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Ethics: Utilitarianism, Part 1

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi, I'm Julia Markovits, and I'm an associate professor of philosophy at MIT. Today, I'm going to talk about utilitarianism. So I spend my time thinking about morality, about what makes actions morally right or morally wrong, and I wanted to talk today about a very simple, quite popular answer to that question, a moral theory that goes by the name "utilitarianism." Utilitarianism has a lot going for it, but it also raises some very interesting worries, and I'm going to talk a bit about some of those. So utilitarianism is the view that actions are morally permissible if and only if they produce at least as much net happiness as any other available action. In other words, the more happiness and less suffering that results from our actions, the better the action is, and the right action is the one that produces the greatest balance of happiness over suffering. In fact, according to utilitarianism, any other action is morally wrong. This utilitarian principle is supposed to be absolute and all-encompassing. It will tell you for any decision whatsoever exactly what you should morally do, and it admits of no exceptions. Utilitarianism has been around for a long time, but it gained a lot in prominence and popularity in the late eighteenth century, due in part to the work of a British philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. Bentham published a long defense of utilitarianism, called "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals "and Legislation" in 1789, but he was also a very politically and socially active guy. In fact, he was an early defender of economic liberalization, freedom of expression, the separation of church and state, women's rights, animal rights, the right to divorce, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform, and even the decriminalization of homosexual acts. Remember, this was 1789. Bentham recognized the moral importance of these rights, many of which are now uncontroversial. In this, he was well ahead of his time, and in large part, I would think, because of his embrace of utilitarianism. That, for me, counts heavily in favor of it as a moral theory. And in fact, aspects of utilitarianism can look very hard to resist. We can break the utilitarian thesis up into two parts: a theory of what is valuable, and a theory of right action given what's valuable. First, the theory of what's valuable. It says that the only thing that's valuable in its own right is happiness and the absence of suffering. Other things, like money, might be derivatively valuable, because it helps us get happiness. Second, the theory of right action. The right action is the one that maximizes, produces the most of, what's valuable, or if that's uncertain, that produces the most expected value. If you put those two pieces, the theory of what's valuable and the theory of right action given what's valuable, together, you get utilitarianism. Here's a very simple example. Let's say I'm a doctor, and I have only five doses left of some very scarce medicine. In an emergency situation, I'm left with six patients, all of whom need the drug to survive. But one of them, let's call her Needy, will survive only if I give her all five doses of the drug. The other five patients can survive on a single dose each, and we can assume that I know nothing else about these patients. Utilitarianism will tell us to divide up the drug, saving the five and allowing Needy to die. Why? Because saving the five lives preserves much more happiness and prevents much more suffering than saving just one life. And in that case, that seems like the right answer. It's important to notice that these two elements of utilitarianism can be separated. We can accept the utilitarian view of what's valuable without embracing its claim about what that means for how we should act, And we can accept the utilitarian claim that the right action is the one that makes the most value without accepting the claim that happiness and the absence of suffering are all that's valuable. Subtitles by the Amara.org community