Utilitarianism: The Greater Good

Read this article which presents difficulties with calculating benefits and various utilitarian responses to those difficulties. Be able to define hedonistic and idealistic utilitarianism, soft and hard utilitarianism, and the difference between act and rule.

Versions of Utilitarian Regulation

A narrow distinction with far-reaching effects divides soft from hard utilitarianism. Soft utilitarianism is the standard version; when people talk about a utilitarian ethics, that's generally what they mean. As a theory, soft utilitarianism is pretty laid back: an act is good if the outcome is more happiness in the world than we had before. Hard utilitarianism, on the other hand, demands more: an act is ethically recommendable only if the total benefits for everyone are greater than those produced by any other act.

According to the hard version, it's not enough to do good; you must do the most good possible. As an example, think about the test-prep company KDCP under the microscope of utilitarian examination.

  • When a soft utilitarian looks at KDCP, the company comes out just fine. High schoolers are learning test-taking skills and tricks that they'll only use once but will help in achieving a better score and leave behind a sense that they've done all they can to reach their college goals. That means the general happiness level probably goes up – or at worst holds steady – because places like KDCP are out there.
  • When a hard utilitarian looks at KDCP, however, the company doesn't come off so well. Can we really say that this enterprise's educational subject – test taking – is the very best use of teaching resources in terms of general welfare and happiness? And what about the money? Is SAT prep really the best way for society to spend its dollars? Wouldn't a hard utilitarian have to recommend that the tuition money collected by the test-prep company get siphoned off to pay for, say, college tuition for students who otherwise wouldn't be able to continue their studies at all?

If decisions about businesses are totally governed by the need to create the most happiness possible, then companies like KDCP that don't contribute much to social well-being will quickly become endangered.

The demands of hard utilitarianism can be layered onto the ethical decision faced by the College Board in their courtroom battle with KDCP. Ultimately, the College Board opted to penalize the test-prep company by forcing it to offer some free classes for underprivileged students. Probably, the result was a bit more happiness in the world. The result wasn't, however, the most happiness possible. If hard utilitarianism had driven the decision, then the College Board would've been forced to go for the jugular against KDCP, strip away all the money they could, and then use it to do the most good possible, which might have meant setting up a scholarship fund or something similar. That's just a start, though. Next, to be true to hard utilitarianism, the College Board would need to focus on itself with hard questions. The costs of creating and applying tests including the SAT are tremendous, which makes it difficult to avoid this question: wouldn't society as a whole be better off if the College Board were to be canceled and all their resources dedicated to, for example, creating a new university for students with learning disabilities?

Going beyond KDCP and the College Board, wouldn't almost any private company fall under the threat of appropriation if hard utilitarians ran the world? While it's true, for example, that the money spent on steak and wine at expensive Las Vegas restaurants probably increases happiness a bit, couldn't that same cash do a lot more for the general welfare of people whose income makes Las Vegas an impossibly expensive dream? If it could, then the hard utilitarian will propose zipping up Las Vegas and rededicating the money.

Finally, since utilitarianism is about everyone's total happiness, don't hard questions start coming up about world conditions? Is it possible to defend the existence of McDonald's in the United States while people are starving in other countries?

Conclusion. In theory, there's not much divergence between soft and hard utilitarianism. But in terms of what actually happens out in the world when the theory gets applied, that's a big difference. For private companies, it's also a dangerous one.

Two further versions of utilitarian regulation are act and rule. Act utilitarianism affirms that a specific action is recommended if it increases happiness. This is the default form of utilitarianism, and what people usually mean when they talk about the theory. The separate rule-based version asserts that an action is morally right if it follows a rule that, when applied to everyone, increases general happiness.

The rule utilitarian asks whether we'd all be benefitted if everyone obeyed a rule such as "don't steal". If we would – if the general happiness level increases because the rule is there – then the rule utilitarian proposes that we all adhere to it. It's important to note that rule utilitarians aren't against stealing because it's intrinsically wrong, as duty theorists may propose. The rule utilitarian is only against stealing if it makes the world less happy. If tomorrow it turns out that mass stealing serves the general good, then theft becomes the ethically right thing to do.

The sticky point for rule utilitarians involves special cases. If we make the rule that theft is wrong, consider what happens in the case from the chapter's beginning: You forgot your pencil on SAT test day, and you spot one lying on an abandoned desk. If you don't take it, no one's going to be any happier, but you'll be a lot sadder. So it seems like rule utilitarianism verges on defeating its own purpose, which is maximizing happiness no matter what.

On the other hand, there are also sticky points for act utilitarians. For example, if I go to Walmart tonight and steal a six-pack of beer, I'll be pretty happy. And assuming I don't get caught, no one will be any sadder. The loss to the company – a few dollars – will disappear in a balance sheet so huge that it's hard to count the zeros. Of course if everyone starts stealing beers, that will cause a problem, but in practical terms, if one person does it once and gets away with it, it seems like an act utilitarian would have to approve. The world would be a happier place.