The term “Utilitarianism” was first coined by John Stuart Mill when he was editing Jeremy Bentham’s papers. It describes a consequentialist ethical system which seeks to “produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. Bentham’s utilitarianism was avowedly secular and egalitarian – Bentham supposedly said that “all things being equal, poetry is as good as pushpin” and made another comment suggesting he would prefer to be a pig satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied. He attempted to calculate the right course of action scientifically, applying his famous “felicific calculus” where pleasure and pain were measured in relation to seven separate criteria and compared in different courses of action. As a lawyer and radical reformer, Bentham wanted a rational basis for law and values to replace the archaic collection of illogical, counter-intuitive custom and taboo that he saw characterised the British legal system, so that everybody could have a fair chance of knowing what right and wrong are and thus receiving a fair trial. Mill’s Utilitarianism was different, allowing for “higher pleasures” to be counted as more than “lower pleasures” in a utilitarian calculation and stressing the importance of mental satisfaction over physical pleasure in all things. Singer’s Utilitarianism is different again, acknowledging the difficulty of knowing what will cause somebody else pleasure or pain and preferring to maximise the conditions for exercising one’s preferences rather than happiness per se. Clearly, in addressing this question it will be important to recognise that “utilitarianism” is an umbrella term. While Singer’s utilitarianism might be the “best” approach to 21st century decisions, it does not mean that Bentham’s utilitarianism is even useful in this context. Further, the definition of “best” that is adopted will be significant – best could variously mean happiness-producing, practical, conforming to generally held ideals… and Utilitarianism could not be adjudged in the same way for all of these. For the purposes of this essay, “best” will be held to mean “most practical” and the focus of the discussion will be on Bentham’s Utilitarianism. In that case, Utilitarianism is not the best approach to making 21st Century decisions.
Jeremy Bentham was a radical, reforming lawyer. He was also an atheist. He wanted to sweep away irrational values and start again in building a rational approach to decision-making. This seems a laudable aim, however in sweeping away the Christian ideal and replacing it with the most basic vision of humanity rooted in Greek philosophy, Bentham provided cover for decision making which is a denial of what human beings are capable of and should aspire to. Bentham reminded people that “Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters; the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain” and then reasoned that the ethical imperative was to seek pleasure and avoid pain for the greatest number possible through our decision-making. Yet things that are pleasurable are not always in the long-term interests of the majority. Take infrastructure – football stadia make a lot of people happy very quickly, whereas libraries and schools produce more limited immediate pleasure. Nevertheless, the greater value of education over entertainment is almost universally accepted. Bentham’s felicific calculus, even when the seven criteria are applied, fails to give adequate weight to long-term, uncertain “higher pleasures” like education and threatens to justify short-term immediate pleasures, providing that they are popular, even when they are morally dubious by any other standard. For example, it would make a lot of people happy to bring back the death-penalty for paedophiles – Bentham does not give as an adequate reason not to. Assisted dying would be popular and Bentham does not give adequate weight to the arguments that it might lead to appalling abuses of vulnerable people. As formulated by Bentham, Utilitarianism is far from being the best or most practical approach to the complex decisions we face in the 21st century when, as Alastair Macintyre remarked, it might even seem to justify the Holocaust!
Utilitarianism as a whole continues to struggle when it comes to predicting the outcomes of actions. Bentham’s formulation of the system fails to address this, despite the complexities of his “felicific calculus”. Take war as an example – we might think that bombing a terrorist-suspect with a drone passes the utilitarian maxim comfortably. Few people will miss the terrorist – few people might ever know that they were killed in this way – while the pain avoided by eliminating this part of a terrorist network could be enormous. Nevertheless, the drone might be poorly targeted and innocent civilians might be killed instead, causing immense damage to the reputation of coalition forces and the war-against-terror as a whole. We can never be certain when it comes to predicting outcomes, which is the biggest problem with consequentialist systems of ethics. Further, even when we are accurate, our assessment of the relative pleasures and pains caused is highly subjective. From the perspective of a drone-pilot in Nevada, the pain caused by a drone-strike might seem minimal. Death would be almost instantaneous. He is playing what seems like a computer-game. However, he might well ignore the suffering caused to whole population who spend their whole lives waiting for a bang or the damage done to his own mental health in the long-term. How we assess pleasure and pain is inevitably shaped by our own perspective, past experiences, attitudes, preferences and education. Peter Singer is realistic about these problems, but argues that so long as we make the assessment in good faith, having done proper research, we are justified in making predictions and assessments. Nevertheless, the practicality of expecting each individual to research the outcomes of their actions in a war-zone is questionable, therefore Utilitarianism is far from being the best or most practical approach to the complex decisions we face in the 21st century.
Peter Singer argues that Utilitarianism is the best system to deal with 21st Century moral decision making. As he sees it, Utilitarianism has the ability to consider the effects of actions on non-human beings and resources if the calculus is extended from Bentham’s original model. Further, there is the potential to change the definition of pleasure to read “ability to exercise preferences” and so to get around the difficulty with me knowing what will make you happy, or sad. Singer is also open to Rule Utilitarianism, formulating a series of rules for use in most situations to make the system more practical, while remaining open to re-evaluating our decisions when the rules don’t seem to fit. In practice, Singer’s suggestions are not a long way from Bentham’s original system. While Bentham was no environmentalist, it is quite easy to include sentient animals in the numbers input into the felicific calculus. Bentham was the first to admit that people should be at liberty to do what makes them happy and not be bound by others’ ideas… he wrote an essay arguing for the decriminalisation of homosexual sex for example. Bentham was also open to rules. While he is often, mistakenly, represented as an “Act Utilitarian”, in fact this term is anachronistic when applied to Bentham (or Mill) and both saw the need for laws grounded on Utilitarian principles as well as for individuals to be guided by the maxim and calculus. Bentham’s Utilitarianism, therefore, is a good system for dealing with 21st Century decisions, however it is not the best (most practical) system because of the undeniable element of individuals applying the maxim and calculus for themselves. In the heat of the moment, individuals are not in a position to calculate pleasure and pain objectively and often they don’t have access to enough information to do so in good faith. A deontological system such as Natural Law is more practical than Utilitarianism, because it makes things simple for individuals, who just have to follow rules which have been devised by experts. In cases like assisted dying, the advantages and protections that this offers to individuals and society as a whole are particularly obvious.
In conclusion, Utilitarianism is NOT the best approach to making 21st Century decisions. Bentham’s utilitarianism in particular gives too little weight to long-term, distant, uncertain pleasures such as education. It is particularly unsuited to decision-making about environmental issues for this reason. Peter Singer has argued persuasively about the need to widen the circle of ethical concern and treat far-off effects the same as nearby effects in Utilitarian calculations – but this only emphasises the fact that Bentham’s system does neither of these things. Further, Bentham’s Utilitarianism is subject to the insurmountable problems of prediction and measuring pleasure and is less practical than rule-based systems such as Natural Law, which offer necessary protection to decision-makers and society in increasingly complex 21st century moral decisions. While Singer’s reformulation of Utilitarianism has real strengths, in reality it has become almost as much about rules as the systems many Utilitarians have criticised for their inflexibility and injustice. It is better, in the end, to look to deontological systems for guidance in making 21st century moral decisions.