The basic idea behind utilitarianism is that a good action produces more happiness than pain… but, it’s more complicated than it seems.
The justification for the theory is simple, human beings feel pleasure and pain. We are motivated to seek pleasure and minimize pain. This is the basic motivation for all actions, either directly or indirectly.
So, it seems pretty simple to say that the good actions are actions that tend to produce happiness and minimize the reverse of happiness. Bad actions tend to produce more pain than pleasure.
Mill is quite explicit when he says that everyone’s pleasures and pains should be considered equally.
One objection that arises quickly is that this theory will lead to people seeking pleasure to the exclusion of productive work.
In response, Mill argues that intellectual pleasures outweigh physical pleasures for people who are well acquainted with both.
There are several objections to utilitarianism that are motivating for philosophers. The main objection is that utilitarianism can require distasteful means to achieve an end. This can require the sacrifice of one person for the good of the group — in many ways. In the end, the sacrifice of one person for the good of the group is a violation of an individual person’s inherent worth.
Another variation of this objection is that people are not good at objectively assessing their own pleasures and pains in relation to others — meaning, they tend to imagine the full impact of pleasure and pain on themselves while minimizing the same on others.
This leads to another objection, namely that assessing the pain and pleasure of others is tricky, if not impossible. So, while something may cause me pain it may cause another person pleasure — and while something may cause me a lot of pain, it would cause someone else significantly less pain.
Finally, there’s an objection to the whole idea of a consequentialist theory, namely that a person may aim at doing a good thing, but the results increase pain and thus the action ends up being a bad thing.
This — and the objection about inherent worth were motivating factors for Kant….