happiness.
We might also consider scenarios that posit an act of cruelty that results in pleasure for the many. Utilitarianism is often claimed to justify the torture of Christians by Romans in the Colosseum. Supposedly, the excruciating deaths of the Christians are justified by the enjoyment experienced by the baying crowd but let’s pause for a moment to wonder: Does the idea of torturing Christians make you happy? I didn’t think so. Me neither. It didn’t make the Christians happy either. I don’t expect that many people in modern society would be happy watching people torn to pieces by animals. Perhaps people in less moral times enjoyed watching torture but we are prescribing a morality for us, not them. Scenarios like these often fail to consider a wide enough circle when thinking about whose happiness matters and we can, perhaps, wonder whether the dramatic reductions in violence and murder over the years are a result of this growing circle of empathy (Pinker, 2011).
Steven Pinker’s (1954-) book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), plots the relentless decline in violence over the past several decades, centuries and millennia. This decline manifested in fewer deaths from war, executions and domestic violence. To illustrate just one example from hundreds, the chart below shows a tenfold to fiftyfold decline in the rates of murder in Europe over the last 700 years (Pinker, 2011).
One of the reasons Pinker offers for this decline is that, where humans previously had a very parochial view of our obligations to our fellow humans, our circle of empathy has grown to the point where we now consider more than just our immediate neighbours when we decide whose lives—and whose happiness—matters. Thinking back to the Colosseum, we should not only be weighing the happiness of the crowd against the happiness of the handful of Christians in the arena; we should also be thinking of every Christian—and every other potential victim—who might fear being thrown to the lions. From our viewpoint in history, we’ve learned that societies are happier when we don’t face the threat of arbitrary violence and cruelty.
I mentioned earlier that it’s often claimed that utilitarianism neglects other virtues such as honour, dignity and duty in its monomaniacal focus on happiness. Consider again Pinker’s chart showing the decline in murder over the centuries and the comparable decline in war and ethnic violence. How many of those wars from centuries past resulted from the exaltation of duty and honour? Consider cultures that value honour codes such as the Taliban or Ku Klux Klan or gang cultures in New York and Juarez. How many revenge murders and female circumcisions could be avoided if the families valued happiness more than they valued honour and duty? This is not to say that honour and duty are unimportant but they are only important to the extent that they promote happiness. If you believe the honour of Russia requires that you invade Ukraine, you should still pause to consider how happy the widows and orphans of Russia and Ukraine will be when your honour is restored. Similarly, some ethical systems require their followers to follow the rules in a holy book written long ago. Again, following the rules is worthwhile to the extent that following the rules makes us happy. If God is Love, as many holy books claim, then God would want us to be happy more than He would want us to follow arbitrary rules.
There are, of course, limits to utilitarianism as a guide to ethical behaviour. Humans are social animals moulded by millions of years of primate evolution and thousands of years of cultural evolution. The famous trolley problem illustrates this well. A brief reminder: a runaway railway trolley is hurtling along the tracks towards a group of five railway workers. The only way to prevent their certain deaths is to pull a lever that will divert the trolley to a side track where only one worker will perish. Should you pull the lever? Most people say yes and offer some version of consequentialism as justification. However, if you change the scenario slightly and, instead of merely pulling a lever to divert the trolley, you suggest that pushing a fat man onto the tracks to stop the trolley will save the five in peril, most people say that, no, you shouldn’t push someone in front of a runaway trolley, even if it would save five lives. Why is there such a big difference in choices even though the consequences will be the same in both cases? It’s tempting to try to explain this in terms of happiness—who would be happy to live in a world where someone might push you in front of a train at any moment? A better explanation is to think about why we have such a visceral reaction to the idea of pushing someone in front of a train when merely pulling that lever is a moment for quiet reflection. The answer is that all those years of evolution as a social animal have given us certain instincts: it’s wrong to push people to their deaths.
Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow (2012), suggests that we have evolved two separate circuits in our brains for making decisions: System One makes decisions instinctively based on rules crafted by evolution and policed by our emotions: we recoil instinctively against the idea that we should push someone to their death. But in the pull-the-lever scenario, we have no relevant instincts and the decision has to be made more rationally by System Two. Joshua Green, in Moral Tribes (2015), compares these two systems to the automatic mode and manual mode on a camera. The camera in automatic mode has been designed to take perfectly adequate photos in most situations but, occasionally, you need to switch to manual mode to get the lighting just right. In the same way, we have been conditioned by evolution to make many moral decisions without reflection (No killing! No adultery! No Stealing! No pushing fat men in front of trains!) but, occasionally, a situation arises where we need to stop and reflect. In such situations, we should pause to think about which choice would result in the greatest happiness. This isn’t a concern for governments making policy decisions—in fact, Paul Bloom, in Against Empathy (2016), argues that our moral instincts are a poor guide to government policy—but, for personal morality, we should accept that utilitarianism is limited by human nature. There are limits as to how much rational thinking can override our instincts and how far we can stray from the instincts that evolution and tradition have given us. Any moral theory must be grounded in human nature to be successful.
