What Is Utilitarianism?

I consider myself a utilitarian. I’m not a perfect one, and I don’t think people have to be. However, before I focus on that, I’d like to focus on what “utilitarianism” means. When I say I’m a utilitarian, I’m saying that I have set out to make the world a better place, to the best of my ability. And by better place, I’m talking about a world where there everyone is better off than they were earlier.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that says that one should aim to “maximize utility” whenever possible. What counts as “utility” is still more or less open for debate, but it can be thought of as “happiness”, “flourishing”, “well-being”, “welfare”, “pleasure”, or “life satisfaction”. These are all tricky concepts and I’ll tend to use them interchangably, but this isn’t to side-step an important debate about their differences and distinctions. Luckily for us, however, except in strange scenarios, everyone agrees on what makes things better for the most part. If Joan is suffering from malaria, it would be better to cure her disease. If Roger is living on $1 a day, it would be better to lift him out of poverty. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about happiness, flourishing, or pleasure… we should do these things.

When I think of utilitarianism, I think of three things: equality for all, only welfare matters, and we must act on our priorities.

Equality for All

Utilitarianism isn’t just about people with white Anglo-Saxon sounding names. Instead, utilitarians care about everyone that is capable of suffering and capable of having their life improved. One wouldn’t care about a rock or a fern, because rocks and ferns don’t have feelings. But one would care about an african child, a United States senator, a Chinese schoolteacher, or a pig in a farm, because all these people have feelings.

Perhaps more radically, utilitarians aim, in so far as is possible, to treat the interests of all of these beings equally. This isn’t to say that the President of the United States is no more important than the pig in the farm. It is to say, however, that the interests of the pig in the farm matters, and there might be some circumstances where we’d be in a better position to improve the life of a pig than the life of the President. Certainly, if the President and the pig were both trapped in a burning building and I could only save one, I’d save the President. But if the President had a hangnail and the pig was about to be lit on fire, I’d help the pig first.

Anything other than equality would be some sort of arbitrary, discriminatory bias — like racism in ignoring the preferences of other races, sexism in ignoring the preferences of other genders, speciesism in ignoring the preferences of other species, etc. If there’s no reason to favor someone more, the default position seems to be equality, and that’s where utilitarianism starts.

Only Welfare Matters

…And that’s also where utilitarianism ends. When it comes to evaluating a situation, how it impacts welfare is all that matters. To a utilitarian, lying isn’t bad simply because it’s lying, but because deception frequently erodes trust in society and often makes people worse off. There may be cases, however, where lying makes people better off, and we experience this all the time with so-called “white lies”.

There’s nothing magical about bad things that make them bad. Instead, bad things are bad for a specific reason: they create consequences that result in lives being worse.

We Must Act on Our Priorities

Thirdly, utilitarianism is about prioritization. If you can spend an hour offering Alice homework help or spend an hour saving Bob from drowning, then, all else being equal, utilitarianism asks you to spend your hour saving Bob from drowning. This is because while Alice would definitely receive a benefit from getting helped with her homework, Bob would receive a dramatically larger benefit for the same amount of time, and that would maximize welfare more with the same amount of resources, which utilitarianism considers better (all things being equal). This makes utilitarianism very similar to any other sort of cost-benefit analysis, except costs and benefits are measured in the happiness of all those being affected.

It really would be nice to solve all the problems of the world. But we can’t – we lack the time and the resources. Therefore, we must focus on the actions that are best able to help the most people, and do those things, with regret that we don’t have the ability to do more. This isn’t ruthless or cold-hearted, but the only way we can save the most people. People’s lives literally depend on prioritization, because more people would die if we ended up doing a less efficient method. Prioritization matters.

Conclusion

Utilitarianism is a fairly complex philosophy with lots of misconceptions. I intend to clear up those misconceptions as this blog goes on and establish utilitarianism as a philosophy and lifestyle that can be commonsense and lived out in everyday life. But utilitarianism doesn’t need to be complex. It’s actually fairly simple. If you think that everyone should be treated equally and recognize that we can’t save everyone at once and must prioritize, then you’d sympathize with utilitarianism. There certainly are other motivations to be a utilitarian, and I’ll talk about them eventually. But a concern for equality is my motivation.

Sometimes, I think utilitarianism gets a bit too “ivory tower” in it’s discussion and debate, and not enough action actually takes place. Sure, we must debate the finer points of what to do and where to allocate our resources, because that will really matter. But we also have the chance to make a big differences in the lives of humans and animals. That’s a lot simpler of a take away and we need to do that too.

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This essay was followed up in “What Does Utilitarianism Look Like in Practice?”.