We all make moral decisions — they’re a part of life and living with people.
Utilitarianism is the idea that the right thing to do is the thing that provides for the greatest increase in “utility” —
Now, WTF is “utility”, you may ask?
“Utility” is a single scale for determining measures of pleasure and pain. SO, something decreases in utility when the action moves something DOWN the scale, increases when it’s moved up… think of it like a thermometer, if the temp is below zero (most of my students are well-acquainted with below zero 🙂 ), that represents pain. When utility is increased, it’s like warming up — sometimes there is just a reduction in pain, sometimes a transition from pain to pleasure, and others an increase in pleasure — all of it is an increase in “utility”.
It gets more complicated when other factors are included, such as daunting prospect of figuring out what will increase utility for other people, what do do with situations in which one person needs to take a large decrease in utility so that others may increase theirs etc.
It also gets more complicated when you start to look at Mill’s reasoning for accepting utilitarianism, it pretty much comes down to an observation that people already DO choose to maximize utility — which is a questionable assertion at best.
One thing it is NOT — and hear me when I say this — it is NOT the Greatest Good for the Greatest NUMBER of people. For example, if I could prevent two people from dying a painful death or divide a bag of M & Ms among 30 people (and I can’t do both), the increase in utility for the larger NUMBER of people would be the M & Ms, but, clearly the greatest increase in utility comes with saving the two people..