Mull on That | Utilitarianism: its many and varied forms | The Triangle

Mull on That | Utilitarianism: its many and varied forms

Have you ever been the butt of a joke? The victim of hounding and bullying? Did your best friend poke too much fun this time? Did he or she have fun doing it and was it pleasurable to them? Why did they jostle you in the first place?

Decision-making theories range far and wide, but an especially important theory in normative ethics is called Utilitarianism. Aristotle and future philosophers have hinted at this theory for centuries, but Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are credited with contributing to the theory that would change and adapt over time and with criticism. Bentham helped formulate the theory into what basically sounds like this: “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of what is right and wrong.” The term he uses in place of happiness is “utility.”

What then is right and wrong? So, if you’ve been made fun of in the past, and the aggressor had some friends that were also taunting you, since they outnumber you in the amount of utility they are receiving from teasing you, then they are right to do so, because your pain in effect is outweighed by the greater number of achieved utility. Does that make sense? Maybe if you’re a sadist!

Thus, the theory had to be refined. John Stuart Mill helped tie some of the loopholes, although he still had holes and logical fallacies, and he introduced the difference between qualitative and quantitative utility. Let’s change the example for a moment: let us presume that your hand has been burned by the stovetop before. You know what that pain feels like. And let us take another type of pain, a psychological pain such as boredom. Would you rather be burned really badly or be bored for ten years? It depends!

Some people have a higher tolerance for pain and some have a higher tolerance for boredom. The difference here is qualitative. If we go back to the kids making fun of you (sorry, I know it’s not fun to think about, but it’s increasing my utility to talk about kids making fun of you), then we can still say that quantitatively the number of people increasing their utility outweighs your painful experience of being the butt of the joke.

Yet, the qualitative difference or the degree or level of pleasure they are receiving does not outweigh the degree of pain you are experiencing emotionally, which may make an indelible mark on your character for years. These quantitative and qualitative measures made a big difference in the application of the theory, albeit there are still problems with it, like assuming that there are expected consequences (hence, Consequentialism), and assuming that everyone wants to achieve happiness in their lives and that that happiness applies to society’s general happiness.

To make a long story short, and to increase your utility by making this article as readable and concise as possible, a whole bunch of subcategories have appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, which include act or rule utilitarianism, ideal utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism, which aims to minimize pain (and therefore could lead to human extinction if taken to the extreme), and my personal favorite, preference utilitarianism, which utilizes the idea of “minimizing pain,” but in a related sense, in that, “In order to increase my own utility, I must minimize the greatest amount of suffering or pain.”

This type of utilitarianism aims to seek better alternatives and maximize your efficacy. It also applies most helpfully to animal rights and activism. Though, it still has issues with other theories and other criticism, however, utilitarianism has a definite benefit to the way we can make decisions.

Happy philosophizing!