In my column of October 24 I listed the major ways in which we might distinguish right from wrong. The first was deontology, or the law-based approach, which the column outlined. The second was a judgment of the consequences of our action, and the third, virtue ethics, which focuses not on the action but on the quality of the actor. On this occasion I want to look at judgment by consequence – which is traditionally known as utilitarianism.
Most of our everyday moral decisions involve judgments about consequences. The school we choose for our children or how much overtime we decide to do will take them into account. We might be considering our willingness to donate a kidney or whether to place an aged relative in a home, and this would require us, among other issues, to consider the consequences. But utilitarianism must be distinguished from this because it is presented as a formal principle which holds that consequence alone is the criterion of moral judgment.
Francis Hutcheson first enunciated this in 1720 as “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers”. We associate its more formal development with the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. And, at first sight, it sounds a most attractive and Christian principle.
At second sight we begin to ask some questions. Is happiness necessarily a comprehensive moral criterion when we might decide that self-sacrifice, or Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul, more worthy? What is meant by the “greatest numbers”? Does this include the whole population of the world, or should it include the future population, and, indeed, sentient non-humans? No distinction between persons is made, so our obligation to our family is no greater than to remote strangers. How would it be possible to make such an all-embracing and far-sighted judgment with any hope of success?
Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the principle is that it can require us to do something which we believe, on other grounds, to be wrong. Suppose that granny has become crotchety and discontented in her old age. She needs the constant care of her family who must provide this at great difficulty to themselves. One might judge that greater happiness for the greatest number of people, including granny herself, would be achieved by wafting her as quickly as possible to her grave.
Such difficulties are of course recognised by utilitarians themselves. The result has been the development of various schools. Schools inevitably proliferate when moralists who are using an unsound foundational principle strive to maintain it while retaining common sense. In fact almost any version of the theory (or nuance of any version) is likely to be a matter of dispute among philosophers.
The attempt to judge the balance of good and bad consequences, which Bentham called the “felicific calculation”, is too complex to be of practical use. And so the most that many expect is that one should simply do one’s best in any specific decision. In one variation, the preferences of those reasonably touched by the decision are substituted for happiness of the greatest number. In another, a distinction is made between the higher pleasures such as friendship or poetry, and the lower pleasures of sexuality or trivial pursuits – even though the individual’s actual experience of pleasure may be the same or greater.
A distinction is made between “act” utiltarianism, and “agent-relative” utilitarianism. In the first, an act is regarded as wrong if the outcome happens to be bad, irrespective of the intentions of the agent. In the second, it is the prudent intention of the agent which counts.
There is also an indirect form, known as “rule” utilitarianism. This argues that human experience has taught us that the observation of certain principles is necessary for human happiness or welfare, as a whole – and should therefore be followed. This form is necessarily agent-relative since no rule will invariably lead to good consequences. The rules are claimed to conform to our moral intuitions and, unsurprisingly, often resemble deontology – although the supporting philosophy is different. But “act” utilitarians would see all this as a slack betrayal of the overarching principle.
If you find this a mite confusing you are not alone. Indeed, the multiplicity of versions in itself constitutes a practical reason for questioning the approach. But we need to remind ourselves of our essential bearings.
The late Elizabeth Anscombe was first to use the term “consequentialism” to cover the family of approaches which bases the moral judgment of an act in terms of consequences rather than, as deontology does, in terms of the moral character of the act. Consequences are, as I suggested in my introduction, an important tool in our moral evaluation of acts which are not intrinsically wrong. But they do so, not as criteria for morality in themselves, but in light of the law of the Gospel which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Indeed Anscombe’s general objection to modern secular moral philosophy is that it debates about laws and obligatory principles while denying the need for a lawgiver. Our foundation is, I am glad to say, rather more secure.
Consequentialism has teeth once we take it from the philosopher’s study and put it into practice. Many issues – individual rights versus community security, abortion, assisted dying, destruction or experimentation with embryos – are all debated in terms of consequences. Indeed even Catholic arguments may need to be presented as a matter of consequences in order to gain a hearing in the public forum. And it is certainly true that the consequences of behaving in conformity with our created natures will, at least in the long term, result in the best outcome.
My blog, http://www.secondsightblog.com, is ready for your comments and queries.