Utilitarianism is a doctrine which suggests that actions are correct if they are useful or to the benefit of a majority of the population. Determining the morality or ethics of every decision relies upon the resulting outcome instead of any other factor involved. That means what is the definition of “the ends justifying the means” in any situation.
There are three fundamental principles that utilitarianism follows to create an ethical structure for society.
• Actions are right and only right if the consequences of them maximize whatever is good or anything that is “bad.”
• The only thing that is good in society is happiness.
• Actions are only correct if they can maximize pleasure for the majority of everyone.
When we look at this definition of utilitarianism, there are some assumptions that must be made. We must believe that happiness is good for an individual in the first place. There must also be a desire within the society to pursue what would be considered something that creates that reaction. By doing so, the idea is that suffering could be reduced because we are all working together to create a world that is mutually happy.
These are the critical utilitarianism pros and cons to review when looking at the definition of this theory.
List of the Pros of Utilitarianism
1. We get to focus on happiness as a society.
The reason why utilitarianism is a popular theory is due to the fact that it puts happiness as the central reason for our existence. When we look at societies around the world today, it is clear that people are not experiencing this emotion. People tend to feel happier when they have access to more financial resources.
They also tend to experience this more often when there are fewer worries about future employment.
In a world where utilitarianism is the primary emphasis of each action, we could reduce unemployment rates and improve household incomes because we would be looking at the effects instead of the process for the results.
2. It teaches us that harming other people is wrong.
Anyone can define a personal moral definition and then argue for it with the rest of their community. What utilitarianism teaches is that our definition of morality and ethics comes from a community-based perspective instead of an individual outlook. There may be choices that make us happy as an individual, but if it doesn’t help others, then this theory says that it is an incorrect choice. It shows us that harming others for the sake of our personal benefit is not a helpful approach.
3. Utilitarianism is an easy theory to implement.
There is only one process to focus upon when implementing a society that functions from the foundation of utilitarianism: happiness. All we need to do to make this theory work is to get together in a majority group, and then work to determine what the positive or negative effects of each choice would be. This decision-making process is something that we all do from our first days of childhood. Incorporating it into group theory is the natural step forward.
4. It is a secular system that focuses on humanity.
One of the most significant struggles humanity faces when looking at life from a societal perspective is our vision of spirituality. According to various estimates, there are roughly 4,200 different religions being practiced in our world right now. Trying to pin down what someone considers a spiritual belief and what another person would think to be a scientific fact can be challenging. When we place the focus of each moral decision based on happiness alone, then we eliminate the inconsistencies which occur when focusing on a supernatural deity from an individual perspective.
5. Utilitarianism seeks to create the highest good.
Although in a perfect world, we would want to see everyone have equal happiness and opportunities, there is enough of a difference within our various sub-groups that can make this impossible to achieve. That’s why utilitarianism focuses on the majority as a group for happiness instead of everyone. When we are pursuing the ideas that bring a maximum level of joy into our lives, then we are limiting the potential for harm to occur in our families, communities, and overall culture.
6. It focuses on the democratic process for forward movement.
In the typical democracy, the passage of legislation or the election of a representative occurs when there is a 50% plus one vote majority. We use this structure because it is seen as being the fairest solution to balance the differing interests that everyone has for their lives. All modern governing structures which feature democratic principles use this philosophy.
That means we are already using the principles of this theory to create happiness in our lives. Now we just need to take the next step forward to apply it outside of government.
7. We get to focus on an objective, universal solution.
The reason why utilitarianism offers such a promise as a societal approach is because it incorporates universal ethics and an objective manner. We can accurately measure the positive and negative consequences of each action we decide to take as a group. It is a process which also allows us to create an independent way of determining what is right and wrong from a moral or ethical perspective. These principles apply across the board in all human societies.
List of the Cons of Utilitarianism
1. We do not consider any other element besides happiness.
Utilitarianism only focuses on majority happiness as a way to determine ethics and morality. It is essential that we remember there are other items of value to consider when looking at the overall experience of what it means to be human.
Love is something which offers tremendous value, but it also can cause extraordinary heartbreak. We eat foods like kale because we know that it is a healthier choice then eating Twinkies every day even if we preferred to do the latter because it makes us feel better.
There are decisions that we make every day that look at a long-term perspective rather than how we feel in the moment. Utilitarianism has some benefits, but it also ignores a lot of our life experiences.
2. It creates an unrealistic perspective for society.
Imagine the scenario: there are eight people right now who would benefit from having your organs. When looking at the principles of utilitarianism, the balance of happiness over harm supports the idea of putting you to death to improve the satisfaction of everyone else. Why?
Because you are not in that majority.
If there are eight other people and you to make nine, the chances are that everyone else will vote to save themselves as a group at the expense of your life. That is why the ends can never justify the means. It makes it too easy for the majority of people in a society to create harm using the balancing principle. The happiness of the minority must also come into consideration.
3. Utilitarianism can be unpredictable.
When was the last time you were able to predict the future accurately? There are times when we can take an educated guess as to what is going to happen, but it is very rare to receive a premonition about a future event that actually comes true. That means it is incorrect to bass ethical choices about what may or may not happen tomorrow. We must focus on what happens now, in this moment, to determine what path we can pursue to create an improved society. If we are only looking at potential, then there is the possibility that we could achieve nothing.
4. It also relies on people making consistent decisions.
If there is one thing that humans are good at doing, it is changing their mind. You cannot trust anyone to ask for the greater good if the majority decides to get rid of all of the other structures which support societal health and wellness. The average person will act selfishly whenever they are faced with a difficult decision, no matter what their upbringing or spirituality happens to be.
Why do people follow religions in the first place? The goal of “being saved” isn’t to initially help anyone else find some level of eternal salvation. It is to create a life insurance policy for an unpredictable future because that is what offers comfort to the soul. This process would happen immediately if society shifted to utilitarianism.
5. Utilitarianism relies on multiple definitions of happiness.
Every person has a different definition of happiness. Although we can find common ground on specific things, it is virtually impossible to see two people with cloned perspectives about the world today. Humans are complex beings. What makes one person happy can make another individual feel bored or out of touch with their life. That means we are faced with two choices: we could either find common ground within our experiences to compromise on a definition of happiness or only allow the description of the majority to exist.
6. It creates the potential for the majority to rule through tyranny.
People who self-identify as being an evangelical in the United States do not support the idea of same-gender marriage at a level of 67%. Although younger evangelicals support the idea as a majority at 53%, the significant population of older adults skews the overall percentages. Now imagine that laws were being created based on the concept of utilitarianism in this population group. If you identified as an LGBTQIA+ individual in this society, you would be unable to get married. There would be nothing you could do about it either until enough people were swayed to come over to your position.
Just because the majority of a population believes something is right does not make it the ethical choice. That thought process kept women from voting for centuries, permitted slavery to exist, allows for child trafficking and exploitation still today, and many more activities that harm others in some way. That is why happiness cannot be permitted to be the foundation of societal pursuits. Sometimes the correct choice is not the popular choice.
The pros and cons of utilitarianism show us that there is a time and place where these principles offer a potential benefit to society. The issue here is that the advantages cannot balance out the likelihood of harm that would exist at the end of the day. It does not take into account how people in a minority position factor into that society. They are either forced to pretend to be happy or allow themselves to be exploited for the “greater good.”
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.