Human nature and cultural traditions sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes the System One heuristics that worked well for our ancestors on the savannah no longer apply in the twenty-first century. Similarly, the cultural traditions from ages past may impede our happiness and should be updated. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) gave us advice on how to think about outdated habits and traditions in the parable of Chesterton’s Fence.
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Applying Chesterton’s logic to the question of whether to allow same-sex marriage, for example, the fence was blocking the path to happiness for countless gay couples but was thought to have some important value to society. Furthermore, many claimed that the ancient rule was supported by human nature as evidenced by the disgust they feel at the idea of gay sex. The ban on same-sex marriage was eventually overturned in England and the USA by appealing to equal rights but the legislators could have reached the same conclusion by appealing to the happiness principle. Only a decade later, we can measure the increased happiness in the smiles in the wedding photographs and in the same-sex couples who can now grow old together. Traditions often contain hidden wisdom but sometimes we are mistaken about the value of a tradition as the increase in happiness in the case of same-sex marriage makes clear.
This same observation about human nature also applies to the question of whose happiness we should be concerned with. Evolution has trained every mother to value her own child’s happiness more than the child’s in the next village, country or continent. Hard-core utilitarians might claim that these mothers betray the spirit of utilitarianism by preferring their own offspring but I’ll note again that for any moral theory to be successful, it has to work with human nature. One could imagine deciding whether to give your last jelly bean to your own child or to a child in Sri Lanka whom you have never met but the second option stretches human nature beyond the breaking point. There may be extreme altruists (Macfarquhar, 2016) who can send all their possessions to faraway beneficiaries but that’s too much to ask of the rest of us. Donating to a child in Sri Lanka is a fine thing, but your own children deserve to be happy too.
One controversy among utilitarians concerns whether we can make individual utilitarian decisions in isolation or whether we should implement rules that constrain people to the happiest choice. Consider a grove of bluebells that delight passing ramblers with their Spring beauty. A family of ramblers passing the grove might decide that a few armfuls of bluebells would brighten up their kitchen and they decide to take some home with them. The next family decides the same and, before long, all the bluebells are gone and subsequent ramblers are made sad by their absence. In such a situation, we might decide to create a rule: DO NOT PICK THE BLUEBELLS. Camus assures us that ‘Integrity has no need of rules’ (Camus, 1942) and we might hope that the harvesting ramblers would consider the happiness of subsequent ramblers but, sadly, not every rambler has integrity and, even if they did, a long sequence of diligent ramblers might still exhaust the beauty of the bluebells and a rule is required to prevent it. Until everyone has learned to think about the happiness of others, we’ll need rules to encourage them to do the right thing anyway.
As we have seen, critics pose many challenges to utilitarianism that side-step the idea that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the most important aim for society. Many of these challenges miss the mark because they assume some goal other than happiness: heroin addicts are not famous for being happy; asking doctors to kill their patients is unlikely to make doctors or patients happy; feeding Christians to the lions would not, in the modern world, make most people happy. Other challenges require an extreme stance regarding whose happiness is important. Yes, it’s important to donate to charities that feed orphans in Sri Lanka but not if it leaves your own children hungry and unhappy. Charity begins at home. It’s important to be expansive when one considers whose happiness will be affected by a decision but if a moral theory is to escape the philosopher’s armchair and thrive in the streets, it needs to be accessible to the people we wish to act upon it and asking mothers to neglect their own children is asking too much. Similarly, asking a community of neighbours to give preference to a community on the other side of the world is unlikely to result in either goodwill or happiness. We are constrained by our natures. Critics of utilitarianism are quick to point out its limits: we can’t accurately calculate a happiness score; we can’t easily decide who should be in the moral circle and who should be outside when we are deciding whose happiness is important; and it’s sometimes impossible to decide which of two competing happiness claims should take priority. And yet, still, we should always ask of any moral decision: Will this choice make more people happy? Sometimes the happiest choice will be obvious. Other times, such as when weighing the unhappiness that results from a £12.50 vehicle charge against the unhappiness that results from children dying from vehicle pollution, the trade-off is less obvious but, nevertheless, thinking about the happiness of everyone affected by a decision is the best place to start.
Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Bloom, P. (2016) Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.
Camus, A. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus.
Chesterton, G.K. (1929) The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic.
Green, J. (2015) Moral Tribes.
Hsieh, N and Andersson, H. (2021) ‘Incommensurable Values’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition). Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/value-incommensurable/
Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow.
Macfarquhar, L. (2016) Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help.
Mill, J.S. (1861) Utilitarianism.
Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Royal College of Physicians. (2016) Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Available at: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2022) ‘Consequentialism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition). Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/consequentialism