On Utilitarianism and Consequentialism

November 24, 2010

Is everyone a utilitarian and/or consequentialist, whether or not they know it? That is what some people – from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to Sam Harris – would have you believe. But there are good reasons to be skeptical of such claims.

Utilitarianism and consequentialism are different, yet closely related philosophical positions. Utilitarians are usually consequentialists, and the two views mesh in many areas, but each rests on a different claim, so I shall try to deal with them separately. Utilitarianism's starting point is that we all attempt to seek happiness and avoid pain, and therefore our moral focus ought to center on maximizing happiness (or, human flourishing generally) and minimizing pain for the greatest number of people. This is both about what our goals should be and how to achieve them. Consequentialism asserts that determining the greatest good for the greatest number of people (the utilitarian goal) is a matter of measuring outcome, and so decisions about what is moral should depend on the potential or realized costs and benefits of a moral belief or action. This is largely about determining how to attain our goals, which are taken to be self-evident.

The first question we can reasonably ask is whether all moral systems are indeed focused on benefiting human happiness and decreasing pain. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, wrote the following in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation: “When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself.” Michael Sandel discusses this line of thought in his excellent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? , and sums up Bentham’s argument as such: “All moral quarrels, properly understood, are [for Bentham] disagreements about how to apply the utilitarian principle of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, not about the principle itself.” That is, everyone agrees that the desirability of pleasure and undesirability of pain form the basis of morality. People just disagree about what to do from there.

But Bentham’s definition of utilitarianism is perhaps too broad: are fundamentalist Christians or Muslims really utilitarians, just with different ideas about how to facilitate human flourishing? Apparently the answer for Bentham is yes, but one wonders whether this makes the word so all-encompassing in meaning as to render it useless.

Yet, even if pain and happiness are the objects of moral concern, so what? As philosopher Simon Blackburn recently pointed out , “Every moral philosopher knows that moral philosophy is functionally about reducing suffering and increasing human flourishing.” But is that the central and sole focus of all moral philosophies? Don’t moral systems vary in their core focuses?

Consider the observation that religious belief makes humans happier, on average (for the record, I do not think this is the result of religious belief per se, but rather that welcoming social networks, often provided by churches, are at the root of such feelings of happiness). Secularists would rightly resist the idea that religious belief is moral if it makes people happier. They would reject the very idea because deep down, they value truth – a value that is non-negotiable.

Utilitarians would assert that truth is just another utility, for people can only value truth if they take it to be beneficial to human happiness and flourishing. Truth-seekers, the argument goes, believe truth will lead to a better society. However, I would seek out truth even if it did not necessarily guarantee a “better” society. I find myself very much sympathetic to the harm-based moral system proposed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in Morality Without God? But I, like many virtue ethicists, also believe certain characteristics and ideas – freedom, liberty, honesty, empathy, generosity, wisdom, and truth – are worth their own salt, and that we should follow and pursue them with little to no regard for what benefits might come. While I surely care about happiness and pain, I don’t see them as the be-all and end-all of moral concern.

This brings us to the second claim. We might all agree that morality is “functionally about reducing suffering and increasing human flourishing,” as Blackburn says, but how do we achieve that? Consequentialism posits that we can get there by weighing the consequences of beliefs and actions as they relate to human happiness and pain. Sam Harris recently wrote:

“It is true that many people believe that ‘there are non-consequentialist ways of approaching morality,’ but I think that they are wrong. In my experience, when you scratch the surface on any deontologist, you find a consequentialist just waiting to get out. For instance, I think that Kant's Categorical Imperative only qualifies as a rational standard of morality given the assumption that it will be generally beneficial (as J.S. Mill pointed out at the beginning of Utilitarianism). Ditto for religious morality.”

Again, we might wonder about the elasticity of words, in this case consequentialism. Do fundamentalist Christians and Muslims count as consequentialists? Is consequentialism so empty of content that to be a consequentialist one need only think he or she is benefiting humanity in some way?

That aside, Harris’ argument is that one cannot adhere to a certain conception of morality without believing it is beneficial to society. I once made a similar argument on this blog. This still seems somewhat obvious to me as a general statement about morality, but is it really the point of consequentialism? Not really. Consequentialism is much more focused than that. Consider the issue of corporal punishment in schools. Harris has stated that we would be forced to admit that corporal punishment is moral if studies showed that “subjecting children to ‘pain, violence, and public humiliation’ leads to ‘healthy emotional development and good behavior’ (i.e., it conduces to their general well-being and to the well-being of society). If it did, well then yes, I would admit that it was moral. In fact, it would appear moral to more or less everyone.” Harris is being rhetorical – he does not believe corporal punishment is moral – but the point stands.

An immediate pitfall of this approach is that it does not qualify corporal punishment as the best way to raise emotionally healthy children who behave well. But that is not the point. Massimo Pigliucci disagreed with Harris, and so do I, for a different reason. The virtue ethicists inside us would argue that we ought not to foster a society in which people beat and humiliate children, never mind the consequences. There is also a reasonable and powerful argument based on personal freedom. Don’t children have the right to be free from violence in the public classroom? Don’t children have the right not to suffer intentional harm without consent? Isn’t that part of their “moral well-being”?

If consequences were really at the heart of all our moral deliberations, we might live in a very different society. There are countless other examples to illustrate this. Again, we wouldn’t admit religious belief was moral just because it made people happier or lead to more flourishing. Try three more examples: what if economies based on slavery lead to an increase in general happiness and flourishing for their respective societies? Would we admit slavery was moral? I hope not, because we value certain ideas about human rights and freedom. What if the death penalty truly deterred crime? And what if we knew everyone we killed was guilty as charged, meaning no need for The Innocence Project ? I would still object, on the grounds that it is morally wrong for us to kill people, even if they have committed the crime of which they are accused. Or, what is studies suggested the military's general effectiveness would be harmed by repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Would it then be wrong to repeal it? I doubt we would admit so, point being that certain things hold, no matter the consequences.

We all do care about increasing human happiness and flourishing, and decreasing pain and suffering, and we all do care about the consequences of our beliefs and actions. But we focus on those criteria to differing degrees, and we have differing conceptions of how to achieve the respective goals – making us perhaps utilitarians and consequentialists in part, but not in whole.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking