This is James, second-year PPE student and academic editor at LSEUPR. In this academic year, I will be writing a series of blog posts that serve to introduce some of the major topics in macroeconomics, political science and political philosophy to both students with and without prior relevant knowledge.
My first blog is on classical utilitarianism, founded by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century. Since its modern birth, utilitarianism has been the bedrock of various social science disciplines. Hence, a brief introduction and evaluation of the classical theory would be a good starting point. I will first explain the core principles of classical utilitarianism. Then, an objection by Bernard Williams to the theory will be presented: in Utilitarianism: For and Against, Williams argued that utilitarianism attacks autonomous agency, and thus reduces agents into mere tools. Finally, I will evaluate a response that attempts to defend utilitarianism against the objection.
The core principles of utilitarianism are quite straightforward. Firstly, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. Consequentialists hold that the morality of an action is solely determined by the action’s consequences. Given a range of possible actions, the right action is the one that produces the best possible consequences. But this leads to the question of what counts as good or bad consequences. According to classical utilitarianism, good consequences mean the promotion of happiness, while bad consequences are the production of unhappiness (Mill, 2015, p.155). An action produces the best possible consequences if it creates “the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness” (Bennett, 2015, p.55). Here, I do not wish to wade into the deep water of what counts as happiness and how it is measured, though the difficulties involved with measuring happiness could indeed develop into a noteworthy objection to utilitarianism. For now, it is sufficient to take the meaning and measurement of happiness at an intuitive level. Lastly, whose happiness does utilitarianism take into account? Classical utilitarianism views the welfare of all sentient beings equally and impartially. The happiness of any person is as important as the happiness of any other person, regardless of their class, race, social relationship, etc. In sum, classical utilitarianism holds that given a range of possible actions, the morally right action is the action that maximizes net total happiness—which is the amount of total happiness minus the amount of total unhappiness—of every sentient being.
In order to motivate an objection to the doctrine just explained, I shall raise an example adapted from Bernard William’s famous example in his Utilitarianism: For and Against. A demon abducted Jim, his friend Mary and ten other people whom Jim had never met before. The demon handed a gun to Jim, and offered him two options. If Jim chooses to kill Mary, then he and the other ten hostages will be released. If Jim refuses to harm Mary, then he and Mary will be released, but the demon will kill the other ten hostages. Assume that Jim has no other possible actions to take, and also that the life of each hostage bears the same amount of happiness.
To see what the right action is for Jim, a classical utilitarian would compare the consequences of each possible action. Killing Mary leads to one life (Mary’s) lost and eleven lives (Jim and the ten strangers’) saved. In contrast, refusing to kill Mary results in ten lives (those strangers’) lost and two lives (Mary and Jim’s) saved. Since the life of each hostage bears the same amount of happiness, and since utilitarianism views the happiness of all hostages as equally valuable (regardless of their relationship to Jim, as explained before), killing Mary saves more lives and maximizes net total happiness. Hence, classical utilitarianism demands Jim to kill Mary and save the other ten strangers.
However, classical utilitarianism’s aim to maximize total happiness may clash with Jim’s personal commitments. By commitments, I mean projects with which a person is “deeply and extensively involved” (Williams, 1973, p.116). For example, Jim may have a strong commitment against harming any innocent life; Jim could also be committed to caring his friends. Both commitments do not necessarily lead to the maximization of net total happiness, as in the above example, refusing to kill an innocent friend would lead to more casualty—ten other hostages would be killed. In this case, classical utilitarianism ignores Jim’s personal commitments, and demands him to kill Mary in order to maximize happiness. Such an extreme demand is what Williams (1973, p.117) called “an attack on his integrity”. Here, I take integrity as autonomous agency, which is a person’s freedom to choose their own projects and promote those projects upon their own decisions (Chappell, 2007, p.259). It is reasonable to hold that autonomous agency is a good, apart from other goods such as happiness, because it enables a person to act with liberty, consistency and coherence as a moral agent (Hernandez, 2013, p.148). When utilitarianism demands Jim to give up his own commitments, he is no longer free to pursue his projects upon his own decisions. As a result, he is deprived of autonomous agency—he is reduced into a mere tool, being manipulated to produce happiness. This leads to William’s objection: classical utilitarianism demands one to always maximize total happiness, but this extreme demand compromises autonomous agency.
Nevertheless, shouldn’t the autonomous agency of every sentient being—instead of merely the agent who is choosing what to act—be considered? In the example, although Jim’s autonomous agency would be compromised if he is forced by utilitarianism to kill Mary, the lives and the autonomous agency of the other ten hostages would be freed from harm. If classical utilitarianism must accept that autonomous agency is a good, and if the more people with autonomous agency the better, then couldn’t Jim promote more of this good by sacrificing that of his own (and that of Mary’s)? (Benn, 1997; Chappell, 2007, p.261). To see how this response fails to fend off the objection, note that Jim’s relationship to his own autonomous agency is different from his relationship to the autonomous agency of strangers. Only Jim himself is responsible to protect his autonomous agency, and no one else could take the responsibility for him. Hence, Jim is bound to offer special protection/favours to the autonomous agency of his own over that of others (Chappell, 2007, p.264). Besides, autonomous agency could not be understood by simply compiling a balance-sheet and calculating how much of it is gained and how much of it is lost. Any attempt to quantify autonomous agency degrades agents into mere tools to be manipulated, which means the very idea of agency would be lost (Williams, 1973; Chappell, 2007).
Again, a comprehensive evaluation of classical utilitarianism is too ambitious for a blog post. Instead, I focused what I think is one of the most powerful criticism on the doctrine—that classical utilitarianism compromises autonomous agency. And through the discussion on how a potential defence of the doctrine can be challenged, I hope that the reader can see the unresolved controversy underlying this ethical theory, and how classical utilitarianism finds it extremely hard to remain in perfect shape. It is worth mentioning that utilitarianism has evolved from its classical ancestor by tweaking its premises, leading to e.g., rule utilitarianism. For those who are interested, please see Bennett (2015) and Benn (1997). Despite having argued how the idea of autonomous agency poses a potent challenge to classical utilitarianism, I would like to conclude this blog with a quote from Jeremy Bentham, as a reminder of the power and significance of this doctrine: “admitting (what is not true) that the word right can have a meaning without reference to utility, let him say whether there is any such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it: if there is, let him say what that motive is, and how it is to be distinguished from those which enforce the dictates of utility: if not, then lastly let him say what it is this other principle can be good for?”
Benn, P. (1998). Ethics. London, UK: UCL Press.
Bennett, C. (2015). What Is This Thing Called Ethics? New York, NY: Routledge.
Bentham, J. (2000). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Kitchener, Batoche Books.
Chappell, T. (2007). Integrity and Demandingness. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 10(3), 255-265.
Hernandez, J. (2013). The Integrity Objection: Reloaded. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 21(2), 145-162.
Mill, J.S. (2015). Utilitarianism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Smart, J.J.C. & Williams, B. (1973). Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.