9: Aiming for the Happy Society


  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as hedonism, consequentialism
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with utilitarianism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

J. S. Mill

I. The Ethical Revolution

Key Terms

Intrinsic good

Bentham’s Principle of Utility

that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question

  • Series of Revolutions
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
    • Deocracy
    • Industrial Revolution
    • American Civil War
  • Bentham on Utilitarianism
    • Morality should be about making the world happy
    • Single moral principle, utility, in producing happiness
    • The Principle of Utility
    • To live ethically
      • Use reason to determine what is right
      • Determine ethical truth by considering the results of our actions
  • How is Utilitarianism revolutionary?
    • Divine Command Theory – obedience to God
      • One doesn’t have to base rules on those handed down by a deity thousands of years ago.
    • Natural Law Theory – use of reason to understand God’s laws
      • Reason in this theory still connects to the divine law of God, and utilitarianism doesn’t require belief in a deity to function.
    • Ethical Egoism – the selfish pursuit of happiness
      • We’re not selfish people. Even if we are born selfish, we use reason to curb those instincts. We want happiness through any means, even those that are selfless.

II. Consequentialism

  • Consequentialism - making moral decisions based on the end result of an action rather than the action itself
  • Machiavellianism - the ends justify the means (the positive result of an action makes it morally acceptable)
  • Ethical Egoism - if it’s good for me, it’s good
  • Mohist Consequentialism (State Consequentialism) - if it's good for the state, it's good
  • Rule consequentialism - reconciles consequentialism with deontology
  • Negative consequentialism - how many negative consequences are avoided

Jeremy Bentham

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

II. Determining Utility

  • Bentham's Hedonistic Calculus
    1. Intensity – How intense is the happiness?
    2. Duration – How long will it last?
    3. Certainty – How certain are you that the results will be what you predict?
    4. Propinquity – How soon will happiness be achieved?
    5. Fecundity – Will it lead to additional opportunities for happiness in the future?
    6. Purity – How much pain comes with the anticipated happiness?
    7. Extent – How many other people will be affected by the happiness?
  • Quantitative Utilitarianism - people quantify responses to make ethical decisions
  • Mill's alternative
    • Qualitative utilitarianism
    • Differences between higher and lower desires

IV. Classical Version of Utilitarianism

  • A. The Three Principles of Classical Utilitarianism
    1. We must look to its consequences. 
    2. Those consequences matter if they are increasing or decreasing happiness. 
    3. Everyone’s happiness is equally important. It doesn’t matter who you are, you aren’t entitled to be happier than anyone else in the world.

John Stuart Mill

The creed which accepts...the Greatest Happiness Principle… holds that actions are right...as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

  • B. Defining Happiness
    • Classical Utilitarians: happiness = pleasure
    • All mental states that feel good
    • Ancient idea - Hedonism
    • Mill was the first Utilitarian who argued that pleasures are not all the same
    • Contemporary Utilitarian theories factor in elements other than happiness
    • G. E. Moore’s 3 intrinsic goods: pleasure, friendship, and aesthetic enjoyment

V. Limits of a Consequences–based Morality

  • A. Incompatibility with the ideal of justice
  • B. Incompatibility with individual rights
  • C. Reality is focused on past, present, and future, not just future
  • D. Too demanding
  • E. Disrupts personal relationships

VI. Defending Utilitarianism

  • A. Contesting the Consequences
    • Hypothetical situations can be interpreted in a variety of ways
    • Not a very effective defense
    • Ethical theories should apply to all situations and sometimes the ends simply don’t justify the means because of other moral factors
  • B. Refining the Principle of Utility 
    • The Principle of Utility is a guide for choosing rules, not acts
    • This is Rule Utilitarianism
    • Instead of judging right and wrong based on the consequences of an action (Act Utilitarianism), right and wrong is judge based on the consequences of following a moral rule
    • Changes the theory significantly and sometimes there are exceptions 
  • C. Values are based on Utilitarian standards
    • Unhappiness increases when moral rules are violated
    • Utilitarianism justifies common-sense morality
  • D. Examine all the consequences
    • Remember you are not the only one affected by a decision