Utilitarianism is a branch of moral philosophy according to which the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximising some measure of “utility” summed over all sentient beings. “Utility” can mean different things such as pleasure, satisfaction of preferences or even knowledge, but the basic idea is that, ultimately, there is just one criterion for determining the moral worth of an action, and that this must involve consideration for the action’s consequences.
Utilitarianism emerged in England in the 18th and 19h centuries, initially as a basis for getting rid of useless or corrupt laws and social practices. The idea that the actions are not good or bad in themselves, but that their moral worth depends on their consequences, was a novel one at the time, and had a profound influence on the formulation of policy.
Utilitarianism has its detractors, however. The idea that you can compare the happiness of two distinct persons such that they can be “added together” to form a total is highly controversial, and it has also been pointed out that one can never foresee all the consequences of an action. Some complain that utilitarianism downplays the importance of intention, while others worry that it could be used as a justification for slavery, genocide and other breaches of human rights.
My own position is that, while there are obvious problems, the basic concept has an important role to play in helping to forge consensus on what kind of future we actually want, and on the measures required to get us there. It’s not necessarily “utilitarianism vs the rest”: we can draw inspiration from various ethical principles. But as the philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out, in a dispute between reasoning beings you need a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. And in that context it seems difficult to beat “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” as an overarching principle.
But what do you think? Is utilitarianism a helpful idea or not?