According to utilitarianism, an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or group. Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that promote happiness or pleasure while opposing actions that cause unhappiness or harm. A utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole when making social, economic, or political decisions.
Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, famously stated, “Greatest good of the greatest number.” Bentham’s central axiom, which underpins utilitarianism, was that all social morals and government legislation should aim to maximise happiness for the greatest number of people. As a result, utilitarianism emphasises the consequences or ultimate purpose of an act rather than the actor’s character, motivation, or the specific circumstances surrounding the act. It has the following characteristics:
- Universality, because it applies to all acts of human behaviour, including those that appear to be motivated by altruism;
- Objectivity, because it extends beyond individual thought, desire, and perspective;
- Rationality, because it is not based on metaphysics or theology; and
- Quantifiability, because it is based on utility.
Make an attempt to resolve moral issues using a single criterion.
Nations’ governments can work and operate in such a way that they gain the legitimacy and consent of the majority. This is sufficient for a government to remain in power while upholding the utilitarian principle of greatest happiness for the greatest number. Minority needs and rights are ignored in such a scenario. In Nazi Germany, for example, Jews were persecuted, which eventually led to genocide. The majority of policies of majoritarian governments are designed to benefit a specific community or race. Because these groups do not form vote banks, they may be denied their rights or work against them.
As a result, utilitarianism may not result in justice and minority rights. At the same time, the majority of democracies have a Constitution that safeguards minorities.
One limitation of utilitarianism is that it creates a black-and-white moral construct. There are no grey areas in utilitarian ethics—everything is either wrong or right. Utilitarianism cannot also predict whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad—the outcomes of our actions occur in the future. Utilitarianism also struggles to account for values such as justice and individual rights. Assume a hospital has four patients whose lives are dependent on receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, kidney, and liver. If a healthy person accidentally enters a hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of his one. This would arguably result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However, few would consider it an acceptable, let alone ethical, course of action.
Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism in that it holds that the consequences or outcomes of actions, laws, policies, and so on determine whether they are good or bad, right or wrong. In general, whatever is being evaluated should be chosen to produce the best overall results. In utilitarian terms, we should select the option that “maximises utility,” i.e. the action or policy that produces the greatest amount of good.